The Abbey of Monte Cassino, often called the “Mother of Monasteries”, occupies a very strategic location dominating the road leading north-west to Rome. From January to May 1944, fierce battles took place there in which Allied soldiers from more than twenty different nations faced off against German, Austrian and Italian troops. The campaign ended with a German withdrawal after Allied troops breached the “Gustav Line”…
The Abbey of Monte Cassino, founded in the 6th century, is the oldest of Western Europe’s monasteries. Its founder was Benedict of Nursia, who was also the founder of the Benedictine Order. Benedict is buried at Monte Cassino alongside his sister, the nun Scholastica. The regulations established by Benedict served as a prototype for the monastic orders that followed, which led to Monte Cassino being dubbed the “Mother of Monasteries.”
Over its lifetime, the monastery accumulated many treasured artworks. During the Second World War, works of art from the museum in Naples were transferred there for safekeeping. As the Allies neared the monastery, the Germans organized the transfer of some of the pieces to the Vatican, as well as to other monasteries in Italy. The evacuation operation led to disputes among the German officers over where to take the works and who would escort them. This was mainly due to the intention to transfer some of the artworks to none other than Hermann Göring, after whom their military division was named. Göring was notorious for “adopting” looted works of art from occupied areas.
Among the Hebrew manuscripts found in the National Library of Israel’s catalog is a scan of an interesting manuscript currently kept at Monte Cassino. It is in fact a palimpsest, that is, a manuscript written over an earlier manuscript. In our case – a Latin book of Psalms written over an earlier Hebrew manuscript from the 13th century containing the religious Jewish laws of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi for the Talmudic tractate Eruvin.
In World War II, after a failed series of ground attacks to capture the abbey from the Germans who controlled the area, the Allies bombed the monastery from the air. Despite its importance to the Christian world and the Vatican’s attempts to prevent its destruction, the bombing of Monte Cassino was carried out due to public pressure following the heavy number of allied casualties from the ground offensives, primarily in the United States. To this day, researchers still debate whether the Germans did in fact have positions on the grounds of the monastery, although none dispute that the Germans had observation posts and machine guns positioned outside the monastery’s walls which benefited from their shelter.
After the war, the monastery was restored, and most of the art and cultural treasures were returned.
The Monte Cassino campaign exacted a terrible price: over 54,000 Allied deaths, and about 20,000 deaths for the Axis countries. Many studies have been published on the strategic and tactical considerations and military decisions of the warring parties. I would like to focus on the personal and human aspect of the campaign and its later cultural influence.
The Allied forces that took part in the battles at Monte Cassino were made up of people from many different countries and nationalities: Americans soldiers—including Japanese US citizens; British soldiers— including forces from England, Australia, New Zealand (among them Maoris); and India (among them Punjabis and Gurkhas). In the French Expeditionary Corps, alongside French European troops, there were also Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian soldiers. They were joined by Polish and Italian volunteers, as well as troops from Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, the various Baltic countries, and soldiers from as far as Brazil. And of course, among these, were also Jewish soldiers, whether in the Polish Anders’ Army, in the British Army or in the US Armed Forces.
“The New Zealanders, these tall, raw-boned men who had come from halfway around the world, now contributed their distinctive accent to the polyglot medley of shouts and curses along the road. One of the officers described his introduction to the multinational world of the Fifth Army:
‘Running up Highway Six we were nearly put in the ditch by American Negro drivers. An Indian military policeman warned us to waste no time at the San Vittore corner, beyond which we overtook an Algerian battalion with French officers. We passed through an English field regiment’s area, several hundred American infantry working on the road, and reached Corps headquarters immediately behind two Brazilian generals. In the first room I was astounded and mystified to hear that the Japanese had taken the castle'”. (Monte Cassino, by David Hapgood and David Richardson, pp. 160-161).
The officer in question was most likely Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger, whose autobiographical book Infantry Brigadier gives a similar description. In it, he explains that the “Japanese” are American soldiers of Japanese origin.
In his memoirs, Jan Eibenschutz, a Jewish soldier who served in Anders’ Army, in the 3rd Carpathian Rifle Division, offers a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers and their feelings in wartime on the road to Rome:
“During the first months, I discovered that what characterizes our units is physical effort and fatigue, the fear of danger was only a secondary component. To think that I received this impression while serving in the modern British Eighth Army, of which our unit was a part and which had at its disposal enormous amounts of services and means of transportation. Despite this, at the frontline, we almost always had to reach our destination on foot, walking along difficult paths, while carrying heavy weaponry.”
(Translation of an excerpt from Eibenshcutz’s memoirs published in Hebrew:
יאן אייבנשוץ, “שביתי פלוגת צנחנים גרמנים”. בתוך: עדות, 13: 112, 1996)
And this is how Eibenschutz describes the arrival at Monte Cassino, from the chapter “Journey to Hell”:
“Here we are in the Monte Cassino theater facing a key position of the German defensive Gustav Line. Here, in November 1943, the Germans managed to stop the attack of the American Fifth Army and then one after another the attacks of the English, New Zealanders, Indians, the South African units, the French (which included Algerians, Moroccans and Italians) while causing heavy losses of life and equipment. All these were not helped by the heavy bombardment of hundreds of bombers, which turned the famous Benedictine monastery on the mountain into ruins.
