They were loyal British Jews and their graves should say it
"Our loyalty and devotion – richly fully and completely deserved by this blessed land — impels us as Jewish citizens of this country to sacrifice ourselves in its aid at this hour of its need.”
So wrote a correspondent of the Jewish Chronicle in December 1914, as the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas showed little sign of abating. And indeed, British Jews enlisted in their thousands, as Jewish mothers joined Christian ones in bidding their sons goodbye.
Visiting the First World War cemeteries of France and Belgium, I remember being struck by how strangely beautiful they were. Row upon row of neat white gravestones, perfectly maintained in green fields and with flowers planted beside them, they spoke not of the bloodshed of the trenches, but of the importance of remembrance and recognition.
Walking around, I sought out the graves of the Jewish soldiers, clearly identified with Magen Davids, and placed a stone on them, aware that these men could have been friends of my great-grandfathers, wondering whether they had any kind of Jewish burial.
We hear too little about those who died in WW1
An estimated 55,000 Jews fought for Britain between 1914 and 1918. Still more fought for France, America and Russia, not to mention the 100,000 who donned their uniform for Germany, mere decades before the Holocaust.
Among those who fought for King and country were two young Jews, Joseph Nossek and Zephaniah Orman. Nossek died in July 1916, Orman two years earlier, in December 1914. Both were killed in France.
But had I passed by their resting places, I would not have known, for their graves bear crosses. There is currently a campaign to amend this, so that Corporal Nossek and Private Orman are forever acknowledged as Jews. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has refused any change, on the basis that back then the families apparently requested the Christian emblem.
Whether this was indeed their wish, or whether, as a CWGC official suggested was feasible, the families felt some need to conceal their faith, there is an argument that says we should leave it be. Dead nearly a century, why bother?
But it matters. Not simply because there is a need to right an historic wrong — although if a mistake was made it is surely right that we correct it — but because the Magen Davids those graves should bear are far more than symbols of faith. They speak of our community’s unwavering loyalty to this country, even at a time when many they were fighting with or for viewed Jews with suspicion and even disgust.
Isolated incidents aside, today British Jews are seen as a core part of the national fabric; royals and politicians mingled with communal representatives at Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ inauguration. There was no question over whether Jews would join Jubilee celebrations; Jews can speak proudly of their faith and still reach the highest echelons of public life. While in 1914 there were high-ranking Jews, these esteemed individuals were hardly seen as representative, especially not of the impoverished Yiddish-speakers that packed the East End.
Nevertheless, even before conscription Jewish men all over Britain joined up, with 10,000 enlisting after the JC published an appeal in December 1914.
Some were from established Anglo-Jewish families, but many others fought alongside the Russia that they had only recently fled. Indeed, some did so in return for citizenship, fighting for a country that was only reluctantly letting them in.
They went to the trenches, often speaking only basic English, and gave up their lives for a cause that probably few really understood.
We often talk of the Jewish contribution to British life, in terms of the immigrants who turned market stalls into national treasures, or the refugees who fled the Nazis and rebuilt their lives here with quiet grace. But we hear much less about those who went over the top at the Somme, Passchendale and Ypres, too often never to return.
As the centenary approaches, Britain will be discussing questions of just war and lost youth, and telling the stories of individuals who went to war with dreams of adventure but, if they came home at all, did so with unspeakable memories.
There were Jews among them, and we must remember their particular stories too.