Interview'We should not let the history of the Holocaust paralyze us'

Germany’s 1st post-WWII military rabbi aims to open door to more Jewish recruits

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Mordechai Balla says one of the most important aspects of his new job is educating non-Jewish soldiers while ministering to all faiths’ needs

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer Balla at the biennial convention of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in Antwerp in May 2019. (Photo by Eli Itkin)
Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer Balla at the biennial convention of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in Antwerp in May 2019. (Photo by Eli Itkin)

Shortly after assuming power in 1933, Adolf Hitler banned rabbis from administering to Jewish conscripts in the German military. Later this month, the German government will install the first chief military rabbi since the ban, with more Jewish clergy set to bolster the lines in the near future. It has been 76 years since the conclusion of the Holocaust, and nearly 90 years since a rabbi has served in this capacity.

The appointee, Budapest-born Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer “Zsolt” Balla, told The Times of Israel that his goal isn’t only to provide religious resources for soldiers, but to normalize German military service for all prospective Jewish inductees.

The 42-year-old Balla is aware that the notion of Jews in the German military may yet be controversial for some of his coreligionists. Still, he said, “We have our history. We should never forget or diminish the meaning of that history. At the same time, we should not let that history paralyze us so we can’t move forward.”

These words aren’t issued lightly — Balla’s mother survived the Holocaust in Budapest as a baby, living with her mother first in a building protected by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and then in hiding under a false identity.

After attending Budapest’s Lauder Javne Jewish Community School and the Joint Distribution Committee-Lauder International Jewish Youth Camp in the Hungarian town of Szarvas, Balla eventually went on to receive his rabbinical ordination from the Orthodox Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary in Berlin.

While there he met his wife, whose family was part of a large wave of Jews from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Germany in the 1990s. The couple and their children now live in Leipzig, from where Balla serves as rabbi both locally as well as for the state of Saxony.

Illustrative: Rabbi Dr. Aron Tänzer, rabbi of Göppingen, was a highly decorated military field rabbi during WWI. Pictured here in 1917, he has the Iron Cross on his German field-grey uniform, a brassard with the Red Cross shows him as a noncombatant, and he wears the Star of David as a religious insignium. (Public domain)

Balla’s appointment to the military’s top rabbinical position is the result of a joint effort between the German government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer committed to the creation of the post in 2019, and in May of 2020 the move was ratified by the German parliament.

Kramp-Karrenbauer called the new position “a return to an ancient tradition.” Some 12,000 Jewish soldiers lost their lives fighting for Germany during World War I, before the Nazis came to power. Today the German military does not keep records of the religious affiliations of conscripts, but there is little doubt that there are far fewer Jews among the ranks than there were prior to World War II.

Speaking to The Times of Israel via Zoom from his home in Leipzig, Balla said he chooses not to focus on the number of Jewish service members today, but rather on the number that lies ahead.

“To establish a military rabbinate should not be a reaction to the present, but it should be a reflection of what you want the future to look like,” he said. “There might now be a small number of people who actually need Jewish chaplaincy, but we would like to work for a society where there is a need for them.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Can you tell us how many Jewish soldiers are currently enlisted in Germany’s military?

This is a question we usually do not answer — because we do not know. There are estimates. The government, when they signed the contract, estimated 300. We, from a Jewish perspective, are trying to be very careful. What we know is that there are Jewish soldiers. There are even observant Jewish soldiers in the army. This is something we know for sure. And there is a need for Jewish chaplaincy, but I think it’s very crucial to say that our goal here is not to be reactive to what’s going on right now, but to plan ahead for a paradigm change — what we’d like to see in 10 or 15 years, or earlier if possible. We have to make the army accessible not just for observant Jews, but any Jew who wishes to be part of it with the possibility of chaplaincy for his or her own needs.

So you’d like to see more Jews serving in the German army.

I would, yes. And the reason is that I think probably the only country where people really understand the importance of defense, really, at its scale, is Israel — because all the people are serving in the army. In Europe, in many of the NATO countries, people are underestimating the importance of the military and defense. And I think it’s important for the Jewish communities who live in these countries to play their part. So yes, I would like to see more. I wouldn’t like to push, God forbid, but I would like to help in opening doors.

A German soldier in prayer in the Great Synagogue in Frankfurt. (Photo by Raphael Ehrlich)

Do you, as a Jew, ever feel conflicted about supporting a military with such a fraught history?

This is a very, very tough issue, and I can absolutely understand and have full empathy for those who say, “How can you do that?” I can totally understand their argument. At the same time, I think that most of us have no issue going into the Colosseum in Rome, which was literally built with Jewish blood. We have some historical distance, time has changed certain things.

The memory of the Shoah is very active — 75 years in history is nothing, it’s the blink of an eye. But for people from my generation, I think, the distance is enough to be able to look at the situation in a pragmatic way.

Most of us have no issue going into the Colosseum in Rome, which was literally built with Jewish blood

Without forgetting our history, we can take the misdeeds of the past and make sure they don’t happen again. And this is also what I’d like to achieve. People tend to forget that one of the most important tasks that military rabbis have to do is the education of the non-Jewish soldiers. Because in the German army there is something called “life coaching lectures,” which means that each soldier must undergo ethical education. This is also due to the history — the German army reflects on this history to make sure that in the future no radicalization will happen within the army. And the rabbis will be a key element to enhance and to bring this process to a new level.

You come from a family of Holocaust survivors. How do they feel about all this?

They’re absolutely on board. It’s very interesting — my family has never questioned it. My uncle and my mother’s cousins think it’s a very important thing. My mother is taking a great deal of pride in it, which I don’t really like because I don’t think there’s anything to be too proud about — I think we’ve got a great historical chance and I really hope that this media hype will be gone soon and we can actually start working.

And how many chaplains will there be in the near future?

Up to 10, according to the contract between the state and the Jewish community. Of course, this will all happen gradually. One of the most important things is that you have to expand your horizon and see the big picture… The first two military chaplains should be on board within the next few months.

Rabbi Mordechai Eliezer Balla, center, receiving the Maharal Matanel prize at the biennial convention of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in Antwerp in May 2019 from Chief Rabbi of France and First Vice-President of the CER Haïm Korsia, right. (Photo by Eli Itkin)

Are you guys going to be in uniform?

We’ll definitely have uniforms, but in Germany the chaplains are all civilians. And the reason why this is so, is in order to make sure there’s no chain of command and that they’re able to speak and represent the needs of every single soldier. That’s a very important thing, and so the chaplains, pastors, and priests in the army are all civilians. But obviously, if they’re on a tour or a mission they have their uniform with their own insignia of the military rabbinate. We have a great logo, which I’m unfortunately not allowed to share with you just yet.

We have a great logo, which I’m unfortunately not allowed to share with you just yet

Are you going to be attending just to Jewish soldiers, or to the general population as well?

Every chaplain in the German army is responsible for every soldier. Whoever comes to you, you must be there for them, period. And I really think it’s good. I already have personal experience with that. I was in a cohort of the soldiers for the weekend, a getaway and interreligious meeting. And it was really amazing — on Shabbat afternoon, since there was no prayer quorum and I was really alone — I was the lonely Jew over there. A Muslim soldier comes to me and he wants to speak to me about his troubles, because there is a closer cultural relationship between Muslim religious observance and religious Judaism. So for him to speak to a rabbi might have been easier than to speak to a [Christian] pastor.

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