The GI's Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn
[University Press of Kansas, 2004]
Dr. Diane Cypkin, Martyrdom & Resistance (Jan/Feb 2007 Tevet/Shevat 5767) -- " 'Every man who has been oppressed must and will be restored to his family and to his rightful place in society. This is a promise and a pledge which I bring to you from you American comrades-in-arms and your Jewish brethren across the seas.' From a speech delivered by David Max Eichhorn, Chaplain XV Corps, U.S. Army, at the first Shabbat service in Dachau, May, 1945.
At first glance this book, The GI's Rabbi: World War II Letters of David Max Eichhorn, edited by Greg Palmer and Mark S. Zaid, seems to be simply about an American-Jewish rabbi who devotedly served his country and his men. But it is about much more. And this 'much more' will make it of particular interest to readers of M&R.
We will most especially note how from July, 1944, the moment Rabbi Eichhorn landed in Normandy, his dedication to his men was matched only by his dedicated determination to find and help any and all Jewish survivors of Hitler's brutalities. For as Rabbi Eichhorn traveled with the soldiers of the SV U.S. Army Corps, ministering to their needs, he was also always 'asking people in the various cities and villages through which [they]
passed, 'Are there any Jewish people here?' Tragically, more often than not the answer was, no. But, every now and then--joyous and incredulous--someone would rush up to his 'little jeep with the big Magen David'
We will most especially note the lengths to which Rabbi Eichhorn went to help the survivors he met while traveling. How often, in fact, he raised money and collected food from his own men to give them. Indeed, his men recognized the desperate need and were more than eager to help. Later, stationed for a longer period in Paris, Rabbi Eichhorn would work with the Joint Distribution Committee, the American Red Cross, the French Red Cross, the French Secour Nationale, the American Army, and all the various appendages thereof to improve conditions for the surviving Jews there. Later still, in Austria, he would do much the same for the displaced in that country, working with other groups.
Finally and poignantly, we will most especially note how Rabbi Eichhorn organized and conducted 'the first Jewish religious service'--a Shabbat service--at the Dachau concentration camp, one week after it was liberated. The service 'was attended by every Jewish male and female whose health permitted.' There were touching speeches given. 'The Art was opened and' Rabbi Eichhorn, 'recited 'Shechecheyaniu'
'benshed Gomel' and went through a brief Torah service.' The Rabbi gave a heartrending speech. (An excerpt is offered above). There was the singing of 'God Bless America' and 'Ha-tikva.' In short, there was joy and lots of tears. And all this happened, even as American troops guarded the perimeter of the area. Unfortunately, there was reason to fear anti-Semitic actions
Of course, other reading this volume will especially appreciate the many things Rabbi Eichhorn did for his own men. How he counseled all the soldiers. How he prayed with all of them. How he made sure there were High Holiday services for Jewish soldiers, even if that mean [sic] doing a major clean-up of a synagogue damaged and desecrated by the Nazis. How he diligently distributed matza from of the back of his little jeep [sic] Passover time. How he made sure burial was proper for all. How he wrote compassionately to all parents consoling them for dreadful losses.
In sum then, Rabbi Eichhorn's letters, strategically and wisely augmented by his sermons and other writings, tell us much
from a new perspective
from a man who cared
about a traumatic and unforgettable time period we all still grapple with to fully comprehend.
Interestingly, Rabbi Eichhorn would write that his wartime goal was to be 'a good soldier and a good rabbi.' Readers of this book will all quickly agree he more than attained his goal!
A postscript: For those interested, Rabbi Eichhorn's first service at Dachau was filmed by George Stevens of the U.S. Army Signal Corps."
Mo Alter, Jewish Book World -- "In peacetime, the rabbi performs the everyday duties associated with his congregational needs: conducting synagogue services, delivering sermons, offering advice and comfort to individuals and families in good times and bad, officiating at weddings and funerals, etc.
But in the wartime army as a chaplain, if he is assigned to a battle-active unit his duties, unfortunately, included dangerous, even life-threatening situations. He must comfort the injured in the field and in the hospital. He 'bentches Goymel'--makes the blessing of gratitude for surviving a dangerous situation--over the injured. He recites the 'El Maleh Rachamim' over newly deceased Jewish soliders [sic]. He must write letters of condolence to parents, wives and children--a most difficult chore.
The above is the substance of Chaplain Rabbi David Max Eichhorn's daily activities during World War II as his XV Corps fights its way through France and Germany. He has the sad duty of viewing the newly liberated death camp at Dachau, personally witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust perpetrated against Jews by the Nazis.
He must also keep his wife and children informed of his activities and assure them that he is well, despite everything he has seen.
This book's title, The G.I.'s Rabbi, stands for 'Government Issue Rabbi.' But here, one can add that it also stands for 'God's Issue Rabbi'!
Rabbi Eichhorn is an outstanding rabbi, soldier, family man and 'mentsch'. Read this book. It'll do your Yiddishe heart good."