My sister, Renee, has been reviewing my father’s war papers, precedent to his induction later this month as a Distinguished Member of the Psychological Operations Regiment, at Fort Bragg, NC. Last week she found something miraculous, a letter from my father to his parents describing the Passover seder in Verdun, France in 1945. Dan had been stationed at Allied headquarters in Verdun from November through March, doing his nightly analysis reports on German propaganda trends in a mobile radio van. He told me that the closest he came to having to use his firearm was during the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans broke through the American lines, and all troops were ordered to be ready for the front lines. He said that Verdun, site of WWI’s most bloody battle, was a particularly depressing place, where 300,000 French and Germans died in 1916, while another 400,000 were wounded.
In preparation for the seder on Tuesday, I did a bit of research on Jewish troops in WWII. One and a half million Jews served in the Allied armed forces, of whom 550,000 were in the U.S. military and 500,000 in the Russian military. Over 38,000 Jewish American soldiers were casualties, 11,000 died. Citations were awarded to 26,000 Jewish Americans for valorous service.
Dan started his letter to his parents, “Today is the second day of Passover…I had a chance to be at the fine services and seder on the first night…it would have given you a thrill to see those hundreds of fellows and girls and even about 15 civilians jam into the temple…later they all streamed through the town together to the other hall where the seder was held.”
He went on, “There must have been 600 or more persons at seder…I was fortunate enough to find a seat and to enjoy the service, the wine, the matzoh, and a good meal…they had cases of matzoh and we all took several boxes back to camp…everyone who comes into the van these days plucks a piece off and munches on it…all of it made in London.”
Here is the concluding paragraph in full. “Perhaps the most ironic touch was that the food and the chairs were carted to the hall by German prisoners. As the crowd waiting in the lobby to move upstairs made a path for them, they were the object of catcalls from everyone, including the colonels and the majors. It was quite a sight and must have proved to those guys that Adolf didn’t accomplish his objective of wiping out World Jewry.”
My daughter Tory read her grandfather's words to our seder gathering, seventy-eight years after the Jewish American troops celebrated Passover in Verdun and six weeks before her own wedding. The significance of the holiday, a celebration of the Jews’ hasty flight from slavery in Egypt on their path to the Promised Land, is the story of survival, the power of belief and the central role of family. Have a happy holiday weekend.
Richard Edelman is CEO.