Seder in Korea, 1951

Passover on Wheels

by David Geffen

from the Jerusalem Post

At the conclusion of an intense and successful military Korean Pessah mission for 700 Jewish soldiers, Chaplain Oscar Mike Lifshutz wrote an eight-page summary report to Rabbi Aryeh Lev, his supervisor at the Jewish Welfare Board’s Chaplaincy Commission, on May 4, 1951. “We have just returned from the front,”Lifshutz began, “and completed a tour of our men scattered about the Korean peninsula. Operation Passover is over… let me go back, tell you about our project and how it came to be.”

The efforts of Lifshutz were already known widely through a story on Pessah in Korea by George Barrett published in The New York Times on April 22, 1951. It described a “Jewish chaplain officiating under battle conditions,” and Barrett quoted Lifshutz at the Seder stating that “when you fight for somebody else’s freedom you also are keeping your own.”

An Illinois native, Lifshutz received his smicha from the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago in 1945 and immediately entered the US Army as a chaplain. During his studies at the chaplaincy school in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, a biting description of the army’s treatment of the Jewish DPs was published in the Harrison Report by the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in September 1945. Lifshutz recognized that he would have a chance to assist the survivors of the Holocaust, and did so during the next four years he served at US Army posts in Austria.

Interestingly, he also had a hand in early Israeli history. In the summer of 1949 it was decided to bring the remains of Theodor Herzl and his family to this country for reburial in Jerusalem. As the chaplain in Vienna, where Herzl was buried, Lifshutz organized a memorial service at the main synagogue in the city. Then in his white kittel, he accompanied the honor guard from Israel which came to bring Herzl home to the land about which he had prophesied: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Returning to the first-person report from Korea, it is important to realize that Lifshutz was faced with a tremendous challenge. The Jewish military personnel were dispersed in most parts of the Korean mainland so considerable efforts were needed to service them during Pessah. The Lifshutz report, found in his archives at the American Jewish Historical Society, will be part of his biography now being prepared which will describe his 20 years of military service and his two decades as a spiritual leader in Chicago.

“In the beginning, in March 1951, we began to plan Passover Seders. First, a survey was taken to determine the whereabouts of our men and focal points established so that all men could come and partake.”

As is clear Lifshutz’s words reflect the Haggada here. “Our lights burned late, far into the night, but we toiled with the rewarding knowledge that our bulletins and releases went out to every unit in Korea.”

He emphasized the hardships that can occur in a battle zone. “But war brings lightning changes and a week later our plan was out of focus. Outfits moved up, others pulled back into reserve; result one plan lost.”

Lifshutz did not let a moment pass. He flew to see division chaplains to create a new SOP – standard operating procedure. He went to Seoul, Wonju and Chunju for more consultations. Then Col. Tobey, the 8th Army chaplain, called Lifshutz into his office and put the entire project into perspective. “Lifshutz, I want every Jewish boy in Korea taken care of.” Now there was a motto, “No soldier of the Jewish faith was to be forgotten.”

“Orders for matza, wine and kosher for Passover foodstuffs were placed with the Jewish Welfare Board. The Quartermaster Corps was alerted… wheels began to turn and soon our Passover supplies began pouring into Pusan.”

A two-and-a half-ton truck was not big enough for all that had arrived, so two other trucks brought the rest. Lifshutz was given a “prefab” building just for Pessah supplies. He explained that Pessah food required special supervision and had to be separated from general warehouse items.

“So far, so good,” he continued in his report. “When we began to examine our itinerary, we found that the only way to provide coverage for isolated areas was to drive there in a truck loaded with our Passover necessities. A truck and driver were requisitioned and Project MAPS (Mobile Army Passover Seder) was born.”

This was a complicated military operation which Lifshutz knew had to succeed. He arranged for air shipments to I Corps, IX Corps and X Corps. “At 4 a.m. we loaded supplies on the truck, rushed out to the airport for transfer to a cargo plane.”

He wrote with a building confidence: “Now we had a Passover stockpile in the backyards of the men on the fighting front. All our preparations were made; we waited for Passover to come.”

The first Seder held in the Fourth Field Hospital in Taegu was a good example of the type of assistance Lifshutz received. The commanding officer, Col. Hanson, permitted full use of the mess-hall facilities.

He cooperated in every way by taking a personal interest.

“Captain Gertrude Paige, our only female nurse on duty in Korea,” Lifshutz wrote, “was in charge of decorations doing a splendid job.” The chief nurse of the hospital organized a group of nurses who were to use their skills to transform the mess hall “into home – stateside.” Even cherry blossoms were found for decoration.

