March 1, 2007
An American soldier’s Purim—1945
Ralph Goodman immediately reached for the .45 on his hip. The 24-year-old American soldier didn't know what to expect from the approaching middle-aged man wearing a felt hat, one side folded up, and speaking Australian-accented English.
Goodman stopped and looked the stranger in the eye, his hand firmly planted on his gun.
"I am," Goodman replied. "Why do you ask?"
"It is so nice to be able to say aloud 'I am a Jew,'" answered the man, introducing himself as Philip Vecht. The two stood together on a hill in Spa, Belgium. It was February 1945.
Goodman, who was on an errand for the 1st U.S. Army Headquarters Commandant section, relaxed as Vecht explained that he was Australian born and that he, his wife and two young children had fled their home in Antwerp in 1942 and spent the war years stranded in a rented cottage in this once-popular resort town. Only the Vechts' British passports had saved them from deportation.
Vecht recounted that virtually no Jews remained in Spa. And that his own father-in-law, a Belgian citizen hidden in a nearby house, had died of natural causes several years earlier and been secretly buried. The family had not been able to recite Kaddish for him.
The two men also noted that Purim was approaching.
"Sir, I have holy books buried safely in my cellar, and amongst them Megillat Esther, and my daughter has not yet heard it read," Vecht said.
"Mr. Vecht, the Megillah will be read Purim evening," Goodman said.
Goodman, from an Orthodox background in Pittsfield, Mass., was looking for a reason to celebrate. It had been a bitterly cold and nasty winter. Chanukah passed unnoticed. And the Battle of the Bulge, a surprise attack, one of the war's bloodiest battles with more than 80,000 American casualties, had ended less than a month earlier.
Life for the Vechts was also dire. In Spa, they were required to report to the Gestapo every week. And Philip Vecht, formerly in advertising and banking, was forbidden to work; he sold his wife's jewels to sustain the family.
Daughter Rosette Vecht, born in 1937 and now a social worker in London, remembers her mother crying often and rarely smiling. Her father was gone much of the time, searching for food or working with the Resistance. Rosette Vecht was always frightened of being separated from her parents and always hungry, hating the rutabagas that were served at every meal.
The Vecht family was forced to abandon all their possessions in Antwerp, but Philip Vecht refused to leave the Torah scroll his father had given him on the day he died. Vecht kept it with him throughout war, wrapped in an old shawl. "He truly felt that by keeping the Sefer Torah close to him, God would keep him and his family safe," Rosette Vecht said.
Amazingly, the Vechts maintained an observant life throughout the war. "My father never changed," his daughter said. "He was a religious Jew. He prayed every morning and we kept strictly kosher."
But because the children were anemic, he arranged for them to eat meat at the neighbor's house.
During the war Rosette Vecht, however, was never told she was Jewish, for fear she would tell others. She thought that everybody observed Shabbat and that she and her brother Romeo, born in 1935, had dark hair because they were Italian.
The Vechts had enjoyed a brief respite from the war the previous September when Belgium was liberated by the Americans. Romeo Vecht, now a cardiologist in London, remembers meeting at that time a Rabbi Frank, a chaplain, who gave him a pair of GI-issued tefillin, which he uses to this day.
But the Battle of the Bulge, which erupted on Dec. 16, had sent the Vecht family into sudden exile from Spa, their lives endangered on several occasions. By the time Purim rolled around, the family had only recently returned, still reeling. Yet, Philip Vecht welcomed Ralph Goodman's Purim offer.
In preparation, Goodman approached his mess sergeant, Tony Seas, a former World War I Polish army captain, for whom he had done a favor.
"Tony, I need flour, oil, raisins, poppy seeds, sugar and lemons. It's Purim." "What the hell you talking about?" Seas answered.
"Tony, you owe me."
Before the holiday, Goodman delivered the ingredients to Henrietta Vecht, Philip's wife, who greeted him open-mouthed at the sight of such luxuries. He returned on erev Purim with a group of Jewish soldiers, including his yeshiva-trained buddies Paul Burstein from the Bronx and Melvin Lewis from Washington, D.C.
Romeo Vecht was not present that evening since he had already been sent to boarding school in London. And Rosette Vecht, 7 at the time, remembers it only vaguely.
But Ralph Goodman clearly recalls that Purim celebration.
The Ma'ariv service was prayed, Kaddish was recited for Henrietta Vecht's father and the Megillah was read.
"The GIs ate lovingly baked and tasty Purim pastries with coffee that Sgt. Seas provided," Goodman said.
Goodman also remembers two little girls -- Rosette and perhaps a younger cousin -- who "sat on a kitchen table with tears running down their faces and sang z'mirot [songs]."
In the story of Purim, with its unpredictable and paradoxical chain of events, "The world turned topsy-turvy," according to Megillah 9:1.
But for the Vecht family and the Jewish GIs, for a few hours that Purim night in Spa, Belgium, with Haman dead and Hitler on the run, with a Megillah reading and homemade hamantaschen, the world turned right side up.
Philip Vecht died in Antwerp in 1968; Henrietta Vecht died in London in 1985. Ralph Goodman lives in Pittsfied, Mass., and both Rosette Vecht Wolf and Romeo Vecht live in London. The Vechts and Goodman were reconnected for the first time since 1945 through the writing of this article.