Rabbi Abraham Klausner was a U.S. Army chaplain who cared for 30,000 recently liberated Holocaust survivors, helping them reunite with family members and begin new lives. In 1946, Rabbi Klausner led an unforgettable seder featuring the shocking “Survivors’ Haggadah.”
Abraham Judah Klausner was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1915. Like many Jews in the south, Abraham’s parents were European immigrants who owned a dry goods store. Abraham attended the University of Denver and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in 1941.
After his ordination, Rabbi Klausner joined the army and served as a hospital chaplain. In 1945 he shipped out to Germany and was assigned to the 116th Evacuation Hospital, which entered Dachau soon after liberation.
Rabbi Klausner was completely unprepared for the experience of stepping into a concentration camp. The stench of human degradation was overwhelming. Human skeletons were wailing and unable to get up from the filthy boards on which they lay. Overwhelmed by human misery unlike anything he’d ever imagined, Rabbi Klausner felt helpless. Then he heard a weak, strained voice begging, “Do you know my brother?”
It turned out that the survivor’s brother, who had emigrated to America, was also a U.S. Army chaplain. Rabbi Klausner did not know the brother, but he suddenly realized how he could be useful. He vowed to reunite the survivors with any family or friends they had left, “and this way thread them back to the reality they once knew.”
The survivors were taken to squalid Displaced Persons Camps, where they were mistreated and in desperate need of food, clothing and other essentials. Rabbi Klausner immediately saw that insensitive bureaucracy was making the situation even worse. For instance, the Jewish survivors were not classified as Jews but instead as Poles, Hungarians etc, meaning that they were often placed in barracks with their own former jailers. U.S. troops wrote home warning of “genocide by neglect” in the DP camps.
Rabbi Klausner became their tireless advocate. He wrote many letters to many Jewish agencies in the US asking for help, and when none came he did everything possible himself. He set up hospitals and procured food and supllies. Along the way he made enemies because of his willingness to bypass the rules to help desperate survivors.
One of the most important things Rabbi Klausner did was create a survivors’ list of the 32,000 Jews who’d been liberated from Dachau, and against military rules he printed the lists privately. Rabbi Klausner posted his lists on the walls of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, and soon survivors started coming from all over Europe hoping to find familiar names on the lists.
In April 1946, Rabbi Klausner held first and second night Passover seders that were truly unlike any seders before or since. Two hundred survivors and a few Jewish GI’s gathered in Munich’s Deutsches Theatre restaurant, an elegant dining spot which had been popular with Nazi generals.
Rabbi Klausner’s challenge was how to make Passover meaningful to those who had come through the death camps, broken and faithless. Survivor Yosef Sheinson wrote a radical version of the Passover haggadah, called the Survivors’ Haggadah, and Rabbi Klausner agreed to use it for the seders. The opening page startlingly rewrote the text to begin, “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.”
The Survivor’s Haggadah was radical and shocking, which is understandable given the participants and the context. Dayenu, instead of reciting God’s miracles, listed the horrors that happened in God’s world: “Had He given us Hitler, but no ghettoes, it would have been enough. Had he given us ghettoes but no gas chambers and crematoria, it would have been enough….”
The Survivor’s Haggadah was illustrated with grim woodcuts depicting scenes such as the Nazis separating a boy from his mother on the way to the gas chambers.
Rabbi Klausner gave a speech before the seder began, addressing the Jews present as well as the millions who had perished. Solly Ganor, an 18 year old survivor who was there, remembered, “It was our first Passover Seder after our liberation. We were going to celebrate a double holiday of freedom. One for the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and the other, our Exodus from Hitler’s concentration camps… We asked, what had changed? What is the difference between this night and any other [seder] night ? The first and most painful difference was the absence of small children who traditionally asked the four questions. The Nazis murdered them all.”
Before the term “Holocaust survivor” had even been coined, Rabbi Klausner devoted himself to helping these Jews. He continued advocating for them and helped many move to Palestine after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Rabbi Klausner left the military and began recruiting pilots and nurses for the Israel Defense Forces. He served as Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston and earned a Doctorate in Divinity at Harvard. In 1954 Rabbi Klausner became rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Yonkers and served there until his retirement in 1989. He wrote several books about prayer, Jewish rituals, and the Holocaust. Rabbi Klausner died in 2007 at age 92.
For helping thousands of traumatized Holocaust survivors rebuild their lives, we honor Rabbi Abraham Klausner as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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