Two prayer books with some oddly intriguing labels have revealed a fascinating story involving an American Jewish soldier killed during a failed WWII operation. This story begins in Manhattan, 81 years ago. It ends at the National Library of Israel…
Among the many prayer books (mahzorim) dedicated to the High Holidays in the National Library’s collection, there is a particular two-volume set published in New York by the Ziegelheim Press. The publisher had immigrated from Vienna to Manhattan before WWII and continued his work from the Big Apple.
These two mahzorim held at the Library contain the label of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction corporation, often abbreviated as JCR. This organization, which included the Hebrew University and the National Library among its members, worked after the Holocaust to save books stolen by the Nazis during the war from Jewish libraries and from private collections across Europe. Most of the books that were found were returned to their countries of origin, but hundreds of thousands remained whose Jewish owners could not be identified. These books were all given an identical label and sent to Jewish (and other) institutions around the world.
It’s no surprise that even books like these “American” mahzorim, printed in Allied countries, still ended up in the hands of Nazi looters. The book deliveries could have reached Europe long before the war, or they could have been owned by an American traveler who ended up stuck in Europe or at least left these books behind.
But in this case, something didn’t add up: the mahzorim were printed in New York in 1942, at the height of the war itself.
This made us realize that the prayer books were apparently not stolen by the Nazis and that the JCR label was attached to the wrong books in this case.
We at the Library have learned from experience that every book which reaches us has a story behind it, so we continued our investigation. And indeed, we discovered a particularly interesting story behind these books, one which could explain the mistaken label.
The lead which helped us dig deeper was another printed label found in both mahzorim, containing a dedication in Dutch with a few words in Hebrew:
In memory of our son, David Meyer Wald, of the American Army. 27 September, 1944 – Yom Kippur 5705, who fell in the liberation of Holland. May he rest in peace in the cemetery of Margraten, Plot Nn, row 9, grave number 222.
Zelg and Hania Wald
Please commemorate his soul
In other words, the mahzorim were donated in memory of an American Jewish soldier buried in a cemetery in Holland. Our curiosity only increased.
Who was this soldier? To whom were the mahzorim donated, and where? And how and why did they end up with us at the National Library of Israel?
We found answers for the first two questions, but we are still unclear on the third.
Since the dedication clearly stated that David Meyer Wald was buried in the American military cemetery near the village of Margraten in southern Holland, I started searching for his name on the cemetery website. The U.S. Army maintains its military cemeteries and allows for online searches for the graves of the fallen.
8,288 soldiers are buried at Margraten, with the names of 1,722 soldiers whose burial place is unknown also commemorated. No soldier named Wald appeared as being buried in Holland.
Since we were dealing with a Jewish soldier, I tried to find him using JewishGen, the central website for Jewish genealogy, with its own database of graves and cemeteries at Jowbr.org. It was there that I finally found David Meyer Wald.
To my surprise, his grave isn’t even in Holland as the mahzor dedication states – but at Back River Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Montreal, Canada. A link to the information provided by the Jewish Genealogical Society in Canada led to additional interesting information. David Meyer Wald was born in 1921, killed in Holland in 1944, and buried in Canada in 1949. The site also had a picture of his gravestone.
It was also noted that he served in the 325th Infantry Regiment, a unit belonging to the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Most regiments in this division were paratroop units, but the 325th was a unit of gliders attached to cargo planes which flew them to the battlefield. While in the air, the gliders were detached from the planes, and glider pilots needed to find a reasonable place to land and cautiously “crash.” As opposed to paratroopers, who often found themselves spread out over large areas after landing, gliders could reach their target with whole squads and even platoons intact.
Wald’s glider unit was sent into action on September 23, 1944, in the final days of Operation Market Garden. This was the first combined operation initiated by the Allies on European soil with the aim of penetrating into northern Germany. But the operation failed, and among the thousands of dead was one David Meyer Wald.
The Margraten cemetery was not in the combat area, so I turned to a Dutch expert on Operation Market Garden. He explained that the soldiers who fell were buried in temporary graves and only transferred to Margraten after the war. It turns out that five years after he was buried in Holland, Wald’s family asked that his body be reinterred in Canada, where they immigrated from the United States.
One of our volunteers at the Library’s genealogical service found documents at the US National Archives relating to the soldier David Meyer Wald. He was born in Timkovichi in what is now Belarus in 1923. His family immigrated to the United States in 1938 and settled in Pittsburgh, where David worked for a time as a wholesale clerk until he was drafted.
So, to whom and where did the parents donate the mahzorim?
I found the answer in an interesting article published by the quarterly report put out by the Jewish Genealogical Society in Montreal.
It turned out that in 2007, Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, Rabbi of the synagogue in the Dutch city of Maastricht, found an unfamiliar Torah scroll in his synagogue. He didn’t know where the scroll came from, only that it had been kept in a safe for many years. The Torah scroll was dedicated in the memory of David Meyer Wald by his parents and donated to the synagogue closest to his burial place in Margraten.
It would appear that the Walds also donated the two mahzorim and perhaps other books, as well, at the same opportunity.
So how did the books end up at the National Library of Israel?
At least for now, we have no clear answer.
This is one theory we have: In 1953, Shlomo Shunami, one of the National Library’s senior librarians set out for Holland along with Yehuda Leib Bialer from the Ministry of Religions. They collected books hidden or remaining in synagogues from owners who never made it back from the camps. The books were brought to Israel. Some of them were preserved at the National Library, while others were dispersed to other libraries. The National Library attached a special label telling of how they were brought from Holland, in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It may be that these mahzorim were found in Maastricht and collected by Shunami and Bialer.
When the mahzorim reached the National Library, it became apparent that they did not originate in Holland and did not belong to Dutch Jewish victims of the Holocaust, which means they shouldn’t have been given the label. Perhaps it was a mistake or misunderstanding which led to the JCR label being placed in the mahzor’s volumes. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that the books were donated in memory of a Jewish soldier who gave his life fighting the Nazis and who died “for the sanctification of God’s name”, as stated on his gravestone in Hebrew.
David Meyer Wald fell on Yom Kippur 5705 – 1944.
May his memory be a blessing.