Passover 1945: A Jewish soldier’s story

Our division, the United States Army 86th Infantry, was stretched thinly along the west side of the Rhine River, in the area of Cologne (Koln), Germany.

THE AUTHOR in 1945. (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE AUTHOR in 1945.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If someone were to ask me when my most memorable Passover was, I would, without hesitation, answer March, 1945.
Our division, the United States Army 86th Infantry, was stretched thinly along the west side of the Rhine River, in the area of Cologne (Koln), Germany. Our orders were to stand firm to repel an anticipated Nazi attack. The German Wehrmacht – 350,000 troops strong – we were told, was massing on the east side of the river.
At night German commando units would cross the river to probe our fortifications and strength. We had, at best, about 15,000 troops, including a cadre of officers who preferred the rear echelons to oversee their troops, cooks, office personnel, truck drivers and a small contingent of tanks.
It was March 28, the first night of Passover, and I and two other soldiers of Company E were manning a strong point with a heavy machine gun in an abandoned, battered factory building that once made Bayer Aspirin, or so the sign said. Our lookout on the river was in a maze of brick and concrete, dark, dank and filled with weird, unearthly sounds.
We were the watch on the Rhine, with orders to shoot on sight. Nazi infiltrators from across the river were a headache, but the Bayer factory was not making any aspirin.
In a room nearby was a huge machine and conveyor belt loaded with sweet candies.
Probably destined for the Nazi army.
We were ordered not to even think of tasting them as our overweight commander was convinced the candies were poisoned, and besides, he was on a diet. I agreed they were off limits, since I didn’t think they were kosher.
We took turns at the battered lookout, a huge hole in the factory wall, the result of one of the Germans’ periodic artillery barrages. We would occasionally fire at moving targets in the dark shadow on the opposite side of the Rhine. We were in blackout mode,without electricity – no light to attract German shelling.
It was March 28, the first night of Passover, and I was really depressed. This would be the first time in my life that I would miss a Passover Seder. No matza, wine or grape juice, karpas or charoset, not even a Haggada.
The closest seder was probably back at our base, Camp Lucky Strike, near Deauville, France – several hundred miles away.
Only a miracle could rescue me from this situation, and I wasn’t expecting a miracle call from my commander to relieve me of duty tonight. We were already short-handed.
I looked at my bar mitzva Elgin watch, the standard gift bar mitzva boys received from the YMHA Temple synagogue in Aurora, Illinois. It was almost 22:00 when we heard the chugging hum of a vehicle a short distance from the factory building.
Fearing Nazi commandos had landed without detection, I grabbed my Browning automatic rifle and a couple of magazines and together with my two buddies scrambled out of the shelter to set up an ambush.
We were surprised to see in the moonlight that the noisy intrusion was one of our jeeps, without lights, slowly moving toward our position. It turned out to be a driver with a passenger, a Christian chaplain friend from Wheaton, Illinois. He was a young man recently out of seminary who was interested in learning about Judaism and would join our unit on hikes and training to talk to me about Shabbat and holy days. (I thought he was so sympathetic and interested that he might consider switching to Judaism.) HE GREETED me with, “Larry, I know it’s the first night of Passover. I just got hold of a bottle of wine and a box of matza sent over by the Jewish Welfare Board from New York for you and your buddies. They sometimes do things like this a little late.”
I thought, Baruch Hashem! Glory be! A miracle after all.
“You took your life in your hands to come here,” I told him with a grateful smile.
“This place is very, very dangerous, but thank you for this unexpected Passover present.”
I sent my two Gentile soldiers to find and replace Jerry Shpall and Jay Singer, the only two Jewish soldiers in the area, who were manning positions down the line.
“Tell them we will have a Passover Seder after all.”
We arranged a pile of 50-pound sacks of sugar left by the Germans for their candy machine and improvised an igloo on the factory floor so that we could have a bit of light for our Seder. Any light visible to the Nazi army across the river was sure to unleash a deadly artillery barrage. By the flickering light of a single candle and with help from an army-issue flashlight we were able to improvise a Passover Seder.
To three lone soldiers on the bank of the Rhine, it was an especially meaningful Passover, because it was being held on German soil.
Without a Haggada, the three of us recited as much as we could recall from memory.
They gave me the honor of asking the “Fir Kashes,” or Four Questions, with a Yiddish translation. A family tradition. And we all pitched in on “Avadim Hayeenu,” “Dayenu” and “Had Gadya,” which we sang quietly, a little off tune.
The prayers were about freeing the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, but we had other questions. About liberating our Jewish brothers and sisters who were also slaves, in Nazi concentration camps on the other side of the Rhine. What, we wondered, is Hashem’s plan for us? We didn’t have to wait long for the answer to that question. We had barely finished the Seder when a second lieutenant, “a 90-day wonder” from company headquarters, appeared with a message. Excitedly he told us that our tanks were battling the Nazis around Remagen, a small town south of Cologne. They had already crossed the bridge to the east side of the Rhine and needed support. That caught our attention.
