Rosh Hashanah in purgatory
My father, Alexander Breuer, fled the Nazis in 1938, only to return several years later with the US Army. He was among the first Americans to enter Buchenwald and witness, firsthand, the decimation of European Jewry. And on the scorched earth of occupied Germany, in 1945, he celebrated the High Holidays
Sitting still in a chair on Rosh Hashanah as a child was difficult. The services seemed endless, but in our Conservative synagogue, where we sat family-style, one of the few bright spots included fiddling with the folds of white cloth and knots on my father’s tallit (prayer shawl). The annual Rosh Hashanah liturgy with my father at my side seemed to me as predictable as if it had been written into the laws of nature: like salmon swimming upstream to spawn, like birds migrating south for the winter, like snows melting in the spring sun. We did it every fall, and we surely always would.
But life isn’t like that. My experiences in Jerusalem synagogues on Rosh Hashanah have long since outnumbered my American experiences. I understand more Hebrew than in those days, so the services are less daunting. And, no longer a child, I now wonder what memories of previous holidays washed over my father as he sat in the comfortable pew of a small suburban congregation in southern Maryland.
A recent housekeeping crisis unearthed decades-old family memorabilia long since retrieved from his belongings and nearly forgotten. Tucked between his subscriptions to first-day commemorative envelopes of Israeli stamps was a program from a Rosh Hashanah service in occupied Germany in 1945, in which he participated as part of the US military government. Chronologically, he was merely 19 years old, but his life experience belied his years.
Fleeing the flames
My father, Alexander Breuer, was born to Adolf and Ilona Breuer in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria, in 1926. Their town was an ancient city with a Jewish population dating from at least the 1100s. His childhood under the lengthening shadow of Nazism in Germany changed instantly with the annexation of Austria in the Anschluss of 1938. No longer allowed to be with their friends in school, the Jewish kids were taunted unmercifully and worse, and in a matter of months all the Nuremburg Laws that had been enacted in Germany over a period of five years were put into place. He remembered that overnight his friends and neighbors had transformed their Austrian flags into Nazi flags, which were unfurled from every window to welcome the Nazi stormtroopers.
No more school, no more synagogue services. His bar mitzvah consisted of being taken to a hidden synagogue with a quorum of 10 men and being called to the Torah to quickly recite the blessings. No party, no strudel, no schnapps. On Kristallnacht his father was arrested with the other Jewish men and older boys and sent to Dachau. He was subsequently released, with the understanding that he would leave Austria for a transport to the east and work on “a collective work farm” (which I’ve written about here).
After a lot of drama, effort, nerves, luck, and, we believe, some help from on high, the day came that my father and his family left Austria on what he told me was the last train to slip out before the borders were sealed, in January 1940. They traveled to Italy and then crossed the ocean to New York. Like most German-speaking immigrants of the day, the family lived in the unfashionable high numbers of the Upper West Side. Now he was faced with a whole new set of challenges. Without English, he was doing terribly in school, only barely understanding math. His classmates, happy to find a new victim, called him names like “Fritz” because of his heavy accent. No doubt, his blood boiled; no Jewish refugee child would welcome an association with the Germans.
Learning stickball and baseball, and getting to be old enough to get back to Europe and fight the Nazis himself, were the main concerns of his early teenage years. He worried that he would miss that chance, but the war dragged on until he could finally enlist, only to be rejected on the grounds that he was classified as an “enemy alien.” But when he reached 18, despite his Axis origin, the US army had no problem drafting him and sending him back to Europe as “infantry replacement.”
Return to the inferno
Before embarking for the continent on troop ships across the English Channel, his officers rattled off the boilerplate instructions for the troops, including asking whether anyone had reason to believe that the Nazis had their fingerprints. As he had been in school under the Nazi occupation, he raised his hand, but since no one had ever answered “yes” to the question, the officers were at a loss at to what to do with him. After several days of “hurry up and wait,” he was given the choice of shipping out to the Pacific theater or continuing on to Europe. He had no doubts that the war against the Nazis was his war, and he continued on.
He also had to consider how to identify himself on his dog tags as to his religion. For most soldiers this was a straightforward question concerning last rites and burial. For Jewish soldiers, the decision entailed the life-threatening announcement to the enemy that they were Jewish, and the knowledge that as prisoners they would certainly be singled out for special treatment. Moreover, his circumcision already marked him as a Jew and exposed him to greater potential risk should he fall into enemy hands. Another fear was that his accent would cause him trouble, if not death, when he would have to give passwords to sentries in the field; to the average Yankee, he sounded just like the enemy.
