Dr. Alex Grobman
Dr. Alex GrobmanCourtesy

The unanticipated 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 in April--December 1945. The chaplains were among the first American Jews to meet survivors. Although their primary duty was to tend to the spiritual and psychological needs of the American soldiers, a number elected to assist the Jewish DPs.

It is essential to understand 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 DPs from 1944-1948.

In late August 1945, Chaplain Abraham Klausner, a Reform rabbi, who was one of the most innovative, resourceful and determined chaplains, met with seven or eight American Jewish chaplains stationed in Germany to urge them to establish a package program with the assistance of American Jewish soldiers. In addition to adequate housing ,the survivors desperately needed basic necessities such as shoes and clothing. Dr. Zalman Grinberg, a young physician from Kovno, warned that with winter approaching, Jews did not have “proper clothes and footwear. Most did not have overcoats, no pullovers and no underwear.”

The chaplains agreed to create a package program and decided to make the appeals during the High Holidays, because the maximum number of soldiers could be reached at that time.

One soldier described the New Year’s services he attended in Munich as providing “a negative sort of inspiration, an emotion embodying a sense of shock, futility, of need for action.” The mood had been created by the presence of approximately 50 survivors from a nearby displaced persons camp and by the sermon delivered by Chaplain Abraham Klausner,

“The survivors’ prayers were genuine,” the soldier explained, “their weeping from the soul—but without tears. Their tears had long ago become dried from years of tragedy and sorrow.” He could not “possibly reduplicate the atmosphere created by this group of circumstances,” but wanted to pass along the facts so that those reading his letter would not rest until they “had done something to alleviate their situation.”

Kol Nidre at the Munich Opera House September 16, 1945

On September 16, 1945 Klausner gave a an extremely moving Kol Nidre speech at the Munich Opera House. According to Erich Maier, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, the hall was packed to capacity with American Jewish soldiers and a few Jewish civilians when Klausner took to the podium:

“Before him, he had a table with something covered under a white cloth. He spoke about the suffering of our people, especially the of those placed in the US Army camps for displaced persons. But then, Klausner removed the cloth from the table and showed his audience the food the Jews in the camps have to eat. This was a moment of great dramatics, and it could be seen how deeply the audience was impressed. Continuing in his speech, Chaplain Klausner assailed the [American] Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who had failed to bring any relieve[sic] to our Jews. Chaplain Klausner ended his speech with an appeal to all for help.”

Response by American Soldiers

The solders were so moved by Klausner’s striking and heart-wrenching appeal to help the survivors, they appealed toy friends and families for aid; and soon packages began arriving in Bavaria at the rate of three to five tons a day. Most were addressed to Chaplain Max Wall, a Conservative rabbi, who was very actively involved with the survivors in the area.

Klausner could not officially receive the packages because of his unique position in the army. After arriving at Dachau with 116th Evacuation Hospital, Klausner became a one-man relief agency. When his unit was ordered to move on to an Army rest camp, Klausner initially went with them, but secretly returned to Dachau against Army orders and told the commander of the 127th Evacuation Hospital unit at Dachau that he had been reassigned. This was a chaotic period, and with the help of fellow chaplains and other soldiers who covered for him, he was able to continue his work with the DPs.

Quality of Items Sent

The tons of material that arrived each day provided only one percent of the survivors’ needs. Many people sent old clothing, discarded glasses, and worn-out shoes. Klausner stood “aghast” as he watched this spectacle of the American Jewish community “ignominiously dumping its closet rags on our proud remnant of a people. Aside from the uselessness of the object,” it created “an animosity on the part of our people for those in whom they deposited that bit of hope which the concentration camps could not destroy.”

In a letter to the American Federation of Lithuanian Jews, Klausner pointed out, “More than once did I hear our Lithuanian brethren remark when they saw some of the rags that have been arriving—‘in Lithuania we would be ashamed to give such articles to help our brethren.”

“If nothing more,” Klausner declared,” we owe our courageous brethren a respect due them for their unswerving faith that kept them alive and a zealous faith that drives them on aid we offer.” To be sure, there were individuals and groups that sent new clothing and usable items; and Klausner graciously thanked them.

A Final Note

Establishing a package program is a fraction of the work Klausner did on behalf the survivors. As Chaplain Eli Bohnen, a Conservative rabbi, wrote about Klausner: “The one bright gleam of hope in the whole mess [in postwar Germany] is Chaplain Klausner. He has done more for the thousands of Jews in Much and in the surrounding camps than all the [relief] agencies combined and then some….He has literally saved hundreds of lives….I confess I was lost in admiration for him and his achievements. If he had the resources of the JDC [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] at his disposal he would have performed super miracles.”

An excerpt from the Alex Grobman’s Rekindling the Flame: American Jewish Chaplains and the Survivors of European Jewry, 1944–1948. Dr. Alex Grobman has an MA and a PhD in Contemporary Jewry from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and on the advisory board of The National Christian Leadership Conference of Israel (NCLCI). He lives in Jerusalem.