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Magid: The Telling

Adding grandpa's oral history (and a favorite song!) to the passover seder

We did something different at our family Passover seders two years ago. For both evenings, during the dinner part of the service, we listened to a veteran of World War II—our own Dad and Grandfather, Max Podolsky—as he told about his experiences as a soldier in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army.

Passover in 1995 was just prior to the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Victory in Japan Day, and the commemoration of the end of World War II. It seemed the right time to officially add my father’s story—he was 81 years old—to the authoritative Hagaddah, the telling of Jewish deliverance from Egypt 3,200 years ago.

Though my Dad—like most of our parents and grandparents— often told stories that offered up bits and pieces of his youth, it seemed important to capture his wartime narratives in a permanent and organized manner. I set a tape recorder on the dining room table—beside the ceremonial horseradish, matzah and charoset. To tell the truth, the tape recorder felt, on an emotional level, as sacred as the Cup of Elijah. At the designated time. Dad began his reminiscences.

He was drafted in January 1944. He was a businessman, married, with a baby daughter (me). After only five short months of training at Camp Barkley in Texas with the 52nd Medical Training Battalion, Company C, Dad was sent out to be the only medic (and the only Jew) on a ship that transported troops and supplies and picked up the wounded and prisoners of war. Dad’s assignment (he essentially had to learn on the job) was to stop patients from bleeding and to keep patients alive.

As he told of his experiences, the entire family listened more attentively than usual because he was trying to tell the whole story—not just fragments— and because we had elevated his magid (his “telling”) into the context of Jewish ritual and Jewish history. One anecdote of Dad’s in particular, I think, bears repeating.

One morning, shortly after the Battle of the Bulge of December 1944, Dad’s platoon lieutenant addressed his men in Newport News, Virginia.

“Can anyone here speak German?”

There was no response.

Someone yelled Dad’s name, adding, “He knows Yiddish.” Dad was called to the “front and center” and asked if he spoke German.

Dad replied that he did not speak German. The lieutenant asked, “Do you speak Yiddish?”

Dad answered, “Yes, sir.”

The lieutenant inquired, “Is Yiddish anything like German?”

“Sir, the languages are related.”

The lieutenant informed Dad that he had an assignment for him. He was to be at the dock at 0600. A ship with German prisoners- of-war had come into port. An interpreter would be needed for basic conversation and for triage, that is, to determine the priority of medical attention.

Dad stood on the dock as the German prisoners of war disembarked, assessing their ages and their medical conditions. Dad said that the old men—who looked to be in their 50s and 60s, claimed to be 20 to 30 years younger. Among the younger men who claimed to be 17 and older were many who didn’t have a hair on their bodies. Some, it turned out, were as young as 13. Dad thought, as he saw these prisoners-of-war, that the war must be soon over: the Germans were using their old men and children.

As Dad, at the seder table, was describing this scene, we all gasped, trying to imagine the circumstances: A Jewish U.S. Army medic, speaking Yiddish, had interpreted on behalf of German prisoners-of-war who had been brought to the U.S. on a U.S. ship! As some of the more arrogant P.O.W.’s came off the ships, the proud Jewish G.I. interpreter made known to these soldiers of the Nazi army that he was Jewish. In unmistakable Yiddish-German, he told them, “Ich bin a Yid.” (“I am a Jew.”)

Dad paused as we family members took in the incredible irony of this situation. On top of all this, he added, he was being protected by a platoon of African-American military police who were shore patrol—the U.S. Armed Services were not desegregated until a presidential act of Harry Truman on July 26, 1948.

At the end of the evening, somewhere between the songs “Chad Gadya” and “Who Knows One?,” Dad taught us the anthem that he learned from his lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps (though he warned us that the lyrics were rusty—he hadn’t sung the song in 50 years):

Hail to Medical Men
In the army of the free.
Men who carry on
On land as on the sea.
We ‘re always marching at the side
Of men who fight and sail and fly.
Helping to live
As aid we give to victory,
We’re there to do or die.

Dad showed us his pocket-sized Hebrew Bible inscribed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his dog tag with the identification “H” for Hebrew. (If you have Jewish veterans in your family, ask to see theirs.)

With only a little coaxing, my mother, Dorothy Hankin Podolsky, added humbly that during the war she “did nothing special, only kept the home fires burning” and cared for a baby on a serviceman’s pay and war ration coupons!

After the seder, we placed my parents’ audio tape on the shelf next to our Passover haggadot, the prayer books that describe the Exodus of Israelites from slavery three millennia ago. The tape is now a permanent source of history, a contemporary “telling,” a piece added to Jewish history by elders in our own family, a supplement—thousands of years later—to the Passover story of the eternal search for justice and freedom.

And at this year’s seder, and I hope all those to come, somewhere between “Adir Hu “ and the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat, we’ll be stoutheartedly adding our family’s own received Passover anthem, “Hail to Medical Men.”

Bonnie P. Theiner is a teacher of Hebrew/Judaica, bar/bat mitzvah, and secular studies and a freelance writer. She has two young-adult sons and lives in Pittsburgh, as do her parents