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Wilderness Seder

June 2024
2min read

In 1934 I was in my early twenties and was unemployed. When President Roosevelt offered the youth of America one temporary way out, I jumped at the opportunity to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, which had been designed to take young men like me off the streets and send them into the forests.

Before I knew it, I found myself in Montana, along with three hundred other city boys who were coming into close contact with nature for the first time. The towering blue-gray ranges of Glacier National Park were majestic, and the cedars, pines, and sycamores rose so high that they made my apartment house back home seem small.

In the middle of April, spring and Passover came together. There were only twenty-six Jewish men in our company, and most of us thought of the Seders back home. We talked it over and decided to have our own ceremony out there in the wilderness. I was chosen to be part of a three-man delegation that went to see our commanding officer, Capt. Daniel M. Wilson.

He was a West Point graduate and looked just as you would have imagined: tall, erect, with cool blue eyes and a crew cut. Even in the forests of Montana his uniform was always immaculate. He listened to us and said, “Of course. You can have the use of the recreation hall for one night.”

The following day I put up a little notice in Timber , the wall newspaper that I edited. It read: “Passover Seder, Thursday, April 18 at 7:30 P.M. in the Recreation Hall. All are welcome.”

When we entered the hall that evening, we were amazed. Twenty-six paper plates had been set around the table. Folded napkins lay alongside, with spoons, forks, and knives. Paper cups of wine stood already filled. Extra bottles of wine and napkins had been placed on another little table nearby. Somebody had arranged mountain flowers in a large coffee can in the center of the table. Plates of matzoh, the bitter herbs, the parsley, and the eggs were covered with paper napkins. An electric heater of some kind had been set up at the other end, keeping the chicken and matzo balls warm. A delicious aroma reminded us of home.

Emilio Skitsko, our Polish cook, had done it all—how, I do not know.

We had no rabbi. But one of our men, Nathan Akiba from Brooklyn, seemed to know more than any of us. Naturally he was immediately dubbed Rabbi Akiba, and he was in command as we improvised our way along.

Nathan recited the Kiddush in excellent Hebrew. The four questions were asked by the youngest among us, Jim Lockwood, who had just turned nineteen. He was half-Jewish, and this was the first Seder he had ever attended.

At the proper intervals we drank the appropriate cups of wine. To our amazement, after the second cup, Captain Wilson appeared, accompanied by two of the men of our company, Frank Finneran and Jack Reidulski, a lightheavyweight boxer who had fought in Madison Square Garden. “Rabbi” Akiba nodded to them and beckoned them to join us at the table. They did. There was a scraping of chairs as we made room for them.

By the time we got to the third cup, another man from the company had appeared. He was Samuel Brownell, a quiet black man who listened far more than he talked and whose religious feelings ran deeper than any of us understood. So there we were—twenty-six Jews, one West Point officer, and three young men of different faiths observing the Passover Seder in the Montana wilderness.

Today almost all of that little group are gone. Capt. Daniel M. Wilson was killed in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Skitsko, our Passover cook, Columbo, Cohen, O’Reilly, Greenberg, Simon, and so many others of Company 269 C.C.C. were also lost in the Second World War—at Pearl Harbor, Normandy Beach, Tarawa, Saipan, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and Cassino.

Only four of us are left. Frank Finneran, who became a Catholic priest, is blind now and lives in a Boston nursing home. Rev. Samuel Brownell, in his middle eighties, is still the active head of a Baptist church in Akron, Ohio. “Rabbi” Akiba lives in California with his daughters; I hear from him from time to time.

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