“In relation to the late war,” wrote George Orwell in 1949, “one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: ‘What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated?’” Such a question appears to have occurred to Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn, who was the first Jewish chaplain to serve with the Marines in World War II. Jonathan Bratten reviews Gittelsohn’s memoir of his service, written just as the war was ending and recently published for the first time.
As a pacifist, Rabbi Gittelsohn was an unlikely chaplain, and, in fact, he cautioned the Jewish community against calling for U.S. entry into World War II—until Pearl Harbor. His dramatic change of heart did not happen overnight; it took eleven months of soul-searching for Gittelsohn to don the uniform of the U.S. Navy. Like any good scholar, he laid out the reasons for his change: pride in Jewish military service, worries over the fate of Jews during the war, a desire to be there for the service members who would need the comfort of religion in the darkest of places, and last—the need to silence his conscience. “And what are you doing about all this?” he asked himself day after day once the United States entered the war. Did Gittelsohn remain a pacifist? The best he offers his readers is this statement: “Our mistake as pacifists was that we held peace up as our God and forgot that peace can come only along with the rest.”
While Gittelsohn does write about combat and the suffering it brings, often in great detail, he is surprisingly focused on life. When these young men in the most difficult of life circumstances had no one else to turn to, there was the chaplain. Much of the book is devoted to vignettes about working with young marines to help improve their lives and show that they were not alone.
It is Gittelsohn’s frank self-awareness and candor that make his memoir so exceptional. He chides his readers toward the middle of the book for expecting a work on religion in uniform. “Religion is a part of life,” he tells us, “not apart from life.” He lived alongside his marines through the Battle of Iwo Jima.