Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, June 6, 2024

            Today is the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and quite likely, the last milestone anniversary in which participants will still be alive. An 18-year old soldier in 1944 would be 98 today.
            Every year, I have paused from my regular round of activities on June 6 to devote some time in meditation about the meaning of D-Day.  I am of the generation of the children of the survivors of that moment. As a child, it was commonplace for my parents’ circle of peers to include World War II veterans and those who aided them from the home front. Today, the Second World War is as far in the past as the American Civil War was to them: to the generation of Pearl Harbor, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima; of Monte Cassino, Normandy, and Bastogne.
            My personal connection to the D-Day Landings was Meir Degani.  His wife, Edith Degani, was the administrative librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s library—my boss when I worked there in 1981. She told me admiringly about her husband.  Some of you may have read his textbook, Astronomy Made Simple. But a decade before he wrote that book, he was a meteorologist on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In fact, according to Eisenhower, “Degani was the best damned meteorologist in the Atlantic Fleet!” That was because when the other meteorologists were prepared to conclude that there would be no break in the weather to permit the planned Allied landing – bad weather had already forced its postponement from June 5, and another day’s delay would have meant losing the tactical necessity of moonless nights for an entire month—Degani scanned the same data and predicted that there would be a let-up in the weather sufficient for a landing early on June 6.
            What did the successful landing in June mean, as opposed to a month’s delay? We cannot know for sure.  But it is likely that many of those who barely survived the concentration camps until their liberation in April 1945, would have perished before the Americans and British would have reached them, had the liberation of the Western Front from Nazi tyranny been pushed back by a month.
            This year, my thinking about the significance of D-Day may be encapsulated in the three images accompanying this meditation:
            First: The famous photograph of American soldiers leaving the landing craft and wading ashore onto the Normandy beaches in the face of murderous machine gun fire. We must appreciate the sacrifice.  “A total of 4,414 Allied troops were killed on D-Day itself, including 2,501 Americans. More than 5,000 were wounded. In the ensuing Battle of Normandy, 73,000 Allied forces were killed and 153,000 wounded. “
            Would America undertake that sacrifice today, if faced with the challenge of liberating the world from tyranny?  I fear that Americans today are weakened by two contrary partisan currents: in one camp, some of our countrymen are in lock step behind a leader who admires tyrants, and in the other camp, some of our fellow citizens are spellbound by the paradigm of Vietnam into thinking that there is no justification for opposing evil with force.

Illustration: U.S. soldiers making their way ashore, D-Day, June 6, 1944. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense.
            As an American Jew, I cherish a particular supplemental meditation, illustrated by the second image: the grave marker of an American Jewish soldier killed in the Battle of Normandy. The battle to defeat Hitler, and likewise, Imperial Japan, created an American society in which more of us were more unified than before.  Among the 11 million GI Joes, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, Marines, (and aviators in the various branches of the military), were 550,000 GI Jews. Their parents may have been immigrants, only half at home in America, but the service and sacrifice of this half-million plus of our young adults made them full members of our burgeoning country. 

Illustration: Colleville Cemetery, Grave Marker of a Jewish soldier, died in Normandy, July 16, 1944. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

            Today, that sense of shared American identity feels fragile.  As an American Jew, after the assault on synagogues from East Coast to West, I feel assailed in ways that are new to my generation. I must acknowledge that this sense of insecurity would be quite familiar to my grandparents. They fled pogroms. Now, they would be the first to tell me that things are not as bad here as they were in Tsarist Russia and antisemitic Rumania.  But they would also be the first to recognize that when things get worse, the Jew is often the canary in the coal mine.
            The third focus of my D-Day meditation is illustrated in the image of an American G.I. giving cigarettes to liberated concentration camp prisoners. We must cherish an awareness of the link between D-Day and liberation. No D-Day, no American or British liberation of the Camps.  No D-Day, and the downfall of Nazi Germany would have meant Soviet tyranny over all of Europe, not just its Eastern half.


Illustration: U.S. Army Cpl. Larry Matinsk puts cigarettes into the extended hands of newly liberated prisoners behind a stockade in the Allach concentration camp on April 30, 1945, in Germany. Credit...United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park
            Today, the D-Day commemorations also said something significant by an absence.  There was no Russian partner in the anti-tyranny coalition assembled in Normandy.  Vladimir Putin speaks the language of anti-fascism.  He constantly points to the vestiges of neo-Nazism in Ukraine, although he ignores the basic truth that Ukraine has marginalized its antisemitism and elected a Jewish president.  All in all, Putin’s invasion of a country whose independence he does not respect feels uncomfortably like the Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938.
            These D-Day commemorations had their festive as well as their solemn moments, with enactors driving around in 1940’s vintage vehicles and sporting period uniforms.   But I think of it as a time for solemnity… a time for recitation of memorial prayers…. And a time for rededication of our own energies, to keep alive the hope of the world that the original D-Day made possible. Amen