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By: Chaplain David Max Eichhorn, USA; Expert taken from Rabbis in Uniform

I wanted to hold Yom Kippur services in Nancy, about 35 miles north of our headquarters in France. I went to that city and located its synagogue, a huge, beautiful structure capable of seating at least 2,000 persons, which had been used by the Germans as a medical supply depot. But our Corps Commander, General Haislip, refused to give me permission to use the Nancy synagogue because it was 10 miles outside our Corps boundary. I insisted that proper Yom Kippur services could be held only within the peaceful and quiet confines of a synagogue. Whereupon the conference between the commanding general and myself continued as follows:

Haislip: I agree with you, Chaplain. Where, within our Corps boundary, is there a synagogue

Eichhorn: There is only one, sir. In the city of Luneville.

Haislip: Good. You will hold your services there.

Eichhorn: But sir, Luneville is still held by the Germans.

Haislip: Don’t worry, Chaplain, we’ll take it in time for you to hold your services there.

Eichhorn: Yes, sir.

On Thursday, September 21, the following order was issued by Corps Headquarters: “Men of the Jewish faith are to be excused from duty and transported to the synagogue in Luneville on Tuesday evening, September 26, for the purpose of observing the Day of Atonement.” The order created a mild sensation. The chutzpah of the “old man!”

I watched the daily battle progress reports of our Intelligence section with interest: “The enemy is  gradually being driven out of Luneville… Street fighting continues in Luneville… It is reported that the enemy still holds the lumberyard in the east section of Luneville.”

On Monday, September 25, my assistant and I decided that it was time to go to Luneville and prepare for Yom Kippur. We loaded up a jeep and trailer and about noon we took off. From Charnes we proceeded via Bayon toward Luneville, a journey of about 20 miles. Five miles outside of Luneville, we were stopped by a road block. “You can’t go any further, Chappie,” said an MP. “There’s a war going on up yonder.” I showed him the Corps Yom Kippur order. Somewhat unwillingly, he let us go by. We chugged along the road past the big guns (which were firing) and the little guns (which were firing) and the infantry (who were sitting quietly by the side of the road), to the Meurthe River west of Luneville. There the combat engineers had just completed a pontoon bridge and we were its first passengers. Into Luneville went the Jewish chaplain and his assistant, their trailer rumbling behind and their hearts beating almost as loudly in the front seat of the jeep.

Just as we started down the main street, a huge American flag was flung to the breeze from the window of a building about two blocks in front of us. Never has our flag been a more welcome or beautiful sight. The building from which the flag hung turned out to be the town hall. In it we found a military intelligence team, consisting of an officer and two enlisted men. They informed us that the last Germans had left town a few hours before and the main German force was now entrenched in the Foret de Parroy, a forest which had been a training ground. It began on the other side of the Vezouse River, 4 miles east of Luneville, and occupied an area of about 20 square miles.

We were further informed that the five of us represented the total American military manpower in the city of Luneville. “There will be no more American troops in here by tomorrow night,” said the intelligence officer. “Your Yom Kippur congregation is most likely going to consist of exactly two Jews and three gentiles.” It began to look as though General Haislip had been somewhat overly optimistic.

Still, we sought out the mayor in the cellar where he was hiding and explained our mission. He eagerly placed himself and his administration at our disposal. The synagogue was incredibly filthy.

Local workers removed four oxcart loads of dirt and debris from the synagogue. The place was scrubbed clean, temporary electric lights were installed, and tattered remnants of prayer books were gathered up reverently and placed upon the altar as a mute remembrance of 300 Luneville Jews who had been transported by the invaders to the death chambers of Auschwitz. Finally, the synagogue was decorated with American and Frenchflags and all was ready for the Yom Kippur service which I firmly believed would not be held.

Late that night in the Hotel Central, while the walls shook from endless artillery fire, the five American soldiers plus the hotel keeper, his wife and daughter, regaled each other with French, English, Yiddish and Hebrew melodies. Field organ music was supplied by my assistant, Irving Levine of Chicago, who also happened to be a very competent musician.

The next evening the unexpected happened. Jewish soldiers from all over the XV Corp sector—dirty, bewhiskered and fully armed—poured into Luneville in trucks, in jeeps and on foot. With no American military units of any kind between themselves and the thousands of German soldiers 4 miles away, they came, 350 of them.

In my report to the Jewish Welfare Board, I wrote: I tell you unashamedly that, for the first time since I have been in France, I broke down and cried. No matter what I had seen because of the wounded, the dying and the dead, I had managed to steel myself against tears. But this was too much. The noises of battle raged around us as we intoned our tradition. The men kept on their full battle dress and their guns were at the ready. Together we prayed that mankind might be spared another such Yom Kippur. Some of the men were not able to remain for the entire service the next day. They had to take their places in the battle line. It was, for many of them, the last service they would ever attend. (On October 12, I held services over the graves of 38 of them in the military cemetery in Antilly.)

When Yom Kippur ended, the soldiers left the city and I returned to Corps Headquarters. Before leaving Luneville, I had another conversation with the military intelligence officer. “I want to thank you,” he said, “for the valuable information you have indirectly furnished to the American Army. I did not want to tell you earlier that the Germans had perfect observation on this town from the Foret de Parroy. They could not help but notice the movement of the Jewish soldiers in and out of the town. If they had any artillery at the edge of the forest, they would have planted some of their choicest bits of steel right on top of you. Since they do not do so, we now know that they have withdrawn their artillery quite a distance beyond the perimeter of the Foret de Parroy.”

“General Haislip must possess keen intuition as well as military skill,” I replied.

Two months later the Second French Armored Division, a great fighting outfit and part of the XV Corps, broke through the Saverne Gap. Disobeying orders, it then crossed into VI territory and captured the city of Strasbourg, much to the surprise of both Allied and German commands. This so upset Allied strategy that General George Marshall had to come to Luneville from the United States to straighten out the situation.

Shortly after his arrival, a dinner was given in his honor. It was restricted to those with the rank of Colonel and above, so I was not present. But I learned that General Jacob Denvers, the commander in the area, told General Marshall and the assembled guests Luneville would go down in the annals of American military history as the place where a Jewish chaplain held Yom Kippur service before the town was officially taken. The diners got a good laugh out of this unique footnote to the military record. Those of us who were directly involved in the episode did not think it was quite so funny.

Republished in the Tishrei 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.