OF TEFILLIN AND KOSHER FOOD: A Message Carved in Stone

bernard haller

Thursday is Veterans Day, when America honors the servicemen who served valiantly in times of peace and war in order to preserve the American way of life and to fight for freedom for those living under tyranny. Their objective was to secure the future and welfare of their fellow Americans and all of humanity.

One such hero was Staff Sergeant Bernard (Baruch) Haller, z”l, who never wavered in his commitment to Hashem and Yiddishkeit while serving as a Marine during World War II.

We had the opportunity to interview his son Mr. Leibe Haller, who spoke with pride about his father, also known as Bernie to his friends and family.

He described how his father triumphed over obstacles that these and other experiences presented, both physically and spiritually. What emerges from our conversation is that Bernard Haller’s military career demonstrated the resilience and strength of character that is associated with that bygone generation.

Reb Baruch loved his country dearly. But his love for his Creator was even greater; and he fulfilled mitzvos even in the military, an environment not conducive to Yiddishkeit. He was a product of a generation of Yidden who were moser nefesh for shemiras Shabbos, kashrus and for the chinuch of their children.

There is much we can learn from his story.

bernard haller
Bernard Haller’s grave at New Montefiore Cemetery in Long Island. The famous text is at back of the horizontal part.

When and where was your father born? Please tell us about his early years.

My father was born on March 10, 1919, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Zev (Wolf) and Yetta Haller. He was one of four children. Zev’s father was Reb Yosef Yehoshua and his mother was Charne; they were born across the pond in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Zev came here with his parents when he was around 17.

Unfortunately, my father was unable to attend yeshivah because my grandparents could not afford the tuition. But he had good chevrah such as the Rottenberg boys of the Kosoner Chassidic dynasty.

Tell us a bit about his commitment to Yiddishkeit despite his lack of a yeshivah background.

In school, my dad would wear a certain type of hat. He did not want to be “bleizon kup” (bareheaded). Students would pick fights with him because he was Jewish, forcing him to defend himself.

After the school day ended, he would go to a local yeshivah and sit outside near the windows to absorb words of Torah and inspiration.

He was very vigilant with kashrus. Many people ate in a certain restaurant on the Lower East Side even though it lacked hashgachah in those years (the 1920s), but he would not eat there because he had heard information that led him to believe that the kashrus there was not reliable.

He got up very early to daven. When I would wake up around 7 a.m., he had already left for work and would not return until 10 in the evening and sometimes even later. Every Shabbos morning before shul, he would be learning shnayim mikrah v’echad targum. He would also go to the mikveh before shul even during the coldest days of the winter.

Initially, he worked for E.F. Drew — also known as the Drew Chemical Company — a manufacturer and wholesaler of detergents for restaurants, hospitals, and other institutions. When it closed, he started his own business. He would never even consider opening up a business and stealing the customers away from his employer. That was not the way he conducted his affairs. He was loyal and honorable.

He was very personable, had the gift of gab, and enjoyed schmoozing with customers who would inevitably become his friends.

My father was a person of strong morals. He did not drink or smoke which, while in the military, separated him from the vast majority of the men around him.

The famous text on Haller’s tombstone, attesting to his dedication to mitzvos and his bitachon.

When did he enter the military?

With the nation at war by the end of 1941, my father opted to enlist in the military rather than wait for his inevitable draft notice in order to have a say in how and where he would serve. He decided to join the Marines and was sent to the Pacific Theater of Operations where he fought against the Japanese in the battles of Saipan, Guam and the Philippines, eventually attaining the rank of a staff sergeant.

At intake, his name was mistakenly entered as Benjamin and his last name as “Hallar.” The name stuck throughout his military service.

Before he became a soldier, Dad married Mom, Tziporah Malka Fried, a”h, in the early 1940s. He was shipped out in 1942 at the time my mother was expecting their first child, my brother. My father would have to wait a full three years — until completion of his military service and his discharge — to see his then-3-year-old son.

After the war’s end, the military was active in attempting to retain those soldiers they deemed exceptional. One officer saw admirable qualities in my father. So desperate was the military to keep my father on active duty, that this officer pleaded with him, “You won’t amount to anything as a civilian; stay with us.” But in my father’s eyes, the future lay not with the military and the religious restrictions he would face as a career soldier, but rather raising his family and observing Torah and mitzvos freely.

After his return home, my parents moved to the Bronx.

bernard haller
Haller’s military uniform

Did your father experience antisemitism in the service?

Yes. I’ll give you some examples. He avoided eating meat in the Marines. The cook heard about this and maliciously put lard and schmaltz into the potatoes and vegetable dishes he prepared. He bragged to my father about what he did and, as a result, my father switched to eating raw vegetables. Eventually, the chef was replaced by one with integrity.

In the service, he was careful to don tefillin every day, as privately as possible. He put on tefillin on Shabbos several times when he lost track of the days, since they were all the same.

One day, the other men in his unit found him wearing tefillin and taunted him with the moniker “Benny the Heeb.”

One night, his bunkmates woke him in the middle of the night and held him down and started moving his hair around. He started screaming and they taunted him, saying, “We’re looking for your horns; we know all Jews have horns and they come out at night.” Needless to say, when the commanding officer found out, he apologized, and they explained, “We heard it from our parents.”

In general, he hated situations where Jews would be singled out and harassed. Growing up in the Bronx, we davened in the Kolbosover Shul, Aitz Chaim Nusach Sfard, on Mace Avenue and White Plains Road. On one Shabbos morning when I was 8 years old, I was playing outside with some friends in the shul yard when some young non-Jews came by and hurled nasty epithets at us. When my father heard the commotion, he went to confront them and they fled. He ran after them, threatening they would be sorry if they tried that again. They didn’t.

