This Day in Jewish History |

2007: Highest-ranking WWII Jewish Chaplain Dies

Rabbi Judah Nadich persuaded Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to improve the conditions of Jews displaced during the Holocaust.

David Green
David B. Green
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President Eisenhower with Rabbi Nadich in 1962.
President Eisenhower with Rabbi Nadich in 1962.Credit:
David Green
David B. Green

On August 26, 2007, Judah Nadich, the Conservative rabbi who, as senior Jewish chaplain for U.S. forces in Europe during and immediately after World War II, took on the responsibility of advising Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower about the treatment of the survivors of Nazi concentration camps, died, at age 95.

Adolph Judah Nadich was born May 13, 1912, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was the oldest of the four children of Isaac and Lena Nathanson Nadich, both recent immigrants from the Russian empire. Isaac owned and ran a neighborhood grocery.

At age 14, Nadich received a scholarship to study at the high school of Yeshiva University in New York. Following graduation he studied at the university’s rabbinical seminary and at City College, from which he received his bachelor’s degree in 1932. Four years later, Nadich was ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, and he worked at congregations in Buffalo and Chicago before enlisting in the U.S. Army as a chaplain, in early 1942, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By then, he had already dropped “Adolph” as part of his name.

The following summer, Rabbi Nadich was sent to England, the first Jewish chaplain assigned to Europe. He not only oversaw the training of all the newly arriving Jewish clergy, but in 1944, he received the assignment of managing the distribution of religious supplies for U.S. soldiers in Europe. This made him, among other things, as he later recounted, “the world’s largest distributor of rosary beads, mass wine, mass kits [and] New Testaments.” He remained the highest-ranking Jewish chaplain in Europe throughout the war.

Rabbi Nadich accompanied Allied troops as they liberated Paris in late August, 1944, and the day after his arrival he visited with the city’s chief rabbi, Julien Weill, who had himself recently returned home from a concentration camp. A frail Rabbi Weill invited him to address the Jewish community the next day at a service commemorating the liberation. For his part, Nadich wanted the French rabbi’s permission to have American troops attend services during the upcoming High Holidays at different synagogues around Paris, including Weill’s own shul, La Grande Synagogue, on rue de la Victoire.

Rabbi Weill of course consented to Nadich’s request, and asked him how it was that he spoke such good French. As Nadich wrote in his diary, “I replied, ‘Monsieur le rabbin, it is because your brother was my French teacher in America.’” It turned out that Nadich had studied French at City College with Prof. Felix Weill, the brother of Julien Weill.

Crowds on the Champs Elysees welcome French tanks into Paris after its liberation in 1944.Credit: Wikipedia

The next day, on September 7, 1944, some 2,000 people filled the Great Synagogue, newly reopened, three years after the Germans had set off bombs in it just after Yom Kippur (they had misjudged the holiday’s timing). Rabbi Nadich addressed the crowd, which included both local Jews and Allied troops, both in French and in English. “The experience was one of great emotion for the Jews of Paris,” wrote the rabbi. “All of the feelings pent up within them, fear, grief, despair under the Nazis, mixed now with elation, relief, hope because of the liberation, burst forth at the sight of an American rabbi – he could have been any American Jewish chaplain – speaking to them in a service of liberation from German rule.”

The following August, Rabbi Nadich was transferred to Frankfurt, Germany, where he received what was surely his most challenging assignment: adviser to the commanding general on Jewish affairs. Word had reached President Harry Truman that the Jews who had survived the genocide were still being treated like prisoners. Often they were being held – up to 40 in a single room - in the same camps as the people who, a few months earlier, had been their jailers, and provided with the same number of calories in nourishment, even though they, the Jews, ended the war on the verge of starvation. The camps were still surrounded with barbed wire, and the Jews had very limited freedom of movement.

The original Allied plan had been to send the liberated prisoners back to their hometowns within 90 days of the war’s end. But, as Nadich wrote in a 1993 article in the Washington Jewish Week, while that was appropriate “for the French, the Greeks, the Poles, and others …no one had foreseen that there would be survivors who could not or would not return to their native lands. The Jewish could not go back to their homes and businesses in Eastern Europe that had been seized by former neighbors, many of whom had supplied the Nazis with their names and whereabouts. A few tried and were beaten or killed. Besides, their former lands had become one vast cemetery of their loved ones. So the Jews remained, and the army had no plans for them.”

Over the next few months, Nadich traveled around to the displaced persons and liberated concentration camps around the American zone of Germany, reporting back to Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower or his chief of staff, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith. Within 60 days, he wrote later, things had greatly improved.

“Eisenhower was a determined man. When I reported to him that [Gen. George C.] Patton had as yet not carried out his orders to remove the barbed wire surrounding a Jewish displaced persons camp in Bavaria nor had he abolished the pass system that denied the DPs free exit and entry, Eisenhower was furious. He ordered Patton to report to him early the next morning, necessitating a night drive from Munich, and at their meeting Eisenhower sharply rebuked him. A short time later Patton was removed from command of the Third Army and placed in command of the Fifteenth Army, which consisted only of a headquarters at Bad Nauheim with no troops.”

Nadich hosted David Ben-Gurion when he visited the liberated zone of Germany in October 1945, urging Eisenhower (who less than a decade later would be the U.S. president) to meet with him, and accompanying the head of the Jewish Agency on a visit to the DP camp at Zeilsheim, where he spoke before ecstatic Jewish survivors. Nadich also convinced Eisenhower to allow Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, who began crossing into the U.S. zone in late 1945, to join their Jewish brethren in DP camps there.

Following his discharge from the army, and several years of work for Jewish organizaions, fundraising and speaking, Rabbi Nadich returned to the United States, and became the rabbi of Congregation Kehillath Israel, in Brookline, Massachusetts. After a decade there, he was appointed rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, in Manhattan, a post he held for three decades, until his retirement, in 1987. He married Martha Hadassah Ribalow, in 1947, and the couple had three daughters.

As early as 1974, when he was president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of American Conservative rabbis, Nadich called on the movement to train and ordain women as rabbis, as well as for general equality for men and women in Jewish life – a policy he was able to implement at his New York synagogue before it became general policy in the movement. It was, in fact, only 11 years later that the movement ordained its first woman.

He also spoke out in a 1960 sermon against racial segregation.

Rabbi Judah Nadich died at his home in New York, New York. His wife, Martha, died seven months later, on March 25, 2008.

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