Before his death, Bernard Heller (1919-2009) instructed his heirs to have the following inscribed on his tombstone: “I served in the U.S. Marine Corps in WWII as a staff sgt. I managed to put on t’filin every day even during combat in the Pacific and refrained from eating meat the entire time. The Almighty helped me to survive.” In honor of Memorial Day, Mordechai Lightstone tells Haller’s story:
Haller’s religious commitment in the Marines didn’t come easy. When one cook found out that the Jewish staff sergeant was avoiding meat, he began adding lard to the vegetables he served out of spite. When Haller found out, he switched to eating only raw vegetables.
Harassment came in other ways as well. To avoid attracting undue attention from his fellow Marines, Haller would put on t’filin when no one else was around. Still, they taunted him with slurs, referring to him as “Benny the Heeb.” . . . But as time went by and they saw Haller’s courage under fire, the harassment faded.
Haller shipped out to the Pacific theater in 1942, fighting in the battles of Saipan and Guam. Later, he was stationed in the Philippines. . . . Haller seldom spoke about his experience during the war, but his son recalls a time when, years later in the Bronx, his father awakened from a traumatic dream in the night and screamed for his rifle. Unspoken was the understanding that this particular nightmare was one of many the elder Haller regularly experienced.