The Jewish tradition of eating matza on Passover is so profound that the armed services of several countries provide Passover supplies to their soldiers even at the front. That’s the practice in Israel, for sure, but the archives of several libraries provide pictures of Jewish soldiers observing Passover in the British and American armies during World War I, almost 100 years ago.Still, when I saw a picture of approximately one ton of matzot sent to American forces in France, I wondered why so much was necessary.Thanks to the archivists at the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division for acceding to my requests to digitize these photographs and publish them online.
The 77th Division and the ‘Lost Battalion’The 77th Division was made up of draftees from the New York City area, one of the first draftee units deployed in combat in World War I. It assumed the name of the “Metropolitan Division” or the “Statue of Liberty Division.” Many of the men had lived a tough, hardscrabble life on the streets of New York – perhaps a factor in their surviving a hard-fought battle in the Argonne Forest in October 1918, where the Division’s “Lost Battalion” was surrounded by German troops and held out for a week without food and water. In a 2001 film based on the Lost Battalion, the men were described as Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish “gangsters.”Of the battalion’s 550 men, almost 200 were killed and 150 were captured or missing.A Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Lee J.Levinger, served in France during World War I and wrote that the 77th Division had “thousands” of Jewish soldiers for whom the matza in the picture was intended.Levinger described several incredible moments in his memoir: “The great event of my service in Le Mans was our Passover celebration on April 14th, 15th and 16th, 1919. The general order for Passover furloughs read: ‘Where it will not interfere with the public service, members of the Jewish faith serving with the American Expeditionary Forces will be excused from all duty from noon, April 14th, to midnight, April 16th, 1919, and, where deemed practicable, granted passes to enable them to observe the Passover in their customary manner.’“The full program included a Seder, four services, a literary program, a vaudeville show, a boxing exhibition, two dances and a movie... but certainly the most popular of all was the Seder. The soup with matza balls, the fish, in fact the entire menu made them think of home. We held the dinner in an army mess hall, standing at the breasthigh tables. The altar with two candles and the symbols of the feast was at the center of the low-roofed unwalled structure. Toward evening the rain, so typical of winter in western France, ceased; the sun came out, and its last level rays shone directly upon Rabbi Kaufman and his little altar. It was a scene never to be forgotten, a feast of deepest joy mingled with solemnity. Afterward we adjourned to the Theatre Municipale for a full religious service with a sermon.”During the Argonne Forest battle, the 77th Division’s Lost Battalion was finally relieved after taking heavy casualties for five days. The soldiers’ rescue is often credited to a carrier pigeon that delivered a message to headquarters with their position.Levinger told a different story: “Private Abraham Krotoshinsky... was awarded the D.S.C. [Distinguished Service Cross] for bearing the message which informed the division of the exact location of the unit, and was instrumental in releasing them. Krotoshinsky was an immigrant boy, not yet a citizen, a barber by trade. His own words give the story simply enough: ‘We began to be afraid the division had forgotten us or that they had given us up for dead. We had to get a messenger through. It meant almost certain death, we were all sure, because over 150 men had gone away and never come back. But it had to be done. The morning of the fifth day they called for volunteers for courier. I volunteered and was accepted.I went because I thought I ought to. First of all I was lucky enough not to be wounded.Second, after five days of starving, I was stronger than many of my friends who were twice my size. You know a Jew finds strength to suffer. Third, because I would just as soon die trying to help the others as in the “pocket” of hunger and thirst.‘I got my orders and started. I had to run about 30 feet in plain view of the Germans before I got into the forest. They saw me when I got up and fired everything they had at me. Then I had to crawl right through their lines. They were looking for me everywhere. I just moved along on my stomach, in the direction I was told, keeping my eyes open for them... It was almost six o’clock that night when I saw the American lines. All that day I had been crawling or running doubled up after five days and nights without food and practically nothing to drink.‘Then my real trouble began. I was coming from the direction of the German lines and my English is none too good. I was afraid they would shoot me for a German before I could explain who I was...Then the Captain asked me who I was. I told him I was from the Lost Battalion. Then he asked me whether I could lead him back to the battalion. I said, ‘Yes.’ They gave me a bite to eat and something to drink and after a little rest I started back again with the command. I will never forget the scene when the relief came. The men were like crazy with joy.’”Later Krotoshinsky moved to Palestine to try his hand at agriculture. Unable to make a living there, he moved back to New York with his family, but he was still unemployed. He received a presidential appointment to work in a New York post office. He died in 1953.Levinger described another incredible event during the fighting: “A soldier in a famous fighting division...sought a private interview with me. It seems that in the advance on the St. Mihiel sector he had rescued a Torah, a scroll of the Law, from a burning synagogue. Throwing away the contents of his pack, he had wrapped the scroll up in the pack carrier instead, and carried it “over the top” three times since. Now he wanted permission to take it home to give to an orphan asylum in which his father was active. A soldier was not ordinarily allowed to take anything with him besides the regulation equipment and such small souvenirs as might occupy little room, but in this case a kindly colonel became interested and the Torah went to America with the company records.”The writer served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. Today he is a consultant on public affairs and publishes www.israeldailypicture.com.