By: Mendy Ganchrow, MD
This story honors Dr. Mendy Ganchrow, who passed away this year. Excerpted from the prologue of Journey Through the Minefields: From Vietnam to Washington, an Orthodox Surgeon’s Odyssey.
It was almost Passover, 1969, and I was happily looking forward to one of the duties for which I had regularly volunteered since arriving in Vietnam the previous summer—assisting the Jewish chaplain in officiating at services marking Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. This time, I would be working with my friend, Rabbi Harold “Chico” Wasserman, the chaplain at the sprawling US base at Long Binh, where I myself was stationed at the 24th Evacuation Hospital. We were to officiate at a seder for nearly 400 Jewish soldiers from bases and field posts around the surrounding area. I believe our seder was the only one of the four or five scheduled by the US Army that year in Vietnam to be Orthodox-officiated. Only a handful of the soldiers who would be attending the two seders and staying with us at Long Binh for the first two days of the holiday, were halachically observant. Wasserman and I were excited about the opportunity the holiday offered us to reach out to a large number of non-observant Jews and to share with them the spiritual beauty of a traditional seder performed according to the tenets of Torah-true Judaism.
We had been given permission from the chief of the 24th Evac hospital, Col. Hammond, to use two contiguous wards that were normally kept empty in readiness for emergency mass casualties as a venue for our Passover seder and for sleeping accommodations for some of the visiting GIs. The Jewish Welfare Board had sent us several thousand kosher TV dinners and a huge supply of matzos. We had such an overabundance of kosher wine that the Catholic chaplain would ask me several days later if he could use some for the sacrament, which I was happy to agree to.
So, as we approached the big event, everything seemed to be in order.
Yet things rarely went according to plan in Vietnam and sure enough, hours before the onset of the holiday, Wasserman informed me that he had developed a bad case of laryngitis. He asked if I could take the leading role in conducting the service and guiding the singing during the seder while he played the backup role that normally fell to me. In fact, I had run seders many times before, so I didn’t miss a beat in telling Wasserman I would be happy to pinch-hit for him. As I made last minute preparations and watched hundreds of Jewish soldiers arriving at the base, I resolved to make the seder as traditional as possible without cutting any corners or adding the sort of newfangled additions common in Reform Passovers. To say I was charged up and ready to roll would be an understatement.
The first part of the seder service went wonderfully. Even though the vast majority of the soldiers were non-observant and some had never even been to a seder before, they responded with evident enthusiasm to the warmth and sense of acceptance that Wasserman and I conveyed together with the few soldiers who had experienced traditional seders before. As far as I could tell, no one in the room seemed impatient about sitting through the full Orthodox seder. I certainly didn’t discern any rustling or groans of “Let’s eat, already.” Naturally, the enthusiasm peaked during the singing, especially of Dayenu, which was familiar to nearly everyone. As we sang, I felt myself being overwhelmed by a sharp pang of loneliness for my family; especially for my sweet wife Sheila and little daughter Malkie. I had never been apart from my loved ones at Passover before and even as I sought to inspire enthusiasm in the 400 men sitting in front of me, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What am I doing in this God-forsaken place with hundreds of complete strangers on this most special of holidays?”
Yet as fast as that feeling arose in me, I pushed it determinedly away and redoubled the fervor of my singing. After all, I reminded myself, I was not only responsible for leading the service, but as a major, I was the senior officer at the seder. The men in the hall were looking to me for leadership and inspiration and it was up to me to project an aura of confidence, zest and joy, even at moments when I was not feeling so upbeat. In a life and death situation like Vietnam, leadership was a sacred responsibility, and I resolved anew to do everything I could to rise to the occasion.
Finally, we finished the first half of the seder and the meals were served. While not freshly made, those TV dinners were delicious, at least by Vietnam standards. An aura of contentment suffused the room. After finishing eating, many of the men drifted out of the ward and went outside the building into th central quadrangle to watch a movie on a large outdoor screen where every night they showed films for patients and staff. I realized that many of the non-observant GIs who had gone outside would likely not be returning for the second part of the seder, but I figured that was understandable. Some of them had probably absorbed more yiddishkeit (Jewish spirituality) in the preceding two hours than they had gotten in years, if ever. Let them go and watch the movie.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, came a loud whoosh, the unmistakable sound of incoming enemy rocket fire. We knew instantly what it was because one of the first things a soldier learned upon entering the war zone in Vietnam was to distinguish between the powerful thud produced by outgoing mortars and the sinister whistle of an incoming missile. Seconds later, we heard several medium-sized explosions; evidence that Viet Cong missiles—probably mortar or rocket-propelled grenades—had impacted somewhere inside the huge base, perhaps 500-1000 yards from where we were sitting. Instinctively, those of us inside the ward tensed up, preparing to hit the deck if the missiles hit any closer. Within seconds, the men who had gone out into the courtyard came pouring back into the ward. There was confusion and a sense of disorientation among many of the men, but no discernable sign of panic. Many of them appeared to be looking expectantly at me, waiting for orders as to what to do next.
