July 1942: At the height of World War II Aaron Roth, a soldier from New York, begins his service—but not without a fateful meeting with the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn.
CrownHeights.info and the Avner Institute presents an amazing Encounter of a very special blessing and a promise to his father that followed Mr. Roth from an army base in Virginia to the heart of wartime Tel Aviv. With special thanks to Rabbi Yerachmiel Tiles, Director, Ascent Institute, Safed.
by Aaron Roth OBM and Yerachmiel Tilles:
On July 10,1942, I, Aaron Roth, was drafted into the American Army. My father, Meir Hillel (may his soul rest in peace), told me then that before taking a very important step in life, one should go to see a Rabbi. My father’s Rabbi was not available and so he took me to a different one, a “Gutter Yid” [a good Jew – an early 20th century honorific for a chassidic spiritual leader –ed.], the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson, ztz“l, in Brooklyn, who received us quite willingly.
After we entered his office and exchanged a few introductory remarks, the Rebbe suddenly asked me, ”What do you want?“ As I quickly collected my thoughts, I recalled my father telling me that he had been in the Austrian army, yet never had to eat non-kosher food nor desecrate the Shabbat. And since he came home in good health after four years of service, I figured that this would be a good bracha for me. So that was what I asked the Rebbe.
The Rebbe looked straight at me and replied: ”NU?“ And so my father and I left.
As time passed I was called up for induction to Fort Dix where I was issued a uniform and all the gear a soldier needed. Shortly thereafter, I was sent off to Fort Euston, Virginia for basic training, which lasted one day!
The second day on the parade ground the First Sergeant asked if there was anyone who could type. Of course, no one ever volunteers for anything in the Army, but because I was afraid that he would find out that I could type which would have made matters worse for me, the third time he asked the question I raised my little finger. And so I was called out to follow the Sergeant up to the Colonel’s office where his secretary was waiting eagerly.
He immediately asked me if I knew how to cut a stencil, to which I replied in the negative. He then said menacingly, ”Either you cut a stencil or you’re dead!“ (I subsequently found out that the Colonel’s secretary was scheduled to go on leave but was unable to do so without a replacement.) ”All you have to do is remove the ribbon and type on the stencil as though typing a letter“ he explained. And so I learned the art of typing stencils.
I worked in the Colonel’s office for a full nine days, going from my barracks at nine AM and working until three. The rest of the afternoon I was free. On the tenth day the Sergeant appeared in the office and asked what I was doing there. I meekly said: ”I don’t know.“ He then turned towards me and said:
”Who do you know in Washington?“ When I replied that I didn’t know anyone in Washington, he asked me more questions as to my job in the office, and then repeated again and again and again:
”Who do you know in Washington?“ As he turned to leave the office he said: ”You must tell me who you know in Washington.“ My reply remained the same. Before he left he told me to report to his office after work.
All kinds of thoughts were going through my mind on the way to the Sergeant’s office. When I arrived he said, ”Pack your things; you are shipping out.“ My first reaction was that I was being punished for not being with my unit, but after explaining to him that I was only doing the job demanded of me, he once again repeated ”Who do you know in Washington?“ When my answer remained the same as before, he handed me some papers from his desk and said: ”Here are your shipping orders.“ I was in shock and didn’t know that to do or say. But there they were – my shipping orders. (Apparently these orders came directly from the War Office and not through the regular Army channels, and this was the reason suspicion arose that I knew someone in Washington.)
A jeep was waiting to take me and my gear to the train station and it was only at that point that I learned my destination would be Shreveport, Louisiana, a two-day train trip. I traveled in a First Class cabin with very few passengers and since I had a small section to myself, I was able to put on tefilin, pray and eat my kosher food.
When the train arrived to Shreveport, I was greeted by a sergeant and corporal. After checking my identification, they asked me to leave the train. When I told them that I had two barracks bags on the train, the corporal went back to retrieve them and put them in the jeep. This really surprised me because I was an ordinary private and privates don’t usually qualify for this kind of treatment. At the army camp I was driven to a tent at the very end of the base. This was to be my quarters.
