A committed pacifist, Roland Gittelsohn was born in Cleveland and received his rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College. He was serving as the rabbi of a Long Island synagogue when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor awakened him to the harsh realities of the world; he abandoned pacifism and enlisted as a Navy chaplain. In 1945, he found himself witness to the carnage and heroism of Iwo Jima, and delivered a sermon at a burial service—originally intended for the 5th Marine Division as a whole—that has since become well known to generations of Marines. Jeff Jacoby cites its opening:
This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. . . . Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor—together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews—together. Here, no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. . . . Among these men, there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.
Rabbi Gittelsohn’s sermon, Jacoby writes, would have a worthy afterlife:
Copies of Gittelsohn’s sermon were typed up and circulated. Many of the men sent copies home. One of those copies reached Time magazine, which shared excerpts with its national audience. The sermon was quoted in newspapers and broadcast over the radio. Today it is renowned as one of the great memorial addresses in the annals of America. In the Marine Corps, it is known simply as “The Purest Democracy.”
In 1995, shortly before his death, Gittelsohn was asked to give the invocation at a ceremony in Washington, DC, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. He spoke the same words he had delivered on that sorrowful day at the foot of Mount Suribachi half a century earlier. It was, said a three-star general who was there, “like hearing Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.”