South Pacific Memoir


Perspectives SOUTH PACIFIC MEMOIR BY LEWIS S FEUER The notice that our Chaplain Chapman of the South Pacific Command was dead was the shortest I have ever seen in the New York...

...Perspectives SOUTH PACIFIC MEMOIR BY LEWIS S FEUER The notice that our Chaplain Chapman of the South Pacific Command was dead was the shortest I have ever seen in the New York Times CHAPMAN—Moras B , Rabbi, 4/4/83 Interred at Si Petersburg, Fla 4/6/84 It reminded me of the terse Army language in the orders cut for reassignment Chaplain Chapman's hut near the Anse Vata beach in Noumea, New Caledonia was a hallowed spot for many of us The only place from 1942-45 where The New Leader was to be found, it provided an intellectual center for liberals, socialists, social democrats, Communists, and fellow-travelers who would stop for an evening of argument 1 found the hut by sheerest chance Newly arrived after a voyage of 43 days, mostly spent on a battered bathless tub, I was wandering along the tent areas of Anse Vata when suddenly through an open door I saw the picture of Moses Maimomdes looking at me critically from a wall 1 knew that turbaned, lugubrious, bearded faced better than my grandfather's, for it had decorated the covers of the notebooks I used to carry during my years as a pupil at Manhattan's Downtown Talmud Torah 1 could recognize that countenance long before I had read a page of The Guide to thePerplexed, and here, in an evemng's slight respite from the unremitting New Caledonia heat, by the light of the Southern Cross, Moses ben Maimon himself beckoned to a perplexed soldier I knocked at the mosquito-netted partition A cheerful voice from a chair beside a lamp bade me enter A short man, with sparse blond hair and a slight mustache, Chaplain Chapman spoke pure New Yorkese Like myself, he was an alumnus of City College He had then done his Rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but during the Depression years when pulpits were hard to come by, he had worked in sociology at Columbia University He was probably the first scholar of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic to find his way to New Caledonia, where he discovered that though Protestant missions didn't much advance the capitalist spirit, they did clothe the Melanesian Eves in Mother Hubbard garments Gradually, socialists of all stripes (sergeants and privates alike) and sects wended their way to Chaplain Chapman's hut to enjoy the sounds of ideological words, their "rest and recreation" from their military roles They included former school teachers, Marxist militants, bookless college instructors, future book writers, chroniclers of Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger, and a Left-wing novelist and screenplay writer Arguments ensued Mrs Roosevelt's fnend had never valued his Jewish background and found Judaism a narrow creed The Chaplain, on the other hand, accepted the tnbal side of man as a coingredient of human nature no less valid than the universakstic principle Jewish Marxists who were devoted to every minority except then-own, he said, were simply seeking a means of coping with their self-aversion He believed that even a City College hberal might belong to a species of ordinary snob The Chaplain had the gemus of Jewish humor for seeing the ordinary m the extraordinary All differences, however, vanished on the Passover Seder evening A great dinner was arranged for a collective celebration One of the umts a few miles from Noumea, m a noble gesture, volunteered to do the cooking for the Jewish soldiers Several hundred men converged from the companies scattered throughout the island Chaplain Chapman officiated, a magisterial figure upon whom the blue-white lahth blended naturally with the khaki, and he spoke stirringly, patriotically and religiously of our vocation as soldiers I wondered whether ours was the first Seder in the history of New Caledonia, this island whose niaouh trees had felt the exiled loneliness of disowned convicts, the diminishing dreams of the Paris Communards of Marxist legend, and whose humankind were now a potpourri of Melanesian quondam cannibals, Tonkinese coolies, and betel-chewing Javanese Whatever the case, we gave our Gentile volunteer cooks and kitchen police a big ovation A minor international religious crisis did once confront Chaplain Chapman A Boston Jewish lieutenant fell in lo\ e with the daughter of a French colonist, and they decided to get married BeLewis S Feuer who has recentl\ retired as Professor of Sociology at the University oj \ itgirua, has been t ontnbuiing to The New Leaders;/k c his davs m the South Pan He Theater cause they wanted a Jewish wedding, the bride-to-be asked to be converted to Judaism and undertook private lessons with the Rabbi A committee of judges was to decide upon her conversion Since I was only a sergeant, I did not serve on that committee, it was constituted exclusively of fellow officers On the day of the hearing, I escorted the bride's nervous family to the makeshift judicial chamber Shortly afterward Chaplain Chapman emerged, looking very resigned I asked him cheerfully "How did it go, Chaplain Chapman''" "We asked her How would you recognize that a home is Jewish9 What would you see affixed to the doorpost7 " 'A crucifix,' she answered " I looked aghast at the