Assigned to the 80th Infantry Division, 2d Battalion, 319th Infantry Regiment in France, to a unit called Intelligence and Reconnaissance, at the lowest level of the infantry, my father found himself serving under General George Patton in the Battle of the Bulge. He developed a soldier’s tough shell from seeing the carnage and undergoing the most grim of battlefield experiences. Because his officers knew that he spoke fluent German, he was often designated to interpret during interrogation of prisoners of war as they were gathered in by the advancing Allied troops.
When my father revealed that he was a Jewish refugee from Austria, the mayor of Weimar said offhandedly, ‘Oh, since you’re Jewish, you may be interested in seeing the camp down the road. It’s called Buchenwald.’
After the carpet-bombing of Dresden, and with the end of the war coming into view, higher-ups in the command chain decided that the city of Weimar would be spared a similar fate because it was considered a cultural treasure of Germany. It fell upon my father to accompany an officer as interpreter and to go behind enemy lines to seek out the mayor of Weimar and negotiate the surrender of the city. They eventually found the mayor, who was curious about my father’s native German. When my father revealed that he was a Jewish refugee from Austria, the mayor said offhandedly, “Oh, since you’re Jewish, you may be interested in seeing the camp down the road. It’s called Buchenwald.”
In an interview given at the US State Department for the International Liberator’s Conference in 1981, some excerpts of what my father related were:
So the mayor of Weimar then took us, after he surrendered the city, he took the commanding general of the division – and I was part of the party—and we went into Buchenwald as the original group to go in there…. But it was a horrendous experience. No amount of pre-knowledge that I had prepared me for it. The enormity of it all is beyond description…the expressionless eyes, the people just stared as though they were on a different planet… just walking zombies… The mayor took us through the camp the first go-around… three days later he committed suicide.
Buchenwald was the first concentration camp that the Allied forces came across, and Eisenhower commanded — after tending to the medical needs for the living, and burying the piles of corpses — that the army photographers record everything. Adding to his two Purple Hearts for battle wounds, my father was awarded a bronze medal for his part in the negotiation of the surrender of Weimar. Few could imagine what it was like for this young soldier doing his assignments, speaking in fluent German to the incredulous, newly freed Jews — that it was so easy for him to identify with their side of the picture:
My own personal feeling is the feeling that only through the chance of luck that I was there the liberator, that I may not have been even a survivor if it wouldn’t have been for lucky happenstance.
It was finally over. Assigned to work as part of the military government in Krumbach, Germany, my father faced his first post-war High Holidays. This program, on the one hand so similar to the typical order of prayer services throughout the ages, was also markedly different. This one was for the Jewish soldiers serving in the US forces in Europe who had just seen harsh combat fighting the Nazis and knew firsthand the fate of their people. Included on the program, printed in post-war Germany on thin, now-yellowed paper, was this message written by one Sgt. Allan Bass:
Each new year and Day of Atonement represent solemn occasion of self-examination of self-judgment in the life of every Jew. The High Holidays of 1945 possess additional significance. Jewish soldiers have heroically given their lives in expunging from Europe the endless slavery and sadistic torture inflicted upon countless peoples. Our Services on conquered German soil, where millions of innocent Jews died during twelve incredible years of Nazism, therefore, commemorate our indestructible faith in God and Country. We fervently pray, the world now in peace, will secure the righteous dignities deserving of all mankind.”
Those words surely reflected the thoughts of every soldier participating in that unique setting, and in similar services held throughout Europe in 1945.
Returning to civilian life after the war, my dad took advantage of the GI Bill and completed college in upstate NY; married my mother, Lee Feig Breuer, an Auschwitz survivor; finished a law degree; eventually worked in civil service at the Department of Agriculture; and then went into private practice in the southern Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. He was active in a broad range of organizations in support of his community, his religion, and local political groups, never taking for granted his life in a free country that he felt indebted to for taking him in. Though he shared his experiences with my sister and me as we grew up, he had an innate modesty, so it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I could assess his war-time experiences.
I can only surmise that while I was playing with his big white tallit as a young girl, my father must have drifted back in time to that unique Rosh Hashanah of 1945. I know that while I am singing “Avinu Malkenu” this year, though sitting in a women’s section in Jerusalem, I will feel enveloped in the waves and folds of soft white wool and the knots that tie me to his memories.
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