After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Herbert Eskin of Detroit wanted nothing more than to serve his nation as a Jewish military chaplain. However, the Committee for Army and Navy Religious Affairs of the Jewish Welfare Board, the body that endorsed Jewish clergy for the military, thought Eskin lacked the right stuff. He was a Russian immigrant, spoke with a bit of an accent, lacked a college degree, had no permanent congregation and, above all, was Orthodox. Military chaplaincy requires rabbis to conduct services for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews alike; in some circumstances, they must minister to all personnel regardless of their religion.
In the committee’s view, rabbis in uniform had to make a good impression on non-Jews, and Orthodox immigrants like Eskin made committee leaders apprehensive.
But Eskin would prove them wrong.
For two years, the committee rejected Eskin’s appeals for endorsement. Finally he wore them down with a heartfelt appeal.
“When human blood runs in streams, when our form of government is endangered, and when tens of million Jews are fighting for their very existence, I as a Jewish spiritual leader with competent ability, single, young, and physically fit, must take the initiative” in “maintaining the high morale of the men who are fighting barbarism and paganism,” he wrote.
His eloquence apparently worked. A few months later, the committee endorsed Eskin’s application. The army trained him and, in late August 1944, Eskin joined the 100th Infantry Division in the battle for France.
In January 1945, in an unspecified French village, Eskin discovered a synagogue that the Germans had used as a prison. He found the sacrilege unbearable.
“I requested the Burgomeister, in no uncertain terms,” Eskin reported, “that the synagogue be thoroughly cleaned, washed and locked in order to safeguard it from any further demolition and desecration.”
By spring, Eskin’s rage at German treatment of Jewish sacred spaces boiled over.
“At Fenetrage, France, the local Nazis used Jewish tombstones for a sidewalk in front of the Catholic church,” he wrote. “I drove all the way from Heilbron, Germany to Fenetrage.
“When I asked the priest why he permitted such an atrocity to exist in front of his church eight months after the town was liberated, he could not give me a reasonable answer. I took him to the mayor and ordered both of them to have the tombstones removed to the Jewish cemetery within 24 hours,” Eskin wrote, or he would come back with “a truckload of soldiers” and “blast the town with hand grenades.”
According to Eskin, “the tombstones, including the fragments, were placed in the Jewish cemetery by the specified time.”
Eskin’s report for May 1945 recognizes that his chaplaincy extended well beyond the division’s Jewish spiritual needs.
“I visited the field hospitals daily, and it was in one of those hospitals where a Protestant lad from Iowa by the name of Carl C. Denhartog was confined with a very serious chest wound,” he wrote. “As I approached him, he recognized me and smiled. I took hold of his hand.
“Carl kept on holding my hand, and although his forehead was wet with perspiration, he asked me to cover him up and say a prayer with him.
“I knelt down on my knee and whispered in his ear the 23rd Psalm. He repeated it after me word for word, and I concluded the psalm with, ‘Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.’ “
Eskin concluded, “Carl could not recover from his injuries, they were too severe. He fought for his life to the very end. He died, still holding on to my hand.”
Eskin describes himself as deeply moved by his experience.
“Here was a devout Christian who knew me as the Jewish chaplain in the division and asked me to say his last prayer with him, and by the same token I, a Jewish rabbi, said the last rites with a Christian, in accordance with his faith. At that moment neither of us felt of having differences nor barriers. In action and in spirit, I sensed our comradeship and demonstrated it in my capacity of an army chaplain.”
Eskin received his discharge from active duty in August 1945. He returned to Port Huron, Mich., where he was hired permanently by a Conservative congregation.
The military asked him to stay on as a stateside chaplain working with wounded GI’s at three hospitals in the Detroit area. Eskin later served at the Dearborn Veterans’ Hospital and Selfridge Air Force Base until he reached mandatory retirement age.
The Jewish community center in Stuttgart, Germany is named in his memory.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.