April 24, 2024
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April 24, 2024
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Into the Breach: American Jewish Chaplains And the European Holocaust Survivors

At Yom HaShoah commemorations, we often acknowledge American soldiers who participated in the liberation of a concentration or slave-labor camp. Frequently, these combatants had little opportunity to assist the Jewish survivors on a long-term basis, since they were in highly mobile units involved in mopping-up operations.

The unexpected and unanticipated responsibility to aid the Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) was thrust upon the relatively few American Jewish chaplains (approximately 30) who passed through Germany, Austria and Italy during the initial occupation period, April-June 1945. The chaplains were among the first American Jews to encounter survivors.

Although the chaplains’ primary obligation was to administer to the spiritual and psychological needs of the American soldiers, some chose to assist the Jewish DPs. It is important to note that the chaplains were not official representatives of the American rabbinate or any other organization. Of the 311 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish chaplains, more than 90 had direct contact with the DPs from 1944 to 1948.

Distinct Position of the Jewish DP

The Jewish DPs presented unique and difficult problems for the American military government that made every effort to assist them. Yet it failed to appreciate the problems that liberation presented for the Jews. As Malcolm J. Proudfoot, who served with the DP Branch of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) noted, the staff of the military government ‘had been trained mostly to get communication and transport going again behind a front line, not to govern.’ Consequently, they had no idea “how to deal with the wreckage of human minds and spirits, which was to constitute their major problem in Germany,” as historian Edward N. Peterson pointed out.

They failed to recognize that the Jews, having been singled out for annihilation, needed special attention and assistance. Not only were Jewish survivors still plagued by intolerable living conditions—inadequate food, clothing, plumbing facilities, medical attention—they also lacked the freedom to choose their own destiny.

Repatriation: The Obvious Solution

From the Army’s perspective, the logical solution to the problems of all the DPs, including the Jews, was to repatriate them—irrespective of conditions in their countries of origin—as soon as possible. Most non-Jewish DPs wanted to return to their homelands.

As The New York Times on April 22, 1945 reported, of the approximately 200,000 European Jews who remained in Germany and Austria at the end of the war, many were reluctant to be repatriated, particularly the Jews from Poland and Lithuania, who comprised a large portion of the Jewish survivors. Some of these people—the exact number is unknown—had gone back to their homelands to search for family and friends.

Once they concluded their search, they returned to Germany. Wherever they went in eastern Europe, they were greeted with disdain and frequently subjected to various kinds of harassment, including arrest that they had collaborated with the Nazis. Some were murdered. The most infamous pogrom occurred on July 4, 1946, in which 47 Jews were murdered and more than 50 were wounded in Kielce, Poland. This led to a mass exodus of Jews to the American Zone of Occupation.

Many Jews became homeless; their residences had often been confiscated by former friends and neighbors. Therefore, unlike the Jews from western Europe, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia, who were in a better position to reclaim their possessions and begin to rebuild their lives, most Jews from eastern Europe understandably feared repatriation.

Chaplain Herbert Eskin

In the chaos of postwar Europe, the chaplains became advocates for the survivors by interceding on their behalf with the American army. The chaplains explained their plight to their commanding officers in the hope they would agree to provide the special support the survivors desperately required. If the chaplains failed in receiving their backing, they would often take the initiative themselves, which sometimes meant risking their own careers.

Herbert Eskin, an Orthodox rabbi attached to the Special Troops, 100th Infantry Division, was one chaplain who jeopardized his position to help the survivors. (I interviewed the rabbi in November 1974 for my research on the American Jewish chaplains and the survivors of European Jewry.) Most of Eskin’s requests, concerning special rights and privileges for the German Jews and DPs in Stuttgart, where he was stationed, were granted. When his appeals were denied, he resorted to several illegal activities.

The Eskin House

The new mayor of Stuttgart agreed to find a solution for his most pressing problem, which was finding a home for the Jews who were wandering aimlessly throughout the city looking for aid. The mayor allowed Eskin to use a three-story, block-long building that had once belonged to a prominent Jewish family. Eskin established a committee, the Israelitische Kultusvereinigung of Stuttgart, to organize relief work. Subsequently, as a tribute to his efforts, the building became known as the Eskin House.

Each of the survivors who came to this center was able to find someone with whom he could discuss his problems. In addition, room, board, and clothing were provided for all those in need and an effort made to contact their relatives. The city administration also supplied the Jews with a daily ration of 2,000 calories, the amount accorded physical laborers. Eskin was able to supplement this with food provided by two Jewish soldiers in the Quartermaster Corps.

Securing Food

For the first few weeks after the liberation, Eskin procured meat from the local farmers and additional food from German groceries. Thereafter, he had to obtain food through illegal means. At night, he and five or six other Jewish soldiers would drive to different villages in the area and force the farmers, at gunpoint, to slaughter their cattle and prepare them for cooking. For these trips, Eskin “borrowed” a two-and-a-half-ton army truck from the motor pool and followed behind in his jeep. On the way back, he and his men would raid a German grocery store and take whatever else they needed. By 4 a.m., they would return the truck and be ready for the 6 a.m. formation.

Rescuing Jewish Girls

When Eskin heard that 20 Jewish girls were in a labor camp, where they were still being used as prostitutes, near the city of Heilbronn, he went to the camp with three other Jewish soldiers. After closing off the rear exit of the building, his soldiers struck the men with their rifle butts as they ran out of the front. Eskin and his men freed the girls, who were then taken to an army hospital and later to a convalescent home in Degerloch.

They were not the first group of Jews Eskin had transported to Degerloch. After learning that former residents of Stuttgart were still in Theresienstadt, he had them brought to Stuttgart. He was forced to use charcoal-burning buses, because his request to the American and French Military governments for gasoline had been denied. According to official regulations, he was prohibited from asking even for transportation.

One Final Note

Herbert Eskin and other American Jewish chaplains were determined to help their fellow Jews, no matter what the cost. Significantly, there was no difference in the magnitude of commitment between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. They showed the survivors that they were no longer alone at a time when they desperately needed them. We owe these chaplains an incredible debt of gratitude. Their many heroic accomplishments deserve to be remembered.

Dr. Grobman is the resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). His book “Rekindling the Flame: American Jewish Chaplains and the Survivors of European Jewry, 1944-1948” records the incredible work of these American Jewish rabbis. Dr. Grobman lives in Jerusalem.

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