The photograph of Pfc. Emanuel Weinstock was taken during a brief pause in a war that had already claimed hundreds of thousands of Americans troops and millions of Jews in Europe.
Yet there he was, looking back at the camera with war-weary eyes, a Jewish soldier celebrating Passover at a crowded seder table on the island of Guam during World War II.
The picture, taken at what has since become known as the 1945 “Guam seder,” was among about 80 that had been tucked away and mostly forgotten by his family in the decades since, and discovered only weeks ago by his grandson, Michael Weinstock of Great Neck.
Weinstock was so struck by the image of quiet faith — a Jew from Youngstown, Ohio, celebrating the persistence of Jewish life in a time of war — that he shared them with others who attended a communal seder last week at Chabad of Great Neck.
“I like that the photograph was not just of a soldier on a beach somewhere, but that my grandfather took the time to engage in traditions we are engaging in now,” he said. “It shows the connective tissue he shared with the greater Jewish community — Jews working together and suspending Jewish law that forbids working during Passover to engage in the war effort. That’s pretty cool.”
Emanuel Weinstock was a combat photographer who experienced fighting up close, although he rarely spoke about his experiences. Michael Weinstock, who was 9 when his grandfather died in 1982 at age 71, mostly knew him from visiting him at the VA hospital in Albany.
What Michael Weinstock learned after the photographs were found in a bedroom closet at his father’s house in Albany, is that some 2,700 Jewish soldiers participated in the Guam seder. They gathered around makeshift tables set in open-sided canvas tents. On Guam, the troops were some 1,400 miles from southern Japan, and getting closer with each island taken from the Japanese.
Although Jews were a relatively small fraction of the more than 16 million Americans who served during World War II, the U.S. military turned to the National Jewish Welfare Board for help with providing for religious observances. The organization, which was founded after the United States entered World War I in 1917, helped train Jewish military chaplains and saw to the spiritual needs of Jewish personnel who served in the military.
Seders were held near battlefields in Europe and the Pacific, according to newspaper accounts.
“On Guam, three chaplains, including Army Capt. David I. Cedarbaum of New York, opened prayer books under palm trees before 2,500 Jewish servicemen and conducted the first Hebraic rites in that part of the western Pacific,” the New York World Herald said of the historic seder. “A recording of the ritual was broadcast to hospitals in the Marianas, where many of the wounded fought on Iwo Jima.”
Pam Elbe, an archivist with the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington D.C., said a menu prepared by the Welfare Board for what appears to be the 1945 Guam seder featured gefilte fish, hard-boiled eggs, parsley and horseradish, and sweet and sour beets.
“We have a few photographs from this general period from across the world of Jewish servicemen at seder dinners,” Elbe said. “So there were efforts by the military throughout the war to celebrate the holidays.”
Jonathan Brent, executive director of the New York City-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, who allowed Weinstock to peruse a collection of Cedarbaum’s wartime writings, said seders were especially meaningful to Jews by 1945, as the liberation of concentration camps in Europe the year before made plain the murderous scope of Nazi anti-Semitism.
“It was extremely significant, not only because it represented the holiday, but in the mind of the Jews who participated in them, it was an act of affirming an identity that they knew was being existentially threatened around the world,” Brent said.
For Michael Weinstock, the photograph of his grandfather at a wartime seder has become a window into his family’s Jewish history — and the life of a man he wished he had known better.
Emanuel Weinstock, who was born in 1910, was the son of Jewish immigrants who fled Russia and settled in Youngstown, Ohio. After setting up a photography studio in Albany after the war, he attended an Orthodox synagogue. His in-laws spoke Yiddish at home.
Michael Weinstock said that while gazing at the photograph, in which Cedarbaum is seen wearing a tallit and holding a plate of matzo, he tried to imagine what his grandfather endured as he attended a seder thousands of miles from a wife and young children he knew he might never see again.
Emanuel Weinstock left home for the war when his son was 4 and his daughter was 2 weeks old. Combat photography was hazardous duty that often required him to be among the first troops to go ashore amid the carnage of Pacific war battles.
Although he rarely spoke of his experiences to his grandson, he recounted to another relative that a buddy had been shot dead beside him while they were in a Jeep.
“I was thinking about it last night at the seder,” Michael Weinstock said last week. “I think of the challenges before me and how trivial they are compared to what my grandfather encountered. And of what Jews had encountered before him.”