|The Internet Rekindles Vivid World War II Memory
by Charlotte Bonelli
NEW YORK -- On October 29, 1944, Americans from coast to coast gathered around their radios to hear the words, “The National Broadcasting Company, in cooperation with the American Jewish Committee, brings you now a broadcast of historic significance with the first Jewish religious service broadcast from Germany since the advent of Hitler.”
Today, more than 63 years later, the internet has given new life to that event, touching the hearts and souls of so many around the world. More than 210,000 YouTube viewers already have watched The Jewish Service Heard Around the World, a short film AJC produced to recall this momentous radio broadcast.
Sidney Lefkowitz, who led the service, was one of an approximate 208 Jewish chaplains serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. There was a note of relief in his diary on September 16, as he recorded a decisive turning point in the war.
“At ten thirty this morning we crossed the border into Germany…Now, at last, we are in Germany itself. Now we can see for ourselves what is left of Jewry – its people, its houses of worship, its cemeteries – after the brutal years of Nazi oppression. Our first act, after setting up, was to have a snapshot made of our jeep, flying the flag of the Jewish Chaplains. With gratitude we held a service of thanksgiving, the first Jewish religious service held publicly in Germany since 1933,” Lefkowitz wrote.
Then, on October 26, he wrote to his wife, in Richmond, Virginia, ”A bit of excitement – an NBC reporter phoned me last night…and told me he wanted to broadcast part of my service on this Sunday afternoon…”
While Lefkowitz would write and deliver the sermon, Max Fuchs, a First Division rifleman, was given the honor of serving as cantor. Born in Poland, Fuchs had come to America at the age of twelve. Raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, he attended yeshiva, sang in a number of choirs, and had been enthralled by some of the city’s great cantors. He could never have imagined, when he joined the army in 1942, how this background would impact his military service.
Fuchs often led services because the First Division, known as the Big Red One, did not have a Jewish chaplain. His religious knowledge and melodic voice were noticed by commanding officers and, after Omaha Beach, he was transferred to division headquarters and made an acting chaplain.
So, on October 29, 1944, Corps Chaplain Sidney Lefkowitz, Max Fuchs, NBC war correspondent James Cassidy, and 50 Jewish soldiers gathered not far from the destroyed Aachen synagogue to deliver a message of hope and renewal to the world.
“We hear the sound of artillery guns, because the front line is not far from where we are,” Cassidy warned listeners.
“How sweet upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger of good tidings!” declared Rabbi Lefkowitz. “The light of religious freedom has pierced through the darkness of Nazi persecution.”
Amidst the explosion of artillery shells, Fuchs led the Jewish GIs in the singing of Ein Keloheinu and Yigdal.
In a show of brotherhood the broadcast ended with comments by Catholic Chaplain Father Edward Waters and Protestant Chaplain Bernard Henry.
“One of the great fruits born of this war,” said Father Waters, “is religious freedom for all men.”
Protestant chaplain Bernard Henry closed the service with the hope of Jewish renewal. “I am confident that the Jews everywhere in Europe shall soon again have the opportunity to enter their houses of worship,” said Henry. “That is definitely one of the things we are fighting for and are resolved to preserve.”
The broadcast from Aachen reverberated across the U .S. Those that missed the original Sunday morning transmission were able to listen to one of a number of repeat programs.
Philip S. Bernstein, director of Jewish chaplains of CANRA, the Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities, wrote to chaplain Lefkowitz, “The Ayn Kaylohaynu will never have the same meaning for me again. I think that I will never be able to sing it without remembering the American boys singing it from Aachen.” He added, “You have made history Sidney. I believe this with all my heart. It seems to me that in this phase of the war our chaplains have become the symbols of liberation.”
Sitting in her Brooklyn home, Naomi Groob also was moved by the broadcast. “What a beautiful voice,” she thought as she listened to Fuchs sing. Shortly after the war, while on a Shabbat walk along the East River, she met Max, the man with the beautiful voice. They married in 1946.
After the war, Fuchs became a cantor, serving at the Bayside Jewish Center for 39 years. He also maintained a second career, cutting and polishing diamonds in New York City’s Diamond district, an activity he still engages in at the age of 85.
“It’s really indescribable,” said Fuchs. “You know how you really felt as a Jewish soldier.”
Their knowledge of the Holocaust made the broadcast an intensely personal experience for the GIs, he recalls. “We all knew what was happening, even though none of us actually came across one of the camps…But every one of us knew what was happening there,” said Fuchs. “I think they felt their Jewishness in their heart.”
Rabbi Lefkowitz settled with his family in Jacksonville, Florida. For 27 years he served as the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Chesedi. “Rabbi Lefkowitz was a brave and heroic leader,” commented one YouTube viewer who was both bar mitzvahed and married by Lefkowitz.
On the day that he crossed into Germany, Lefkowtiz sent men to look for any sign of Jewish life. He would not have to search today.
Berlin now has six synagogues, two Jewish papers, and the Jewish Museum, which, since its opening in 2001, has drawn over four million visitors. In the past decade, Germany’s Jewish population has tripled. Of Europe’s Jewish communities, Germany’s is the third largest and the fastest growing. Rabbi Lefkowitz would be pleased.
Charlotte Bonelli is director of AJC Archives. Visit www.ajcarchives.org