The Frankfurt Jewish GI CouncilAlex Grobman, Ph.D.
From the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944 until the early 1950′s, the surviving remnant of European Jewry received aid from various sources. The American Army, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the International Relief Organization (IRO) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) provided the majority of the assistance to these Displaced Persons (DPs) during this period. The Vaad Hatzala, representing most American Orthodox Jews, helped in establishing yeshivas and kosher kitchens and providing religious texts and ritual items. The Vaad, the JDC, HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), aided Jews in emigrating to Palestine and the United States. Since there was an ongoing need for additional supplies, many American Jewish chaplains and American Jewish soldiers stationed in the American zones of occupation in Germany and Austria offered their assistance. Most of the Jewish GIs who helped the survivors did so as individuals or in small groups. Their activities were rarely publicized. The major exception was the Frankfurt Jewish GI Council that was established in June 1946.
In April 1946, David Bar-El (Shachter) and Eliezer Dembitz arrived in Bad Nauheim, Germany, from Camp Huckstep in Egypt. Both were U. S. citizens and lived with their families in Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel). They had recently been inducted into the American Army and from April to June devoted most of their free time to helping the Jewish survivors in the Bad Nauheim area. They gave lectures on Zionism; taught Hebrew, the Bible, and Jewish and Zionist songs; provided food supplies; planned outings and parties, and tried to raise the morale of the Jews they met. Other Jewish military personnel assisted them as well.
It soon became clear to both men that additional help was needed. They were already working with the Zeilsheim DP camp (one of the many camps where Jews lived after being liberated), the Jewish community of Bad Nauheim, as well as Kibbutz Hafetz Haim of the Poale Agudat Yisrael (religious Zionists) that was located near Bad Nauheim. David Bar-El was the first to recognize the potential of involving other Jewish GIs and sought ways to organize those in the region under the auspices of an American Jewish chaplain.
On one of their trips to nearby Frankfurt, Germany Dembitz and Bar-El met Yosef Miller, an Orthodox rabbi, who was then the Jewish chaplain in Namur, Belgium. Miller was already very involved with the Jewish DPs and wanted to mobilize Jewish soldiers in this work. In the near future he would be transferred to Frankfurt, where he promised to discuss the details with about how this could be accomplished.
Sometime in June, the three met and decided to call a meeting for Wednesday June 26, 1946, at the Jewish Welfare Board Center in Frankfurt, where many Jewish soldiers congregated. All those who were interested in a cultural-religious meeting were invited to attend. At this first meeting, which attracted about 25 Jewish GIs, the group decided its primary function would be to offer their help to all the Jewish DPs who were within a “reasonable” radius of Frankfurt and to devote a portion of each Wednesday meeting to discuss important Jewish subjects.
Another goal of the group, although never openly expressed, was to provide a social setting for the Allied and American military and civilian personnel in the region. A “fair percentage” of the GI Council, at least during the first two years, were not American GIs. There were men and women from Denmark, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Most had gone to England before the war where they worked in censoring sensitive material, and were now involved with the U. S. Military Government.
During these weekly Wednesday night meetings, there were discussions on Zionism, current problems of the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael), American Jewish religious life, the question of Aliyah (emigrating to Eretz Yisrael), the psychology of the DPs and the necessity for relief. Eliezer Dembitz, David Bar-El, and Abraham Levinsohn (another American Jewish GI from Eretz Yisrael) stressed the significance of Zionism. In this way, they hoped to raise the group's Jewish consciousness. Abraham Levinsohn, the most vocal of the three, continually attempted to convince the Jewish GIs to come on Aliyah. Not all members of the Council appreciated what they considered Zionist propaganda, thus precipitating some very lively discussions. While Dembitz and Bar-El shared LevinsohnÂ¹s desire for American Jews to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, they were more tactful and understanding in their approach. Their influence in the Council lasted until March 1947.
Visits to the Camps
Sundays were designated for visits to the Jewish DP camps within a ninety-mile radius. At about 8 or 9 oÂ¹clock in the morning, a group of 6-8 members of the Council would meet in front of the Jewish Welfare Board Center at 6 Elsabrandstrom Strasse in Frankfurt. Later this increased to between 10 to 40 a week. From there they would board an Army vehicle requisitioned for the occasion through the chaplainÂ¹s office. At first, there was a command car, then a 21Å½2-ton truck. Finally, there were two or three trucks enabling a few groups to visit different camps.
Usually the drive lasted an hour or two. The camps visited included: Zeilsheim, Bensheim, Wetzlar, Ziegenhain, Babenhausen, Schwartzenborn, Lindenfels, Dieburg, Lampertheim, and Kibbutz Buchenwald,
which was founded in Germany in 1945 by sixteen survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Zionist training farm was organized to prepare Jews for emigration to Palestine. These visits served a number of purposes: “to instill some hope for the future into persons deadened by the past;” demonstrate that American Jews cared for their welfare; and offer immediate assistance to those camps that desperately needed it.