“At sundown, the men began to arrive. Vehicles of all types came into the compound.” Lifshutz noted how they arrived at the Seder. “Duffle bags, bulging with sleeping gear and military equipment, were hurriedly stored away.”

Now the spirit of the evening took over. “In the large dining room of the mess hall, the committee of nurses completed last-minute touches. The lights were dimmed, the candles were lit and the men began to file in to take their places at the tables.”

What a night this was for the soldiers coming from the front lines. “They stared with open mouths at the paper kiddush cups, the fancy doilies and the multicolored napkins. Soon, a hush descended on the candlelit hall and a Yom Tov atmosphere settled upon the assembled. We were under way. The Seder had begun in the combat zone in Korea.”

Cpl. Reznick of New York asked the Four Questions in Hebrew and English. The singing of “Dayenu” brought the house down. The deputy 8th Army chaplain offered greetings and a special message was read from Lt.-Gen. Van Fleet, second in command in Korea.

Along with many other chaplains and Jewish officers whom Lifshutz knew personally was Irv Levine, NBC correspondent in Korea. Many Jewish military personnel brought their buddies, who were non-Jews. “As I looked about me at the crowded hall, ” Lifshutz stressed, “a heartwarming thankfulness welled up within me for the people who were able to bring us such a Seder, though we were thousands of miles from home.”

They dined on everything from grapefruit to gefilte fish to chicken. “Surprise dessert” was pineapple sherbet blended with fruit juices.

“The night before there had been shrill warnings from air raid sirens. For the Seder, with God’s help, that did not occur.”

Lifshutz framed the message of the evening in this fashion. “The Seder continued on into the late hours of the evening. At 11 we concluded with the singing of ‘Chad Gadya.’ Then, as one, everyone rose, stood at attention and sang ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’ We would not forget the ageless message of the night – the freedom for which we are fighting and our hopes for peace and brotherhood.”

Following the services the next morning and a Pessah lunch, Lifshutz and his assistant were off to their next stop. “Operation MAPS got under way. The two-and-a-half ton truck pulled up to the supply building and the matzas, nuts, gift parcels and everything else were loaded. Perishables were removed from the refrigerators and we were on the road. Passover on wheels!”

The first meeting along the highway was with Lt. Lewis, 570th Engineers, a West Point graduate. After “hearty greetings,” an ample supply of Pessah foods was provided.

Lifshutz directed his driver north to Waegwan, originally a North Korean stronghold. After visiting various troops along the battle lines, they continued on to Yaongdong, where they slept for the night.

Now it was on to Taejon, noted for the valiant stand of Gen. Dean and his men. At the 618th Medical Clearing Station, Lifshutz and his assistant unloaded the cooking equipment and the food for a Seder that night. “We backed our truck up close to the kitchen and unloaded the supplies needed… The mess sergeant had gone to great lengths to beautify the mess hall. Small wooden tables, seating four people, set with flowers and with matching chairs creating a homelike atmosphere… a Yom Tov spirit descended upon the gatherings.”

This Seder at Taejon was like the one at Taegu. Soldiers from Alabama, New Jersey, California and New York led parts of the Seder. “The meal was superb,” Lifshutz noted. “There was satisfaction on the faces of everyone. One officer said to the chaplain, ‘This is wonderful.’ Indeed it was, for the vast majority of the boys had landed in Korea with the idea that such a Seder with the best of everything was a luxury to be left behind and something to hope for in the future when they returned home.”

After a few hours of sleep, Lifshutz and his assistant were on the road again. Even the American army had its Jewish symbolism. While traveling, the chaplain recognized members of the 341st Panel Bridge Company, the famed “Mezzuza” Company, an organized reserve unit with many Jewish boys – all from Philadelphia. They were given a taste of the Pessah cuisine to be sure they would be at the Seder in Suwon.

Another group joined Lifshutz and the Mezzuza Company for the Seder that evening. During the next few days several other stops were made and more American Jewish soldiers had an opportunity to observe the holiday. By the end of Pessah, MAPS had covered over 900 kilometers providing Sedarim for more than 700 Jewish soldiers.

In the fall of 1951, Lifshutz was sent back to the USA for a new assignment at the US Army Chaplaincy School. In the Jewish community, his accomplishments were recognized by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations at its convention in November 1951. In June 1952, Lifshutz received the Ben David Award at the Yeshiva University commencement. Both he and Eleanor Roosevelt were honored that day.