There was only one other person in the tent, an American of Armenian extraction. It quickly became clear that he knew about as much of what was happening as I did! We were, however, told that we had the whole day free – no duties – but that we had to return to quarters by five p.m.
During the next few days, we were joined by two other soldiers, who also knew no more than we did. After the fourth day, we were visited by a sergeant who asked us what we knew about what was going on. In reply to our negative response he told us that within a few days we would be informed about the unit and its make-up and that more men would be joining us.
Finally we were told that this unit will form the Security Intelligence Unit for the entire Middle East. Among the eight of us, we spoke 24 foreign languages! Each one of us soon realized that he was going to ”A Familiar Country“ – and to me it meant Israel. I was to be stationed in Tel Aviv!
We traveled from one staging area to another until we reached Port Jarvis in Staten Island, N.Y. where we embarked on the ”Aquantania.“ A once Luxury Liner Cruise ship which was now equipped to hold the 8,000 soldiers on board. The date was Erev Yom Kippur.
The next morning while everyone was standing at the railing saying ”Good Bye“ to the Statue of Liberty (and probably saying his own prayer), I was on deck with my ”Machzor“ praying without interruption the Yom Kippur service. It had taken all night to board the 8,000 men – and we were traveling without a convoy!
Two nights later I was called for guard duty (like everyone else was in turn). After my shift, I went down to the galley with the other guard for a hot drink and to just sit around and schmooze [converse]. The Second Steward was there and all of us were talking about our private and personal histories. I too participated in the conversations and told the Steward that I had brought my own kosher food along for the trip. Laughingly he said, ”Soldier, your food will never last as long as this trip. You had better come with me!“ He then invited me for a tour of the ship the following morning.
The next day, after showing me various places, the Steward took me into a very large dining room. I couldn’t believe my eyes! There were closets marked ”Kosher Meat“! And next door was another large dining room with closets marked ”Kosher Dairy“!
The Second Steward explained that the ”Aquatania“ was a luxury Liner Cruise ship that during peacetime had strictly kosher kitchens. Now, because of the war, it had been converted into a troop transport ship. Then he gave me a note to the Chief Steward, advising me to see him, which I did of course.
The chief asked me several questions, and then in turn he too gave me a note, to the Galley instructing the workers there to ”give this soldier anything he wants.” And so, instead of semi-starving as I had expected, I ate better on the 40-day voyage than anyone else on board!
Once I had arrived at my destination and got into the swing of my job, I was no longer taken up with food and keeping Shabbat. Due to the nature of my duties, I was required to dress in civilian clothes and was given substantial per diem expense account to cover all of my needs, including clothing, housing, food and travel. I was free to work whatever hours I chose and to live off base in whatever housing I found to suit me best. The perfect set-up for a Jewish boy from Brooklyn.
I spent my first six months in Suez before being shipped off to Tel Aviv, where I spent the following year and a half in the Secret Service Dept of the American Army. The family of the Sadegora Rebbe, who lived in Tel Aviv then, found me very suitable accommodations which even included some meals. I lived the life of a civilian-soldier until the Army moved out of the area.
Next I was transferred to Alexandria where I enjoyed the same conditions and treatment for the following six months as I had in Tel Aviv. With the Army on the move I, too, was moved to Eritrea, where I continued to live in the same fashion as heretofore, doing the same work as before for the Security Services.
Not so long after that, Nazi Germany collapsed and the war was over.
Although I was eager to get to Europe to try and help the Jewish survivors, the Army, in its full force of bureaucracy, decided that since I had already been overseas for over three and a half years without any home leave, to which I was entitled, scheduled my return to the U.S. on the very next ship. I was reunited with my family in New York in October 1945.
And so, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s blessing followed me from the start of my Army service to its very end!
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