For Jewish service members at war, High Holiday services provided a respite from war. The familiar ceremonies offered a refuge and the connection with the Jewish community in the military a needed boost to morale. These were often powerful experiences. This was especially true during World War II when these services included European Jewish civilians who had been living under Nazi terror.
Joseph Samulin of Brooklyn served in Europe with the First Army. He later wrote this piece recalling a memorable Rosh Hashanah service in Charleroi, Belgium in 1944:
It started out as an ordinary service for about 200 Jewish soldiers from the surrounding area. It ended so dramatically that no one who was there will ever forget it.
I was with the Advanced Section Headquarters First Army. We had been following the advancing troops that had been breaking through so rapidly that many German soldiers had been by passed and were trying to find their way back to their lines. We were in a state of readiness at all times.
Rosh Hashonah Services were going to held in a theater in Charleroi, Belgium. Soldiers were brought in from units in the immediate area and all were ordered to carry rifles and ammunition to the theater in the event we would be called out. During services the side doors of the theater opened and we were startled by about 100 men women and children streaming in crying, wailing, sobbing. They rushed to us and started kissing our hands, our faces and thanking us over and over again. We also noticed about 150 people standing in the background, crying softly.
It took a few moments for those who could speak Yiddish to find out that the 100 people had been hiding for some four years, and most had not seen the light of day for many years. The people behind them were Gentiles that had hidden them all this time.
Our surprise turned to joy and happiness and you have to picture 200 soldiers with tears streaming down their faces, and we returned the hugs and kisses, trying to calm these Jews down so we could hear their stories. As it unfolded we realized what the local Gentiles who had saved them had gone through. If they had been discovered it was a sure death for them and their family.
We started hugging and kissing these brave Belgians and thanking them for their extraordinary bravery.
The funny thing I cant remember if the services were ever concluded. The only thing that I remember is a theater full of people all hugging, kissing and crying. These were 100 out of thousands of Charleroi Jews that had been killed.
While time has dulled the minute details the overall picture never fades, and tears still come to my eyes when I think of the miracle I experienced.