The Jewish experience of World War One has often been relegated to an ‘aside’, discussed when tracing the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism across Europe in the build-up to World War Two. To mark the centenary of WW1 this March, at the Jewish Museum in London the Jewish experience is being explored more fully, both on the frontline and at home. Curator Roz Currie explains that the task of telling the ‘Jewish story’ was a difficult one – “It’s about the multiplicity of experience, really” she says, noting the diversity and highly personal circumstances of individuals serving, or not. “How do you tell a Jewish story when it’s not a monolithic story, it’s not one voice?”
These divergent voices emerge from the exhibition, drawing particular attention to how WW1 increased divisions between the established middle-class British Jews and the relatively new Jewish immigrant community, which arrived in the 1880s. The cover of The Jewish Chronicle, dated 18 Dec 1914 illuminates this perfectly: ‘England has been all that she could be to Jews, Jews will be all they can be to England’. “The idea was that Jewish people had been emancipated in this country for some time and now they had to play their part, pay back for being free people, so they should serve. This was very much the line from British settled Jews,” Roz explains, “they’d been in the country for several generations, they felt Jewish but also very British… They wanted to show that Jews were serving. They were also very uneasy about the immigrant population who were maybe less willing to serve”.
Frank de Pass was one such British Jew: a career solider, he joined the army in 1906, working his way through the ranks, and served in India as an officer (“Possibly because it was easier for a Jew to get commissioned to became an officer in India than it would have been in Britain”, Roz adds, nodding to prejudices of the time.) Frank was killed in 1914, aged 27. Awarded the Victoria Cross, “he exemplifies the settled community who really wanted to fight.”
Many of the immigrant Jewish community had fled pogroms in Eastern Europe, or the brutal 20-year military draft service in Russia, and did not want to fight beside the Russians against the Germans. These immigrant soldiers, like poet Isaac Rosenberg, had a less compelling reason to fight: “He joined up basically as he was very impoverished, and wanted his mother to have enough money to live off. He was an awful soldier though,” Roz says sadly. Like so many other men, Isaac Rosenberg never made it home from the battlefield, though his legacy lives on in the poetry he wrote in the trenches.
Roz stresses that the Jewish immigrant population did not have monolithic attitudes, for example: “Hyman Rutstein was persecuted in Russia and came to Britain to avoid that. He wanted to leave Russia behind” Roz says, “so he enlisted to become British”. Along with 3,000 Russian Jews, he gained naturalisation after the war. And like many Jewish immigrants, Rutstein was eager to serve for his ‘new’ country.
In Britain, anti-Semitism also grew throughout the war: many Jewish residents had German-sounding names at a time when dachshunds were being kicked to death on the streets and German sounding Jewish-owned stores were being smashed as a mark of anti-German feeling. “There were riots in Bethnal Green and in Leeds, and whilst this partly related to Jews refusing to fight, it was also a result of the simplification that happens during war. Everything became good or bad. Patriotism rose and inevitably if you were different it was a much harder atmosphere in which to live”.
Whilst the exhibition draws emphasis on the divergent voices of the Jewish community at that time, a theme that emerges consistently is the loneliness of the Jewish experience in WW1: “Britain was a very, very Christian country at that time” Roz explains, “It was a very Christian army”. Practicing your faith in the trenches was incredibly difficult. “Some people were overtly Jewish,” she says, pointing to several ID bracelets on display that bear the inscription ‘Jew’ and ‘Heb’. Soldier Marcus Segal went so far as to built a sukkah in the trenches. “But it was difficult,” Roz says. Rations were not kosher and at the end of the war, there were still only 14 Jewish chaplains on the front line, covering more than 200 miles. Reverend Michael Adler was pivotal in supporting Jewish soldiers throughout the war, sending them prayer books and writing to Jewish troops.
The exhibition makes an important decision to “tell the German ‘enemy’ side of the war as well because it’s important to remember how many Jews were serving on every side” Roz adds. 30,000 Jewish soldiers were awarded the Iron Cross or other decorations in Germany, none of which held sway in the subsequent decades as the fascists swept to power. And this is another crucial point of the exhibition: grounded in the rhetoric of ‘shirkers’, or a divided community, the idea that Jews had not served in WW1 became widespread in the following decades.
The British Book of Jewry, in which Winston Churchill is quoted saying, “British Jews can look back with pride on the honourable part they played in winning the Great War” – was published by Michael Adler and lists every Jew who served. It’s been an invaluable resource in putting the exhibition together, and finding Jewish voices to tell their experiences. 2,500 Jewish soldiers lost their lives for Britain, and their stories are told here, finally.
For King & Country? runs until 10 August 2014. For more information click HERE
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