Arts & Culture After World War Ii, Army Chaplains Helped Spread Talmud Across Europe

At the end of World War II, neither the U.S. Army nor the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee could find a single Talmud on continental Europe.

Nazi book-burning campaigns and the ravages of war had robbed European Jews of one of their most sacred texts.

But Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army took care of that — printing copies of the Talmud, or Judaism’s oral law, on the same German soil that had witnessed Nazi destruction and distributing it to Holocaust survivors in camps and schools throughout Europe.

“Historic justice” is what Rabbi Herbert Friedman, who was the deputy to Rabbi Phillis Bernstein, then adviser for Jewish affairs to the U.S. military, now calls the idea.

Some 250,000 Jews refused to be repatriated to their home country after World War II, deciding instead to remain in displaced person camps until they were granted entrance into other countries.

Rabbi Judah Nadich, now the rabbi emeritus of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, was the senior Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army during World War II — and the adviser of Jewish affairs directly after the war.

“The Army was not prepared to handle the problems that arose when it captured a lot of Jewish civilians” during raids on concentration camps, Nadich says.

At first, the United States “just neglected” Jewish displaced persons, he says — and hope for these Jews, many just out of gruesome concentration camps — was of the utmost importance to survival.

It was precisely for this reason that a group of Army chaplains — led by Rabbi Samuel Snieg, chairman and chief rabbi of the U.S. zone of occupied Germany — set out to navigate a complicated U.S. bureaucracy to gain funding to create what was named the Survivors’ Talmud.

Unable to speak English, Snieg sent Bernstein to Gen. Joseph McNarney, commander of the American zone in occupied Germany at the time.

Europe faced a severe paper shortage, but the Army and its chaplains eventually obtained the necessary material from Sweden. The JDC shipped a copy of the Talmud from New York

Thousands of pages of Hebrew words — one by one, 19 volumes of literature in all — were photographed and reprinted at the Carl Winter Printing Plant in Heidelberg, Germany on the same presses that had produced Nazi propaganda.

While the Army was not without its own prejudice — Gen. George Patton was fired from the post of commander of the Third Army at least partly because of his refusal to assist the Jews, according to Michael Feldberg, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York — McNarney, ensured the first Talmuds would be printed and his successor, Gen. Lucius Clay, followed up.

“I can’t praise Gen. McNarney and then Gen. Lucius Clay enough,” Friedman says. They were the people “who had to approve everything, and understood and empathized.”

The Army agreed to publish 50 sets of the Talmud. ORT and the JDC financed the printing of additional copies — a total of between 400 and 500.

Friedman, now the president of the Wexner Foundation, is the centerpiece of “Particular Responsibility: The Making of the U.S. Army Talmud” — an exhibit, currently up at the Jewish Historical Society, that is dedicated to the memory of the late Jewish philanthropist Leonard Strelitz, whose friends funded the acquisition of one of the Army Talmuds and the exhibit.

One of the few living participants from the Talmud project — Friedman narrates a video at the exhibit that details life in the D.P. camps.

The Talmud was only part of the aid provided by the U.S. Army, which “placed a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation, and after the defeat of Hitler bore the major burden of sustaining the D.P.’s of the Jewish faith,” the exhibit proclaims.

Featuring an array of pictures, a menorah and other Jewish artifacts, the exhibit offers a glimpse into the making of the Survivors’ Talmud and documents the struggle of Jewish displaced persons after the war.

The most striking artifact is a Torah Ark, dated 1943, used by a U.S. chaplain. Its chipped brown paint, aged leather tie and golden Hebrew letters bring to life the emotion of the time — a need for simplicity and hope in a desperate situation — a striking contrast to newer, more ornate arks found in many local congregations.

The exhibit also highlights a debate between President Truman and Gen. Eisenhower. Truman — motivated by a report by a U.S. commission that visited the D.P. camps — advocated for better living conditions in the D.P. camps, citing a “particular responsibility” to the Jews of Europe.

“Despite his somewhat parochial background, Truman somehow developed a vision that the respect of cultural, religious diversity of America was an obligation,” Feldberg says.

Even before the Talmud was reprinted, Truman’s letter helped improve living conditions in the camps — Nadich also cited a flood of “negative press” about the issue in America as a driving force.

The Army also separated the Jewish displaced persons from others in the camps, helping alleviate growing concerns about anti-Semitic acts among German prisoners of war and villagers who had helped Nazi forces find and kill Jews.

Working on the front lines, Nadich spent every day in the displaced person camps ensuring that food rations for the Jews increased, and bringing much needed clothing and shoes. While most of the supplies were funded by the Army, some were taken directly from German factories and warehouses.

While the exhibit lauds the U.S. Army for its efforts after World War II, Feldberg sees a larger message, “The story told in this exhibition is a Jewish story, but it is, more importantly, a model for how the U.S. as a great power should behave.”

NEXT STORY