Rosh Hashanah in World War II

“Everywhere, one finds among these military forces American Jewish men and women,” said Louis Kraft.

Dr. Benjamin Fenichel, a captain in the US Army, blows the shofar on Guadalcanal Island in 1943 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Benjamin Fenichel, a captain in the US Army, blows the shofar on Guadalcanal Island in 1943
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“On every front, from the South Pacific to the rugged hills of Sicily, from the jungles of Panama to the icy slopes of Attu, from the sands of North Africa to the European soil, on land, on the sea and in the air, many are fighting in the uniforms of American armed forces,” said Louis Kraft, director of the Jewish Welfare Board War efforts. “Everywhere, one finds among these military forces American Jewish men and women.”
By the end of the war, 550,000 had served. Three of the major American military commanders during World War II made public statements to emphasize the presence of American Jewish soldiers in the war effort.
“Americans of the Jewish faith in the Marine Corps have served with distinction throughout this war,” declared Gen. A. Vandergrift, commander of the US Marines.
Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the American army, put it this way at a Seder he attended in 1943. “Thousands of Americans of the Jewish faith are serving under my command carrying their share of the burden in the battle for Italy.”
When Clark became the military governor of the defeated Austrian nation in 1946, he was instrumental in assisting many survivors in the DP camps to make their way to Palestine prior to 1948.
“The officers and men in the US Naval Forces in Europe join to honor those gallant Americans of the Jewish faith who laid down their lives for our nation,” Admiral Harold R. Stark, the commander of the US Navy in Europe, told a large gathering to memorialize the Jews who died serving in the Navy.
World War II presented a great challenge to the American Jew. The Jewish fighter was not just involved in a global conflagration; he wanted to “do his share” to end the tragedy after Hitler ordered the decimation of the Jewish people.
Hitler arranged for and ordered the death of millions of innocent Jews, who did not even know why they were being killed.
The policy of the American government since the Civil War had been to provide Jewish chaplains and to make possible, with or without professional clergy, the military observance of the major Jewish holidays.
Before there were sufficient Jewish chaplains in World War II, military lay people took over. On the well-known Guadalcanal Island in 1943, Dr. Benjamin Fenichel, a captain in the US Army, and Sidney Altman, a captain in the US Marines, led Rosh Hashanah services.
They became instantly recognizable when their pictures appeared on the cover of the American Hebrew. The Jewish Welfare Board had supplied the soldiers with the shofar, the High Holiday miniature prayer books complete and abbreviated, and refreshments from gefilte fish to honey cake.
Chaplain Max Eichhorn was always on the front lines with his troops as the battles raged. When the High Holidays arrived, he did his job.
“I arrived in Verdun three days before Rosh Hashanah, and found the people living there still celebrating the departure of the Germans and arrival of the Americans.” He described the synagogue as “in a rundown condition. The Nazis had gutted it completely of all religious fixtures and had used it as a soup kitchen to feed starving Frenchmen.”
As Eichhorn looked around, he saw the Torah ark piled high with ill-smelling fertilizer – the roof had been bombed out so the “whole edifice was quite exposed to wind and rain.”
When a structure needs quick repair, the chaplain has to figure out how to have it done. In Eichhorn’s case, he obtained 10 Germans from a prisoner-of-war camp. “These erstwhile ‘supermen’ worked. They cleaned out the synagogue in a jiffy, scrubbed the floors and walls and turned the desecrated sanctuary into a fit place of worship.”
Twenty-four hours before Rosh Hashanah, it rained cats and dogs. Eichhorn was a little pessimistic. He had the benches moved to the sides of the synagogue since the rain was coming right down into the middle of the shul.
What happened when Erev Rosh Hashanah approached? Jewish men and women in uniform poured into town, with some having traveled 120 km to get to the Rosh Hashanah service. News of this nature had spread throughout the area around Verdun. Eichhorn was amazed when 500 soldiers arrived, some soaking wet because of the driving rain. “Most of them stood up in the damp and the rain for an hour and a half through the entire service and they loved it.”
The Star-Spangled Banner was sung; a local baritone thrilled all with the Marseillaise. The chief chaplain of the area, a Catholic, gave the opening prayer; the mayor of Verdun spoke. The architect vowed that the synagogue would be restored. Sadly, the entire Jewish population of Verdun had been deported and gassed.
Eichhorn led the service. He did not know all the melodies but there were those in the congregation who assisted. The Shema brought all the people there assembled to the peak of joy and relief – they were alive; they were together for Rosh Hashanah.
As the service progressed, more and more participated. When they reached Adon Olam, every one of the verses was intoned with great feeling.
“It was a thrilling moment, when at the conclusion, they all rose to sing Hatikvah,” Eichhorn said.
