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Episode 103

The GI’s

As the Allied powers worked to govern Europe, Jewish American GI’s were stationed around the continent. As demobilization - the process of bringing American military personnel home after the war’s end - escalated, the United States found itself understaffed, and many Jewish American GI’s remained in Europe to support efforts to maintain order and rebuild. For those at home, programs like the GI Bill paved the way for a postwar life.

Archival Audio of Edward R. Murrow: Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last.

As we approached it, we saw about a hundred men in civilian clothes with rifles advancing in open-order across the field. There were a few shots. We stopped to inquire. We’re told that some of the prisoners have a couple of SS men cornered in there. We drove on, reached the main gate. The prisoners crowd up behind the wire. We entered. And now, let me tell this in the first-person, for I was the least important person there, as you can hear.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Throughout World War II, more than 1,000 American rabbis volunteered to serve their country through chaplaincy service, with more than 300 American Jewish chaplains entering active duty. After the war, sixty of these rabbis remained in Europe and beyond. They were among the first witnesses to the true extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in pursuit of “the final solution.” The work was arduous, and oftentimes at odds with American military policy, which deemed all those displaced persons who were stateless – including Jewish victims who had survived the Holocaust – “enemies of the state.” It was through advocacy, determination, and great personal risk that the enlisted rabbis were able to help some displaced persons return to the homes from which they had been forcibly removed. For those with no home to return to, the chaplains helped them start new lives in other nations.

From the American Jewish Historical Society, this is The Wreckage: Year Zero. I’m your host, Rebecca Naomi Jones. This week’s episode, The Chaplains, begins at the liberation of Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. Edward R. Murrow, the first journalist to enter the camp, described the scene.

Archival Audio of Edward R. Murrow: There surged around me an evil-smelling stink. Men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death had already marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over that mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were plowing. A German, Fritz Kersheimer, came up and said, ‘May I show you around the camp? I’ve been here for ten years.’ An Englishman stood to attention saying, ‘May I introduce myself? Delighted to see you. And can you tell me when some of our folks will be along?’ I told him, ‘soon,’ and asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovakians. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: In addition to journalists, aid workers, and the military, U.S. Army chaplains were also among the first to enter Buchenwald, Dachau, and other liberated concentration camps as the Allied forces continued to work their way across Germany and Europe, uncovering the true extent of the civilian toll.

Joining us is Dr. Ronit Stahl, professor of history at UC Berkeley, and author of Enlisting Faith, How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America.

Ronit Stahl: No one is prepared for what they’ll encounter. There are rumors, there’s, there is knowledge at this point that there were camps, but no one really knew what to expect. And this is not just about chaplains, this is also about someone like Eisenhower, who is a commander of Allied forces in Europe, is taken aback by what he finds too.

So in this sense chaplains are encountering the same thing that everyone else is and they’re not any more prepared for it. And so they’re encountering people who are at death’s door, that are emaciated, that don’t have food, that don’t have shelter, that are frankly, in many cases, shocked to see them.

For Jewish chaplains in particular, they are therefore also trying to figure out how do they work with the people they have found in part because they’re often the ones with the language skills to converse with people. So if you can imagine the American military entering places like Dachau and Buchenwald, one of the challenges is that a lot of the officers and enlisted men don’t actually have the capacity to speak with the people they’re encountering who don’t know yet, right?

Who are these people and what are they going to do? Chaplains play a really important role as intermediaries because in some cases they’re the ones speaking in Yiddish, occasionally in German telling survivors that they are free. And they are often therefore the first point of contact with Americans, and they also recognize that they’re playing this dual role. In fact, Chaplain David Max Eichhorn at Dachau says I come to you in a dual capacity as a member of the American army and as a rabbi, right? And it’s this dual role that is really important for many of the chaplains in what will become post war Europe. But they are just as shocked and devastated as others.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: It is estimated that between 40 and 60 million people were displaced during World War II, creating a global refugee crisis of unprecedented magnitude. The displaced included survivors of Nazi concentration camps, prisoners of war, and those who survived slave labor.

To aid in the care for these refugees, displaced persons camps were established in Germany, Italy, and Austria.

Ronit Stahl: One of the challenges is management. It’s – it sounds perhaps hard to think of it to think of DPS as a management problem, but for the military that kind of is what it was. 