“Well what’s the message?” There was a moment of silence, then the officer announced: “Soldiers of the 1st Army. We have orders to cross the Rhine river at 04:00. Report to your company commander immediately.”
“Ok!” said Shpall, always the realist.
“Where’s the bridge? How do we get across the water? Swim?” Unperturbed, the officer continued: “It will be an amphibious landing. The engineers are bringing up a bunch of some kind of rubber boat you’ll just paddle across. No problem.”
“Will you be joining us?” we asked.
As he ducked out of our shelter, he mumbled, “Not exactly. I’m in charge of communications.
Good luck.”
“An amphibious landing on the Rhine River?” said Shpall. “Who ever heard of it?” “It looks like we’re in for a cruise on the Rhine at government expense, Jerry,” Singer chimed in. “After all that’s what we were trained for.”
I thought that perhaps this was our special mission as Jewish soldiers: to participate in the destruction of the evil Nazi Amalek.
The 86th division was part of the 1st Army under the command of Gen. Omer Bradley and had been waiting for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, to give permission to attack the Nazi forces before they brought the battle to us as they did in the Battle of the Bulge. The Remagen bridgehead gave us the opportunity.
BEFORE DAWN on the first day of Passover: the noise was deafening as our artillery began saturate the east bank of the Rhine and the Germans responded furiously. The cold air was heavy with the smell of nitrates and a soup-like fog and smoke. That’s good, I thought: if we can’t see the Germans, they can’t see us.
It was 04:00 and we were shivering in the shelter of a old factory building, waiting as the engineers inflated small rubber boats that were to take us across the river. They were not the usual metal landing craft made to protect the soldiers they carried that we had been trained on in California. These were oversized kayaks a stray shell could sink in an instant.
A happy soldier on KP (I assumed he was staying behind) passed out “D” rations (a thick chocolate bar that was supposed to contain enough energy to keep a soldier going for 24 hours). We were to divide the bar into three parts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I hoped it did not contain any hametz.
When he handed me two “D” rations, I had a premonition that headquarters thought this operation would not be a piece of cake.
“Twelve to a boat on the double” came the command. “Paddle like your life depends upon it, because it does. The Rhine River is running fast, don’t get pulled downstream and watch out for shell fire.”
I wondered how in the heck we could do that, but orders are orders.
As we squeezed into the small dinghy overloaded with all our equipment and weapons, Johnny Rrosso, one of my buddies, complained, “Never expected amphibious landing would be like this. My mother warned me to stay away from the Navy.”
Rosso was a Catholic who would join me mornings in our barracks, fingering his rosary while I prayed Shacharit across the room.
“No need to worry Johnny, we have God on our side,” I said. I was sure of it.
We paddled madly in the direction of the east bank of the Rhine amid terrific artillery fire, some German, some ours.
Overhead there were fireworks like a gala fourth of July display, only this was deadly.
We heard booming from both sides of the river and the shrill shrieks as shells flew about and pounded the water. It was dark.
As our shore crew had laid a thick smoke screen. I wondered if this was like the ninth plague, darkness, and the experience of our ancestors crossing the Red Sea with God’s protection. Well, it was appropriate on Passover.
In the semi-dark chaos, as our rubber dingy passed another I heard amid the whistling shells and crashing explosions Jay Singer shout: “A Gut Yom Tov and a safe landing!” It appeared that we had indeed surprised the Nazi high command. We landed safely near Einhoven with minor casualties.
To sporadic German resistance; no Omaha beach here. Thank you, Hashem! Our missions were Einhoven, Ludwickhaven and then a crossroads at a German village. Those were our missions, but Hashem gave us a more important mission.
Later in the day, the first day of Passover, as the Company E scout I came upon several flat bed wagons with huge steel pots on top, the kind that might contain food for hundreds of people parked off the main Autobahn highway. Tracking the dirt road, I came upon military guard towers and a huge barbed-wire-fenced slave labor camp in a heavily forested area many miles east of the city. It was run by the I .G. Farben military complex. We liberated it.
Huddled against the barbed-wire fence the welcoming Jewish survivors, in the infamous black and white striped prison uniforms, were gaunt skeletons. They were crying and almost incoherent with joy at seeing American troops pull down the gates of their prison. I tried to determine where the guards were.
“They ran, changed clothes and escaped,” they told me. I had no luck finding them.
I wanted to share my rations and kosher food that I had stashed in my ammo belt, but was warned it would be dangerous for the starving survivors to eat such food. The captain said he would radio for medics to bring stretchers and suitable nourishment.
With permission from our commander, Jay and I together held a Passover Mincha service on German soil with about 70 Jewish survivors we had liberated.
We made a tearful “El maleh rahamim” for the many that didn’t make it.
Am Yisrael Hai! That was the most memorable Passover of my life!