Sam, Abe, and Issie Lieberman were three brothers drafted into the US Army during World War II. Sam was conscripted first and dispatched to the Philippines. Abe and Issie, however, were initially stationed together and would periodically send joint letters to Mike Tress, President of the Agudath Israel Youth Council, informing him of their proud efforts to keep mitzvos while in the army. Eventually, Abe was sent to the Dutch East Indies while Issie was shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to fight in the European Theater.
On July 16, 1944, Issie was reported missing in action “somewhere in France.” Sam wrote to Mr. Tress, “You must have probably heard the terrible news from my dearest parents that my beloved brother has been missing in action… but I have bitachon in our Almighty G-d. I have seen a lot of nissim and he’ll show it here again, to bring home my brother and all the boys.” Abe also tried to inject an optimistic note, writing, “I do hope and pray that the Almighty will guide him wherever he may be.”
More than 400,000 US servicemen lost their lives during World War II; 11,000 were Jewish. The number of families touched by tragedy is incalculable. Private Albert (Elly) Birnbaum in Normandy, France, and Flight Officer Herbert Bleich in India were both killed in November of 1944. Each of their mothers wrote to President Roosevelt pleading that their only surviving sons (Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum and Captain Alan Bleich) be removed from combat and returned to safety in the United States. The War Department responded that they could not do so as “recent War Department policy” allowed the return of soldiers solely in cases where two sons from one family were killed and there was only one remaining son alive.
Perhaps, the only pain that could rival the anguish of those who lost loved ones, was of those whose relatives’ fates were unknown. For the families of married Jewish soldiers who went missing, lack of closure not only meant their inability to mourn. There were also serious halachic ramifications for the soldiers’ spouses and their potential status as agunos, and thus unable to remarry. In March of 1943, a notice appeared in the Agudath Israel newspaper, Orthodox Youth. The ad urged that all married men in the armed forces contact the Agudath Israel to grant their wives conditional divorces in case they did not return home from the battlefield.
Advocating conditional divorces was a point of great contention within the National Jewish Welfare Board’s Committee of Army and Navy Religious Activities (CANRA) – the authoritative panel for all aspects pertaining to religious matter in the army. CANRA’s Committee on Responsa was led by Dr. Leo Jung (Orthodox), Dr. Milton Steinberg (Conservative), and Solomon Freehof (Reform). Freehof vehemently opposed promoting conditional divorces. He feared the possibility of negative headlines such as, “Jewish soldiers ask to divorce their wives. Rabbis recommend divorce for wives of all Jewish soldiers.”
Freehof also argued that, “It is a gruesome thing to ask every married soldier to visualize his complete destruction… It would be terribly destructive to morale.” Yet, though morale is always a concern in war, soldiers were ordered to write legal wills in case of their demise. In Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Private Manny Chopp wrote, “I write this with tears in my eyes… this is no joke, but I am afraid a reality… We have been told to make out our will, that is, if we have any money in the bank or personal belongings, to make sure it is all taken care of.”