Book Review: The Forgotten Liberators
Rekindling the Flame: American Jewish Chaplains and the Survivors of European Jewry,
1944-1948, by Dr. Alex Grobman.
-- Lt. Jason Rubin
Many Holocaust commemorators honor American soldiers who participated in the liberation of a concentration or slave labor camp. They often overlook the American Jewish chaplains who played a critical role in helping the Jewish Displaced Persons
(DP's) in the American Zones of Germany and Austria at the end of WWII. Of the 311 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox chaplains selected to serve in the military, more than 90 had contact with the
DP's from 1944-1948.
The DP's presented unique and difficult problems to the American military government who wanted to help, but failed to understand the specific dilemmas liberation posed for the Jews. The military government was responsible for re-establishing communication and transport behind frontlines, not administering and governing. They failed to recognize that the Jews, having been singled out for destruction, required psychological and spiritual assistance as well as material aid. Conditions in the camps were deplorable and the Jews lacked the freedom to choose their own destiny.
From the Army's perspective, the logical solution was to repatriate the
DP's as soon as possible. Of the more than 200,000 European Jews who were in Germany and Austria at the end of the war, many were reluctant to go back to their ?homelands," particularly the Jews from Poland and Lithuania, a large portion of the survivors. Some of them-the exact number is unknown-went back to search for family and friends. Then they returned to Germany.
Wherever they went in Eastern Europe, they were greeted with disdain and frequently harassed-false arrest, beatings and murder. On July 4, 1946, 47 Jews were murdered and more than 50 were wounded in Kielce, Poland. Many of them found themselves homeless; their homes confiscated by former friends and neighbors. Thus the majority of Jews from Eastern Europe understandably feared repatriation. Jews from Western Europe, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia were in a better position to reclaim their possessions and begin to rebuild their lives.
It fell to the relatively few American Jewish chaplains (approximately 30) who passed through Germany during the initial occupation period April-June 1945, right after liberation, to deal with the Jewish
DP's problems. The chaplains were among the first Jews from the U.S. to meet survivors, so although their primary obligation was to American soldiers, some chose to help the DPs. They were not official representatives of the American rabbinate or any other organization. They made the people's needs known to the army and tried to influence the military's policies toward the survivors. If they failed, they took the initiative, which sometimes meant risking their own careers, by engaging in covert actions to ease some of the traumas and dilemmas confronting Jewish survivors in Germany.
Chaplains helped the survivors search for their families through illegal use of the military mail; they rescued children hidden in churches and on farms; and they inspired American Jews to ship tons of food, clothing and basic necessities. They served as escorts on trains that transported children and adults out of Eastern Europe, and on youth transports to Palestine. A number worked with Brichah, the illicit movement that smuggled Jews out of Europe and into Palestine. They also established schools,
mikvehs, a summer camp, published educational material and functioned as rabbis of communities.
One of the most extraordinary men was Abraham Klausner. With the help of the survivors, Klausner, a Reform rabbi, compiled and published six volumes containing systematic and exhaustive lists of survivors in Bavaria and distributed them throughout the world. This, the first of the Shearith Hapletah volumes, was the first major attempt to communicate with Jews in the West.
With assistance from Max Braude, an Orthodox rabbi and Judah Nadich, a Conservative rabbi, Klausner was able to help the survivors establish Unzer Weg, the largest Yiddish weekly in Germany, which was viewed by many as their national newspaper.
When Klausner saw that Jews in Dachau dressed in their camp uniforms and still forced to live behind barbed wire and the Jews in other areas of Bavaria living in a horrible state after the liberation, he wrote an official-looking, but unauthorized report, that created a quite a stir in the American Jewish community. He also played a key role in shaping the Harrison Report that established the position of adviser on Jewish affairs to the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe in August 1945 in response to the plight of the Jewish
Realizing the need for the Jews to be recognized as a separate nationality, he convinced the Americans to allow the
DP's to establish an organization that would represent them in negotiations with the military. The organization became known as the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in Bavaria.
Klausner was instrumental in establishing three Jewish hospitals where
DP's could be to be treated by Jewish physicians and Jewish ?camps? to protect the survivors from frequent harassment and mistreatment they suffered at the hands of non-Jewish inmates.
Significantly, there were no differences in the extent of commitment and dedication between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. They stepped into the breach to help their fellow Jews until the Jewish relief agencies were operational. Even then they continued to assist the survivors. They tried to show the survivors that they were no longer alone, and that American Jews cared. We owe the chaplains a tremendous debt of gratitude. The very least we can do is to remember their names on Yom HaShoah.
Dr. Grobman's latest book, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened, and Why Do They Say It? was used to refute David Irving at the Lipstadt/Irving trial.