The Rauh Jewish Archives contains many collections of letters written by soldiers at war and their families waiting back home. The following selections show how four soldiers during World War II celebrated the High Holidays amid military routines.
Robert Lazar (1925-2011) was studying engineering at the University of Pittsburgh when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in June 1944. When the High Holidays arrived in September, he was stationed at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois.
As a child in Squirrel Hill, Lazar had attended Beth Shalom Congregation during the tenure of Rabbi Goodman Rose. He remembered those services as he wrote to his parents and his grandmother Lena Kwalwasser on Yom Kippur, September 27, 1944. “Last nite, after I finished nite work and studying, I held my own service on the front steps (inside). Lights went out at 10:00 and I had light on the steps. They’re on all nite. I’m not like Rabbi Rose, but I did a good job. I of course read Hebrew, then read some English. My nifty service took about one hour. Lena, will you get me a job as Hazzan at Shule?”
William “Bill” Barsky (c.1912-1945) was the fourth of seven children born to Russian immigrants. His parents and a sister died when he was a teenager, and his older sisters Sybil and Belle kept the family together. Bill wrote to Sibyl throughout his time in the service.
“I went to holiday services in Belfast,” he wrote on September 15, 1942, after Rosh Hashanah. “We had an English chaplain from the Brittish Army presiding over the services and I met some very nice British soldiers from England there. This one boy is named Alf Podolsky, he says he has a relative in Pgh by that name. I wonder if it’s the one we know. An Irish Rabbi gave a speech on Sunday morning, just the usual talks that they give on the holidays.”
By 1944, Barsky was stationed in Italy, working as a radio operator with the 804th Tank Destroyer Battalion. He sent Sibyl a V-mail Rosh Hashanah card illustrated with a soldier in a tallis (prayer shawl) and standard issue helmet. A week later, he described a Rosh Hashanah service attended by more than 1,000 men, including “a boy from Wilkinsburg.” On October 2, 1944, after Yom Kippur, he wrote, “I went to services in a beautiful synagogue, the fascists bombed both balconies but they fixed it up in time for the services. I met a wonderful family and after fasting all day, they took me out for dinner in a very private restaurant and the food was delicious.”
By the following spring, Sibyl Barsky’s letters to her brother were being returned, stamped “Missing.” She continued writing with increasing concern. “You have always been my favorite brother,” she told him. She later learned that he had been killed in a tank explosion near Rome in April 1945, during the final weeks of the war.
Harry Greenblatt (1914-1996) was an accountant for the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation before being drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in May 1942.
He met his future wife, Edna Rosenberg, in college. They married in August 1943, while he was stationed at Savannah Army Air Base in Macon, Georgia.
In a letter postmarked October 1, 1943, he wrote: “Yesterday I went to the synagogue where we were married to attend Rosh a Shonah Services. The place overflowed with GI’s. Mr. Kay (the man who tied us together) conducted the services. He is a very good Rabbi for Macon.” He described how he joined a local family for a meal afterward. “We sat down to the most glorious feast I have had since I have been in Macon. There were bottles of wine and whiskey all over the table and I drank freely. The gefilte fish was extra delicious. The chicken soup was so vigorous that it seemed the chicken just planted itself there in the broth. Then there was the roast chicken which was so tender that the meat came all off at a touch of the bone. I ate for two solid hours and was bloated.”
By September 1945, Greenblatt was serving in the Pacific Theater, where he performed office duties at bases in the Philippines, New Guinea and Japan. “I was in Manila for the Rosh a Shona services. It was in the Rizal Stadium. The Rizal Stadium resembles Motor Square Garden except that it is bigger and there are many steel girders,” he wrote on September 8, 1945. “The services were well conducted. It was half and half –Yiddish and English. The book kept telling us repeatedly that we are God’s chosen people. It also says that those who destroy us will also die. People have been destroying us for ages but they still live while we are on the verge of extermination. You will forgive this Godless husband. I just can’t reconcile my conscious with those same chants and ideas year in and year out. I am developing antipathy to organized religion. I guess it is perhaps that I have seen so much utter destruction — I have seen the bodies of dead men off loaded from our planes — I have seen living flesh burned to parch and bodies shattered to disintegration and I have smelled the stenches of death and it lingers in my minds eyes for a few days. I have on the spot evidence that organized religion as such has failed the world.”
Soon after, he returned home to his wife. They were married for more than 50 years.
Jerome “Jerry” Chamovitz (1912-1996) was the oldest of five brothers from Aliquippa, Pa., the son of a shoe store owner. His next younger brother Allen Chamovitz volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1942 and died during a training mission in an collision over New Mexico in June 1943.
That autumn, Jerry Chamovitz was stationed with the Army Medical Corps outside Washington, D.C., waiting to be shipped overseas. He wrote to his wife, Irma Chamovitz, three times on September 29, 1943, the day before Rosh Hashanah. The letters described his hopes to be with her for the holiday. “Rosh Hashonah without you and you alone without me,” he wrote in the final of the day letter. “Separated by less than 50 miles and yet we could not be together. What a disappointment after I was sure we would be able to be together… So, tonight, Rosy and I and a few other officers went to services on the Post. They were very nice — I was very pleased — nothing like the ridiculous services we saw at Camp Forest, Tennessee. The Rabbi was a young Lt., but a sensible one. Beside him, there was a young Cantor, probably from Yeshiva College in N. Y. He sang very well — the chapel was filled. There were flowers banking the altar. Large, tall candles were lit on either side. The atmosphere was very yontifdik (festive). It lacked only you. But I thought of you and you were by my side. I also felt my father and mother near me, esp. my father because I always sat near him. They would have enjoyed being there. My brother Allen was there too — so you see we were all together.”