Columns General story Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

An ancient Jewish WWI veteran speaks

U.S. war veterans and military members pay their respects during a minute of silence while they attend a ceremony during the Veterans Day parade in New York City on Nov. 11, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

 

About thirty years ago, a colleague told me about a very old man who came to Shabbat services. My colleague had not seen the man before that particular Shabbat service, and when the old man asked my colleague if they could speak privately, he agreed.

They went into the rabbi’s study. The old man began: “I know that rabbis don’t usually hear confessions, but I have something to tell you that I have never told anyone. I don’t know how much longer I have to live. I need to tell you a story so I can unburden myself.

“It happened about seventy years ago, during World War I. I was fighting in the war, in the trenches. At one point, I became involved in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier.

“I took my bayonet, and I stabbed him in the chest. He fell at my feet.

“I could hear that he was whispering something. I put my head next to his lips, so that I could hear what he was saying — for those would surely be his last words.

“He was saying Sh’ma Yisrael [the Jewish statement of faith in God, which Jews traditionally say on the deathbed].”

The old man continued.

” That happened when I was very young. Most people go through life never having killed another human being.

“I killed one man in my entire life.

”I have never been able to forget, nor forgive myself — that here I am, a Jew, and the only man I have ever killed was a Jew. A Jew who knew the same ‘prayer’ that I knew, and who died with those words on his lips.

”Can you ever forgive me? Will God ever forgive me? Would that man’s family ever forgive me?”

It has been many years since I have thought of this story.

But, I am thinking about it today — Veterans’ Day, the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. It was the war that was supposed to end all wars.

If a dream could laugh, that dream would be laughing in mockery.

I tell that story because it speaks to a greater truth.

The Jews are not simply a religion, and perhaps least of all, a religion. We are a people — a small people, but a large family — that has a religion, and a culture, and a nation, and a land, and languages, and foods, and music, and…

What was it that had haunted the old man for those many decades?

The war in Europe had divided nations and countries. The man was doing his patriotic duty.

But, he had never expected that he would have to kill a fellow Jew — a member of his extended family— who was doing his patriotic duty, as well.

The Israeli poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, once wrote an epic poem about a young man in ancient Judaea who left home in order to seek his fortune.

One night, while he was sleeping in a field, his pillow burst into flame.

It was at that precise moment that the Romans had put the Temple in Jerusalem to the torch. Even though he was countless miles away, he felt the flames as if he were painfully close to them.

That is one of the greatest truths I know about what it means to be a Jew. To feel the flames, wherever you are.

And, to know that across national borders and allegiances, there are other Jews who will say the Sh’ma.

To that anonymous man in the story, I hope that when you died, God granted you the piece of mind you so richly deserved.

To you, and to those who served with you and emulated you across the generations: thank you for your service.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

6 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I am sure he was not the only one who had an experience like that. It shows the common humanity of the “enemy”. Think of many German Americans and Austro-Hungarian Americans who were Catholic, Lutheran or other religions of area that had relatives or roots in the enemy nations.

    In part the US got involved in World War 1 because of the ethnic bias of American Anglophiles .

  • How did YOU honor veterans yesterday?
    What parade did YOU attend to stand for the flag and clap as they passed?
    What cemetery did YOU visit; walking among the stones reading their name, rank, branch and unit?
    What church did YOU attend that recognized veterans with a special blessing?
    What VA did you visit yesterday (or any day) to spend time with them; just to let them share their story one last time?
    Did you fly your American flag? A simple gesture of American unity and tribute to the men and women who served this great nation?
    What did YOU do to honor veterans yesterday?

  • Quite a bunch, except the church thing. I leave that to people who attend churches. Especially since this was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. My town has a memorial to the fallen from that war. They made a big deal of the day.

    I take such events very seriously, coming from an “Army brat” background. Moreso than a deflecting Trump supporter I would guess.

    “Did you fly your American flag? ”
    In my condo? When I had a house, I would do so.

    “What VA did you visit yesterday (or any day) to spend time with them; just to let them share their story one last time?”

    There is the one my father goes to on a weekly basis.

    “What did YOU do to honor veterans yesterday?”

    Had a very nice dinner with the one I have the closest connection to. In my immediate family.

    You probably did none of the above, just like the president. Good to know you are deflecting scumbucket by avoiding the issue and focusing on a personal attack instead. Nothing you said made the president’s actions any less reprehensible.

    He had an official duty to attend such a momentous historical remembrance. I do not.

    Now you can sulk and come up with more excuses why Trump scr3wed up one really easy thing which he could have done to honestly and ethically pander to his alleged support base.

  • It’s good to see you did something; although there was more references to what THEY did than what you did..

  • Your pwnage is duly noted. Poor thing. Probably stayed at home.

    One thing surprised the heck out of me. TCM didn’t do any kind of cinematic tribute to World War One in film (not even All Quiet on the Western Front or The Blue Max). They went all out for the centenary of the Russian Revolution in October 2017 (Nicholas and Alexandra, Rasputin the Mad Monk…).