Now it’s our turn to attack Monte Cassino.
The approach to the front line began on April 27, a beautiful spring day. We climbed a steep path on foot which even jeeps could pass up to a certain point. The path led to a hill situated between the monastery and the top of Monte Cairo, which was over 1,500 meters high, and from where the Germans controlled the whole area and all the access roads. Already, the trees growing there had become naked black skeletons, but the entire ground was covered with carpets of red poppies; it would be hard to describe a greater contrast” (p. 113).
Jan Eibenschutz and his friends remained at Monte Cassino until May 1944, when the monastery was conquered.
“On the night of May 17, everything was ready to strike at the Germans and finish them off…
Shortly before dawn we received the order to capture the monastery, which was on the other side of the valley. We had to take up new deployment positions… It wasn’t until around 10 o’clock in the morning that we noticed movement near the monastery ruins. A short time later we saw the red and white flag flying over it. We let out cries of relief and joy.
It happened on May 18, my 24th birthday.
…with a joint effort of the Fifth and Eighth Armies, the ‘Gustav Line’ was finally breached and the Germans found themselves in retreat.
Two weeks later on June 4, 1944, Allied forces entered Rome and liberated the city from the Germans” (ibid., pp. 114–115).
About 1000 Polish soldiers are buried in the Monte Cassino cemetery, and among the gravestones about 20 are decorated with the Star of David.
One exceptional Polish soldier stood out on the battlefield – he was awarded a medal of bravery and promoted from the rank of private to corporal. This soldier was a Syrian brown bear named Wojtek that had been bought as a unit mascot and was eventually officially recruited into the 22nd Polish Artillery Supply Company in Anders’ Army. Wojtek the bear, who had learned by imitating his fellow soldiers to walk upright, could, thanks to his great strength, single-handedly lift and carry an artillery munition crate that would normally require four soldiers to transport. In the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek excelled in speedily carrying crate after crate of heavy ammunition while under fire, which earned him both a medal for bravery and a promotion. Wojtek was even commemorated on the unit’s official emblem, and in May 2019, a commemorative statue of him was installed in Monte Cassino’s town square.
Jewish Brigade soldier Yehuda Harari’s illustrations, which he published in a book in 1946, also reflect the difficulties experienced by the soldiers in the battles to break through to Rome.
The Battle of Monte Cassino also led to the writing of one of the canonical works of modern science fiction. Walter Michael Miller, Jr. served in World War II as a tail gunner in the US Air Force. He participated in the bombing of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and said that this experience influenced his entire life’s work. His dystopian novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1959, was awarded the Hugo Award for Best Novel by the World Science Fiction Convention in 1961. It is considered by many to be one of the seminal works of speculative post-apocalyptic literature. The only book he published in his lifetime (alongside short stories), it describes a world after a nuclear holocaust in which Catholic monks are the guardians of humanity’s cultural knowledge and values.
The legacy of the Battle of Monte Cassino lives on to this day. For example, the Swedish metal band Sabaton, whose songs deal with military history from different periods, were so inspired by the combined efforts of the Allies at the Battle of Monte Cassino, involving so many disparate nationalities, that they wrote a song about it, which they titled “Union” (The song is featured on the album The Art of War. Original battle photographs and film clips appear in the official music video and related video segment analyzing the battle).
Mile after mile our march carries on
No army may stop our approach
Fight side by side
Many nations unite
At the shadow of Monte Cassino
We fight and die together
As we head for the valley of death
We’ll not surrender or fail
Under one banner
As a unit we stand and united we fall
As one! Fighting together
Bringing the end to the slaughter
Winds are changing
head on north
What resonates most in the recollections of those who took part in the campaign, and in later military analyses of the battle, is the cooperation that existed among soldiers from all over the world, among army units with different battle doctrines, languages and even diametrically opposed traditions of officer/soldier relations. But the common goal of subduing the Nazi enemy bridged the gaps and resulted in victory in the battle at Monte Cassino and the opening of the road to Rome.
• אייבנשוץ, יאן: “שביתי פלוגת צנחנים גרמנים”. בתוך: “עדות”, 13: 112-119, 1996
• בן אריה, כתריאל. מערכת קסינו. תל אביב: אוניברסיטת תל אביב – פקולטה למדעי הרוח – בית הספר להיסטוריה, 1978
• הררי, יהודה. סביב אירופה על חוד העפרון (מיומנו המצוייר של חייל ארצישראלי). בריסל: דפוס החיל, תש”ו
• מג’דלני, פרד. קאסינו : דיוקנה של מערכה. ישראל: מערכות, תשנ”א
• מג’דלני, פרד. הפטרול / המנזר. ישראל: מערכות, תשכ”ב
Translation: Sharon Assaf