American radio listeners tuning into NBC at 9:30 am on Sunday, October 29, 1944, were met with something extraordinary—a 15-minute broadcast that was almost lost to history.
NBC war correspondent James Cassidy had been in Europe since the D-Day invasion in June and was on the scene for the fall of Aachen, the first city in Germany to be captured by Allied forces. The war in Europe would grind on for almost another year with untold horrors yet to be revealed. But here, at least, was one small beginning of the end.
Cassidy began the morning’s show saying, “Today, the National Broadcasting Company brings its listeners a program of historic moment, the first direct broadcast of a Jewish religious service from German soil since Adolf Hitler and his Nazis began the destruction not only of the Jewish religion but of all religions, more than a decade ago.”
The religious service was conceived of and produced by the American Jewish Committee and its radio director Milton Krents, who had been following the Allied progress in Europe and recognized a potent symbol when he saw one. A short documentary about the service is a centerpiece of Confronting Hate 1937-1952, New-York Historical’s current exhibition about the AJC’s years-long media campaign to combat antisemitism and racism in the United States both before and after World War II.
Visitors to the exhibition will see images captured by US Signal Corps photographers and hear the haunting audio from the prayer service, which took place in an open field near the site of a demolished synagogue, the sound of not-so-distant artillery rounds thundering in the background. Army Chaplain Sidney Lefkowitz, a Reform rabbi from Richmond, Virginia, led the service in front of some 50 Jewish soldiers and a Catholic and Protestant chaplain, who also spoke in support. A young private first class served as the cantor, singing the traditional hymns.
In a short address, Chaplain Lefkowitz acknowledged what the service represented. “Even as we sadly observe the ruins amid we stand and consider the loss of lives with which this victory has been purchased, we are solaced with the thought, though the cost must be high, of the lasting memorial which consecrates the sacrifice, and upon it is written in letters that glow like burning coals, ‘The spirit of man cannot be conquered,’” he said.
The broadcast was, in part, meant as a warning to Germany that, in the words of Milton Krents, “the Allied armies, composed of every color, faith, and nationality, will never halt until freedom takes the place of tyranny on every inch of Axis soil.” It also immediately captured the attention of Americans across the country, and the response to it was so profound that it was later re-aired. "The Aachen broadcast is a vivid reminder of the spirit and resilience of American GIs as they fought to eradicate Nazism," says New-York Historical's curator of Confronting Hate, Debra Schmidt Bach. "Milton Krents understood the symbolism and importance of the service, and we are fortunate that he left us this poignant legacy and vivid example of the power of American cooperation."
In some ways, the recording’s strange afterlife was even more incredible. Forgotten in the decades after the war, the service at Aachen is only available to us now because of a chance discovery by AJC archive director Charlotte Bonelli, who noticed a brief mention of it in a Krents oral history in the mid-2000s. She tracked down Rabbi Lefkowitz’s family in Florida—he’d died in 1997—and later, a surviving recording of the NBC broadcast in the Library of Congress. The AJC commissioned a short documentary, and the clip was posted to YouTube, where it’s since gotten almost half a million views.
The video led to another discovery: the identity of the young cantor, whose name hadn’t been recorded in news coverage. At the time of the video's debut online, Max Fuchs still worked in New York City’s diamond district and was the sole survivor of the group who’d conducted the service. Like Rabbi Lefkowitz, Mr. Fuchs rarely discussed his military service, and his family only had a vague idea of what he had accomplished. In the video’s aftermath, Mr. Fuchs found a belated measure of fame, even getting profiled by the New York Times in 2009. He died in 2018 at the age of 96, and several of his grandchildren attended the Confronting Hate opening this summer.
As for the story and the recording, Bonelli thinks she knows the reason for its enduring appeal. The soldiers who attended the service at Aachen had survived Omaha Beach, one of the bloodiest sites of the Normandy invasion, and later fought in the brutal Battle of Saint-Lô in France. They had heard about Nazi atrocities across Europe and knew what that meant for their extended families. “These are men who belonged to a group of people that had been deemed by the Nazis to be cowardly—that they should be exterminated from the earth,” says Bonelli. “They’re standing on German soil, singing ancient Jewish prayers, equal members of the Allied advancing forces. It was just tremendously powerful. It was a symbol that the war was coming to an end and that Judaism and the Jewish people would survive.”
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, editorial director