Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2018

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Where I Stand: A passionate letter home on the Day of Atonement

On Sept. 27, 1944, it was another Yom Kippur on which the late SUN publisher, Hank Greenspun, who was an officer in the U.S. Army which had just liberated the city of Nancy in France, wrote the following letter home to his parents.

We believe the letter exhibits a certain passion that could only have been captured at that time by a Jewish soldier witnessing firsthand the atrocities of the Holocaust.

The following is a reprint of Hank's column, in which he tells of the letter.

TODAY IS THE START of the Jewish New Year, 5716.

Eleven years ago, Sept. 27, 1944, I was one of many United States soldiers who participated in the liberation of the city of Nancy, France. Religious services for soldiers of the Hebrew faith were held in a synagogue in Nancy while shells were still falling on the outskirts of town.

I wrote a letter to my folks in New Haven, Conn., describing the services, more, I believe, to reassure my father that I had not forgotten my religious training even though a war was going on.

The letter was reprinted in many newspapers in 1944, and a copy even reached the White House. My father has a letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt to tell of his interest in reading it.

The letter is reprinted here for the purpose of bringing to all the message of the chaplain, a Protestant colonel, who preached the sermon on this, the High Holy Days of the Jews.

"Dear Folks:

"I know God will be lenient with me for writing on the Day of Atonement, as we may be too busy to write tomorrow. Guess you all attended services today, and there must have been many tears shed around the time the services turned to the 'Memorial for the Dead.' Our services seemed to be one complete 'yiscar.' We traveled to the city of Nancy where the Jews had built a beautiful synagogue back in 1934. I can only describe the synagogue as it appeared today as this was the first service held in four years. Since 1940, the Germans had used it for medical supplies. This is the only reason the building still stands.

"It must have been a beautiful structure, judging from the tremendous walls that had been formerly lined with brass fittings. The brass is missing. The copper frames of two giant tablets containing the 'Ten Commandments' in Hebrew and French are also missing. The place where the Torahs were kept was destroyed by an ax. The chandeliers were all ripped from the ceiling and sent to Germany. The organ must have been a massive affair, built into the rear wall, which has since been broken open, and each pipe of the organ was individually broken. There must have been 50 pipes ranging from real small ones to very large ones, and each and every one was painstakingly and systematically destroyed. The keyboard was wrecked with an ax.

"The pulpit was built at the side of the temple with stairs leading up to it. The 'Boche' first removed all the fittings from the pulpit and then smashed the stairs leading to it.

"Stained glass windows were left intact in the bottom floor, which was being used as a warehouse. However, the upper stories were not necessary for the German war effort, which meant that the windows had to be smashed and they were. The outer doors had a lot of German written on them, but it seems that every work was 'Verboten.' Inside the walls were chalked with 'Ferichte Juden.' (Crazy Jews). One side of the floor was a mass of stretchers and other medical equipment which made it necessary for only one side of the main floor to be put in use. However, the balcony was intact.

"In this place, American soldiers gathered today for the Yom Kippur services. The chaplain was a Protestant, a full colonel. He insisted that the services be held in the synagogue in spite of its condition, for no other reason than to show the Germans and the whole world that the Americans, by their example, will rebuild a spiritual world among the ruins that the Germans created.

"The place was crowded. Men had to stand outside. There were 10 civilians among us ... the remains of Jewry in the city of Nancy. There were 5,000 Jewish families before the war and only 10 left -- two old women (one 86 years old), four old men, one at least 90 years of age. A middle-aged man, his wife, a young son and daughter. There had been another son, up till last week, but he was killed on Rosh Hashana while fighting with the Free French forces.

"The Torah was given by the Catholic caretaker who hid the Torah and the Menorah for four years, while the Germans searched high and low for it. She had also hidden a few prayer books that the Germans overlooked when they burned all the books.

"One of the civilians prayed for the congregation while a soldier with a very good voice acted as cantor. All through the services the 86-year-old woman, who was present only because some nuns had hidden her away, kept crying. She was joined by a man whose son was killed and when they said the Memorial for the Dead, all the civilians really went to pieces.

"Some of the soldiers, who were present because of having one of their parents dead, cried also. Not so much for their parents, I believe, but out of sympathy for these people, who lost everything and went through five years of a living hell.

"I stayed for the 'Yiscar' service. Remember in past years, in fact, it sort of grew up with me, that every time we attended services and the time for 'Yiscar' arrived, I used to feel like a hero when I stalked out of the synagogue. At first, when I was very young, the reason must have been that my mother and father were alive, and that's why I was a hero. In later years, it grew into a sort of superstition that if I didn't get out then something might happen to my folks.

"Today, I didn't feel like a hero and I defied superstition. My Memorial for the Dead was for all my friends who have been killed, for all the Jews in Nancy who were killed, for the synagogue that was desecrated to an extent that tore your heart when you entered, for the 86-year-old woman who looked more dead than alive, and disturbed everyone with her crying, for the son of the man who kept tearing at his hair and for the chief rabbi of Nancy, who was among the last 80 Jews to be torn from their homes and shipped to Germany, 60 of whom were killed on the way.

"I have the chief rabbi's prayer book. It's in Hebrew and French. It was given to me by this caretaker who saved it in case he came back. Three out of every four who left in his shipment never arrived. It's doubtful if one out of 10 who did arrive will come back. I'm sending you this book, Pop. If the rabbi does come back, I know he'd want you to have it because your son helped open up his synagogue after four years.

"We took up a collection for the Catholic caretaker. The soldiers contributed thousands of francs. Wasn't right to handle money today, but if she hadn't hid the Torah, there couldn't have been a service and that might be a bigger sin. We all made a vow today. Every American soldier who attended service knew that judgment will be visited on these fanatical beasts, who have spread so much misery on this world. These barbarians, who have sworn to wipe out every Jew in the world, will be brought to justice. We know that God won't let them escape, but also know that it's an awfully big job and that he's going to need help. We're going to help. Much more than we've helped up till now and with far swifter justice.

"If we're wrong, well, next year when Yom Kippur comes around again, we'll go to a synagogue back home, where things are peaceful and a man can think more clearly, we'll pray harder and do less thinking and I believe we'll be forgiven for all sins we are about to commit.

"Didn't mean to go holy in the letter but the 'Boche' can really drive a person crazy with the atrocious deeds they have committed.

"Oh, yes. One thing that's hard to understand. The outside wall of the synagogue had a large bronze tablet containing the names of high-ranking officers down to privates. All Jews of Nancy who served in the French army during the last war and were killed. In fact the heading of it is, 'Aux Glorieux Mort.' (To Our Glorious Dead). There are hundreds of names on this tablet and all in bronze, that the Germans needed for their war machine. This very vital bronze was left behind.

"One corner of the synagogue was stacked high with straw that was held in readiness to burn the synagogue in the event of evacuation. However, the Germans were surprised and never got the chance to throw the match.

"Happy New Year to you Mom, Pop and the whole family."

The SUN wishes a happy and healthy New Year to all its Jewish friends and to all people of good will everywhere.