For the first morning of Rosh Hashanah the chaplain left us this description: “Next morning we were blessed with a little better weather. Over 600 soldiers crowded into the synagogue. We had no shofar and so an Army bugler blew the traditional blasts on a good old G.I. bugle. We had no Sefer Torah but only a Hebrew Bible. We opened the ark and went through the entire Torah service just as though the Torah had been there.”
While services for 600 soldiers were held at Verdun, across the sea at Lowrey Field just outside of Denver, a bigger crowd was expected. An Air Force base, Lowrey grew daily because of the necessity of training thousands of military personnel to handle the major air attack campaign of the United States. The number of Jewish pilots was not extremely high, but the number of ground crew and tower operators and reconstruction personnel rose into the thousands. It might be said that Lowrey was swarming with Jews.
Over 1,000 were expected to attend the Rosh Hashanah services, so an airplane hangar was designated as the locale for the prayers. In numbers that large, a cantor could be found, a Torah reader, a shofar blower and whatever else was required, the chaplain making all the preparations.
On the first morning of the holiday, almost 1,600 were in attendance.
The military photographers were out in droves to document the services both for the Army Times and for the Jewish Welfare Board. The services went well – the Torah reading brought honors to many soldiers – but everyone was waiting for the blowing of the shofar. Many had not heard those sounds since their childhood. Dressed in a well-pressed uniform, the shofar blower mounted the bima. Since he was a professional trumpet player, his performance provided a real concert.
The lasting memory of that service was a photograph taken of military personnel on the front row in the makeshift sanctuary. When the American Hebrew weekly published the picture on its cover, the faces of these young and eager Jews buoyed the spirit of all the Jews of the country.
IN AUGUST 1945, a few days after Rosh Hodesh, a plane flew over the Shangri-La valley in New Guinea and a Star of David was dropped to mark the final resting place of WAC Seargent Belle G. Nainer of New York City. She was one of eight WACs who lost their lives in a plane crash. Crosses were dropped for the seven others, and prayers were recited.
Readers Digest wrote the story of this group and it circulated throughout the world. Most of the 200,000 Jewish personnel from different branches of military, still on duty, had access to a Rosh Hashanah service in September 1945.
For my father, Colonel Louis Geffen, a judge advocate in the US Army since January 1941, the High Holidays posed a problem. Stationed at a base in Oakland when the atomic bombs were dropped, he received orders on August 9 that he would be sailing to ports unknown on the 29th of the month.
In the end he went first to the Philippines and then on to Japan to prosecute lower-level Japanese war criminals. Knowing he would be on the ship for Rosh Hashanah, my father tried to get some preliminary information as to what religious items might be available.
There would be no Jewish chaplain attached to the ship, but that was all anyone knew. Upon boarding the ship, he made contact with the Catholic chaplain, the only chaplain aboard, and together they hatched a plan for the next week until Erev Rosh Hashanah.
My father used a Shabbat service he planned the day after the boarding to find a former choir member, who would be the cantor; a Torah reader who would read from the one Tanach aboard; and there would be a shofar blower surprise.
When the ship reached Eniwetok Island, Geffen and the chaplain picked up about 60 small military prayer books and 20 tallitot (prayer shawls) at the naval base there. The chaplain had arranged for them to be flown in.
In actual numbers for Rosh Hashanah, on September 7, 8, and 9, 1945, some 125 to 130 attendees formed the largest congregation of men and women personnel.
On the first morning the cantor did his job, my father acted as the rabbi, the Torah-Tanach was read. For the shofar, a member of the US army Far East Band took out his trumpet and sounded, “Tekiah, shevarim, truah, tekiah gadolah,” with deep feeling.
Col. Louis Geffen gave a brief sermon, which he recalled for the next half century of his life.
“My fellow American Jews and comrades in arms, you have fought hard in this war to destroy the vicious antisemitism fabricated by Hitler, which he then transformed into the deaths of the innocent, our people. Now with your determination, which succeeded in these past few years leading to victory, there is hope for a new world in which sadness will cease and joy reign.”
Now my father offered the sermon part. “The word in Hebrew for sin is het, but it can also mean to miss the mark. America defeated her enemies in World War II because the leadership, 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, in the last month, was right on target with the atomic bombs. American commanders certainly did their share and called on each of us to do battle against our foes. Truthfully, without God’s help, neither the great nor the small could have succeeded.
“The New Year of 5706 should grant you goodness and sweetness. Find only happiness when you return to your families. May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year.”
He used to tell me how he looked at those soldiers seated on the ship’s bow and concluded, “You, who fought so hard, are most deserving of the gift of life from God in the heavens above.”
When Truman sent a message to American Jewry and to the many thousands of American Jews still serving that Rosh Hashanah – to those “of our countrymen who will be observing the holiday in military installations throughout the world” – he stressed that as the Jewish New Year 5706 begins, “we must build a peace that will prevent the recurrence of the misery and human destruction, which was brought on the Jews of Europe and other minorities.”
He praised those half-million American Jews “who have fought and suffered and labored and died in the struggle to preserve mankind.”