The warp & woof of legend

When my mother died this October my sister’s and I had to start the long process of essentially closing shop. The house that I grew up in was being packed up, and getting ready to be sold. I wasn’t attached to the house persay, but more to the experiences and the many stories I was told my whole life.

My mother, Liba, came to the states when she was three with her parents Rabbi Marcus and Bertha Breger from Rhodes, Greece. My grandfather was on a list of Jewish scholars designated for special treatment and their passage to the United States was facilitated by the Mussolini government before the impending Nazi invasion of Greece, which wiped out most of the Jewish community.

In the United States, my grandfather, was unable to find a pulpit from which to practice, and moved to Tucson, Arizona to help a fledgling Jewish community start a congregation, later to become Anshei Israel.

He felt though that he needed to offer thanks to the country, which rescued him from near certain death, and at 33 enlisted as a private in the United States Army. The next 3-4 years would profoundly shape his life and those of many others, including Cantor Maurice Falkow, his best friend and cantor who met him in the Pacific Theater and who wrote the following testimony.

My Grandparents Marcus and Bertha along with my mother Liba when he returned from World War 2.
My Grandparents Marcus and Bertha along with my mother Liba when he returned from World War 2.

Ironically it was a story I had heard many times, and frankly thought it was a bit embellished and dramatized about how his tent stood in a typhoon. When I came across this document, I realized that this was history.

I am sharing this to share what is simply a profound story, and in honor of my grandparents Rabbi Marcus and Bertha Breger, and my parents Seymour and Liba Feuerstein who continued throughout their life to strengthen memories in us all.

The Warp and Woof of Legend

by Maurice Falkow

The constant lurching of the C-54 as it swept through the storm toward its destination only aggravated my dark, somber mood. Going overseas didn’t make much sense on October 5th, 1945. V.E. and V.J. Days had finally come and gone. In terms of service and according to the system recently established by the army I had more than enough points to remain stateside. Yet, fate had inexorably woven its pattern. Little did I know that my entire future would result from army orders which sent me to Okinawa in the Ryukus islands, and the man whom I would affectionately refer to as “the boss” for many years to come.

Okinawa was a mess: I arrived only hours after it had suffered the severest typhoon in twenty years. Winds, at times up to 140 miles per hour and more, had battered the island to a shambles. Everything was wet and dirty.

As my gear was thrown into the mud from the 6 x 6 and I jumped into the mire I felt trapped and lonely. The lump in my throat was not dispelled by the hurrying first sergeant that hastily answered my query about the chaplain’s whereabouts with a wave of his hand, indicative of no particular direction.

G.I’s were on the move everywhere. Yet, no one seemed to be going anywhere. All seemed confused and chaotic. My own voice, I recall, sounded odd as I hailed a soldier rushing by and asked where I could find the Jewish chaplain.

“You must mean chaplain Breger. You can’t miss his tent, it’s the only one in the entire area that remained upright during the typhoon.” with that he pointed to the general direction in which I should go.

Major Breger
Chaplain Breger (Major)

Until that moment I hadn’t realized the shattering force of the typhoon, which had left everyone reeling. Hardly a thing was left standing or intact. All of the movement about me began to add up to the effort of restoring some semblance of order.

For what seemed an interminable time I squished through ankle-deep mud, consoling myself with the thought of not being in the infantry. My continued inquiries about the Jewish chaplain always brought a respectful response and an indication of where “the only tent left standing during the typhoon could be found.” It occurred to me that all of these soldiers were not Jewish. Yet, everyone knew of or about the Jewish chaplain. And what about “the only tent left standing during the typhoon?” I began to sense an air of mystery and mysticism in the whole thing. Who was this man so readily identified and known to everyone? For a fleeting moment the thought crossed my mind that here was the material of which legends are born.

