FROM THE VAULT
To Pray in Verdun in a War-Torn World
By Cheryl Kempler
For decades, the name “Verdun” evoked the chilling memory of the 302-day battle waged against the German army near that French city between February and December 1916, the longest and bloodiest of World War I, with an estimated 714,000 total casualties on both sides.
The remains of the soldiers who were killed populate the cemeteries and ossuaries there, while numerous monuments include one dedicated in 1938 honoring the “Jewish French, Jewish Allies and Foreign Volunteers Who Died for France 1914-1918.”
After 1918, the 30 Jewish families residing in Verdun barely maintained the city’s small Moorish-style synagogue, dating from 1875. During World War II, those families were all exiled or murdered. In winter 1944, Col. Dr. Joseph Haas, a member of New York’s Rehoboth Lodge commanding the Army’s 120th Station Hospital unit, arrived with the platoons that would liberate the area.
Snow fell through holes in the roof of Verdun’s synagogue, decimated by bombs and the Nazis who broke apart its marble World War I memorial plaque, including the name of its last rabbi. But life was about to change. Haas noted in “Yanks Revive Verdun Schul,” published in B’nai B’rith’s American Jewish Monthly, “a handful of khaki-clad American soldiers … the only Jews in Verdun” arrived one Sabbath to pray in English. “Yet it was a strange language the synagogue walls heard that night. It was a strangely clad people who uttered it.”
Over time, numbers increased; finally, French soldiers and some community members returned. Haas and other officers joined forces to provide necessary repairs. In June 1945, Army Chaplain Capt. B. Joseph Elephant led the congregation’s first official service.
The men continued to “complete their self-assigned task of removing the covering of concrete painstakingly put on by the Nazis to conceal the laudatory inscription” on Verdun’s Jewish World War I monument.
Meanwhile, “in a German city,” another B’nai B’rith member, U.S. Army Chaplain Ernst M. Lorge and American military personnel cleaned up and worshipped in a “torn, windowless and Nazi-wrecked synagogue” where we “resurrected Judaism …” The National Jewish Monthly correspondent Cpl. Harold N. Solomon, who belonged to Chicago’s Kraus Lodge, wrote that “it was like a great Chanukah [miracle] … we were reminded of the Maccabees.”
Haas, who had also served in World War I, was in medical practice for more than 65 years. Attaining the rank of brigadier general, he received the medal of the city of Verdun, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star. He died at age 94 in 1985.