By Alum Daniel Gutstein
Huddled over a few stale matzos, U.S soldier Larry Yellin and two comrades celebrated Passover, 1945 on the western edge of the Rhine River. Across the river stood an army 350,000 Nazi soldiers, Sergeant Yellin told 30 attentive Ida Crown Jewish Academy freshman boys on Wednesday, March 28.
Wearing his good-conduct medal and 70-year-old army dress shirt, Yellin said to the students, “As a high school senior, I convinced my parents that it was the religious duty of every Jew, even their 17-year-old son, to volunteer to fight the Nazis.”
ICJA freshman Ethan Lewis asked Yellin if he fought by the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. Yellin said he returned from Passover leave in 1944 to find a list of soldiers being transferred overseas to Europe prior to the D-day invasion. His name was not on the list. “To tell you the truth I was disappointed,” Yellin told Lewis. “My whole goal was to fight against the Nazis. So I went to my company commander, and I said one of the fellows I talked to doesn’t want to go, and I would like to take his place. The company commander called in my staff sergeant. The staff sergeant (said) no – I’m not letting Yellin go. “I was disappointed I didn’t participate in the D-day invasion. Unfortunately, that fellow from our outfit that went did not make it.”
Yellin enlisted to fight the Nazis, but he also fought a battle for his Jewish identity. Before he left for basic training, his mother said to him, “Wherever you go and wherever you are, you are the representative of the Jewish people. Every day during training, Yellin spent his breakfast time-allotment praying inside the army barracks. Once, a general walked into the barracks and asked the 2nd Lieutenant in charge whether his private was ever given extra time to eat. “Absolutely not,” said the lieutenant. “It’s not in the book.” “Well,” said the general, “I want you to give this solider 15 minutes every day to pray, and afterward, I want you to see that he gets breakfast.” While serving in the Philippines, Yellin was having trouble finding a place for his group to pray on the Sabbath. Yellin petitioned to his superior commander, and General Douglas MacArthur gave him permission to arrange services in his mansion on the base.
“We got about 50 boys, although I suspect about half of them weren’t Jewish,” Yellin said.
From his first days of basic training, Yellin made keeping Kosher a first priority. “My first meal in the mess hall, I walked through the chow hall and saw the only meal I could eat was white rice. I asked the mess sergeant who was standing over the rice, ‘Was this rice boiled in water without any additives’? He looked at me, laughed and said,
‘Well, how else do you make rice’? “I said okay, I’ll have a helping. He put some rice on a plate, and without me noticing, he grabbed a spoonful of meat gravy and poured it on top of the rice,” Yellin said. “So I didn’t have anything to eat.”
Yellin told the ICJA freshman that he volunteered for kitchen police duty. “I found that even though you had to often peel potatoes and clean pots, you also had a choice of kitchen foods being prepared, and for me it was an opportunity to get untainted fruits and vegetables,” he said. He even made a few extra friends along the way. “The positive side of my dietary requirements was that soldiers noticed that I did not take the main entrees when there was meat,” he said. “They would always like to get right behind me because when I went through and I said, ‘no thank you, no sir,’ they said, ‘I’ll take Yellin’s main entree.’ “So I became quite popular.”
The U.S Army sent Yellin to Europe during the Battle of the Bulge, which is how Yellin found himself by the Rhine River on Passover night in March 1945. “I manned the old Bayer factory. Bayer made aspirins among other things,” said Yellin. “I thought it was very interesting that we were occupying their factory while trying to give the Germans a headache.
We only had 15,000 troops spread over the Rhine of about 10 or 15 miles. The Germans were 350,000 troops on the other side. They vastly outnumbered us.”
Yellin kept lookout by the factory for German commandoes coming across the river. “It was very depressing that I realized that it was Pesach and nary a Seder in sight,” Yellin said.
Yellin then experienced a Passover miracle of his own. A friend drove up in an American Jeep to deliver a package. “Larry, I just got hold of a box of matzo and a bottle of wine that was sent over by the Jewish Welfare Board. I know that tonight is Passover,” he told Yellin. “We made a nice Seder by a flickering light from one candle that we had – and my army issued flashlight,” Yellin said to the Ida Crown freshman.
“We didn’t have what we needed to make a Seder, but we did have our memories.”
That very next day, Yellin’s division was tasked with capturing the German city of Ludwigshafen. “On the way, I noticed there was a path in the woods, and since I was a scout I decided to check it out,” he said. “We followed this dirt path, and it turned to be a concentration camp.” When Yellin and the American soldiers arrived, the guards ran, leaving their decrepit prisoners. “The people were in unbelievable condition. A couple of us organized a memorial service on the spot for those who had died there in the camp,” Yellin said. “My company commander told me, don’t give them any of your food if you’ve got any.” The prisoners were in such miserable condition; many could not digest normal food. “He told me, call up the medics and they will take care of the camp – and that’s what happened,” Yellin said.
After Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces, the country was divided between the Russians, British and Americans. Yellin was in charge of several checkpoints because he spoke Yiddish. His superiors commanded him not to let any refugees enter the American zone. “I didn’t think that was an order to be obeyed,” Yellin said. He began letting refugees through the checkpoints. “Word spread- and several thousand people were admitted,” Yellin said. “If they spoke Yiddish, they were my friends.”