Tag Archives: World War II

Shavuot, Memorial Day and my personal link to V-E Day

22 May
My grandfather, Sam Lesner, during World War II.

My grandfather, Sam Lesner, during World War II.

This year, America’s observance of Memorial Day coincides with the second day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers in memory of our departed loved ones. We think of them now as on other holidays since they are not physically present to enjoy the festival with us. This year’s convergence of Memorial Day with Yizkor is striking as it comes on the heels of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day when the Allies secured the unconditional surrender of the Nazis. We recall the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the line of service to our country and the Allies in the effort to restore order and justice to the world. We also always have on our minds the six million Jewish martyrs who were slaughtered in the Shoah. Just as we must never forget their death, we also must never forget the brave soldiers who liberated the remnant of European Jewry.

In recent weeks, since the anniversary of V-E Day, I have been reflecting on my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, who served as an Army medic in the European theater, particularly in France and Belgium. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and bore witness to the ravages of war. During his entire period in the service from his first day of boot camp to the day he returned home, he and my Grandma Esther, of blessed memory, wrote letters to each other every day. These letters were preserved, and over the last few years my mother Roberta Bernstein and her sister, my aunt Judy Holstein, have transcribed, edited and organized these letters. I’d like to share a few selections from my grandfather from the last weeks of the War and his reflections on V-E Day as it happened.

14 March 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

For several days now truck-loads of liberated victims of the Nazi monsters have been speeding down the highway. I can’t describe just what happens to one as these trucks whirl by and the scarred, dirty, weary faces break into spasms of joy and tears as they shout greetings to us. It hurts inside of you.

May 4, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

My Darling:

Today the mail brought me your letter of April 15, a sensitive, poignant expression of your feelings and the nation’s at-large over the death of the President [Roosevelt, on April 12]. Our great loss, however, has become our great gain, our salvation, for the events which are following the complete destruction of Nazism, which should be cause for a Roman holiday — these events, because of our great loss, are being viewed seriously, quietly, as they should be.

Far better that we are bowing our heads in prayerful thanksgiving instead of making a mockery of the death cries of our brothers. There has been no attempt here to start a “celebration” of the great victories which are being announced hourly. Just a few minutes ago we heard the news of the millions of “mighty” supermen surrendering unconditionally. Perhaps the weekend will bring the last and final chapter to their horror. I don’t think anyone will feel very gay. Our feelings about this are so deep and so intermingled with the loneliness that pursues us at all times that we are more likely to utter a profound “thank God” and let it go at that.

V-E DAY 7 May, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

My Darling:

It was about 5 PM today when we heard the official news. We were at chow. There was absolutely no demonstration because every man of us at that instant thought only of home. What are our wives doing? What are our folks doing? What are our sweethearts and friends doing? There was some handshaking and then we returned to the barracks and sat on each other’s’ bunks. “Gee, I wonder how our families feel?” It was repeated over and over and none of us had an answer. But I know what you are feeling, my beloved. Because I am suddenly frightfully lonely, I will follow the crowd tonight. We will simply move in a crowd toward the town and the thing will gain momentum as we go along. I don’t know what I’ll do or what I’ll say. I know, though, that I must move and with each step I’ll hear the beat of my heart. It keeps saying, Esther, Esther, the worst of this is over. My Darling, there is hope now, a real, joyous hope. I must go now, beloved. The day is glorious. Last night I smelled the fertile earth for the first time, and I remarked on it to Max. It was a strange sensation, suddenly being so aware of the fruitful earth. “This is spring at last,” I said, little realizing the morrow would be truly spring again for the world. This day then, May 7, 1945, is the beginning. While much of the world’s war-weary bow their heads, we raise ours high and say “thank God” for His safe guidance and protection. Tomorrow, my Darling, perhaps I can tell you just how it feels. For tonight and every night, my love, undivided, and my thanks for the child you gave me.

May 23, 1945 Ciney, Belgium

Yesterday, I witnessed a sight that filled my eyes and my heart with tears. For some days now, prisoners of war and political prisoners have been returning to their Belgian homes. The small, shabby Ciney is ludicrously decorated with the “palm of welcome” which are small uprooted trees, stuck in the cobblestones in front of the returning man’s
home. Max and I, walking to town, drifted toward the railroad station where a crowd had gathered. We knew then that a trainload of victims was due. Children, their arms loaded with makeshift bouquets of field flowers, dashed about excitedly. Finally, the train pulled in and stopped. The few who were returning to Ciney jumped off as many others stood in the doorways of the long train of boxcars. There was a rush as fathers
grabbed up their kids, crushing them and their flowers. I shall never forget one little girl who was too young to know such emotion, clinging to her “hero” Daddy as he held her high in his arms. That child was sobbing with the suddenly released emotion that was far too mature for a child. Will men remember those moments of reunion with their children and direct their lives toward a world of peace? Or will they forget again and start fighting each other with the hatred and savagery of wild beasts? Even in this small community, already the seeds of future wars and disturbances are being planted. It is a bitter thing to watch. May God grant them the wisdom to settle their differences without violence. So, until tomorrow, my love, Daddy

My Grandfather’s eloquent words speak for themselves and need no augmentation or interpretation 70 years later. I’ll just add that our festival of Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when the people of Israel collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a community bound together by shared obligation. Our Torah was not only God’s gift to Israel, but a gift to the world as a blueprint for justice and human decency. V-E Day symbolized a moment of hope that the global community would stamp out hatred and enter a new era of understanding and cooperation. In 70 years, our world has grossly fallen short of that vision, as my grandfather eerily predicted in post-War Belgium exactly 70 years ago. And yet, we must never forget the heroism of the American GIs who left behind their families and the security of home to fight and defeat the ruthless enemies of that era who enacted unthinkable death and destruction.

