Rosh Hashana 1944: Jewish GIs Pray in Germany as Bombs Burst

65 years later, a Manhattan man recalls his role in a historic Jewish service

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    NBC
    The groundbreaking service on October 29, 1944

    At sundown Friday, Jews through the world will be celebrating the holiday of Rosh Hashanah -- on the Hebrew calendar it's the New Year, 5770.
     
    This year also marks a very poignant moment in Jewish history. On October 29, 1944 -- just 65 years ago -- American Jewish soldiers were part of the victorious Allied armies that swept into Germany. A group of them, led by a cantor from Manhattan, conducted a special religious service at the city of Aachen.

    For the first time since the advent of Hitler, the exterminator of millions of Jews, a public Jewish service was being held and broadcast live to the United States by NBC.

    Artillery shells exploded in the distance as the Jewish GIs prayed. The synagogue in Aachen was among the hundreds destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 -- when the Nazis unleashed a fury against Jewish houses of worship. And now, although the synagogue was a ruin and many of Aachen's Jewish citizens had perished in the Holocaust, the words of the Jewish New Year service were heard.
     
    Words addressed to the Lord: "For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night." On this day 6 years after Kristallnacht, Jewish prayers were being heard in public on German soil and broadcast to America.
     
    Two New York boys led the services: Brooklyn-born Army chaplain, Rabbi Sidney Lefkowitz, and the cantor, Private First Class Max Fuchs. from Manhattan's lower east side. They stood in a cluster of soldiers, their tallises [prayer shawls] draped over their shoulders.

    Remembering Rosh Hashana in Nazi Germany

    [NY] Remembering Rosh Hashana in Nazi Germany
    Watch the first Jewish service in Nazi Germany after Americans liberate the city of Aachen. A New York diamond cutter was the Cantor at this service held 65 years ago.

    "The light of religious freedom has pierced through the darkness of Nazi persecution, Rabbi Lefkowitz declared during the service. "Freedom of conscience again exists in the land which had been denying men that."

    The soldiers heard the ein kelahaino prayer. Max Fuchs, who works today as a diamond cutter in New York, recalled in tears the landing he made with his comrades in Normandy on D-Day.  Many died under gunfire before they even hit the beach.                                                 
          
    Fuchs recalled what it meant to them to hold that religious service four months later in Germany.

    "We felt a certain amount of sadness and a certain amount of exhilaration," Fuchs said.  "We knew that the Jewish people were going to carry on. They wanted to make an impression to show people that chai Israel chai -- which means we're still alive and kicking."

    Rosh Hashanah 2009 -- on the Jewish calendar, the year is 5770. As they did on that war-torn battlefield in 1944 and Jews today are wishing each other: "Happy New Year!"