U.S. Jews Awoke on Eve of Ghetto Rising
PassoverMay Their Memory Be Blessing

U.S. Jews Awoke on Eve of Ghetto Rising

Remembering Jews who died in the 1943 Passover massacre in Poland's Warsaw ghetto.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

From childhood’s hour — I have not been

As others were; I have not seen

As others saw.

Since, as a teenager, I first read “Alone” by Edgar Allan Poe, where these lines appear, I constantly wondered whether they applied to me. In what I have done as a person and with what I have written, I truly feel different from others. For me, what life is all about is discovering who we are. I hope that I can continue to do it.

I reached age 5 in 1943. One specific memory of 70-plus-year vintage has motivated me to pinpoint those events of 1943 that touch on what I constantly recall. Most of what occurred back then, as you can imagine, relates to the Holocaust.

Initially, what is that reminiscence of mine?

The place is an Army camp in Mississippi in spring 1943; my mother and I are driving off the post to go to town. Innocently, I ask, “Mom, who are those men in gray clothing cutting the grass, cleaning the areas around the Army buildings and barracks; never saw them before.”

My mother responded, “When your father comes home tonight, he will tell you all about it.”

That night I learned they were captured Nazi soldiers.

Since then, I ask the question and ask it often: Did you know that in 1943 Nazi POWs were brought to Army bases in Mississippi from the European war zone?

They were expected to work, and the conditions were not perfect. But the Geneva War Conventions were followed. The Germans were provided a certain amount of space to sleep in and food to eat, and at times they were permitted to go off the base. And as the Geneva Conventions state, they could try to escape.

Why am I familiar with this? Because, as the song goes, “My daddy told me so.”

Louis Geffen (z’’l), my father, was the post judge advocate at that Army base in Mississippi, and he had to deal with the POWs regularly.

An interpreter was used because they did not know he spoke German. Frequently, they complained that their rights as POWs were not being honored. My father had to deal with POWs who escaped and were captured but, when free, ruined an entire field of watermelons.

Who paid the damages? I still do not know.

Why do I mention the rights of Nazi POWs protected by the United States? We all know that more than 70 years ago Jewish civilians in Europe had no rights and were liquidated by the Nazis and their conspirators.

Having made this point, let me return to that world — mostly America, partially in late 1942 but mostly in February, March and April 1943. For me, those were critical months in the Holocaust.

On Dec. 2, 1942, half a million Jewish workers in New York halted their labor for 10 minutes in protest of what was happening to the Jews in Europe. It was a statement directed at Jewish leaders and Franklin Roosevelt to halt this horrible tragedy.

Jewish children were not going to just stand idly by. In February and March 1943, 2,000 Jewish kids in Chicago and 3,000 in New York held open protests. Moreover, hundreds of students from Hebrew schools, Talmud Torahs and Sunday schools were knocking on doors in Charleston, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco to make their fellow American citizens aware of the suffering of the Jewish people overseas.

One of the Jewish demonstrators in New Jersey, 10 years old, told his teacher: “I wish that I was big. I would get me a gun and shoot those bad people. I have relatives over there, as do many of my friends. We are all crying for them.”

What did the European Jewish situation mean to Americans?

In the first few months of 1943, the Gallup Poll asked Americans: “It is said that 2 million Jews have been killed in Europe since the war began. Do you think that this is true or just a rumor?”

Although the Allied leadership had publicly confirmed that 2 million Jews had been liquidated, the poll found that only 47 percent believed that it was true, while 27 percent dismissed the claim as a rumor. The remaining 26 percent had no opinion.

In the American Jewish Yearbook coverage of 1943 events, Joshua Tractenberg, a scholar and rabbi, wrote. “Religious groups reacted sharply to the reports of the slaughter of Jews in occupied Europe. In addition, efforts were made to arouse American Jews to full consciousness of the proportions and implications of these events.”

Remember those words: “Full consciousness of the proportions and implications of these events.”

That is what motivated a small percentage of American Jews to do more.

The religious world in the United States was given a firm lesson in Jewish patriotism. On Feb. 3, 1943, the USS Dorchester sank after being hit. Alexander Goode, the Jewish chaplain, and three other chaplains sacrificed themselves by turning over their life vests so that four men could be saved.

The chaplains went down with the ship and became a potent symbol of U.S. brotherhood.

I served as a U.S. Army chaplain during the Vietnam era. I recall how moving it was for me when I, with 15 fellow chaplains, conducted a memorial for the four chaplains who gave their lives in World War II.

