Sunday, October 28, 2012

Eulogy spoken by Lt. Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima, March, 1945

Marine on Iwo Jima.
Photo courtesy of Betty Michels McMahon

When I met Betty Michels McMahon, daughter of Iwo Jima flag-raiser Jimmy Michels, she handed me a portion of this beautiful speech by Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn. In honor of Jimmy Michels and of all the marines who fought on Iwo Jima, I thought I'd share it here.

THIS IS PERHAPS THE GRIMMEST, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

IT IS NOT EASY TO DO SO. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us, had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”

No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our division who are not here have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it be the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

WE DEDICATE OURSELVES, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Anyone among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, them, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of all races alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

TO ONE THING MORE do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.

WHEN THE LAST SHOT has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers—will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.

WHEN THE FINAL CROSS has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

THIS DO WE MEMORIALIZE those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come—we promise—the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say…AMEN.

Lt. Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, first Jewish chaplain appointed by the Marine Corps.

Gittelsohn's speech followed by photos of the event:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The First Flag Raisers of Iwo Jima

More from Betty Michels McMahon who attended a Pillars of Honor program today in memory of her father, Jimmy Michels, a marine who was one of the first flag raisers on Iwo Jima.

For more on Jimmy Michels and the first flag raising, see the following posts:

The First Flag Raisers on Iwo Jima

Betty Michels McMahon, daughter of Jimmy Michels, attended a Pillars of Honor program today in Forest Park, IL, in memory of her father, a man who had been part of the first group of marines to raise a flag on Iwo Jima.  She shared some photos of that momentous date which I now share with you.

For more about Jimmy Michels and the initial flag raising, please see the following posts:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The real Sgt. Schultz? The Germans "were hopeless at counting."

French POWs. Henri Cornioley is standing fourth from left, a German officer on the far right.

In honor of the passing of Richard Dawson, who played RAF Corporal Peter Newkirk on "Hogan's Heroes," here's a real-life anecdote that closely resembles some of the antics seen on that show.  This excerpt is taken from the Code Name Pauline, the memoir of Pearl Witherington, and relates the experiences of Pearl's husband Henri Cornioley when he was a French POW.

"Another funny thing happened to me.  There was a little wood near the camp.  After working for a while, I thought I’d had enough -- we were allowed to stop briefly when nature called.  So I left the others, found myself a nice little spot and thought I might as well have a snooze. At that time I could sleep anyhow and anywhere.  I fell fast asleep.
When I woke up, all the others had gone back to the camp.  They hadn’t noticed I was missing because no one counted the prisoners outside; we were only counted when we got back to camp.  I wondered what I was going to do, I hadn’t prepared anything for an escape, I was wearing clogs etc.  So, I decided I’d better go back to the camp and explain.
I arrived at the camp, asked for an interpreter, told him what had happened and asked him to get me in.  He went to tell the camp commander and came back five minutes later, “You can’t come in.  They don’t want you to enter, they’ve had a head count and it was correct.”
I said, “But, this just isn’t on, I have to enter.”  They discussed it for a while; obviously the idiot who had counted didn’t want to admit that he’d got it wrong!  I said to the interpreter, “It’s your word and mine against his, you know me; you know I’m in this camp.” What a palaver.  In the end they let me in.
Sometimes, when we were being counted, we changed places on purpose so they got it wrong and had to start the roll-call again.  This meant we started work later. But there are lots of stories about the Germans muddling up their counts. They were hopeless at counting.

Excerpt from the appendix "Henri's Story" from Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a WWII Special Agent.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Book Review: "They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany" by Patrick K. O'Donnell

Is it possible for a story to be compelling if the storytelling isn’t?  Case in point: the premise of Patrick O’Donnell’s book They Dared Return is absolutely irresistible: German Jews whose families were threatened or destroyed by the Nazis are recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American wartime espionage organization, to collect intelligence on the Nazi regime during its final months when rumors were swirling about plans for an enormous underground bunker from which the German armed forces were to make their final stand.  The setting is fascinating, the protagonists as courageous as they come so I can’t pinpoint the reason I never felt pulled into the story as I was to a title with a similar premise, Behind Enemy Lines: The True Story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany. The latter reads almost like a novel and perhaps They Dared Return suffers unfairly from this comparison but on the other hand it seems that, on occasion, O’Donnell was indeed attempting to novelize his material. Consider this line from a later chapter: “[He] did not see the first rays of early light seeping through the window of Innsbruck’s Gestapo headquarters since he lay on the cold damp floor of the unheated cell into which his captors had thrown him, bloodied, beaten, bound at the hands, and naked.”  If he didn’t see the first rays of light how could he have recalled that the sun was even out that morning?  Although O’Donnell peppers the book with this type of descriptive bordering-on-fiction writing, bringing certain scenes to life, the rest of the book, which contains a disruptively shifting timeline, is written in a fairly prosaic style..

However, if one can overlook the faulty issues of the narration, this book accomplishes several valuable things.  By highlighting this particular mission of one of the OSS’s Operational Groups (OGs), it gives the reader a better understanding of the wide variety of work done by the OSS, the incredible dangers their agents faced and the valuable information they provided.  Also, some of what these particular agents witnessed individually absolutely fascinates.  Consider the following scenario: one of them, disguised in a German uniform, is invited over to a VIP table in a beer hall where an inebriated Austrian captain regales them all with tales of a gaunt Hitler who is “tired of living.” The fact that a Jew was one of the first to report on the Fuhrer’s depressed state of mind is deliciously ironic.

WWII vets are leaving us far too quickly, very often before they can record the details of their war stories so while it’s wonderful that O’Donnell stumbled upon this story, it’s unfortunate that it will not gain the audience its protagonists deserve. But anyone who is willing to expend the effort to become acclimated to O’Donnell’s writing will be well rewarded by the accomplishments of these courageous Jewish men who collected intelligence on Nazi Germany during its final days.