And the initial instinct was to create DP camps without distinguishing where people were from. And so one of the roles of chaplains, for example, was to say, actually, you can’t put Jewish DPs in the same places as the Poles or Germans who, who were the aggressors who ran the camps or who had other roles in, under the Nazi framework. You can’t put these people together. That’s not right. So that’s one massive impact that chaplains have, which is to say you need to You may well be trying to manage this you may well be trying to organize and figure out how to handle DPs in an efficient manner, but you actually have to find ways to distinguish and separate Jewish DPs from others are basically separate victims from oppressors that’s really important.

So that’s one major role that chaplains play, is being the sounding board but also pushing back against some of the sort of military logic that may not think about the nuances of what they’re encountering. It’s also about thinking about what are the needs of survivors, of DPs in this moment, that there are physical needs, of course, in terms of food and clothing and shelter, but there are also emotional and spiritual needs, and what can the chaplains do to support those? What are the networks they have that can help support them?

Rebecca Naomi Jones: In order to serve in the U.S. military, Jewish chaplains were endorsed by the National Jewish Welfare Board, which was formed in 1917 after the United States declared war on Germany. Jewish chaplains dually served on behalf of the JWB and the U.S. military. The JWB provided critical support both to those serving and to the Jewish DP’s, and maintained oversight of the Jewish chapels located in military installations.

Working as the bridge between displaced persons and the American military was an important part of the chaplains’ service. Under General George S. Patton’s leadership, American military policy initially deemed stateless Jews in Germany “enemy nationals.” Patton, who was in charge of the DP camps in southern Germany, saw Jewish survivors as a threat, writing in his diary that if the Jewish DP’s were not guarded, “they would not stay in the camps, would spread over the country like locusts, and would eventually have to be rounded up after quite a few of them had been shot and quite a few Germans murdered and pillaged.”

Standing up against Patton, American Jewish chaplains risked court martial to try and change this policy. Eventually, attitudes towards the Jewish DP’s softened, but the need for continual advocacy remained.

The next challenge was figuring out where displaced persons should go; for the majority, returning home was not possible. After the war, anti-Jewish pogroms continued to break out in Poland, the largest of which took place in July 1946 in the city of Kielce. The riot was instigated by false rumors that Jews had killed a young Polish boy in a ritual murder. In total, rioters killed 42 people and injured another 40.

Even as the horrors of the Holocaust became more widely known, many Allied nations hesitated to allow in refugees. Many displaced persons waited years to be admitted to South Africa, the United States, and Mandatory Palestine, which was under British rule.

In a series of high profile incidents that gained global attention, many Jews who traveled to Palestine in hopes of reuniting with family and finding refuge were turned away before even reaching shore. The world watched in horror as news reports showed footage of British Navy officers leading Jews off ships at gunpoint and bringing them to concentration camps in Cyprus, a large island in the Mediterranean that was also under British control during and after World War II. From 1946 until the start of 1949, more than 52,000 Jewish refugees were placed in Cyprus detention centers.

And back in Europe, as reports began to spread of pillaging, mass rape, and murder at the hands of the Soviet armies, increasing numbers of Eastern European civilians and military personnel fled their homes, fearing what would happen under Soviet occupation. This added to an already-massive refugee crisis.

Ronit Stahl: After World War II, the U. S. and Allies are facing a real conundrum because you have survivors, you have DP’s, and it’s not clear where they’re supposed to go. Repatriation doesn’t necessarily make sense. There are, of course, some survivors originally from, for example, Western Europe, who want to return to France or to Belgium.

But there are others, especially those from Eastern Europe, who do not want to go back, and in fact, those who do go back are often killed or face other dire circumstances. So there is this group of people now that the U. S. military has to figure out what to do. What’s the move? And there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: One of the biggest priorities in resettlement was figuring out who was still alive, in hopes of connecting displaced persons with surviving family members.

Rabbi Abraham Klausner, who arrived at Dachau as part of the 116th Evacuation Hospital, quickly became known as a “father figure” for the more than 32,000 survivors living in the camp. Born in Memphis and raised in Denver, he was the child of Hungarian and Austrian immigrants, and his upbringing had instilled in him a sense of service to others, and a commitment to helping refugees.

From the day he arrived at the camps, survivors asked Klausner if he knew anything about their family members, if any of them were alive, and how he could help find them. 

Ronit Stahl: This is something that in particular, someone like Klausner did a lot of work on. He had arrived in Dachau and was based out of Dachau. In fact, he reassigned himself to Dachau when his unit was leaving, and like they are, ordered to move elsewhere. And he goes with them for a little bit and then turns around and returns to Dachau and just tells the American officers there that he’d been reassigned. So he assigns himself back there to do this work.

