New Year in the Pacific 1945

A Rosh Hashana unlike any other.

By DAVID GEFFEN
August 29, 2010 17:34
On the left, Louis Geffen

louis geffen311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

When the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, my father,  Lt. Col. Louis Geffen, a judge advocate in the US Army since January 1941, assumed that he would shortly be issued his discharge papers. What a surprise, four days later, he received orders to join a military government unit shipping out from Oakland, California at the end of August for parts unknown. His wife Anna and his son David, staying with Anna's mother in Norfolk Virginia, were most disappointed. Louis was acquainted with people getting orders to return home and become civilians again; But not him. As a judge advocate, he was conversant with military rules. Thus, he had no recourse but to board the ship at the end of the month. What did strike him was the date of embarkation, August 29. That was a mere nine days before Rosh Hashana, the first weekend in September. Just his luck, he would be on the high seas in a Navy transport for the New Year 5706.

Before being drafted in 1941 by a special order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Louis had spent most of his life in Atlanta, Georgia where his father Tobias Geffen had been an orthodox rabbi since 1910. After high school, Geffen entered Emory College where he graduated with a BA faster than anyone in school history, completing all his work in two and a half years. With that first degree in hand, he went to New York to study at Columbia Law School. In a distinguished class, he sat next to Stanley Fuld, who became Chief Justice of the State of New York. Upon receiving his degree, Louis turned down offers in New York and returned to the south, Atlanta, where his parents and six of his seven siblings continued to reside. So, in 1928, having passed the Georgia bar, he was back in his home town to open an office.

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Eight decades ago, Atlanta was not the most hospitable place for Jewish attorneys, even more so for Sabbath observers. He rented a small office in a bank building at Five Points, the heart of Atlanta. On two or three occasions, his father, the rabbi, arranged interviews for Louis with businessmen who employed in-house counsel. Each time, the person who interviewed him was impressed with his credentials. Then Louis was told that he would have to work on Saturday-Shabbat.

He apologized, stating that he was a Sabbath observer and could not accept the position. Until the 1980s he was singled out as the only Sabbath observing Jewish attorney in the city. With the great love he had for the law he persevered continuing to be a single practitioner. In 1930 his younger brother Samuel joined him, and they were known as the Geffen and Geffen firm.

One could not label Louis as a Civil Rights advocate, but he was a very just and fair person. Therefore, long before Martin Luther King Jr., individuals in the black community turned to him for their meager legal work. In 1932, he handled the purchase of a new site of worship by a black church. This was the first in a number of such transactions which he had throughout his career. On one occasion, he was invited to speak at the funeral of one of his clients at an Atlanta black church.

In early 1934, Louis became acquainted with Anna Birshtein, a young vibrant woman whom he courted and married. Anna from Norfolk, Virginia had an uncle who was a rabbi in New York. Rabbi Birshtein spent a few years in Georgia, first in Rome and then Atlanta, just before World War I. In Atlanta he had been befriended by Rabbi Geffen, Louis' father. Rabbi Birshtein never forgot that helping hand. In January 1934, on a visit to New York, Louis stopped by to give the rabbi regards from his father. Knowing Louis was still single, the rabbi showed him the picture of his niece Anna and gave the young lawyer Anna's address. In the words of Jewish tradition, their meeting was "bashert". A correspondence ensued; Anna visited Atlanta on business; Louis visited Norfolk; and they were married on December 26, 1934. Their "hatuna" in Norfolk was the beginning of 67 years of marriage. Their one and only son David was born in 1938. All was going well in the late thirties, but the clamor of war hit the USA as the forties began. When Germany invaded Poland a few weeks before Rosh Hashana in 1939, American Jews were most concerned, but President Roosevelt held to a policy of neutrality.

However, by the end of 1940, since the situation had worsened the American president ordered a number of officers and enlisted men in the reserves to active duty. Louis, a judge advocate in the US Army reserves, was one of them. He was instructed to report to Camp Shelby in Mississippi to serve as the judge advocate in this newly established military installation. His wife, Anna, would not permit him to go there alone. After Louis found a place to live, Anna and David joined him. Anna and Louis had a miniature US Army uniform made for their son who wore it with great pride as an American. From January 1941 until January 1945 Louis served as a judge advocate in three Mississippi Army posts, Hattiesburg, Grenada and Oxford. Then in February 1945, he received orders to join a Military Government unit in California in preparation of the invasion of Japan. As the war wore down through the spring and summer of 1945, Louis hoped to be discharged. He did get to attend an early session of the newly formed United Nations held in San Francisco with a ticket signed by Alger Hiss. Yet, no discharge came his way; the Rosh Hashana holiday in September 1945 saw him aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean.

Louis had spent his entire Army career following the tenets of orthodoxy as had always been his custom. He had his tallit and tefillin with him along with his siddur and mahzor at any military locale. While he and his wife and son were in Mississippi, they received kosher food sent by Rabbi and Mrs. Geffen from Atlanta. With only dry ice to preserve the meat, any delay by train or bus meant that it was spoiled when received. The noted Professor Hillel Blondheim of Hadassah Hospital once shared a most delicious kosher meal with the Geffens when he was stationed at Camp Shelby in 1943. The professor recalled that since there was another officer present they recited birkat hamazon in a mezuman after the meal.