In another incident, many years later, I was working with my Dad in a treif restaurant. One of the workers wanted to be cute and grabbed my hat, threw it on the floor and stepped on it. My father grabbed him, threw him down on the floor and started punching him until he apologized.

bernard haller
The building that housed the Kolbosov shul. (Google Maps)

From where did he derive his ability to pass the spiritual challenges in the military?

It is certainly in large measure due to the mesorah cultivated in his parents’ home. His grandfather, Reb Yosef Yehoshua, was one of four children; his father, Zev, was the only one to remain frum. Zev likewise had four children and my father was the only one who was observant; he carried on the tradition.

His father was a tailor who worked in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side. Unlike many others of his generation, he refused to work on Shabbos. He would work the whole week and then be fired. He would have to find a new job the following week. At some point, he successfully found a steady job that allowed him to observe Shabbos.

My father had a special affinity for tzedakah. He would respond to every tzedakah letter that came in the mail. He explained to me that we are entrusted with G-d’s money. When funds are needed, open your checkbook and give.

He had a kesher with the Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum, zy”a. He would attend Selichos before Rosh Hashanah in the Rebbe’s shul.

Rebbetzin Alta Feiga, a”h, known for her tzedakah v’chesed activities, knew my Dad as she would collect Tzedakah on those occasions.

When the Rebbe was niftar in 1979, he was determined to attend the levayah in Kiryas Joel even though it was hard for my father to walk. Because of the crowds, he, like many others, was compelled to park his car a long distance away. Yet, he walked approximately three miles to the levayah despite the difficulty, to pay his last respects to the Rebbe.

My father kept his kesher with the Rebbetzin and would speak to her on the phone and visit even after the Rebbe was niftar.

Before his passing, my father wrote the text for his own epitaph on the matzeivah, which states that he managed to put on tefillin every day even during combat and that he refrained from eating meat the entire time of his service.

The army gave a Bible to every serviceman. The Jewish servicemen received an English-language translation of the Tanach. I have two copies and Parashas Noach is missing. I do not know the reason. Perhaps the military did not want the Marines to read about how the world’s population perished in the flood, which they believed could affect their ability to carry out their duties.

bernard haller
The Tanach given to Jewish servicemen.

So it seems your father was a strong-willed person who would not sacrifice his principles.

Yes, my father remained steadfast in his faith despite the tests that he faced throughout his life. He swam against the tide when necessary and always emerged on top. He did not take his mistreatment to heart and was not derailed by the challenges. He suffered various health complications for many years but overcame each one. He was strengthened by each nisayon. He thanked G-d for every day.

About two years before he passed away, he had a leg amputated. The night before the procedure, I was in the hospital with him. I was crying because of his situation but he appeared unmoved. He was a Marine with nine lives; he went through a lot. He took off the covers and lifted his leg and said to it, “I’m going to bury you; you’re not going to bury me.” The leg was preserved and buried with him in his kever.

Did he tell of instances of hashgachah pratis, times when he felt Hashem was clearly watching over him?

He was once in a foxhole during combat when he counted 10 tracers that passed between the 6 to 12 inches that separated him from a comrade by his side. When a shooter spotted a target, the tracer bullet would flash a spark so that other shooters would know where to aim, especially in the dark. They were used on every 10th round of shooting, meaning 100 rounds had come his way and narrowly missed him.

My father excelled in his ability to dig foxholes quickly so that he and his comrades could get out of the line of fire, for which he was nicknamed “Foxhole Benny.”

The Battle of Iwo Jima in early 1945 was a major battle in which Marines and Navy captured that island from the Imperial Japanese Army. My father’s unit was supposed to take part in this campaign, which saw some of the bloodiest combat in the Pacific Theater. The day before their planned departure to the war zone, the entire platoon developed yellow eyes, which generally indicates yellow fever, so they were sidelined for one of the fiercest battles in the Pacific with many lives lost. It turned out that the condition was merely due to something they ate. By not going, the unit suffered no casualties.

bernard haller

Marine insignia from a plaque Haller received.

Why did he inscribe the text about tefillin and kosher meat on his monument?

I think his intention was to inspire his future generations with the lesson that a frum Yid does mitzvos and focuses on Hakadosh Baruch Hu, even when it is hard.

He certainly had no intention that it would spread around the globe on social media. While he was not shy, he never liked being in the limelight.

What message would your father have for today’s young Jews?

Be honorable and honest.

Strive to have a shem tov, a good name, as it says “Tov shem mi’shemen tov — a good name is better than fine oil” (Koheles 7:1).

Treat people as you would like to be treated.

Don’t hold grudges.

Learn Torah to the best of your ability.

Raise your children in the way of the Torah.

Thank you for sharing these recollections of your esteemed father, which will surely inspire our readers and enlighten them about an earlier period in American Jewish history.

Reb Baruch Haller was niftar on 7 Tammuz 5769/June 29, 2009. Besides the text in English which he prepared for his matzeivah, the Hebrew portion relates that he loved the Borei Olam with all his heart, he pursued tzedakah v’chessed all his days, fulfilled the mitzvos in a wondrous way [even] in difficult situations, was wholly truthful, and his words were in accord with his thoughts (lit., heart).

May he be a melitz yosher for his family and Klal Yisrael.

Photos courtesy of Leibe Haller.