During the first year or so, the Council focused on direct relief. Before each visit, the needs of the camps were assessed and every effort was made to secure what was needed. Most of the provisions were obtained from individual packages sent to the GIs by their parents or relatives. Others came from the local Army supply depot which unofficially provided blankets, sheets and underwear. Sympathetic American soldiers manning the depot had seen the plight of the Jews living in the DP camps, and were willing to provide Rabbi Miller with whatever they could. Rabbi Miller also received toys, candy, toothpaste and other items from the PX (Post Exchange) which were supplemented by purchases made by GI's from the PX. Monies received from bingo games and a nylon-stocking raffle were used also used to buy supplies.
While these supplies were important, much more was needed. In his Friday night sermons, Rabbi Miller discussed the wretched conditions in the DP camps, and encouraged those present to help in improving their condition. From June 1946 to February 1947, Rabbi Miller played a crucial role in the GI Council by focusing attention on the needs of the DPs, directing the energies of the GIs and guiding the Council through its formative stages.
The Forest Hills Connection
After one Friday night service, Johnny Low, a young Jewish GI, informed Rabbi Miller that he could obtain much of what was needed for the DPs. Although somewhat skeptical, the Rabbi did not want to overlook any possibility and encouraged him to try.
When Mr. and Mrs. Sol Low and other members of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in New York, received letters from their son Johnny, they responded immediately to his call for help. The LowÂ¹s cellar quickly became the center for canned foods, blankets, clothing, shoes and other supplies that began flowing into their home. The only reservations the donors had was how the supplies would ultimately reach the intended recipients and how fast it could be delivered to them.
The rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, Ben Zion Bokser, was eager to assist. He exhorted his congregation from the pulpit to get involved in this relief mission. He also enlisted the support of the local area churches. Mrs. Bokser was active in the group of women who spent every night packing the supplies for shipment to Germany. Often these sessions, which lasted until 2 A.M., had anywhere from one to twenty-five women working at one time. On a number of occasions returning members of the Council assisted them.
The package program probably began sometime in July or August of 1946 and ran for about a year. Hundreds of 22 lb. packages were initially sent each week. Within a short time the project became so successful that a more efficient means of transportation had to be found. Mrs. Rosamund Low approached the JDC to help with the shipping, and they agreed to send whatever LowÂ¹s had accumulated. The Lows estimated that close to 23 tons were shipped in this manner.
As these supplies were distributed in the camps, Johnny Low and other Council members took pictures. Low then sent the pictures to the donors along with a personal note of explanation. In this way, the people could see that their contributions reached the DPs and how much the items were appreciated. This in turn, generated additional enthusiasm. Low also corresponded with the donors so they would receive first hand reports of what was happening. At one point, Low described how newborn babies were being wrapped in newspapers and the horrid conditions under which they were being reared. This caused so much concern in the group that they decided to hold a baby shower at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. Some were so moved that they insisted on giving money as well as baby gifts.
The importance of this program to the Council's success cannot be underestimated. Before this steady stream began, the Council was quite limited in the amount and type of supplies that it could provide. With it, they were able to give much needed relief to the DPs.
Packages and the JDC
In addition to the supplies sent by the Lows, the members of the Council received packages from their friends and relatives. In requesting such assistance, the Council clearly stated that it was not their “aim to try and outdo the many excellent organizations already working to solve the many problems of supply.” They merely wanted to supplement their efforts.
Yet in April 1947, the Council and Rabbi Miller were admonished by JDC officials in New York for soliciting these packages. Many people, they claimed, began to question what the Jewish relief agencies were doing and asked why the chaplain was duplicating the work of the UJA. They charged that much harm was being done especially in comparison to the small amount of aid received. It is not surprising the JDC reacted in this manner. Contemporaneous reports from American Jewish chaplains and soldiers to their families and friends, newspaper reports and complaints from survivors told of the plight of the Jews and their desperate need for assistance.
The JDC faced a number of obstacles in providing aid to the DPs. One of the first was that the American military did not allow the JDC to enter the camps immediately after the war ended. The Americans did not want to show preference to any relief agency, even though the Jews clearly required immediate help. The military knew that if it allowed the JDC and other Jewish relief agencies into Germany, the Catholics and Protestant relief agencies would demand the right as well, and it was not ready to permit them to do so. The survivors, the American Jewish chaplains and soldiers were so disturbed by the condition of the Jewish DPs they used whatever means at their disposal to provide aid to their fellow Jews. They were not concerned about how their actions might appear to anyone else or its impact in the American Jewish community.
