Editor’s Note: We are currently living in a time of deep division and strife where compassion and kindness can sometimes feel like the exception rather than the rule. The following is the first in a series of four articles detailing moving examples of how goodness in the midst of serious conflict had a lasting impact.
This story is taken from Compassionate Soldier: Remarkable True Stories of Mercy, Heroism, and Honor From the Battlefield.
Philosophers suggest that for an act to fully qualify as compassionate or humane, it should be done with no thought of remuneration or other compensation. A compassionate person acts in the interest of another simply because it is the right thing to do. It is borne of empathy and kindness, and often requires sacrifice on the part of the one who gives. Such was the case of a Jewish man in Germany who showed kindness to an American soldier in the last days of World War I. He did so with no thought that one day his simple gesture of kindness would save his family from destruction.
America Enters the Great War
The United States declared war on the Central Powers (led by Germany) on April 6, 1917. This was two and a half years after the start of the war, and it would take almost a full year before America fully deployed its troops and armor to the battlefield. But American participation was crucial to the Allied victory, given that the arrival of 2,000,000 American soldiers, with the promise to commit up to 6,000,000 if needed, convinced the ordinary German soldier that defeat was inevitable. German simply didn’t have enough young men to equal the combined strength of the Allies. Troop morale collapsed as the Allied forces of England, France, and America started bearing down in a united effort.
As the Americans moved forward to take the pressure off exhausted French and British army units serving in the front lines, it was inevitable that they made incursions into largely German speaking territories of the Rhineland, where local residents were likely to resent Allied military gains. Since most of the war had been fought on French soil, the average German citizen hadn’t yet felt the direct effect of combat, nor the humiliation of having foreign invaders occupy their territory. Perhaps that explains the trepidation that a young Jewish American soldier, Alex Lurye, felt as he entered a small German town with his army unit. The local people were standoffish to the Americans.
When the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) approached on a late Friday afternoon, Lurye was feeling lonely and disconsolate. As he was off-duty, Lurye sought out the local Jewish synagogue. There he met a number of people, but the one who showed him the greatest kindness was a young father who identified himself as Herr Rosenau (Mr. Rosenau). As the two men talked in English, one in an American Army uniform, the other wearing German civilian clothing, Lurye began to relax. The service was familiar, even if conducted in a foreign language, and the people displayed the same devotion that he had experienced growing up in his synagogue in Duluth, Minnesota.
At the end of the service, Herr Rosenau invited Alex to return home with him for Kiddush and a traditional Friday night meal. Kiddush is a blessing of sanctification pronounced on refreshments, including cakes and crackers, following a Shabbat service at the synagogue. Lurye was pleased to accept this invitation and went to the modest home of his host. There he celebrated the Shabbat with the family, including their teenage daughter Ruth. He later wrote that he enjoyed the blessings that were pronounced, as well as a delicious kosher meal that included wine and the singing of Shabbat songs. It was an island of serenity in the midst of war that offered a brief reprieve from the violence and deprivation of military life.
Having said goodnight, Lurye returned to his unit, which moved out shortly thereafter. He never saw the Rosenau’s again while in military service. For their part, they were happy to have been helpful, but thought little of the experience after that.
But it stayed with Alex Lurye. At the end of the war he returned home to Duluth to begin civilian life. One day, while thinking about the experience with the Rosenaus, he decided it would be ungrateful of him not to write and thank them. So, taking pen in hand, he sat down and wrote a letter of appreciation. He posted it to their address in Germany, but for some reason Herr Rosenau never responded. Since the letter was not returned, Lurye assumed it had been delivered, but that the family chose not to respond. He moved on with his life, establishing himself as a successful businessman in his local community.
The Nazi’s Come to Power
Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, even though the Nazi Party had won only 33% of the popular vote. But the remaining 66% was split among so many parties that none had as strong a showing as the Nazis. One of the ways that Hitler gave notoriety to the Nazi party was to blame the Jewish people for much of the economic misery that Germans were suffering in the midst of the Great Depression. His theory was that the Jews had subverted the economy for their own personal gain and were taking unfair profits from their workers. He also repeated the false impression that Germany lost World War I because of betrayal by military leaders and powerful Jewish business interests. With centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe (anti-Jewish sentiment), it was very natural for people to accept that Jews were to blame for Germany’s defeat and subsequent misery.
For German Jews, the rise of the Nazis to political dominance was devastating. Ugly propaganda images portrayed the Jews as murderers of Jesus, as loyalists who placed Jewish interests above patriotism to Germany, and as financial exploiters who kept the Christian Germans in economic bondage. The Nazi’s not only condoned violence against Jewish business owners and their families, they perpetrated it with the full complicity of the national party. In 1935 discrimination against the Jews gained legal authority with the passage of the Nuremburg Laws by the German Bundestag (legislature).