Rabbi and said, "Surely you flunked her " "She had already passed her chief subject, and there was no point in giving her a condition," he replied The young wife was soon dispatched on a convoy to the Umted States I never heard how this South Pacific romance, the reverse of the musical play, fared The Protestant Chaplain, Adelbert Helm, a disciple of Reinhold Niebuhr, possessed the first copy of The Nature and Destiny of Man (two volumes) I had seen I borrowed the work on a free day Having been weaned on mathematical logic and nurtured on scientific philosophy tinctured with historical materialism, I found religious existentialism lacking in rationalist vitamins But Helm was most sympathetic to my spending my free time with the Indonesian and Indochinese coolies, and advising them how best to compose a letter that called for a free labor system My Marxist lore notwithstanding, I found myself an advocate of free enterprise, a pure "bourgeois reformist " To my reports on the life and labor of the Asiatic workers, Chaplain Chapman listened with a sociologist's avidity Meanwhile, the Catholic Chaplain was organizing an evemng class in elementary Latin for soldiers and sailors awaiting orders One picked up a Latin proverb, arslonga, vitabrevis, avulgar hermeneutist, he gave it his own version A short time later, the Catholic Chaplain was killed landing at Okinawa In Chaplain Chapman's hut, ribaldry was outlawed Once a Navy petty officer found his language habits much strained by the unwonted decorum I remember his berating a lowly Army man complaining of military red tape and finally saying, "If I may tell you, you were intercoursed " There were no Jews among the French colonists of the island The last known Jew had many years before given his name to the town's library that he had endowed, the Bibho-theque Bernheim But the New Caledonia Island Command had taken over that building as its headquarters, and the books were relocated in a smaller structure I went there a couple of times mainly to find out about the island's history and newspapers I got to know the old librarian and his friend, the Judge, M Jeanson Both of them were like characters out of Anatole France's Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard, a book undergraduates at City College read with Professor Downer The old Judge told me "I am a disciple of AugusteComte " I rephed that he was the first Comtist I had ever met in my life "As a Comtist, I shall never forgive the American Army for what they have done," he said I asked what that was The old Judge's voice rose in accusation "The Americans have occupied the town library, the cathedral of science and positive knowledge Why did they not seize the Roman Catholic Church that still purveys dogmas of the religious and metaphysical stages9 Why do they occupy instead the Comtist temple of learning9" I had no real response, though I fear political logic was on the American side Not long after I had told Chaplain Chapman of this dialogue, he was preparing to depart for the Philippines campaign Others of the small group of Jewish officers also were leaving—the talented Colonel Lewis Held of Virginia, and Captain Meyer Cohen, our gentle Harvard graduate And shortly I too left, thanks especially to the generous spirit of the combat-tried commandant of the camp, the brave Arthur J Solomon Early one morning, I proceeded, in detached expedition, to embark from Tontouta airfield, bearing the strange order that wherever I arrived, I was to be sent on to the combat zone A year later, Chaplain Chapman and I enjoyed a reumon in Greenwich Village We celebrated over salami sandwiches and some bottles of cream soda, and drank I'chayim to the New Caledonia Island Command Since we were both in civilian clothes, I probably appeared to him much as he did to me?half a masquerader For the after-sensation of the Army existence long persisted, and indeed, I was always to think of him as Chaplain Chapman, not as Rabbi Chapman He was still writing occasional humor columns for The New Leader, and indulging his aptitude for puns I never forgot his remark at the height of the Polish crisis that the London and Lublin rival Polish regimes were "poles apart " When my daughter Robm was born, he naturally wished my wife and me a "round robin " In time, Chaplain Chapman became the Rabbi of a congregation of elderly Jews in St Petersburg, Florida, he married some years afterward He wrote me that he had found contentment in his work But the brief death notice awakened the image of the Chaplain riding about the island in his j eep to far-flung posts with strange Kanaka names —to Thio, to Bouloupan, to the Replacement Depot at Poum, to Tiebaghi Every time I consult a Jewish reference encyclopaedia, I remember that his hut housed the only copy of the newly published Universal Jewish Encyclopaedia in the South Pacific We lived in a world that heard only vaguely of the Holocaust, and we had only The New Leader to remind us during the euphoria of the Grand Alliance of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago Of all the men in the South Pacific, Morns Chapman was plainly the most unswerving in this dedication to truth That is why I always remember him as our Chaplain Chapman...

Vol. 66 • June 1983 • No. 12

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