As I reflected upon these things I suddenly came upon an almost completely upright tent. It appeared to be the flimsiest of tents. It was faded, spattered and caked with mud, and leaned at an angle. The canvas front was flapping in the breeze. I looked about me. It was true; this was the only tent in the area that was upright. I called out the name of the chaplain. A weary and gentle, but strong voice bade me enter…

Days and weeks later when I had became acquainted with many G.I.’s and officers alike, I began to understand the affection and admiration in their hearts for this man who, at age 33 and not yet a citizen of the United States (he had been expelled from the island of Rhodes by the Fascists where he had been a professor for rabbis in the Collegio Rabbinico ). Had enlisted as a private in the army of the United States, and later having gone on to become a Major, and was at the time the highest ranking “Enemy Alien” in the US Armed Forces.

During the typhoon when everyone else who could were “Holed Up” in caves he was seen moving about in the open, making his way to the side of those who were hurt, comforting and bringing succor to those in need. That he was not injured or maimed by flying objects was a miracle. And when it was discovered that his tent, the flimsiest of all tents, had remained erect while all the others had blown down or away—— this was all that was needed.

Objectivity notwithstanding, 20th century and the laws of chance and probability notwithstanding, nothing made any difference. Those who were there looked with awe and newfound admiration upon this courageous man of God.

As days passed into weeks, more and more of us began to recognize the vast fund of knowledge at his command. We knew that he had been ordained at the Juedische Theologische Seminary and and that he had received his Ph.D in history from the University of Breslau, in Breslau, Germany. We delighted in trying to “trap” him by asking for information about long-forgotten and insignificant historical events. It quickly became apparent that here was a profound scholar. He not only always knew the answers to our questions, but also gave additional information, thus shedding heretofore little-known facts upon the events asked about.

It soon became a custom for a group of us to gather regularly for discussions in his tent. Usually there were several non-Jewish chaplains and G.I.’s present. The absence of chairs or stools left us with but one place to sit —on the earth floor of the tent. We were like pupils sitting at the feet of their masters.

One evening, Father Clasby, the staff chaplain, extended an invitation to Rabbi Breger to speak on some portion or aspect of the Tanach. He felt it would be good for the men to learn about the Jewish point of view as regards the bible. Rabbi Breger agreed and the date for the lecture was set.

As it turned out, the evening of the lecture coincided with a new U.S.O. Show that had just arrived on the island. Up to now these had been far and few between. A good turnout to the lecture was not anticipated.

Our misgivings about the attendance ultimately turned to delight. As we came close to the recently completed chapel we noticed large groups of soldiers standing outside the chapel. We assumed they were waiting to gain entry. Our surprise was even greater when we came closer and saw that the chapel itself was filled to capacity.

It became evident that something had to be done if all were to hear the Rabbi. As G.I.s continued to arrive, a number of us busied ourselves with the setting up of what we hoped would be a reliable public address system. By the time we were ready, GI’s were standing or sitting on all levels of the rocky hillside, the chapel being built at the bottom of an amphitheater-like arena. Those of us who were Jewish swelled with pride at this splendid tribute to our rabbi. That night we became aware of the fundamental qualities, which really spell out “Rabbi:” a love of Torah and its application to life, humility born of sincerity of purpose, and both of these being conditioned through “YIRAT SHAMAYIM.” [being in awe of the Creator]

But this was as nothing compared to the personal experience and statement of one non-Jewish G.I. An experience, undoubtedly, felt by others. Never in  all my life will I forget it: the lecture and question answer period were over. Outside it was already night. Soldiers had, gathered in small groups and were quietly discussing various aspects of Rabbi Breger’s address. Others, in the dimly-lit chapel, were standing in line waiting to shake hands with him.

As the last of those in line left, a soldier, who all the while had been leaning against the altar railing and obviously been in deep reverie, approached the Rabbi. As they clasped hands the G.I. Looked into Chaplain Breger’s eyes and in hushed, yet distinct tones said: “Rabbi, our Lord must have looked like you.”

Chaplain Breger (Left) and Cantor Falkow (right) in Iwo Jima 1945.
Chaplain Breger (Left) and Cantor Falkow (right) in Iwo Jima 1945.
About the Author
David Feuerstein is a husband and father of three currently residing in Reut, Israel. He shares pieces of his family history and some aspects of the legacy his parents and grandparents.