The GI's Rabbi

Four years ago I spent months sitting in a dark room at KCTS, looking at color film shot during World War Two, for possible use in the PBS series THE PERILOUS FIGHT. One day I was watching footage from the liberation of Dachau--horrifying, heartbreaking silent images. And suddenly in the middle of it, for just eleven seconds, there was an American GI giving some kind of speech. That film was shot by the Hollywood director George Stevens, and his record keeping was spotty at best. On the log for this segment someone had written, "This may be a Rabbi Eichhorn." We spent the next three months finding out if that was true, which it was, and what the occasion was. It turned out to be a Shabbat service held six days after liberation--the first Jewish religious service in the 12-year history of Dachau. And then I spent the next year finding out about that man in those eleven seconds, especially reading the dozens of letters and reports he sent home from overseas. I'd like to tell you about him today--or more accurately, I'd like to introduce to you his story through a few moments from his letters.

He was a true hero of the war, although he never fired a weapon--I doubt if he ever even held a weapon. And he certainly didn't look like a hero. He was a mousy little bald guy with glasses, the son of a Pennsylvania haberdasher who immigrated to America from Germany. The rabbi's full name was David Max Eichhorn; his friends called him Max. In 1937, while the rabbi at a synagogue in Texarkana, he volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. The Lincoln Battalion was thirty percent Jewish--people like Max Eichhorn who thought that any opportunity to fight Hitler should be taken. And they paid for it--almost a third of the American volunteers died in combat. But Max was turned down by a recruiter in New York, who said that he could do a lot more good for the Loyalist cause as a rabbi in Arkansas than as just another soldier in the field. So he went back to Texarkana, to his wife Zelda, to his three sons and infant daughter.

A few days after Pearl Harbor, he volunteered again, of course, and in due time Max Eichhorn became one of the 311 rabbi-chaplains to serve in the Second World War--which was, incidentally, 288 more rabbi chaplains than served in the First World War. After training for two years, he sailed for Europe. On D-Day, he was half way across the Atlantic on a troop ship which was in fact the Queen Mary, headed for England. When he got there, he was assigned to the Army's Fifteenth Corps--front line, grind-out-the-miles fighters. And so began his great adventure, ministering to the men and women of the Corps across France, into Germany, and eventually to the liberation of Dachau and war's end.

In one letter home he told Zelda about his basic duties: "My work can be described very simply; it is to hold religious services for and to give religious comfort to Jewish soldiers wherever and whenever I find them. In that it does not differ in the slightest from the work I did in the States. The only thing which is different is the surrounding circumstances. I travel around in a jeep and trailer, live in a pup-tent, sleep on the ground, eat sometimes quite well and sometimes not so well. I've become quite adept at doing a high-dive out of the jeep whenever a bullet-spitting plane with a swastika painted on it swoops down on the highway where I am riding. I've been shot at, bombed, and strafed so often that it has ceased to be a novelty--and it really is not as bad as the movies make it. Everybody over here is going through the same thing, and there seems to be little point in dwelling on these things continually or even often. I don't take the vitamins any more. It is rather unnecessary to do so when one lives out-doors 24 hours a day and seven days a week."

In other words, Max Eichhorn drove around the front in a jeep with a big Star of David painted on the side and a box of matzos in the back seat, usually within sight and sound of the battle going on. He'd pull up to a foxhole, ask if there were any Jews there who'd like a service. And if there were and they did, Rabbi Eichhorn would minister to his olive drab flock in the nearest safe place--usually a barn or abandoned home. Max made house calls. In his letters to the family, he invariably diminished the danger he was in. They didn't know until 1969, for instance, that during the Battle of the Bulge--the most murderous combat in American military history--he was pinned down for a week with the 103rd Infantry, in the middle of the fiercest fighting. All he wrote home about that experience was: "As you are undoubtedly aware, the German counter-offensive which many of us have been expecting is well under way and, at the present time, the Germans are giving ample evidence that they may be down but they are far from out." And this, as I recall, is buried in a letter that mostly concerns the problems he had finding decent Hanukah presents for the kids.

Not all of his experiences were dangerous. Some must have helped renew his faith in humanity at the very time he was surrounded by inhumanity, chaos and death. Being on the front lines, he was usually one of the first Americans in towns that had been controlled by the enemy just a few hours before.

And in the just liberated small villages of France, he made a great discovery; the villagers had been hiding hundreds of Jewish refugees: "In one town alone, I found a French farmer playing god-father to 65 children and 75 adults whom he had placed in homes in six different villages. He protected them at the risk of his own and his family's lives. At the service which I held in this city, 81 Jewish soldiers (many of whom had not been paid for as long as four months) emptied their pockets and contributed more than 5000 francs to help me in this work (finding food and clothing for the refugees.) One company of Negroes contributed its entire week's candy ration."

Besides letters home, Max Eichhorn also wrote monthly reports for the Jewish Welfare Board, the organization that supervised rabbi-chaplains. One of those reports, my favorite from all of his war writing, includes a rare moment when he tells not just what happened, but also how he felt at the time.

"October 2, 1944, Somewhere in France: 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 Lunéville. However, there was one slight hitch: Lunéville 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 service in the synagogue in Lunéville.'

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 Lunéville.' Quelle chutspa! Lunéville 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 Lunéville.' Monday afternoon, my assistant and I headed for Lunéville. 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. 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. 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 Lunéville. 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 Lunéville 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."

Parenthetically, Rabbi Eichhorn later reports that thirty-eight of the men who attended that service in Lunéville were killed within the next day, and he officiated at their burials.