As I pondered the situation, I was acutely aware that, unlike myself, most of the men who had come to the seder did not live at the base and were unfamiliar with the surroundings. Nearly all had left their flak jackets and helmets in the rooms they had been assigned for the night and at that moment, many seemed confused as to where those rooms were. As I struggled to maintain order, the sound of the incoming rockets ceased, but who knew whether they might not start up again in a minute or two? Suddenly, the sirens went off, sending a series of loud wails across the sprawling base. Standing orders Long Binh were that at the first sound of a siren, everyone was supposed to crawl to an underground bunker and stay there until the all-clear was sounded.
Having been through many similar situations, I realized instantly that if we followed those orders and went directly to the shelters, we might be there for hours while the US helicopters searched for the source of the incoming fire. As the senior officer in the ward at that moment, I knew it was my responsibility to direct the evacuation. Yet I simply could not bear to contemplate a premature end to the wonderful seder I had shared with 400 fellow Jewish soldiers.
I seethed with a variety of strong emotions at that moment. I bristled with a feeling of defiance of the enemy and was damned if I was going to allow “Charlie” to shut down our beautiful seder with a little rocket fire. I could feel the evident spiritual uplift that the holiday was providing to those men; and my neshama, my Jewish soul, rebelled at the prospect of ending it. I also felt a deep conviction that this was a case of shluchei mitzvah (the performers of a mitzvah) and recalled that the Talmud says that he who is performing a mitzvah cannot be injured.
All of this raced through my mind within a matter of seconds and then, amidst bedlam happening around me, I jumped up on the table and shouted. “Men, I am the ranking officer in this room. I give you my solemn word that God will allow no harm to befall you if you now perform the mitzvah of sitting back down and finishing the seder.”
My confidence and conviction must have been infectious, because the room became almost instantly quiet as all of the soldiers in the ward sat down in their seats at the dinner tables in perfect discipline. No one walked out of the room, and not even one of the men shouted back to me, “Are you out of your mind?” or “Hey Doc, finish the seder if you want, but where do I go to hide?” For the next 45 minutes to an hour, we completed the seder in almost surreal tranquility. As though in confirmation of my promise, the Viet Cong shelling did not start again.
Then something amazing happened; something I would not believe credible if I saw it in a movie. As we finished the formal seder, Wasserman and I rose from our seats and spontaneously began dancing around the huge table, singing the words from the haggadah, “L’Shana Haba’ah Bi’Yerushalayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem). Within a few moments, virtually everyone in the room joined in. I could see tears running down scores of faces, including my own. Men were unashamedly hugging each other. For me, it was emotionally overwhelming to join with hundreds of American GIs in the distant jungles of Vietnam in professing our shared love for far-off Jerusalem. It felt too at that moment that we were affirming our faith in the God of Israel to protect us from the deadly unseen perils that threatened us every day in that ravaged land. I could see that many in that room—and not only the “religious” ones—felt that they were participating in a transcendent moment that felt truly miraculous.
Despite the beauty and emotional power of that moment, which always remained vivid, I would hardly claim that my decision not to order the troops to the shelters was either wise or morally correct. Looking back on that seder after more than thirty years, I simply cannot justify having done something that was not only in flagrant violation of US Army regulations, but also of the Jewish moral imperative to preserve and protect life at all costs. Through my arrogance and stupidity I could have gotten us all killed, and if, God forbid, even one of those men had been hit by flying shrapnel and wounded as a result of my insistence that we finish the seder, I would have been deservedly court-martialled. Still, no one can change the past, and I did what I did. Perhaps the old saying that “God protects fools” is true, because none of our group was injured. Certainly, many of us felt that God was with us that night.
Originally published in Passover 2022 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.