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Jews in America: Creating the U.S. Army Talmud

The suffering of Europe's displaced Jews did not end with Allied victory in 1945. Homeless, stateless, unwelcome to return to their native lands, hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over Europe - they called themselves she'erit ha- pletah, Hebrew for the saving remnant- lived in Displaced Persons [DP] camps operated by the Allies, most of which were located in Germany.

The camps were uniformly spare and unappealing. Some, in fact, had been Nazi concentration camps, continued in operation as DP camps by the Americans and other occupying armies. At first, Jewish DP's lived in the same camps with captured German soldiers or Polish, Lithuanian and other collaborators who had persecuted and even murdered Jews during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Despite the starvation many Jewish DP's had suffered, the U. S. Army made no special provision for feeding them extra rations. Traumatized, the Jewish DP's at first did little to protest their treatment.

American Jewish organizations such as ORT and the Joint Distribution Committee lobbied to improve the Jewish DP's living conditions. At their urging, President Harry S. Truman appointed the Harrison Commission to investigate the treatment of Jewish DP's. The commission reported,

As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of S. S. troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.

Truman ordered General Dwight D. Eisenhower, comnander of U.S. forces in Europe, to "get these people out of camps and into decent housing until they can be repariated or evacuated." Truman concluded, "I know you will agree with me that we have a particular responsibility toward these victims of persecution and tyranny who are in our zone. ... We have no better opportunity to demonstrate this than by the manner in which we ourselves actually treat he survivors remaining in Germany."

Most could not be, and did not want to be, repatriated to their old homes because their property had been confiscated or destroyed and their neighbors had participated in, or at least condoned, the obliteration of local Jewish life. United States immigration policy was based on a quota system, which meant that only a token number of Jews could emigrate to America. Great Britain permitted only a handful of Jews to emigrate to Palestine. Not until Israel was founded in 1948 would the Jewish Displaced of :Europe have a welcoming homeland.

Realizing that, under these conditions, the camps might be occupied indefinitely, American Jewish organizations and the United Nations assisted Jewish DP's to restore Jewish communal life in Europe. Part of restoring their lives meant reinvigorating Judaism. Along with humans, the Nazis burned Jewish books, synagogues and schools. By 1945, not one complete set of the Talmud could be found in Europe.

Judaism draws on two traditions. The first is the Written Law, or Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The second is the Oral Law, the Talmud, 19 books of commentary on the Written Law. Transmitted verbally at first and codified in two sections, the Talmud contains the Mishnah, written in Babylonia around 500 C.E., and the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah, first compiled by the sage Rashi in the 11th century. Learned Jews consider serious study of the Talmud essential. Anti-Semites, by contrast, define the Talmud as obscurantist, even conspiratorial. In medieval France and Germany, in Counter-Reformation Italy and in eighteenth-century Poland, mobs destroyed thousands of copies of the Talmud. The Nazi book burnings merely culminated centuries of such efforts.

Restoring Jewish life in Europe meant reproducing and distributing the Talmud. In 1946, a delegation of DP rabbis led by chief rabbi Samuel Jakob Rose, a Dachau survivor, approached General Joseph McNarney, commander of the American Zone of Occupied Germany, asking that the Army publish a Talmud. The sympathetic McNarney understood the symbolic significance of their request. Despite severe shortages of paper, he commanded that the Talmud be printed. With guidance from US Army chaplain rabbis Philip Bernstein and Herbert Friedman, the project began.

As no complete set of the Talmud could be found in Germany, two sets were brought from New York and engravings were made from those. The Army requisitioned the Carl Winter Printing Plant in Heidelberg, which during the war had printed Nazi propaganda. After two years of work, approximately 500 sets appeared in 1948, the only time in modern history that a national government published an edition of the Talmud. A preface contains the work's only words of English:

This edition of the Talmud is dedicated to the United States Army. The Army played a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation, and their defeat of Hitler bore the major burden of sustaining the DP s of the Jewish faith. This special edition of the Talmud, published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah. The Jewish DP s will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American forces, to whom they owe so much.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society