And is trying to figure out who’s there. And he spends a lot of time compiling lists of survivors and distributing them, often using military mail, right? To get, this is how you get word out to people who are in other places to try to connect people. And there was this question. So what do you do? And there’s not, both Americans don’t know what to do, but there’s also no global or international entity that, that knows what to do either.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: The lists, which Klausner called Sharit Ha-Platah – or “surviving remnant” – were distributed across the globe, and in just several weeks, he and the 116th managed to find over 32,000 displaced persons shelter, bedding, and access to Kosher food.

In addition to creating the complete list of survivors, Klausner also convinced Earl G. Harrison, an attorney appointed by President Truman to assess conditions in postwar Germany, to visit the DP camps. Upon visiting the camps, Harrison concluded, “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.” The Harrison Report opened the Truman administration’s eyes to the depths of the humanitarian crisis unfolding, and was instrumental in necessary aid reaching survivors.

In a letter dated July 5, 1946, Adviser to the Theater Commander on Jewish Affairs Rabbi Philip Bernstein commended Klausner for his extraordinary work:

“I write this note to express appreciation for your historic accomplishment in Germany. You took broken human beings and fragments of Jewish life, and built them into a community. You gave these people dignity and purpose. Perhaps you have made history.”

Underneath the neat typeface in hand-written cursive was a postscript: “I’m prouda ya too.”

One of the first things that the chaplains do is lead services. Rabbi David Max Eichhorn, who was born and raised in Pennsylvania and enlisted in the Army as a chaplain in 1941, first started his career as a chaplain stateside at Camp Croft in South Carolina. Throughout the war, he was stationed across France and Germany, and was among the troops who liberated Dachau.

On May 5, 1945, Eichhorn led the first religious services in the liberated camp, as the flags of the Allied nations waved above them.

Achival Audio: (Description: survivors of the camp sing Hatikva before Rabbi David Eichhorn)
Kol od ba’le’vav p’nima,
Nefesh yehudi ho’miyah.
U’lefa-atei mizrach kadimah,
Ayin le’Tziyyon tzofiyah.
Od lo avda tikva-teinu,
Ha’tikvah bat sh’not al-payim
Lih-yot am chofshi b’ar-tzeinu
Eretz Tziyyon v’Yerushalayim.

Ronit Stahl: And I think some of the most moving images that come out of the immediate end of the Holocaust and World War II is these moments after liberation where there are services, right? And often because of just the timing of the year and the ritual calendar. It means in some cases Shavuot was a big one just in 1945 that you see a lot of images of Shavuot services that are led by American military chaplains and the congregation, so to speak, is mixed of American soldiers and of DPs.

And I think that’s an incredibly meaningful experience for many in those spaces. Liberation starts earlier, right? So depending where people were. And this includes not just concentration camps, right? As Allied forces move through Europe and the Allies take Rome or Paris, like one of the roles chaplains have is being the rabbi in those spaces in some cases because the civilian rabbis were no longer there, but in other cases waiting for them to return.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Jewish chaplains also worked with the Army to provide items like prayer books, kiddush cups to use during Friday night Shabbat services, and other ritual objects. After World War II, The Survivors’ Talmud – a foundational text for Jewish religious tradition and law – was distributed in DP camps with the help of relief organization the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The supplies were critical in helping survivors replace what had been taken, burned, or otherwise lost during the war, and allowed them to freely practice Judaism for the first time since 1933.

Military chaplains also served from many Christian denominations, and more than 1,000 enlisted Christian clergy served during World War II. The enlisted rabbis frequently worked with Christian chaplains and relied on their support and cooperation to help the survivors. 

Ronit Stahl: One of the really common reflections from Jewish chaplains after World War II is how much they worked with other chaplains, like that the interfaith cooperation, which can seem perhaps oh, is that propaganda? Is that, are we just saying there was interfaith cooperation? We know there’s plenty of antisemitism.

We know there are other challenges. Many things can be true at once, and one of the very real experiences documented by many chaplains, both during, immediately after, and long after World War II, is about the support they received from other non-Jewish chaplains. And so the space that the chaplaincy created for getting to know people, for mutual support, for working together really mattered.

It mattered during the war. It mattered in the aftermath of the war. And it was something that chaplains carried with them back to their civilian pulpits. There’s really interesting connections and networks that arise based on experiences together during war. And we can think about what are the points of contact people have and how regular ordinary conversations and work together can do some important work, always imperfect, but nevertheless moving forward.