As we recall our loved ones during the Yizkor service, let us salute those who have served our country and are still with us to bear witness to their trials. Let us also recall with special deference those who are no longer with us who served our country and defended our freedom. Some of them died in the line of duty, and some were blessed to return and rebuild their lives and families. We honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they bravely defended. May the memory of our all of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country with the values for which it stands and to pave the way for everlasting peace.

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Shavuot, Yizkor and D-Day

3 Jun
D-Day, June 6, 1944

D-Day, June 6, 1944

We gather today for Shavuot and Yizkor to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate the festival with us. This year, we have added reason to focus today on remembering our departed. June 6, 1944, exactly 70 years ago tomorrow, was D-Day, the day on which the Allies made their momentous assault on Nazi-occupied France. It happens that June 5 was the initial date set for D-Day, but it was not actually executed until the 6th. So, from one perspective, today is the anniversary.

Words are inadequate to describe the epic scope of this decisive battle that foreshadowed the end of Hitler’s diabolical dreams of world domination. Operation Overlord, the official name of what is commonly known as D-Day, was the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken before or since June 6, 1944. The landing included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and over 150,000 service men.

After years of meticulous planning and seemingly endless training, for the Allied Forces, it all came down to this: The boat ramp goes down, then jump, swim, run, and crawl to the cliffs. Many of the first young men (most not yet 20 years old) entered the surf carrying eighty pounds of equipment. They faced over 200 yards of beach before reaching the first natural feature offering any protection. Blanketed by Nazi fire power, they found themselves in hell. One local D-Day veteran, Sol Kaslow, was quoted in the Palm Beach Post saying, “I was struck by the smell. It was the dead bodies, and the ammunition had a certain odor. And that stayed in my mind.”

When it was over, the Allied Forces had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties; more than 4,000 were dead. Yet somehow, due to planning and preparation, and due to the valor, loyalty, and sacrifice of the Allied Forces, Fortress Europe had been breached (from: http://www.dday.org/history/d-day-the-invasion/overview). From that day forward, the Allies methodically pushed the Nazis out of France, back into Germany. Eleven months later, the Nazis were finally defeated. Seventy years after D-Day, this singular moment in history stands out for the courage of the thousands of men who sacrificed so that the world would be freer.

The confluence of Shavuot and D-Day this year is a chance to reflect on the values represented by both Judaism and America. Judaism promotes a strong sense of communal obligation, calling upon us to reach beyond our own self-interest for the benefit of all. Certainly, the heroes of D-Day served in this spirit. The heroes of D-Day also represented the American ethos of freedom. They bravely faced the most maniacal enemy of freedom in history in order to preserve our freedom.

Jewish tradition champions freedom. In fact, on Shavuot, we celebrate the completion of the physical freedom achieved in the Exodus from Egyptian slavery to a new found spiritual freedom. Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah – a pivotal moment when Jews collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a people – a community bound together by shared obligation and commitment to freedom. Shavuot adds another important element for our contemplation: hesed, lovingkindness. The Torah provides us with our essential toolkit for bringing hesed into the world. In case we missed the point, the book of Ruth that we read on Shavuot emphasizes the centrality of sharing lovingkindness with others.

A strong case can be made that Jewish values and American values are very different. Judaism emphasizes obligations and communal loyalty, while American society emphasizes individualism and personal autonomy. This valid distinction occasionally produces tension, but that’s for another day. Today we acknowledge and celebrate how Judaism and American values share much in common and complement each other where they don’t.

Many Jewish Americans feel the bond between Judaism and American freedom intuitively. Alan van Capelle, Director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish public policy advocacy organization writes that Jews’ belief in the promise of America “is in our DNA – that it is something we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to – and that we don’t want to escape it because it enhances our lives, infusing them with meaning.” He adds that a strong sense of purpose, of being part of something greater and more important than ourselves, is the reason the Jewish community withstood thousands of years of adversity and continues to grow today.

For Jewish Americans, even if we don’t realize it, there is a direct link between our sense of covenant at Sinai and the numerous proud examples of tikkun olam, repair of the world, that American Jews have led the way in carrying out. At our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, many of us heard inspiring examples of Jewish Americans within our own community who have made a difference. Rabbi Sid Shanken shared his moving account of when he was a freedom rider fifty years ago in the summer of 1964. We also heard Linda Geller Schwartz of NCJW and learned of the outstanding work her organization is doing to combat human trafficking. Our ongoing efforts to emulate people like Rabbi Shanken and Linda Geller Schwartz honor the sacrifice our troops made on D-Day and the freedom for which they were fighting. Our efforts to repair the world also honor our commitment to Torah, our precious gift that we received on Shavuot.

We should never know from another D-Day, but the D-Day of 70 years ago reminds us of what our nation stands for and for which so many of our troops died. We can never fully repay the debt we owe to those who served our nation in World War II, but we must try. Our payment of that debt is to ensure that everyone can share in the social and economic opportunity of our nation and enjoy equal rights and liberties. Achieving the promise of America is what our troops fought for 70 years ago, and what we owe them today. The promise of America is the bridge between Shavuot – which reminds us of our obligation to build a society rooted in hesed, lovingkindness – and the anniversary of D-Day – which reminds us that Americans have been willing to die in this effort.

As we recall our loved ones during this yizkor service, we honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they stood for. May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country so that future generations may benefit the way past generations have benefitted from the American project. And may the memory of our departed bring us closer to the best of Jewish values that our loved ones represented so that we can impart a Jewish tradition of meaning for generations to come.