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StarBulletin.com

Cantor recalls his star turn, to the beat of WW II artillery


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POSTED: Friday, September 18, 2009

NEW YORK—Like many veterans, Max Fuchs did not talk much about what he did in the war. His children knew he landed at Omaha Beach. Sometimes, they were allowed to feel the shrapnel still lodged in his chest.

And once, he had told them, he sang as the cantor in a Jewish prayer service on the battlefield.

On Oct. 29, 1944, at the edge of a fierce fight for control of the city of Aachen, Germany, a correspondent for NBC radio introduced the modest Sabbath service like this:

“;We bring you now a special broadcast of historic significance: The first Jewish religious service broadcast from Germany since the advent of Hitler.”;

Fuchs, now 87 and living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, was 22 that day at Aachen.

“;I was just as much scared as anyone else,”; he said in an interview in his Manhattan apartment. “;But since I was the only one who could do it, I tried my best.”;

Well-known in its time, the battlefield service became lost in obscurity, where it might have remained except for an archivist's chance find and then, fast forward, unlikely fame on YouTube—where the 1944 service has drawn 310,000 hits—for Fuchs.

His grandchildren have been beside themselves with pride, relatives say, and the rabbi at Congregation Ramath Orah on West 110th Street, where Fuchs and his wife worship, is insisting that he sing at services on Saturday, which is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year—though Fuchs says his voice is not what it used to be.

His performance on that 1944 broadcast, heard throughout the United States and later in Germany, however, brought a special poignancy to the 10-minute open-air service—partly because of his well-trained, stately voice, partly because a few seconds before he began the traditional “;Yigdal”; hymn, and for the three minutes it took to finish it, the crack of artillery shells exploding nearby could be heard clearly in the background.

A private first class in the 1st Infantry Division, Fuchs volunteered to sing that day because there was no cantor available. In fact, Fuchs had been studying to become a cantor, when the war broke out. But he had left his studies and was drafted, and never considered the chaplaincy.

His parents emigrated from Poland in 1934, when he was 12. Some of his aunts, uncles and cousins who remained were killed after the German invasion in 1939, he said in the interview. He wanted to fight the Nazis.

For 20 years afterward, Fuchs said, he suffered recurring nightmares about the war. He tried not to think about it too much. He married Naomi Groob; they had five children. He worked in the diamond district and served as a cantor at the Bayside Jewish Center in Queens.

When his children were growing up, there was a photograph on the wall of their living room in Bayside, showing him with a prayer shawl over his Army uniform, singing while a radio reporter held a microphone in front of him.

Of the picture, “;He would say, 'Yeah, that was when I did the service. They recorded it. It was on the radio,' “; recalled his daughter, Ester R. Fuchs, now a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia.

But that was all he said. And deferring to his reticence, his wife never said more.

It was half a century before Fuchs' children, born after the war, would know more than their father's incomplete and almost shrouded version of the event.

In 2000, Fuchs read a newspaper interview about the historic “;Aachen service”; with a former NBC radio reporter, James Cassidy. She began to put two and two together.

“;Is that what you were talking about?”; she asked her father.

“;Yeah, like I said, it was on the radio,”; Fuchs relied.

If the stories he told were sketchy, his emotions unexposed, it was because there was too much, he said, sitting at a table with his wife and daughter. “;On the beach, the corpses every couple of feet. Guys I knew, their feet blown off. Their arms. It was not a pretty picture.”;

As a Jew, and as a man with a web of intimate childhood connections to cousins and other relatives in Poland who were gassed and murdered, “;there was a lot of anger, too.”;

He remembered singing and looking over the assembled soldiers in that open field and thinking there was not a single one of them at that service who had not lost family to the Nazis.

Yet even then, while all of them understood and felt deeply the import of the service they were holding, “;There wasn't much talking going on. We were in a war.”;

The American Jewish Committee had helped make the event possible, locating Sidney Lefkowitz, a chaplain to several hundred Jewish soldiers in the First Infantry Division, and arranging to have his service broadcast that day.

But even it had lost the institutional memory of the Aachen service. Charlotte Bonelli, the organization's chief archivist, did not know anything about it. She was researching the history of the organization's radio division when she found a reference to it in 2004, and began to try to recover it.

Neither the committee nor NBC had the recording. Eventually she found it at the Library of Congress and commissioned a short documentary about it, which was presented at the group's annual meeting in 2005.

As an afterthought, she posted it on YouTube.

David Harris, the American Jewish Committee's executive director, said its Web master began noticing “;some traffic”; beginning in early 2006. “;There were 1,000 hits, then 3,000, then it was in a lull for a while and all of a sudden it was hundreds of thousands.”;

Max Fuchs' name, however, was not mentioned on the original YouTube recording. He never asked the photographers at the scene to take his name. It was only recently, when another of Fuchs' daughters, Hana Fuchs, saw the service on the Internet and contacted the American Jewish Committee, that he received credit on the Web as the impressive voice behind the hymns.

In the interview the other day, Fuchs was asked how he selected the two hymns he sang in that service, “;Ein Keloheinu”; and “;Yigdal,”; both of which affirm divine providence and the anticipation of redemption in eternity.

They were familiar hymns, he said, and all the men would know the words.

But there was another criterion, he added: There was a war going on.

“;They didn't take too long,”; he said.