With Pesach around the corner, Jewish homes around the world are being whipped into shape in a whirlwind of mops, brooms, and of course, the ubiqutious and indispensable shmattes. Soon, the odor of Comet and Pine-Sol will be replaced by the scent of chicken soup and potato kugel cooking for the Yom Tov meals.
For Jewish soldiers during World War II, kosher food was just part of their concern. Those who wanted to join a Seder of any sort needed to obtain leave. Often, Jewish GIs would swap their off days with non-Jews who wanted time off for their holidays.
Chaplains encouraged this system, so that the exchanging of passes around holidays became an accepted practice.
Sometimes, however, these arrangements resulted in near catastrophe. In 1943, at the Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington, nearly every guard on duty for December 25 was Jewish. Arthur Zirul was a German refugee who enlisted just 18 months after he arrived in the US. That night he found himself stationed with his friend Irwin at the eastern gate of the base, hoping for a quiet evening. Unlike other camps, Fort Lewis was a highly restricted area where guards were issued live ammunition.
Around midnight, a car appeared and barreled toward the gate at high speed. The occupants were several drunk plant workers who were lost. The vehicle shot past the guards, ignoring Irwin’s commands to halt. As the car sped off, Irwin unloaded all six cylinders of his revolver in the direction of the fast-disappearing vehicle.
Together, Irwin and Zirul alerted the sergeant of the guard, another Jew named Weinbaum. Joined by the commanding officer, a Captain Goodman, the four located the car, which was up on a curb with all four doors open. Luckily, there was not a mark on the car, and no one was hurt; thankfully, Irwin was not a good shot. After the car’s occupants were located, Capt. Goodman waved them off, saying, “It’s their holiday; let them go”. Then he turned to Irwin. “Please,” he said, “don’t shoot any more goyim today.”
Sometimes the commanders were more than just helpful in encouraging religious observance. David Jacobs and Abe Farber were aboard a troopship in the Pacific during Pesach of 1945. Their commander summoned them to his stateroom and said, “The Seattle Jewish Welfare Board delivered crates of items for your Seder. I don’t know much about it, but I’m sure you do. Get that stuff up from the hold and carry on.”
Neither Farber nor Jacobs could conduct a Seder, and they were quite reluctant to rope off a few tables in the mess hall, which would be full of other men playing poker that night. But orders were orders, and they did the best they could. The only chaplain on board was Episcopalian, but he turned out to be of great assistance. Fluent in Hebrew, he helped Jacobs and Farber with the Haggadah, and they eventually recalled some of the rituals from their youth. With the help of plenty of salami and gefilte fish, a nice crowd gathered for the ceremony, which turned out to be a memorable event.
Of course, there were countless times when Jewish chaplains were very successful in infusing soldiers with a welcome dose of spirituality. Harold Saperstein was a chaplain in southern France, where he davened with the GIs before every deployment to the front. As the war ground on, Saperstein felt that the relentless pressure of combat had hardened him and that these tefillos were not as genuine as they had once been.
Then one day, a young man changed everything. Saperstein had gathered a small group before they boarded the trucks, and he recited the usual prayers. As always, he concluded by saying, “And now let’s turn from our prayer books and let each of us pray from the depths of his own heart.”
A hushed silence ensued, until the voice of a young soldier was heard, strained with sincere emotion. “O G-d,” he cried, “watch over me and bring me back safe to my father and mother!”
Saperstein sensed that the other soldiers were struggling to control themselves; he knew that “inside or outside, everyone was crying.”
Let’s hope and daven that this year, Hashem will hear us recite “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” with equal sincerity, making this our last Seder in galus.