The food package program was terminated sometime in late February or early March 1947 when David Marcus (Rabbi MillerÂ¹s assistant) received a letter of reprimand from the U. S. Government for illegally using the U.S. mails. American soldiers were not permitted to use military mail for civilian purposes. An additional fear was that the items would be used in the Black Market that was a major source of exchange and corruption throughout Germany.
It is difficult to say how much damage was caused to the JDC as a result of this and other package programs initiated by the chaplains and GIs. Probably it resulted more in embarrassment than in any actual loss of funds. American Jews, in particular, are not known to cease giving to worthy causes just because there is a duplication of effort. Yet this conflict underlined a tension that existed between many of the chaplains and the JDC in Europe when they were helping the Jewish DPs.
The JDC had to view the DP problem in its totality and often the chaplains and GIs did not have the patience to wait for the bureaucracy to respond. If they were on the spot, they wanted an immediate solution, and sometimes their methods were illegal from the ArmyÂ¹s point of view. The JDC, on the other hand, stuck to legality since the Army could theoretically revoke their right to remain in Germany at any time. Of course, these ad hoc activities would never have developed if there had been enough professionals and enough supplies to care for all those in need.
Obviously the task was so overwhelming that even the combined efforts of UNRRA, JDC, the Vaad Hatzala the chaplains and the GIs were not always sufficient. Yet it is unfortunate the chaplains and the GIs were not utilized more in complementing the efforts of the JDC. In many cases this was not possible, due to the differences in temperament and style of the individuals involved.
Shift to Rehabilitation
With the end of the package program the Council shifted its emphasis to rehabilitation. In this, they followed the pattern established by the major relief agencies. Much of the CouncilÂ¹s energies were thus spent in gathering books and newspapers for libraries, and other educational material. Also, sports equipment was actively sought with special attention given to ping pong, the most popular sport in all the camps. Volleyball and soccer were also great favorites, but it was often difficult to secure the necessary shoes and uniforms.
The theater was also revived and a group of 20 school children from Zeilsheim ranging from 5 to 16 years of age entertained the Council at one of their Wednesday evening meetings. It was so successful that the Information and Education officer of the Frankfurt WAC (Women's Army Corps) Detachment requested the group to entertain them as well.
Another important task that was performed by the Council during their visits to the camps was to assist the DPs in locating their relatives. In order to accommodate all those seeking such help, Pearl Reiter (a member of the Council), David Marcus and Rabbi Miller drew up a form letter and had it mimeographed. It stated the camp in which the relative had been found, his present address, and indicated that packages could be sent directly to person. The work of the GI Council was briefly described and they expressed the hope that the individual receiving the letter would “continue to be generous” in their “aid to the Joint Distribution Committee and other organizationsÅ working with the Displaced Persons” and that their “friends will follow” in their “footsteps.” Whenever these letters were returned because the people were no longer living at the given address, the DPs were informed. In such cases, the Council forwarded the names to search bureaus in the U.S. and advised the DPs to do the same.
Perhaps the most bizarre incident in this area involved David Lippert, a leader of the GI Council. One day, a German Jew, employed by the U. S. Army Management of the Reichsbank, came to Lippert with a German bank note that he had found. On the note, there was a message asking the finder to tell his son, who resided in the state of Georgia that he did not expect to live through the concentration camp. Lippert informed the man's son and shortly afterward received a letter thanking him for the information. The son had never really known what had happened to his father.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of these Sunday outings was playing with the children. During the summer months, picnics were arranged either in the camps or in the surrounding areas. During a break in the games, each child was given ice cream, doughnuts, candy and fruit juices. A high point of the day was the choral or solo singing. A prize was usually given to the most outstanding performer. Their songs invariably reflected their profound desire to leave Germany for a new home.
Not all of these children were healthy enough for picnics. A number were confined to hospitals. For some of the children there was hope, but others were so sick that their days were numbered. Council members often left these visits feeling that the Jewish children were the most pathetic survivors.
When Kay Miller (wife of Rabbi Miller) visited the Ziegenhain camp during the last week in August 1946, she met Yankele, who was then 12 years old. With his mother and 1500 other Jews they had escaped from Poland to Austria and finally made it to Ziegenhain DP camp. Yankele had suffered from this ordeal and lay in the camp hospital, a room with a single bed in it. To all those who would listen, he declared: “Oi, s¹iz mir schlecht! Oi siz mir nit goot!” ( I am not in good shape, I am not well). Mrs. Miller approached Yankele and offered him an orange. He had not seen one since he was five years old and had forgotten what it was. Only when his mother assured him that there was no danger in eating it would he do so. When Mrs. Miller returned a week later, she found that Yankele had recovered. In the course of their conversation, he admitted that the orange had saved him. As soon as he ate it, he said, “Iz mir geringer gevorren aufÂ¹en harzen” (I feel better).