When Louis' naval transport sailed away from Oakland California on August 29 1945, he knew that if there were to be Rosh Hashana services on September 8 and 9 - he would have to arrange them. Initially, the only help available was to be from a Catholic Army chaplain, a priest.  As they left the harbor, the chaplain promised Louis his assistance in getting the services arranged.

As the ship cut through the waves into the Pacific Ocean, it was clear that the High Holidays - Yomim Noraim process had begun. Louis was granted eight days to get the Yomtov tefilot ready. For the Shabbat evening services, Kabbalat Shabbat, on August 31 Louis was permitted to use an area on the bow of the ship. Announcements were placed throughout the ship specifying that "Jewish services" would be held at 6 pm on Friday evening. "All Jewish personnel of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard are invited."

When the service began, Louis was pleased to see about 30 people in attendance. The Catholic chaplain had a few Jewish Welfare Board military siddurim which he gave Louis to use. As he led the service in the way he had been trained by his father, Louis heard a beautiful voice davening with real intensity. That soldier, a New Jersey native, had sung in a choir in his synagogue for many years prior to entering the service. He became the chazan for the High Holiday - Rosh Hashana services. On Saturday morning, September 1, Louis found his Baal Koreh. This gentleman had no Torah to read from but he would use the Humash - Hebrew five books of Moses. Louis had no idea about someone to blow the shofar, but he realized that during this first Shabbat - he had progressed significantly.

The frenzy of Rosh Hashana preparations filled the schedule of Louis and the Catholic chaplain during the next week. Louis worked with the hazan and developed a structure for the tefillot. He listened to the Baal Koreh practice from the Humash. A few tallitot had surfaced from individuals and from the main supply rooms of the ship. Most important, a nice spot had been assigned by the ship's captain for the davening. The locale overlooked the water and would add a sense of reverence and awe to the High Holidays.

That Catholic chaplain, a noted American father of the faith, was determined to do everything possible so that the services would be as close as possible to a traditional Jewish service. He sent ship to shore messages to military facilities on islands which the ship would be passing. He requested Jewish prayer books and Jewish prayers shawls. "Needed for Jewish High Holidays - September 8 and 9. Try to find Jewish books and shawls. Fly them to Eniwetok Atoll which the ship will pass on Thursday - September 6." He was also in touch with the chief chaplain in that locale of the Pacific requesting a Jewish cover for the altar and a Jewish field ark if any existed in the area. As the days passed, the countdown for Rosh Hashana was on.

Friday night, for the beginning of Rosh Hashana there were about 120 attendees along with the Catholic chaplain and the ship's deputy commander. When all were asked to rise for the Barchu, the hazan began to chant the traditional High Holiday melody and many joined in with him. Louis recalled that through the chaplain's efforts about 65 Jewish Welfare Board siddurim had reached the ship and were shared that night and throughout the next two days. In a letter to his wife, he first described the waves reaching up to touch the ship as their prayers rose up to God. He did not see a dry eye in the congregation. These were battle hardened warriors who had defeated the enemies of the USA and saved the Jewish people.

Some of the lines from the sermon Louis gave that night expressed great feeling. "My fellow American Jews, you have fought hard in this war to destroy the vicious anti-Semitism fabricated by Hitler, which he then transformed into the deaths of the innocent, our people. Now, with your determination which filled the past and which points to the future, there is immense hope for a new world in which sadness will cease and joy will reign."

He pointed out that in Hebrew - the word 'het' usually translated sin - can also mean to miss the mark. "America defeated her enemies in World War 2 - because the leadership, both civilian and military, was right on target.   For four long years, President Roosevelt hit the Nazis and their allies, seeking to pound them into submission. President Truman, last month, was right on target in Japan with the atomic bombs. Our commanders, Eisenhower, Marshall, McArthur, Clay and others used America's military might while calling on each of you, who were under their command, to do battle against our foes. Moreover, without God's help, neither the great nor the small could have succeeded.”

"Let the New Year of 5706 be filled with goodness and sweetness. May we all be blessed with much happiness as we return to our families and civilian life. Leshana Tova Tikatevu. Let each of us be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year. You are most deserving of this gift from God in the heavens above."

Louis Geffen had achieved his goal. Rosh Hashana services on the sea. A Rosh Hashana never to be forgotten. A Rosh Hashana filled with blessings. The ship landed at Manila before Yom Kippur where Louis participated in the fast day, even chanting the "Book of Jonah" as the afternoon maftir from the Prophetic works.

From Manila he was ordered to Japan in November. There in December, he was the prosecutor at the trial of the Japanese War Criminal known as "the little glass eye," Tatsuo Tsuchiya. This was the first trial of its kind in Japan after the war and was extensively covered in the US army Pacific Stars and Stripes newspaper and in the New York Times.

In his book "Judgement at Tokyo," Professor Tim Vega wrote: "To Geffen, Tsuchiya represented the execution of cruelties soon to be highlighted in the general indictment of the war regime." Since the trial dealt with the persecution of POWs by the accused, Vega cited the following point in answer to the defense: "Geffen insisted that Tsuchiya's victims would remember their torture in detail for the rest of their lives."

Finally, in late January 1946, Louis received orders to return to the US. In March after five years of service, he was discharged from active duty and brought his family back to Atlanta. My father had served his country well.


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