The GI's Rabbi: Eichhorn Analysis

In response to an interviewer's question about "the special contributions the book makes and why it is important, Greg wrote the following statement.

I think there are two answers to this question because there are two audiences for this book (not counting the academic audience): a general audience, and a special audience, Jewish Americans.

Generally speaking, David Max Eichhorn's collected war letters have many of the aspects of a good novel. The protagonist, though already in his thirties and married with four children, comes of age in this book by having the greatest and most important experience of his life, just as the nation he loves and represents is coming of age as well. As many historians have argued, in countless ways America was not the same country in 1945 that it was in 1941. It was stronger, but also harder, far less isolated from the horrors of the world. Similarly, DME in Austria in 1945 is no longer a small town Southern rabbi. He has changed profoundly, in both good and sorrowful ways.

His letters are also the story of a man confronting unspeakable evil being perpetrated by his own countrymen. Like a third of all the G.I.s who served in the war in Europe, Eichhorn is of German ancestry. In fact, he is just one generation removed from being German himself. So he's a man who finds himself writing letters home to his father who was born in Germany about the atrocities of the Germans.

Since the war, we have a tendency to think of the Jews of Germany as Jews who unfortunately just happened to live in that country, and we assume that's how they felt about it as well. I don't think that's necessarily true. I have a second generation German/Jewish friend who is every bit as proud of her German ancestry as her Jewish heritage, and even now, almost sixty years after the war ended, is defensive about that dual loyalty and irritated by Gentiles who can't understand her feelings. I think DME felt the same way, not because he ever says it in the letters, but by the way he searches for evidence of his German relatives, and embraces any possible story he can tell of Germans acting decently. I'm thinking specifically of the SS Guard at Dachau who he describes as looking like an Aryan poster child, but who nonetheless risks his life to help and protect the Jewish prisoners there. Or the German POW who helps clean up the synagogue at Verdun, and tells DME in suspiciously eloquent terms: "Rabbi, helping with this task is giving me much inner spiritual satisfaction. While the great wrongs that have been committed can never be righted, this day's work is, for me, an act of penance for being a part of that people which has done such terrible things to the Jews and to the world." I think this is the only false moment in the entire book. I'm sure the POW said something of a penitent nature, but DME heard what he desperately wanted to hear, and desperately wanted to report to the folks back home--in part because of his German heritage, and in part because he was a man of God, and could not bring himself to condemn an entire nation of people as evil, regardless of the daily evidence he was seeing.

The book is also, at the basic level, a grand adventure, told by a man who refreshingly doesn't play up nor play down the adventure or his role in it.

The "special contribution" for the Jewish audience is that the book presents a true Jewish hero of the war they probably know nothing about. David Max Eichhorn did not, by any measure, look like a hero. He was a small man with glasses and a nasty little mustache, the son of a coats-and-suits man. In photos in uniform he looks at best like the second assistant company clerk--he looks, in fact, a lot like Ben Kingsley in Schindler's List. And yet he spent much of a year driving around the front lines, sometimes less than a mile from the actual fighting, asking "Any Jews here?" at foxhole after foxhole, then conducting a quick field service if there were Jews, a service usually held in a nearby barn so they wouldn't get bombed or strafed during the ceremony. In the Battle of the Bulge, he was pinned down for a week in one of the worst areas of the bloodiest fight in American history. He went to dozens of hospitals and aide stations to comfort the wounded; he said Kiddush at the graves of boys he knew. When the conflict started he was just another rabbi, but he rose to the occasion magnificently. He brought faith, decency and courage to men who desperately needed it--the frightened and the wounded.

What Jew wouldn't be enthralled by that, and wouldn't be proud to know of David Max Eichhorn and what he did? I think this especially holds true for Jewish moms, raising their own kids, kids who may not look like heroes either. DME proves that there is a potential hero lurking in all of us, just waiting to get the call to step up--and that you don't have to be Rambo wielding a submachine gun to show you have the right stuff. For contemporary Jewish women, in fact, DME is the perfect hero: he was a man of peace, a man of faith, a loving father and a devoted husband, who put his own life in danger, not to kill, but to comfort. And there are specific incidents in the book that emphasize this and should be of considerable inspiration to the Jewish audience: the discovery of Jewish refugees hidden in French villages; the services in Verdun, Luneville, and elsewhere; the small ceremony in Nuremberg; and of course his work at Dachau.

But one of the reasons I strongly opposed using the word "Dachau" in the book's title is that, ultimately, this isn't yet another book about the camps and their horrors. There isn't any new information about the liberation of Dachau and its aftermath in the book; what's important about Dachau for the reader is what the experience there says about Eichhorn--this man they've gotten to know up to that point. If, by then, the reader is identifying with Eichhorn in some way, he or she suddenly comes to the moment when a man who has spent the previous nine months comforting Jewish soldiers finds himself ordering a Gentile G.I. to fire on a Jewish camp member, to keep him from giving too much food to others. The order is justified, but what must that have done to the man who gave it? Eichhorn doesn't say--in the best novelistic sense, it is up to the reader to feel it for him or herself.

I would also say, especially for the Jewish reader, that Eichhorn's story is tragic, in a way, for how he changes in the course of his experience in the war. The David Max Eichhorn who writes home to his family from Austria, complaining that American Jews are pestering him to find out what happened to their relatives during the Holocaust, is not the same man who arrived in England a year before. He has hardened: he has seen too much and, if he hasn't lost hope about mankind, he's on the verge. Part of my feeling about this comes from co-editor Mark Zaid's memories of his grandfather, about how he never discussed the war and his experiences. He wrote about those experiences, but like millions of WW2 veterans he didn't want to chat about them, ever. I suspect Eichhorn felt the guilt (and, because of what he saw and did at Dachau and other camps, felt it strongly) that so many American Jews felt in 1945--that there had to be something they could have done to save more of their European brethren. More so than a non-Jewish reader, I think an informed Jewish reader will see this in the final letters in the book and may be strongly affected by it.