Walter Gerson, 85, who prepared a seder in a German war zone in 1945, and who later interrogated Nazi prisoners near the war’s end, died Dec. 8, 2007, in San Diego, California.
Gerson was a Jewish chaplain for a time during the war, because no official chaplains were available, according to an oral history quoted in the Washington Post,.He had considered becoming a rabbi.
He said he had to prepare for a seder during 1945, when he was with the 8th Infantry Division that had just crossed the Rhine River into Germany. Horseradish root for maror, parsley and eggs were readily available; matzoh was not. He mentioned his need to the Catholic chaplain, a friend.
“Ten minutes later, he pulls up in his jeep with a 10-pound box of kosher matzohs,” Gerson said. “I said, ‘Where did you get these in the middle of Nazi Germany?’ To which his response was, ‘What do you think I’ve been using for Holy Communion?’ ”
Gerson described the time he spent as a chaplain as “one of the most satisfying experiences, one which I will probably remember longer than all others.”
At the Buchenwald concentration camp near the town of Erfurt, Gerson, who was born in Germany and spoke fluent German, interviewed surviving slave laborers from France, Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere and interpreted for the division’s military government officer. He also interviewed civilians living in the town itself, who invariably professed to know nothing about what was happening in the camp.
Gerson spent two years after the war working for the U.S. Defense Department investigating records tying German industry to the Nazi war effort.
He later founded a Washington marketing research and polling firm. He lived in the Washington,. D.C., suburbs and played Santa Claus every year at Howard University Hospital, and also organized a volunteer group that provided tutoring in low-income minority communities.
Gerson moved to San Diego in 1987, when he was 65, after receiving a doctorate in speech communications from University of Maryland. He became a professor of marketing at San Diego State University, and taught there until a week before his death.
His first marriage ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Joan Gerson of San Diego; two sons from his first marriage, Jon Gerson of Kensington, Maryland, and David Gerson of Washington, D.C., and two grandsons.
Gerson is being buried at Arlington National Cemetery.