In addition to the physical damage, there were many psychological problems. In one camp, the Millers met a three-year old-child whose hysterical screams never stopped until they left the room. It seemed that the child had lived in a cellar most of his life and was still frightened by the sight of an Army uniform.
On some of these visits, non-Jews were invited along. One Sunday, Eliezer Dembitz asked his Lebanese roommate, William Thomas, to join him. At the Bensheim camp, they were surrounded by a group of Jewish DPs who asked each of them where they should go-to Palestine or to the United States. Later Thomas told Dembitz that when he was asked that question, he replied that “they would have to work wherever they would go but if they go to Palestine, they will be among their own.” He then asked: “Did I say right, Eliezer?” “Yes, William, you said right,” replied Dembitz.
Purim and Chanukah
Purim and Chanukah were extra special events for the children. The Council treated an estimated 3,100 children were treated to a Chanukah party in December 1946. The children received toys, candy, ice cream, dolls, books and games. They provided the entertainment with songs, dances and skits.
On Purim, at the suggestion of Rabbi Miller the Council performed Shalom AleichemÂ¹s comedy “Mazel Tov”. To liven up the production, the male parts were played by the women and the female parts by the men. The first performance was held at the Frankfurt Jewish Philanthropien hall, and three other performances were given at Wetzlar, Schwartzenborn, and Ziegenhain. They attracted an estimated 3,500 Jewish DPs, and revived interest in some camps for their own dramatic groups.
In February 1947, the Council published the first of two editions of The Liberator. Johnny Low was the editor and David Marcus was the production manager. Through this publication the Council sought to inform American Jewry about the condition of the Jewish Displaced Persons and encourage them to continue giving to Jewish relief agencies. A plea was also made to the Jewish chaplains to follow Rabbi Miller's example and establish other Jewish GI Councils throughout Europe. Two other Councils were established, one in Stuttgart and one in Heidelberg. Very little is known about the Stuttgart Council since it does not appear to have made a significant impact. The Heidelberg Council consisted of Frankfurt Council members who had been transferred, but did not succeed to the extent of the original group for lack of manpower and resources.
When Rabbi Miller left Frankfurt in February 1947, the Council was well established. The programs continued under the leadership of Johnny Low, David Marcus, David and Hannah Lippert and others. Bertram Levine, the National Jewish Welfare Board director, and Chaplain Ralph Blumenthal also lent their support as did Al Kaplan, Al Bernstein, Herbert Grossman, Viola Roberts and Henry and Hannah Rappaport.
Throughout its existence, the Council provided very important supplementary assistance. At times, this aid was given even before the agencies had begun their work. Even more important than material support was their personal involvement with the DPs. For most of the Council members, this was their first encounter with the Jews of Europe and it had an enormous impact on them. They were sickened by the conditions under which the Jews were forced to live and outraged that not enough was being done to change it. In their attempts to alleviate this unjust situation, they learned much about their own Jewishness. Of course by coming to the Jewish Welfare Board Center and participating in the Council they had already expressed more than the average identification with the Jewish people.
In the case of Johnny Low, whose previous Jewish involvement had been minimal, this contact affected the entire course of his life. After leaving the U.S. Army, he worked for Aliyah Bet (the illegal immigration to Eretz Yisrael) and changed his name to Yehuda Lev, spent a year (48-49) in the Palmach, the elite striking force of the Haganah. He then joined a kibbutz and had his own English speaking radio show on Kol Yisrael, Israel¹s Broadcasting Authority.
Most Jewish soldiers in the Frankfurt area did not join the Council, but generally responded to appeals for contributions. Most of the men were not involved, Rabbi Miller opined, because they had a limited knowledge of the Jewish condition and the Council did not have the time or the manpower to educate them. That Jewish soldiers in Frankfurt, Germany should not know or particularly care about the extent to which their European brethren had suffered indicates the level of their Jewish consciousness and type of Jewish backgrounds from which they came.
For many of the Jewish survivors this experience was significant. They appreciated this highly visible concern and were reassured that they could still rely on some American Jews. They also took great pride in seeing Jews as soldiers in the American Army, particularly the Jewish chaplains who openly wore the Star of David and the Ten Commandments on their lapels. For many years these symbols had been worn as badges of shame.
In all of its activities, the Council had the tacit approval of the American Army. At no time did the officers discourage this work. On one occasion, David Bar-El was asked to report on the group¹s accomplishments at a meeting at the Headquarters Battalion. Within their very limited scope, the Council was able to accomplish much.