Rebecca Naomi Jones: Throughout World War II and in the years that followed, military chaplains carried out field burials, provided moral support, performed religious services in the midst of the wreckage, arranged for Kosher meals, and offered critical medical care to the wounded and the survivors. The work was also dangerous – in total, 100 American chaplains across all faiths who served were killed in action during World War II, making the group’s casualty rate the third highest, behind the Army Air Forces and the infantry. 

The last displaced persons camp would not close until 1957, bringing to an end one of the most tumultuous times in world history. For the survivors, many American Jewish chaplains were remembered as heroes, rare advocates in a time of great trauma.

Archival Audio: (Audio Description: Holocaust survivors sing “God Bless America” to American chaplains and troops)

“God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
God bless America, my home sweet home”

Rebecca Naomi Jones: From the American Jewish Historical Society, I’m Rebecca Naomi Jones. This episode was written by executive director Gemma R. Birnbaum. Recording, sound design, and mixing were done at Sound Lounge. Archival material is courtesy of the collections of the American Jewish Historical Society, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, the CBS News Archives, and the George S. Patton Papers at the Library of Congress.

For episode transcripts, additional resources, and links to the collections featured in this episode, visit ajhs.org/podcasts. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others discover our series.

About this Episode

About this Episode 

Throughout World War II, more than 550,000 American Jews, including an estimated 10,000 Jewish women, served in the U.S. military. Towards the end of the war, while the Allied nations worked to govern Germany, many Jewish American GI’s were stationed throughout Europe. As demobilization – the process of bringing American military personnel home after the war’s end – escalated, the United States military found itself in need of personnel. Many of these GI’s remained in Germany and other parts of Europe to support these efforts to maintain order and rebuild. For those at home, programs like the GI Bill paved the way for postwar life.

This week’s episode, narrated by our host Rebecca Naomi Jones, delves into what life was like for the “GI Jews” who served during and after the war. Featured archival audio is from the 1945 propaganda film, Your Job in Germany, written by Theodor Geisel (yes, Dr. Seuss wrote propaganda during World War II!) and produced by the Italian-born American filmmaker Frank Capra as part of his service in the US Army Signal Corps. In the film, American GI’s were warned against fraternizing with the German civilians, and were told that they were not to be trusted. As the Allied occupation wore on, some of these attitudes among the GI’s softened, and some even started romantic relationships and families with civilians and Holocaust survivors that they met while in the service. 

Inspired by the work of our featured historian and AJHS Trustee Deborah Dash Moore and her seminal work, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, this episode is dedicated to Robert Pobliner, Louis Arthur Birnbaum, and Martin Dash – the GI’s Jews we carry with us.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • American Jewish GI’s during and after World War II
  • “Your Job in Germany,” a post-World War II propaganda film
  • “Eating Ham for Uncle Sam” 
  • Demobilization and the GI Bill
  • War Brides Act of 1945

Featured Historian

Deborah Dash Moore is Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. She specializes in twentieth-century urban Jewish history. Three of her monographs form a trilogy, moving from studying second-generation New York Jews to examining the lives of Jewish American soldiers in World War II, culminating in a history of migration that carried Jews to Miami and Los Angeles after the war. GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation served as the basis for a documentary. Her recent book, Walkers in the City: Jewish Street Photographers of Mid-Century New York (2023), winner of a National Jewish Book Award, extends her interest to photography. She serves as editor-in-chief of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, a ten-volume anthology of original sources translated into English from the biblical period to 2005.

Related AJHS Collections
Dr. Deborah Dash Moore “GI Jews” Research Papers
National Jewish Welfare Board Records from AJHS, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and the Leo Baeck Institute
National Jewish Welfare Board – Army-Navy Division Records

Episode Acknowledgments

Our sincere thanks to Rebecca Naomi Jones, Deborah Dash Moore, Nina Schreiber, Pete Crimi, Marshall Grupp, Rob Sayers, Matt Smith, John Cataldo, Beth McLaughlin, Jennean Farmer, Melanie Meyers, Rebeca Miller, Megan Scauri, and Tamar Zeffren.

Written By: Gemma R. Birnbaum, AJHS Executive Director
Sound Design and Mixing: Sound Lounge, NYC
Graphics: Nick Pomeroy, Background
Website: Eric Holter, Cuberis
Transcription: Adept Word Management