The GI's Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn
[University Press of Kansas, 2004]



Excerpt


"My Commanding General, Wade Haislip, decided that, since I could hold Yom Kippur services in only one place, that place must be conveniently located for the troops. He asked me which city in our area had a synagogue. There was only one; the city of Luneville. However, there was one slight hitch: Luneville was three miles ahead of our lines and firmly in the hands of the German Army. When I reported this to General Haislip, he said to me, "Chaplain, you will hold your Yom Kippur service in the synagogue in Luneville."

Yom Kippur was on Tuesday evening and Wednesday. The preceding Friday, an order was issued by Headquarters: "All personnel of the Jewish faith will be excused from duty next Tuesday and Wednesday in order that they may attend Day of Atonement services in the synagogue in Luneville." Quelle chutspa! Luneville and its synagogue were still in the hands of the Germans, two miles ahead of our most forward positions. You can imagine with what interest I read the daily battle-situation reports. Monday morning's report stated: "Street-fighting continues in the city of Luneville." Monday afternoon, my assistant and I headed for Luneville. To reach it, we journeyed past our artillery, our tanks, and most of our infantry…The city was completely deserted. Not a person was on the streets. Our hearts were in our mouths. Just as we reached the main street, we saw a big American flag being put out of a building about three blocks ahead. Never was there a more welcome sight. When we reached the building, we found inside an American military intelligence team of an officer and two men. They looked at us in amazement. "What in h--- are you doing here, chaplain?" "I'm here because I've been instructed to hold a Yom Kippur service in this city tomorrow evening." "Well, if you can hold a Yom Kippur service with two Jews and three Gentiles, that will be it, for there will be no more American soldiers in this town by tomorrow night. This town is still in No Man's Land. It is not yet officially taken."

We learned that the Germans had retreated from the city to the Forest of Parroy, about a mile west of the city. In an atmosphere permeated with snipers, artillery shells whining around and overhead, of bombs and strafing, I began to prepare to celebrate Yom Kippur. I've been in some pretty tough spots the last few months but I believe that, up to now, this one takes first prize.

There was a synagogue in the town. It was sealed up. With the aid of the French, we unsealed it. Inside, it was a mess. The Nazis had broken up and torn down everything that they could, ripped the prayer books in bits and piled the remains in heaps on the floor. We spent about two hours gathering the bits of Hebrew printing that remained. I placed the broken fragments upon the altar and there they stayed, in a place of honor, during the entire Yom Kippur service. These bits of paper, together with a shofar which was found in the debris, were the only tangible remnants of a community of 200 Jewish families.

The local people were really wonderful. They cleaned all the dirt from the synagogue. The place was strung with electric lights and decorated with French and American flags, all by order of and with the personal help of the Mayor and citizens of Luneville. So far as I was concerned, all this was being done because General Haislip had so ordered. I did not expect any Yom Kippur service to be held in Luneville. I did not think that anyone would get out of his foxhole and walk toward the enemy to go to synagogue, even on Yom Kippur. Enough is enough.

But General Haislip's hunch was right and mine wrong. At sundown on Tuesday the men came into Luneville from all along the line, on foot, by jeep and by truck. 350 battle-grimed Jewish fighters came to the synagogue for Kol Nidre. Their places in the line were taken by Gentile comrades so that they might have an opportunity to worship. In they came, their faces coated with dirt--grim, brave, fighting sons of Judah. I tell you unashamedly that, for the first time since I have been in France, I broke down and cried. No matter what I had seen before of the wounded, the dying and the dead, I had managed to steel myself against tears, but this was too much. The noises of war raged around us as together we intoned our traditional prayers. The men kept on their full battle-dress and their guns were at the ready. Together we prayed that mankind might be spared another such Yom Kippur.

Many of the men were not able to remain for the entire service. They had to resume their place in the line. A bitter fire-fight broke out almost immediately to drive the Germans from the Forest of Parroy."

© 2004 University Press of Kansas