These laws mandated the physical separation of all Aryan (non-Jewish) and Jewish people in all public places. It also suspended civil liberties for the Jews based on racial profiling, rather than on their religious affiliation. On the night of November 9, 1938 members of the Nazi party throughout Germany smashed out the windows of Jewish synagogues and set many on fire. This night became known as Kristallnacht – the night of shattered glass. Jews were now strangers in the land of their birth. Then it got much worse. After the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, an official program of murder was implemented by the Nazis against the entire Jewish race. Mass extermination camps became the sites where more than 6,000,000 perished at the hands of their fellow German citizens.
Before their personal world descended into this chaos, Herr Rosenau was tending his young grandson one day. As the boy rummaged through his grandfather’s desk, he came across the letter that Alex Lurye had written at the end of World War I. Because it had an American stamp on it, the boy asked if he could have. Not thinking much about it, Rosenau said “yes.”
When he arrived home, the boy showed it to his mother. Now grown and married to Eugen Wienberg, Ruth Wienberg was the same young woman who had met Alex Lurye during their Shabbat dinner two decades earlier. As she opened the envelope and read the message of thanks, the memory of that dinner came back to her. She shared it with her husband and talked about the experience.
Somewhere in the conversation, the idea came up that they should write to Alex Lurye. And, even though it was presumptuous to ask, they decided to ask if he would sponsor them for immigration to America. The Wienberg’s knew that the ill treatment of Jews was likely to get even worse, and they yearned for the opportunity to find a place that would accept them. But American laws at the time restricted foreign immigration unless an American based sponsor agreed to accept responsibility for helping them get established in the United States. Not knowing anyone else in America who could help them, they decided to ask Alex Lurye.
The problem was that there was no return address on the letter. In those days there was no means available to help them look up an American in Duluth. Undaunted, they wrote a letter thanking him for taking time to write to Ruth’s father twenty years earlier. They also wrote, “We have no future in Germany, we must get out before this mad man, Hitler, begins to do worse things to the Jews.” After placing their letter into the envelope, they addressed it as simply, “Alex Lurye, Duluth, Minnesota.”
Needless to say, the chance of such a letter getting delivered was slim. The greater Duluth area had a population of approximately 100,000 people. But Alex Lurye had become a successful businessman in Duluth as proprietor of Alex J. Lurye’s Fine Furniture store. In fact, his name was prominently displayed on the side of the building. That was enough of a clue for the U.S. Post Office to deliver the Wienberg’s letter. In spite of the passage of twenty years, Lurye quickly wrote back with a pledge to help the family immigrate to Duluth. He was as good as his word. In May 1938 the Wienberg’s arrived in America. Shortly after that the Rosenau family joined them.
While life in America had its challenges, the family was safe from the Holocaust that took the lives of so many of their Jewish friends and neighbors. The Hebrew word chesed is difficult to translate into English, because it so rich with meaning for the Jewish people. The closest translation is “loving-kindness.” Certainly that is what Herr Rosenau showed to the young American soldier in the last days of World War I. He did it without any thought of future reward or blessing. And yet the lives of those who mattered most to him quite literally were saved because of his small gesture.
For his part, Alex Lurye demonstrated appreciation and gratitude in both word and deed. It would have been so easy to simply let the memory of that one night in Germany slip away. Instead, he took the time to write a letter – a letter that later allowed him to save people’s lives. It now stands in time as an act of exemplary humanity.
Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters…
In so many ways, the story of Rosenau and Lurye exemplifies the Jewish tradition articulated in Ecclesiastes 11: 1, “Cast thy bread upon the waters and after many days it shall return to you.”
- The Kindness That Came Back. Yisrael Nathan. The Jewish Magazine. November, 1997. <http://www.jewishmag.com/3MAG/STORY/chessed.htm>
- Nazi Antisemitism. Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, SW, Washington D.C. <http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007167> Extracted December, 5, 2015.
- Jewish Businesses and Organizations of the Duluth/Superior Greater Region. <http://garon.us/Jbusiness.html#L> Extracted December 6, 2015.
 The town is identified as Seldes, Germany in the source article for this chapter. Dictated by Yisrael Nathan to the Staff of Jewish Magazine, it appears in the November 1997 edition of Jewish Magazine. However, a broad internet search using multiple search engines finds no German town of that name. Although Seldes ends in an “s” it is pronounced Selden when used as a family name. There is a town of Selden in Eastern Germany, but the Allies did not advance that far before the Armistice was declared. This suggests that the actual name of the town into which Alex Lurye had this experience is not preserved in the written record.