Stories from the frontline — what Jews did in the Great War
A Jewish Museum exhibition reveals heroism, sacrifice and divisions
Deep in the First World War trenches, 17-year-old Marcus Segal wrote a letter home to his family in Kilburn. “I can’t wait until we’re together again,” he said. “Sitting Seder and singing Ma Nishtanah.”
Though aching for the comforts of faith and family, the young soldier soon adapted — even having kosher chicken dispatched from Barnet to the battlefields and building his own makeshift succah in the marshland.
But, in 1917 at the age of 20, Segal was killed in battle. His story, like those of so many other serving Jews, was all but forgotten.
Until now, that is. From next Wednesday, London’s Jewish Museum and the Jewish Military Museum are joining forces to tell the story of Jewish life during the First World War through the For King and Country? exhibition.
“We wanted to bring together different voices, different stories and different individuals in order to try and represent the multiplicity of experience,” says Roz Currie, curator of the exhibition, which will be staged at the Jewish Museum’s Camden premises and will run until August, marking the centenary of the start of the war.
Postcards, oral histories, uniforms and medals are among the exhibits, showcasing the contribution of some of the 50,000 Jews who fought for Britain.
The best known — by her subsequent marital name of Florence Greenberg — of those featured is Florence Oppenheimer. Before becoming a kosher cookery guru, the qualified nurse spent the war years serving on hospital ships across the Mediterranean. As well as being one of the few women, she was also the only Jew on deck.
Through the pages of her diary — acquired in full for the exhibition — we see how life for those serving could veer from boredom to panic with the regularity of the changing tide.
She writes on August 4 1915: “Where are they going to take us? Do they think we all want a holiday at the Government’s expense? We are all thoroughly sick of it all.”
Five days later, struggling to care for the influx of wounded soldiers from Gallipoli, she writes: “There were 10 of us to look after nearly 2,000 patients… After a good wash, I felt considerably better, so I returned to my little hell once more and made the doctors go on with dressings and I went round to try to make them a bit more comfortable.”
For Currie, such individual stories and anecdotes provide “an amazing texture” to the general historical narrative. “Florence seems to have loved serving, even though her service was pretty horrific,” she says.
“As a curator, it’s very scary when you’re putting words in people’s mouths. But with these personal accounts you feel like you really understand someone who lived 100 years ago. These documents bridge the gap.”
Pointing to a postcard sent by a soldier to his Russian immigrant parents, signed simply: “Love, Dave,” she reflects:
“These people have become people we know. When you take a step back and realise they were killed, it crushes you a bit.”
That was the fate of Lieutenant Frank Alexander de Pass, the first Jew to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honour of the British army.
Before the war, De Pass — the son of a wealthy family from Chelsea — had served in the army in India, which was a popular option for Jewish soldiers wishing to fast-track their rise through the ranks.
As reported by the London Gazette, his VC recognised “conspicuous bravery near Festubert, in entering a German sap [trench] and destroying a traverse in the face of the enemy’s bombs — and for subsequently rescuing, under heavy fire a wounded man who was lying exposed in the open”.
De Pass was killed the following day when re-entering the sap and his posthumous honour is one of the most poignant exhibits.
The Jewish experience in the First World War is often overlooked, given the inextricable link of the Second World War to the Holocaust. Who knew, for example, that there was a Jewish fighting force — the Judeans — making up four battalions of the Royal Fusiliers?
It was founded in 1915, in part to enable Russian immigrants to join the war effort (before conscription was introduced the following year, non-nationals who fled persecution in the early 1900s were not legally able to serve in the army).
Sent to Palestine in 1917, the 500-strong Judean force entered Jerusalem in December with General Edmund Allenby. On display at the exhibition are postcards and tourist trinkets that they bought there.
Another fascinating memento is a German spiked helmet, or Pickelhaube, worn by Jewish-German soldier Julius Weinberg when he fought on the side of the Central Powers against Britain and France.
The helmet was donated to the exhibition by Weinberg’s son Kurt, who came to England on the Kindertransport, just before his father — a loyal German soldier — was arrested by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp. The ironies of history ring loud and clear.
And just as Jews were divided by warring lines, they were also split back home.
Long-standing communities that had been emancipated in the mid-19th century were seeking influence among the British elite and wanted to show their patriotism.
The slew of newly arrived Eastern European immigrants had a very different attitude.
“The story is of the more settled community being extremely loyal and the more recent immigrant community remaining hesitant,” Currie explains. “We have articles written by the JC saying these foreign people are the real problem for us. We’ve developed our identity as British Jews and then these people come along who don’t speak the language and don’t celebrate their faith in a quiet, solemn, English way.
“So in a sense, there was a real divide.”
Also among the exhibition’s treasure trove of memorabilia are recruitment posters written in Yiddish that were plastered around London’s East End.
“In England, there are thousands of Jews who should be grateful to it for freedom and justice to this country that protects them,” proclaims one, published by the Joint Labour Recruiting Committee.
“Any appeal to passions would not be appropriate, but an appeal to honour and gratitude will look quite different.”
And it should be remembered that 2,500 of the 50,000 Jews who served died in battle and a further 9,000 were wounded.