One of the major accomplishments of the Fifteenth Corps was conquering--and almost completely destroying--Nuremberg, where so many huge Nazi rallies were held. At the city's fall, Max Eichhorn held a small, unofficial, moving ceremony: "On Sunday afternoon, April 22, the little jeep with the big Magen David entered Zeppelin Stadium, the huge arena in the suburbs of Nuremberg where the Nazi Party Congresses were held and the place where, some ten evil years ago, 250,000 cheering Nazis approved the enactment of those discriminatory laws which resulted in the destruction of nearly five million of our brethren. In the jeep were one American Jewish chaplain, one American Jewish chaplain's assistant, one Torah and ark, and five Palestinian Jewish soldiers who had been captives of the Nazis for four long years. Behind followed a second jeep bearing five American Jewish soldiers of the 45th Infantry Division, fighting soldiers who had helped destroy the citadel of Nuremberg. Slowly and proudly, the little procession drove around the stadium. It halted before the speaker's rostrum, a rostrum surmounted by a resplendent gold-leafed swastika, the rostrum from which Der Fuehrer had, again and again, fulminated against democracy and the Jews.

The soldiers got out of the jeeps and, forming a guard of honor around the holy Ark, carried it up the steps to the speakers' platform. Here the procession halted. The Ark was opened and the Torah taken out. The representatives of an eternal people offered up songs and prayers of thanksgiving to the eternal God for having once more revealed to mankind the certainty of His justice and the timelessness of His love. At the end of the service, the Americans and the Palestinians joined hands and, forming a solid ring around the rabbi, the Ark and the Torah, pledged renewed fidelity to the cause of Israel and the worship of Israel's God. Shortly thereafter ... demolition charges were attached to the resplendent gold-leafed swastika atop the speakers' platform, and it was blown sky-high. Amid the thousands of cheering beholders, none, perhaps, was more deeply moved than the little group of seven Americans and the five soldiers from Palestine who were clustered around the little jeep with the big Magen David."

He had a book full of experiences in that nine months overseas, but he will forever be remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his work at Dachau. He walked through those gates less than 24 hours after the camp had been liberated, and was the only rabbi present for weeks: saving people's lives physically and spiritually--and once in a manner I think haunted him for the rest of his life. From his Dachau report to the JWB:

"The inmates, after liberation, left the camp, invaded the town of Dachau, took whatever food they could find from the greatly frightened Germans of the town, and proceeded to eat and eat and eat. Their emaciated bodies could not stand the strain. A number of them literally gorged themselves to death. The American medical authorities decided that, for the protection of the inmates, they must be forcibly detained within the compound in order to get the proper medical attention and to be fed the proper kinds and amounts of food. The effect of this on the inmates is not difficult to imagine. Many of them were not in the proper state of mind to understand the necessity for this action and they thought that their liberators had suddenly become persecutors. The doctors ordered me to see to it that no inmates got out of the sections in which most of the Jews were quartered. Armed guards were placed around the fences to make sure that this order was obeyed. Some of the inmates were still bringing food they had 'liberated' in Dachau back to the compound. Finding the gates locked, they would scurry up to the fence, throw the food parcels over the fence to those on the other side and then quickly scurry away. I was told by the medics that this would have to be stopped. I instructed the guards to frighten away the food-bearers by shooting over their heads.

This worked quite well for a while, but, when the food-bearers discovered that the soldiers were not aiming directly at them, they continued their well-meant but harmful tactic. Reluctantly I was compelled to tell the guards that they would have to actually hit one of the offenders in a non-fatal spot on his anatomy in order to protect the health of those in the compound. This was done. The next fellow who tried to throw food over the fence got a well-aimed bullet through his leg, was taken off to the hospital and eventually recovered from the wound. This drastic measure halted all further efforts to get any more food over the fence ..."

An American GI, a Jew and a rabbi, ordering another GI to shoot a survivor of Dachau. No matter how justified, I still can't see how he brought himself to do that, even as it had to be done.

As I said before, Max Eichhorn was a hero, but not because he endured danger to minister to people who needed him. He was a hero, to me, for the sacrifice he made. He didn't have to go to war. In fact, with his bad eyesight, he had to fight to be allowed to go. But he saw an opportunity--which, like the rest of the world, he prayed would not be endless--an opportunity to use his faith and compassion in direct and necessary ways. But he paid a price for that opportunity. The war changed him, as it changed America, and not necessarily for the good.

After VE Day, he was in Austria, still with the Fifteenth Corps, and still trying to help the displaced persons in his immediate area. And he wrote this home to his father--I think the saddest letter he ever sent. "Dad, I don't know who in the world is giving my name out all over the USA but I'm being flooded with requests to locate missing relatives, which I am utterly powerless to do. I wish I were a miracle-worker but I'm not. I can understand the anxiety of people in America and their desire to discover and be of help to their loved ones. You can tell anyone who asks you that, if one's relative is alive, he will be so informed as quickly as possible by the JDC or the International Red Cross. If one does not receive such information in, let us say, at most a year, the overwhelming possibility is that the person is dead. Out of 6˝ million Jews in Hitler's Europe, less than a million remain. The chance of any particular person being alive is less than 1 in 7. And practically all of these Jews, when they left their homes, became numbers and were no longer names and lie buried in nameless graves. That is the bitter fact and no amount of frantic inquiry will add to it or detract from it ..."

The David Max Eichhorn who came to Europe a year before could not have written that letter. I think he had seen too much, and it hardened him forever. His family tells me that after coming home, and for the forty years until his death, he never talked about his war experiences. His story is certainly one of triumph, but it is also a tragedy, for what he lost in that great adventure.

But it's only fair to him and what he did to finish today with perhaps his greatest moment: that service he arranged and held at Dachau, a coming together that brought hope and faith to thousands of men, women and children who thought, only a few days before, that hope, and faith, and decency had been lost forever from the world. It's the eleven seconds I first saw, plus a little more. [clip from The Perilous Fight, Part III, shown]