Story by Col. Richard Goldenberg, NY ARNG
Courtesy of the Department of Defense and Defense Visual Information Distribution Service
On March 28, 1945, the soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division publicly demonstrated that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was finished. That day, 1,500 soldiers and civilians celebrated a Passover seder, the commemoration of the Jewish people’s escape from slavery in Egypt, in the German city of Dahn, a small city just west of the Rhine River.
Seven years after German Jews were driven out of public life and then sent to death camps, American Jewish soldiers were proclaiming their victory over oppression once again with this ancient celebration. As part of that ceremony, the 42nd Division also printed the first Hebrew religious text produced in Germany since the rise of the Nazis to power in 1933.
“I am sure this Passover will live in your memories forever,” the division commander, Major General Harry Collins, said in a press release. “You celebrate it in Germany, in the land Hitler felt no Passovers would be celebrated for at least a thousand years.”
“Fighting side by side with your Protestant and Catholic comrades, you broke into this stronghold of the tyrant, to give the lie to his rantings about the Herrenvolk (master race),” Collins wrote. “You have shown by your deeds what the American soldier can do when he fights for a cause in which he believes.”
Today, the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters is part of the New York Army National Guard, based in Troy, New York. The division is currently deployed to lead Task Force Spartan in the Middle East.
Since World War I, the 42nd has been known as the “Rainbow” Division. In World War I it was formed as a composite of National Guard units from 26 states that stretched across the country, “like a rainbow,” according to its first division chief of staff, then-Colonel Douglas MacArthur.
On March 21, 1945, the US 7th Army Division soldiers captured their first German city: Dahn. The soldiers realized they were no longer liberators; they were now conquerors. For the estimated 600-700 Jewish GIs in the division, Passover was just days away. The significance of that celebration of freedom was not lost on Chaplain (Maj) Eli Bohnen, a rabbi from Buffalo, New York.
“Our division Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Eli Bohnen, looked at his Hebrew calendar and saw that it was March 23rd and that five days later would be the first night of Passover,” PFC Howard Margol, Battery B, 392nd Field Artillery, later remarked in an interview. “So he quickly got in touch with General Harry Collins, our division commander.”
Bohnen joined the Rainbow Division in 1943 at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. Upon assignment to the division, Bohnen met with Collins. Collins stressed that he wanted support for all his soldiers, regardless of background, religion or ethnicity.
“I know that there exists, in some divisions, what your people call antisemitism,” Collins said to his new Jewish chaplain. “It will not be tolerated in my division,” he continued. “Should it crop up, I will hold you personally responsible if I am not made aware of it immediately. If it does occur,” Collins went on, “I will hit the SOBs so hard they will not know what struck them.”
Recognizing the full impact of the religious holiday on Nazi territory, Collins threw his full support behind Bohnen’s effort to provide a seder for his Jewish soldiers. As PFC Margol explained, “It would be a great opportunity to have the first Passover seder held in Germany since before World War II.”
“To my Jewish soldiers,” Collins wrote in his holiday message, “the celebration of Passover should have unusual significance for you at this time, for like your ancestors of old, you too are now engaged in a battle for freedom against a modern Pharaoh. This Pharaoh has sought not only to enslave your people, but to make slaves of the whole world. G-d grant that victory for us will make it possible for you to celebrate the next Passover with your loved ones at home, in a world you helped make free.”
Rabbi Bohnen and his chaplain assistant, CPL Eli Heimberg, found an undamaged auditorium in a Nazi Party meeting hall at number 29 Adolf Hitler Strasse, in Dahn.
The two made frequent trips back to Luneville, France for supplies to prepare the Passover meal, including chickens, eggs, and vegetables. With Bohnen’s supervision, the division cooks prepared kosher meals. “Since fresh eggs and wine were two essentials to a ritual seder,” Heimberg said, “we had to travel back into France to get eight carts of eggs and cases of sweet wine.”
Matzah, the unleavened bread symbolic of the rapid departure from Egypt, was shipped to the division courtesy of the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) in New York. All that was needed were Passover haggadahs. The JWB provided Passover haggadahs for troops overseas. But they didn’t make it to Dahn. “The haggadahs which the Jewish Welfare Board had ordered for us did not arrive in time because our Army was advancing rapidly,” Bohnen said in his recollections in 1980. But with a single copy on hand, the division set out to reproduce a local haggadah for the holiday.
Bohnen and Heimberg decided to compose a makeshift haggadah for the Jewish soldiers in the combat zone. The Rainbow Haggadah, as it would become known, would be printed right in Dahn, Germany. “It was printed by the press which prints our division newspaper,” Bohnen wrote in a letter home in April 1945. “The Hebrew text was taken from the prayer book for soldiers issued by the Jewish Welfare Board.”
“You may also be interested to learn,” Bohnen wrote home in April 1945, “that the soldiers who did the actual printing told us that when they had to clean the press before printing the haggadah, the only rags available were some Nazi flags, which for once served a useful purpose.”
In his remarks for the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes in 1980, Bohnen mentioned that this haggadah was the first Hebrew publication in Germany since the war began. Indeed, the Rainbow Haggadah was written almost entirely in Hebrew. Rather than the traditional concluding prayer that states “Next year in Jerusalem,” the 42nd Division soldiers ended with an English “Prayer for Home.” The final song of the service was “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
Today, one of the haggadahs used in the service is displayed at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, DC. It is an example of the great pride that Jewish American soldiers felt at defeating the Nazis, according to Museum Coordinator Michael Rugel in 2016. “Reinstituting Jewish culture and religious practices was the greatest statement of triumph they could make,” he said. “This seder on German soil showed the importance of winning the war for the Jewish people.”
Heimberg estimated that 1,500 soldiers and Army nurses attended. It was mostly Jewish GIs, but the group also included Christian soldiers, many of whom had never heard of a seder before.
“Most of them were from the 42nd Division, but they brought in soldiers from supporting units in the area,” PFC Howard Margol said. “It was great to have fresh food for a change.”
His twin brother, PFC Hilbert Margol, also serving in Battery B, remembered the deep personal meaning of the service. “So we had a Passover seder, which was impressive to both my brother and me,” Hilbert said in his oral history, “because, being Jewish, we found this was the first Passover seder in Germany in no telling how many years.”