Rosh Hashanah: What was the Jewish New Year like in 1945?

The atomic bombs had been dropped in August 1945. World War II had officially ended. What was this Rosh Hashanah like for the Jewish people?

 US PRESIDENT Harry S. Truman sent a special message to American Jewry.  (photo credit: Library of Congress/Unsplash)
US PRESIDENT Harry S. Truman sent a special message to American Jewry.
(photo credit: Library of Congress/Unsplash)

The atomic bombs had been dropped in August 1945. World War II had officially ended. On Rosh Hashanah there would be peace on the one hand, but for the Jewish people, the horrors of the Holocaust were just beginning to be revealed.

The president of the US, Harry S. Truman, sent a special message to American Jewry. The rabbis shared it with their congregants, a new beginning. 

“Rosh Hashanah celebration this year comes at a time when the US and its allies are seeking to lay the foundation of lasting peace in the world. This task cannot be completed unless all persons, without distinction of race, language or religion, are made secure in the enjoyment of their inherent human rights.”

Harry S. Truman

“Rosh Hashanah celebration this year comes at a time when the US and its allies are seeking to lay the foundation of lasting peace in the world. This task cannot be completed unless all persons, without distinction of race, language or religion, are made secure in the enjoyment of their inherent human rights.”

Truman continued. “To this end, the treaties now being discussed bind the nations, who warred against human freedom, to guarantee to all their people freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of worship.” The president’s four freedoms were enunciated for the Jews in the US on that Rosh Hashanah following the defeat of the evil tyrants.

 THE WRITER’S father, Lt.-Col. Louis Geffen, 1946. (credit: Courtesy Geffen family) THE WRITER’S father, Lt.-Col. Louis Geffen, 1946. (credit: Courtesy Geffen family)

In the waters off of Palestine, another drama was being played out. The sea battle between the British on the immigrant vessel Palmach carrying 611 Jews was felt in the minds of Jews and Christians.

A newspaper in Baltimore made clear what was transpiring. “The British ship Rowena attacked the ship Palmach a few miles away from the Lebanese coast.” The ship triumphantly made it to the Land of Israel on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

What was Rosh Hashanah like in 1945?

A PICTORIAL essay in Life magazine appeared on October 8, 1945. The pictures and text of that widely circulated publication provided a world readership with the experience of Rosh Hashanah in the newly restored Fraenkelufer synagogue in Berlin. Olive B. Waxman wrote a story explaining what occurred there on September 6-8, 1945.

“Jewish celebrants in modern history have never had more cause for such reflection (on the High Holy Days) than the Berlin Jews who survived in World War II. In 1945, legendary Life photographer Robert Capa was in the Fraenkelufer synagogue to document the first Rosh Hashanah service held in the city since 1938.” 

She continued, “The service took place on September 7, 1945, at the Fraenkelufer synagogue that the US army had helped to restore. The Nazis had torched it.”

There, Capa found a people, Waxman pointed out, “reconnecting with one another and trying to start practicing openly again in a city that was also in ruins.”

There was quite a large turnout, since the 500 people there included Jewish American and Russian soldiers. “Donning a prayer shawl, Private First-Class Werner Nathan held the Torah which had been hidden from the Nazis in an underground safe. The rabbi had been killed in the Holocaust.” 

WHEN LOUIS Geffen (my father), sailed from Oakland, California, on a naval transport 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 initially received was from a Catholic army chaplain, a priest. As they left the harbor, the chaplain promised Geffen, who was part of the judge advocate corps, his assistance in getting the services arranged.

As the ship cut through the waves into the Pacific Ocean, Geffen was granted eight days to get the holiday services ready. For the Sabbath evening services, on August 31, Geffen 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 p.m. on Friday. “All Jewish personnel of the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard are invited.”

When the service began, Geffen was pleased to see about 30 people in attendance. The Catholic chaplain had a few Jewish Welfare Board military siddurim, which he gave Geffen to use. As he led the service, Geffen heard a beautiful voice praying with tremendous intensity. 

The soldier, a New Jersey native, had sung in a choir in his synagogue for many years prior to entering the military. He was assigned to be the cantor for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah services on the ship. On Saturday morning, September 1, Louis found someone to read the Torah portion for the upcoming holiday. Although the gentleman had no Torah scroll to read from, he would instead use a chumash. Geffen had no idea how they would hear the blasts of a shofar, but he realized that he had progressed significantly in his preparations during this first Shabbat on the ship. 

The frenzy of Rosh Hashanah preparations filled the schedule of Geffen and the chaplain during the next week. Geffen worked with the cantor and developed a structure for the service. He listened to the Torah reader practice from the chumash. A few talitot had surfaced from individuals and from the main supply rooms of the ship. Most importantly, a nice spot had been assigned by the ship’s captain for the prayer services. It overlooked the water and would add a sense of reverence and awe to the High Holy Days.

The chaplain was determined to do everything he could to ensure that the services would be as close to a traditional Jewish service as possible. He sent ship-to-shore messages to military facilities on islands where the ship would be passing. He requested Jewish prayer books and Jewish prayer shawls.

The message read, “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 to Rosh Hashanah was on.

FRIDAY NIGHT, at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, there were about 120 attendees, along with the chaplain and the ship’s deputy commander. When all were asked to rise for the Barachu blessing, the cantor began to chant the traditional High Holy Day melody, and many joined in. Geffen 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 my mother Anna, he first described the waves reaching up to touch the ship as their prayers rose up to God. There was not a dry eye in the congregation. These were battle-hardened warriors who had defeated the enemies of the US and saved the Jewish people. 

The sermon Geffen gave that night expressed his tremendous emotions. “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 that 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 is usually translated as “sin,” but it can also mean “to miss the mark” and that on Rosh Hashanah, we “take it upon ourselves to keep far away from sin and hit our targets and goals in which we believe with precision and exactitude.

“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. L’shana 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 Hashanah services on the sea, a Rosh Hashanah never to be forgotten. A Rosh Hashanah filled with blessings.   ■