"The day is short and the task is great": reports from Jewish military chaplains in Europe, 1945-1947.

Author:Feldberg, Michael
Position:Part Three: New Documents for the Study of American Jewish History

In November 1940, with war already underway in Europe and its clouds hanging over the United States, Frank L. Well, president of the Jewish Welfare Board, met with Assistant Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson "to discuss the religious needs of the Jewish personnel in the armed forces." Patterson subsequently wrote to Well, "We shall do everything compatible with our primary mission of training to help safeguard the religious observations of men of the Jewish faith." However, when the United States entered the war in December 1941, neither the United States armed forces nor the American Jewish community were prepared to meet the religious requirements of Jewish military personnel. Similarly at war's end in 1945, the military and the organized American Jewish community failed to anticipate the extraordinary requirements of the liberated Shearith ha-Pletah, the European survivors of the Shoah. The burden of meeting the spiritual, religious, and material needs of Jewish soldiers and civilians fell directly on the Jewish military chaplains who served in the United States Army and Navy.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and American entry into the war, the National Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), in cooperation with the three major Jewish rabbinical organizations, recruited 311 rabbi chaplains who served between 1941 and 1948. (1) The JWB created a semi-autonomous organization, the Committee on Army and Navy Religious Affairs (CANRA), to plan the effort to recruit, train, equip, and support the chaplains. Once in the field, the chaplains were required to file monthly reports with CANRA. Some of those reports are excerpted below. Their format has been changed for easier reading, and we have made minor changes to the texts to eliminate obvious spelling or grammatical errors.

Urged on by their rabbinical organizations and with the financial support of their congregations, more than half the American rabbinate volunteered to serve in the Army and Navy. For those who were accepted, the struggle to meet the competing and at times conflicting demands of the Jewish chaplaincy in wartime proved exhausting and debilitating. As their reports indicate, each rabbi had to represent Judaism to the Jewish soldiers he encountered, regardless of his own denominational affiliation or that of the soldier. As Rabbi Herbert Eskin's report below illustrates, Jewish chaplains at times also had to meet the spiritual needs of Christian soldiers. Little in pre-war American Judaism or interfaith relations prepared these rabbis, especially the Orthodox ones, for this level of trans-denominational or Jewish-Christian intimacy. Contacts between the chaplains and non-Jews helped make the rabbis more cosmopolitan, much as fighting alongside Christian compatriots made American Jewish soldiers more fully American. Both phenomena helped pave the way to the increased social integration of American Jewry in the postwar period.

The constant travel between military camps, battle sites, cemeteries, and hospitals exhausted the chaplains. Armed with small Torahs and arks that attached to the back of a jeep, the rabbis crisscrossed occupied France, Germany, and Italy until war's end and beyond, never having sufficient time to meet all the needs of the Jewish soldiers in their territories. Even more difficult to meet were the needs of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs) who, beginning in 1945, flocked to the American zone of occupied Germany. As the reports below indicate, at first the U. S. military authorities prohibited the chaplains from "fraternizing" with the local population, including the Jewish DPs, a situation that vexed the chaplains. After President Harry S. Truman ordered General Dwight D. Eisenhower to improve conditions for the Jewish DPs, these restrictions were lifted. Many of the chaplains returned to the United States physically ill and emotionally depleted as a result of their efforts to meet the survivors' needs and the soldiers' spiritual requirements, while coping with their intimate exposure to death and the almost complete destruction of Jewish life--and European civilization in general.

The excerpts from the chaplains' reports published here are contained in the records of the National Jewish Welfare Board, Military Chaplaincy Records, 1917-1984, boxes 16-18 (Collection 1-249), which reside in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York City.

Ralph H. Blumenthal (2)

21 January 1945

Dear Isaac,

The package of kosher meat arrived. I'm eating again. Thanks.

Please stop the packages of prayer books, literature, etc.--for a while anyway. Most of my men are now wearing mezuzah clusters. After a service last week one of the men pulled off his dog tags and attached another mezuzah. I smiled as I gazed upon the cluster of six. "You see, Rabbi, I have one for every campaign: 1) The Beach, 2) Normandy, 3) The South Lo Breakthrough 4) Paris, 5) Huertgen Forest, 6) Stopping the Left Shoulder of the German Counter Offensive."

