At Yom HaShoah memorials, American soldiers who participated in the liberation of a concentration or slave labor camp have often been recognized and applauded for their efforts. Often these soldiers had little opportunity of offering Jewish survivors more than limited assistance since they were in mobile units involved in completing a military campaign.
The unforeseen task of aiding the Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) became the concern of American Jewish chaplains 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 chaplain’s primary duty was to administer to the spiritual and psychological needs of the American soldiers, a number elected to aid the Jewish DPs. It is important to appreciate the chaplains did not officially represent the American rabbinate or any other American Jewish organization in their work with the DPs. Of the 311 Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewish chaplains, more than 90 had direct interaction with them from 1944-1948.
The chaplain’s involvement was especially critical because the American military government failed to appreciate the Jews had special needs having been selected for total annihilation. The obvious solution the Army believed, was for the DPs to return to their former homes—regardless of the situation in their countries of origin. For a significant number of them, this was no longer a realistic option. Most non-Jewish DPs, on the other hand, were eager to return to their homelands.
Even after being liberated, the Jews were forced to live with inadequate food, clothing, medical care, and the inability to decide their own destiny. As one historian noted, the DP Branch of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) had no idea “how to deal with the wreckage of human minds and spirits, which was to constitute their major problem in Germany.”
Among the most effective chaplains was Eugene Lipman, a Reform rabbi in his mid-20s, assigned to Headquarters XII Corps. When he entered the army in August 1944, there had never been any discussion in his interviews with the Jewish Welfare Board, which served as the sole endorsing body for Jewish chaplains in the military, in the Chaplains’ School or before he and his fellow chaplains left for Europe about meeting Jewish survivors. Lipman observed “It hadn’t occurred to any of us as an active possibility that we might have to face Jewish survivors.”
In the Cologne region, he found DPs who desperately required his help: 200 Jews from Buchenwald, Dachau, and Theresienstadt. To aid them, Lipman asked many Jewish soldiers scattered through the Ruhr (the region from below Cologne to Essen and Duisburg) to beg, borrow, or steal food packages from their mess units. In addition, together with a few Jewish soldiers, he would go out at night to army food dumps and steal huge amounts of rations. This project lasted only about a month, for on June 15, 1945, he was transferred to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.
When Lipman arrived in Pilsen, he was recruited to work with the Brichah, the underground mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe (between 1944 and 1948) to Palestine. There were 6,000 Jews starving in Prague and another 16,000 still in Theresienstadt in the Russian zone of occupation, which they tightly controlled. Lipman was asked to provide material and logistical aid to the Jews so they could be transported from Prague to Pilsen, and from there to Salzburg, Austria. Once in Austria, they would be taken to Italy and then to Palestine. Transferring the Jews across the Danube to Salzburg had to be accomplished without being arrested by troop patrols, military police or counterintelligence agents.
Lipman appropriated trucks and gas from the Third Army, and when a shortage of fuel developed, they had to purchase gasoline on the black market.
In Northern Bavaria, Lipman found groups of Jews throughout Niederbayern and Oberplaz, who were in need of clothing and a means to contact their relatives. He helped them establish hachsharot (pioneer training collectives) to prepare them for life in Eretz Israel. Lipman and his assistant Simon Pava, visited the different DP camps and communities in the area to help with legal, medical and social issues, and provided relief and assisted with children’s groups. The extent of the work became too time-consuming, even after a Central Committee for Northern Bavaria was established. Fortunately. Joseph Levine, the first JDC worker to arrive in the region, slowly began assuming their responsibilities.
Package and Mail Enterprise
While in Northern Bavaria, Lipman initiated a package and mail campaign. Between October 1945 and May 1946, he received between 175-180 tons of packages, which were housed in a warehouse he requisitioned near the Jewish community house. This afforded pregnant women, children , nursing mother and the elderly with food they desperately needed.
The postal system he created also became a substantial operation. At one point, 2,000-2,500 letters were sent from Germany, and 500-600 were received every week. Because the DPS were not permitted to send mail on their own, each letter had to be readdressed with Lipman’s military address and military rank. When the amount of outgoing mail became too overwhelming, he enlisted the help of Jewish organizations in the US, Canada and England. The incoming letters presented another challenge. Many did not have and address or any identification. These letters had to be returned with instructions to address the outer envelope to Lippman and the inner one to the DP.
Because the package and mail projects were not sanctioned by the army, the chaplains risked reprimand. In late 1945, mail sent to England burst open, tossing the letters throughout the aircraft. The European Theater postal officer immediately called for an investigation with Lipman being summoned before the chief of staff of his division. After being told that DPs were forbidden to use the mails, Lipman explained they could not wait six to twelve months for the military to correct this problem. The officer apparently agreed. With a broad grin he told Lipman: Consider yourself reprimanded and get the hell out of here.”
When Lipman was assigned to the Wetzlar Military Post he and other chaplains were involved in getting Jews out of Germany and Austria, by supplying trucks, food, gasoline and clothing and false papers.
A Final Note
In discussing the mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice) of the chaplains, Rabbi Philip Bernstein, who served as executive director of the Commission on Army and Navy Religious Activities, declared “ No written testimony can possibly do justice to their devotion, their sacrifices , and their accomplishments.” At a time when the survivors urgently required their help, chaplains like Rabbi Eugene Lipman showed, in word and deed, they were no longer alone.
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.