To assist Americans in their understanding of the Holocaust of our people, a pageant titled “We Will Never Die” was presented, initially in New York, then in several other cities. The performances drew 100,000 people.

Written by Ben Hecht, produced by Billy Rose, staged by Moss Hart, with a musical score by Kurt Weill, this powerful production was first presented at Madison Square Garden to a sellout audience. The motto of the pageant was “to raise public awareness of the ongoing mass murder of Europe’s Jews.”

The stage background was a giant replica of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The final scene carried these messages:

  • “Remember us who were put in the freight trains. … We crossed Europe and died in the freight cars standing up.”
  • “Remember us who lived in the Ukraine. The Germans took our women and children into the roads and tied them together. They drove their heavy lorries into us, and thousands died.”

Three rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary were fed up with the lack of movement on the part of the American Jewish leadership to get a program started to save the remaining European Jews. Noah Glinka, Jerome Lipnick and Moshe Sachs wrote an editorial in “Reconstructionist” magazine as a part of a campaign they developed. The piece appeared in March 1943.

“We do not want retribution for Jews who have died already. We prefer help for those Jews who are yet alive,” they wrote. Sadly, their challenge was not answered.

One Shabbat in early 1943, Israel Goldstein, the rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun in New York and the president of the Synagogue Council of America, gave a sermon titled “Hope Springs Eternal.”

Rabbi Goldstein was an optimist, a realist and a pragmatist all in one. Before he died, he told me, “David, how saddened I was when I actually learned that the Nazis were trying to send all European Jews to their death. I cried inwardly, but I resolved something had to be done to end this butchery. Alas, we leaders who knew just took too long.”

A remarkable countrywide event was the Purim celebration in 1943. Because the largest number of grassroots Jews still belonged to synagogues in that era, it was a time to express solidarity as the Megillah was read.

On that Purim in mid-March 1943, thousands of American Jews poured out to capture the spirit of the holiday observance and to protest. The children’s costumes made the point. Mordecai wore the uniform of an American soldier. Haman was Hitler and Mussolini combined. Sweet Esther represented the Jewish people pleading for their lives. The king was FDR.

How I wish that I could have participated with other children that night.

As the days between Purim and Passover passed quickly, a voice rang out. The archbishop of Zagreb in Croatia, Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, spoke at a Sunday service in Zagreb and hoped his words would penetrate the ears of many Christians:

“We have heard about the deportation of the Jews to Lodz this week, and so I remind you. Everyone, no matter to which race or nation he belongs, bears within himself the stamp of G-d and has inalienable rights, of which no earthly power has the right to deprive him. This week there were many occasions to see the tears and hear the sighs of men and the cries of defenseless women. As representatives of the church, we cannot and dare not be silent.”

In 2011, Steve Lipman, a journalist for the New York Jewish Week, told the story of Yitzhak Milchberg, a boy who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising at Passover in 1943 and now lives in Florida.

An orphan of 12, “the Bull,” his nickname, had seen his father killed by a firing squad and his mother and the rest of his family sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to the camps. He had one relative left, an uncle in the ghetto, and Milchberg wanted to be at the seder with him.

This 12-year-old had escaped from the ghetto about a month before, posed as an Aryan, and kept going in and out of the ghetto.

On the eve of Passover in April 1943, the Nazis decided to give Hitler a present for his 54th birthday. Their idea was to level the ghetto and kill everyone in it.

We have heard how the Nazis fired that day, and the Jewish Defense Organization retaliated. With few weapons, the Jews in the ghetto kept fighting for a month.

On the eve of Passover, Milchberg walked into the ghetto right by the guards while carrying eggs and potatoes. He moved quickly as the firing began. He found his uncle in a bunker with 60 other people.

When his uncle began to chant the haggadah from memory, the rest screamed out that G-d had saved us in the Exodus from Egypt, but now the Nazis were murdering us.

His uncle persisted with Milchberg’s help. The seder began; finally, everyone was singing even as the roof shook from the shooting outside.

His uncle made 12-year-old Milchberg swear he would tell his children and grandchildren the story of this seder. Milchberg survived, and his Warsaw Passover tale is a classic.

A 12-year-old in the midst of the ghetto, only 7 years older than I was in 1943, proved that he could survive.

We are saddened that 6 million of our people were liquidated. May their memories be for a blessing.

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