How about calendars? Have had many requests.

Had a wedding the other day. One of these stranger than fiction types. Several years ago the boy and girl with their families fled from Berlin. The boy went to America. The girl's family went to Paris. When the Nazis came to Paris the family was placed in a concentration camp. The girl was put on a cattle car bound for Lublin. By some intermediation she was released and fled to Southern France. The mother remained to nurse the sick father. Years passed--the boy landed in France [having become] a G.I. In Paris he bumped into his girl's mother and learned that his fiance was somewhere in Southern France. He got in touch with the underground who "radioed," sent couriers, messengers--and finally located the girl in Nice. She started working her way back to Paris. In the meantime the boy was transferred to Luxembourg. When the girl got to Paris, the boy went back--returned with her and got permission to marry. The American Consul (acting) was present. Had pictures together--will send them on when censor approves. Interesting--no?

Isaac, what are chances of sending me a suitcase, rain-proof. I need it to carry my small Torah, books, wine, etc.

Chaplain Herbert S. Eskin (3)

10 May 1945

Since the break-through of the Siegfried Line and the crossing of the Rhine, we traveled through Germany at an accelerated rate of speed, and met little opposition until we reached Bad Wimpfen, Germany, where the battle for the crossing of the Neckar and the capture of the city of Heilbron began. It was there where we fought for every inch of ground, resulting in many casualties, and bringing back memories of the battle for France.

Due to the many casualties, I visited the field hospitals daily, and it was in one of those hospitals where a Protestant lad from Iowa, by the name of Carl C. Denhartog, was confined with a very serious chest wound. He was breathing heavily with the aid of an oxygen mask and, as I approached him, he recognized me and smiled. I took hold of his hand and I said, "Carl, my boy, your outfit crossed the bridge and beat the hell out of the Jerries!" He smiled again and said, "I'm sure glad they're doing all right; it's too bad I'm not there to help them." Carl kept on holding my hand, and although his fore-head was wet with perspiration, he asked me to cover him up and say a prayer with him.

I knelt down on my knee and whispered in his ear the 23rd Psalm. He repeated it after me word for word, and I concluded the Psalm with, "Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen."

Carl could not recover from his injuries, they were too severe. He fought for his life to the very end. He died, still holding on to my hand. I was greatly touched by this incident. Here was a devout Christian who knew me as the Jewish chaplain in the division and asked me to say his last prayer with him, and by the same token I, a Jewish Rabbi, said the last rites with a Christian, in accordance with his faith. At that moment neither of us felt of having differences nor barriers. In action and in spirit, I sensed our comradeship and demonstrated it in my capacity of an Army Chaplain.

It was brought to my attention that at Fenetrage, France, the local Nazis used Jewish tombstones for a sidewalk in front of the Catholic Church, and to date they had not been removed to the Jewish cemetery. I drove all the way from Heilbron, Germany to Fenetrage, France, and to my amazement, I found the statements made to me to be correct. When I asked the priest why he permitted such an atrocity to exist in front of his church eight months after the town was liberated, he could not give me a reasonable answer. I took him to the mayor and ordered both of them to have the tombstones removed to the Jewish cemetery within 24 hours. Unless my orders were carried out within the given time, I would come with a truckload of soldiers and we would blast the town with hand grenades. The tombstones, including the fragments, were placed on the Jewish cemetery by the specified time.

I am beginning to come across Jewish deportees and am doing everything within my power to assist them religiously and otherwise. Due to the prohibition of fraternization, that is all I can say at this time as to the kind of assistance I render to them.

Chaplain Herbert S. Eskin

10 June 1945

At Stuttgart I found Jews known as "mishlings" (4)--so far the only remnants of the Stuttgart Jewish community. Since the end of hostilities, more and more Jews of Stuttgart are returning to the city and unfortunately find their homes destroyed and no traces of their families or relations.

I have requisitioned a three-story home, formerly belonging to a Jew and there I established and organized a Jewish center called the "Israelitische Kultursvereinigung". I conduct there Sabbath services for approximately 150 people.

Whatever assistance I render (due to the prohibition of fraternization I cannot enumerate) it is far below the assistance that these...

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