New Year in the Pacific, 1945

“My fellow Americans, 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."

Louis and David Geffen at the railroad station in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1944 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Louis and David Geffen at the railroad station in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1944
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WHEN THE atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, Lt.
Col. Louis Geffen, my father, a judge advocate in the US Army since January 1941, assumed that shortly he would receive his discharge papers. What a surprise! Four days later, he received orders to join a military government unit shipping out from Oakland, California, for parts unknown.
His wife Anna and his son David, staying with Anna’s mother in Norfolk Virginia, were most disappointed. Louis knew quite a few people getting orders to return home and become civilians again. But not him. As a judge advocate, he was quite familiar with the rules and realized he had no recourse but to sail away 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 Hashanah, 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 the Chief Justice of the State of New York. Upon receiving his degree, Louis turned down offers in New York and returned to the south, to 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.
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 perservered, 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 by a black church of a new site for worship. This was the first of a number of such transactions, which he had throughout his career.
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 Birstein spent a few years in Rome and Atlanta, Georgia, in the years just before World War I. In Atlanta he had been befriended by Rabbi Geffen, Louis’s 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 wedding 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 30s in the US but the clamor of war hit as the 40s began..
At the end of 1940, the president of the US, Roosevelt, 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 there.
From January 1941 until January 1945, Louis served as a judge advocate in three Missississippi Army posts, Hattiesberg, Grenada and Oxford.
My parents had a minature US Army unform and hat tailored for me, which I wore proudly whenever I could. Then in February 1945, he received orders to to join a Military Government unit in California in preparation for the invasion of Japan. As the war wore down through the spring and summer of 1945, Louis hoped to be discharged.
Unfortunately, he was not; so the Rosh Hashanah 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 machzor 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 Prof. Hillel Blondheim of Hadassah Hospital once shared a 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 formed a mezuman to recite the blessing after the meal.
When Louis’s naval transport sailed away from Oakland, California, on August 29, 1945, he knew that if there were to be Rosh Hashanah services on September 8 and 9 – he would have to arrange them. The only help he could initially receive was 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. Eight days were granted Louis 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 (praying) 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 Hashanah services. On Saturday morning, September 1, Louis found his baal korei. This gentleman had no Torah to read from but he would use the Chumash – 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 Hashanah preparations filled the schedule of Louis and the Catholic chaplain during the next week.
Louis worked with the chazan and developed a structure for the tefillot. He listened to the baal korei practice from the Chumash.
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 (prayer services). 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 prayerbooks and Jewish prayershawls.
“Needed for Jewish High Holidays – September 8 and 9. Try to find Jewish books and shawls. Fly them to Eniwetok Atol which the ship will pass on Thursday, September 6.”
He also was in touch with the main chaplain in that area 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 Hashanah was on.
Friday night for the beginning of Rosh Hashanah there were about 120 attendees along with the Catholic chaplain and the ship’s deputy commander. When all were asked to rise for Barchu, the chazan began to chant the traditional High Holiday melody and many joined in with him. Louis recalled that through the chaplain’s effort 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 US and saved the Jewish people.
Some of the lines from the sermon Louis gave that night expressed great feeling.
“My fellow Americans, 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 filled the past and 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 “chet” usually translated sin – can also mean to miss the mark [and that on Rosh Hashana we take upon ourselves to keep far away from sin and hit our targets and goals in which we believe with precision and exactitude.
And indeed, “America defeated her enemies in World War II 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 tikateivu. 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 Hashanah services on the sea; a Rosh Hashanah never to be forgotten; a Rosh Hashanah filled with blessings.
My father landed in Manila in time to observe Yom Kippur there and even chant Maftir Yonah. From the Philippines, he was ordered to Japan to join up with the US military government team led by General Douglas McArthur. In late December 1945 and January 1946, Geffen prosecuted a Japanese war criminal, nicknamed ‘the Little Glass Eye’(Tsatsuo Tsuchiya)