Sunday, November 11, 2007

Gittelsohn’s Sermon, 1945: A Veterans Day Post.

The first Jewish chaplain the Marine Corps ever appointed, Lt Roland B Gittelsohn, ChC, USNR, was assigned to the Fifth Marine Division.

When the US Armed Forces invaded Iwo Jima in February, 1945, Rabbi Gittelsohn was in the thick of the fighting, ministering to Marines of all faiths in the combat zone. His tireless efforts to comfort the wounded and encourage the fearful won him three service ribbons.

When the fighting was over, Gittelsohn was asked to deliver the memorial sermon at a combined religious service dedicating the Marine Cemetery. Unfortunately, racial and religious prejudice led to problems with the ceremony. What happened next immortalized Gittelsohn and his sermon forever.

The Division Chaplain and Protestant minister, Cmdr Warren Cuthriell, originally asked Rabbi Gittelsohn to deliver the memorial sermon. Cuthriell wanted all the fallen Marines (Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, black and white) to be honored in a single, nondenominational ceremony. However, according to Rabbi Gittelsohn's autobiography, the majority of Christian chaplains objected to having a rabbi preach over predominantly Christian graves. The Catholic chaplains, in keeping with church doctrine, opposed any form of joint religious service.

To his credit, Cuthriell refused to alter his plans. Gittelsohn, on the other hand, wanted to save his friend Cuthriell further embarrassment and so decided it was best not to deliver his sermon. Instead, three separate religious services were held.

At the Jewish service, to a congregation of 70 or so who attended, Rabbi Gittelsohn delivered the powerful eulogy he originally wrote for the combined service:

Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding. And other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores.

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. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed.

Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy! Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery.

To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

We here solemnly swear this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.


Among Gittelsohn’s listeners were three Protestant chaplains so incensed by the prejudice voiced by their colleagues that they boycotted their own service to attend Gittelsohn’s.

One of them borrowed the manuscript and, unknown to Gittelsohn, circulated several thousand copies to his regiment. Some Marines enclosed the copies in letters to their families.

An avalanche of coverage was the result. Time published excerpts; the wire services spread the sermon even further. The entire sermon was inserted into the Congressional Record; the Army released the eulogy for short-wave broadcast to American troops throughout the world; and it has been read on many succeeding days that commemorate our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines..

It’s Veteran’s Day today – 62 years after Iwo Jima and the Rabbi’s sermon. Join me in thinking about those you know, who have served and are serving throughout the world, defending our freedoms. As long as we remember the names, they won’t fade.

Paul Hirsch Baron, Emmanuel Katz, Herman Eisenberg and Sam Slavik. Phil Slavik. Norman Sabel and Sherman Sabel. Joel Hirsch Goldberg. Thomas Biddulph, Richard Dailey, Richard Fox, Bill Gay and Richard Sutter. David Starr. Chris Hrabe. AJ Smith and Paul Hoven. Alan Vera. Nathanael Charles Yonka, Jr. Hoi Nguyen and Ellis Alexander. And the names from the Gunroom (you know who you are): Paul Johnson, KCMO, and “Charlezzzzz” Muñoz. And me.


Special thanks to Rabbi Leigh Lerner of Montreal, Canada; and the American Jewish Historical Society. Photo: Fifth Marine Division Cemetary, Iwo Jima.

3 comments:

David Starr said...

Richard: Thanks for this moving account. Richard Dailey should be added to the list of those who died in VN from Marist.

Our clergy association in San Bernardino is an ecumenical one. Catholics, Mormans, Protestants and Seventh Day Adventists meet monthly discuss our comm missions in the community. Things are better now and I am glad they are.
Thanks for posting your remembrance. David Starr (LCDR, USN, Vietnam Era Vet).

[Signalwriter notes: David, I had forgotten Richard Dailey and should not have...we'll add both his and your names to the list.]

Mary Jo Martin said...

One more name for your list, Richard: Irene Helen Phillippe, Sargeant Major, USMCWR. Served from 1943-1945, mostly in San Diego - took care of shipping leathernecks out of the country and back in. Trained at Camp Lejuene. USMCWR (Women's Reserve) members were lovingly referred to as BAMs - Broad-Assed Marines. She was a dandy - and my Mom. A girl couldn't have had a better (and tougher) Mother.

Richard Laurence Baron said...

Consider it done, Mary Jo.