Battle over First World War soldiers’ graves

Authorities are refusing to replace crosses on the headstones of two First World War soldiers with stars of David, despite acknowledging that evidence exists showing that the soldiers were Jewish.

Martin Sugarman, an archivist at the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (Ajex), has been campaigning to change the religious emblems on the graves of Corporal Joseph Nossek and Private Zephaniah Orman.

Mr Sugarman sent documents, including the soldiers’ birth and death certificates, to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). He said the material made it obvious that the soldiers, who are buried in France, were Jewish.

But CWGC officials would “not even listen” to approaches from the Nossek family, Mr Sugarman claimed.

“The Commission are usually very good, but I’ve detected a hardening in attitudes. I don’t know why they should reject the family’s own appeal,” he said.

While he had been unable to track down the relatives of Private Orman, he had found stories in the JC and the South Wales Argus referring to the Ormans as a prominent Welsh Jewish family.

Their case was particularly said, Mr Sugarman felt. They had “lost two brothers in the war — one whose body was lost, and the other who has a cross on his gravestone.”

Nic Andrews, commemorations policy manager at the CWGC, explained that the crosses had been put on the gravestones at the request of the soldiers’ families.

He said: “We had contact with the family of both the victims after their deaths. They told us what religious emblem to put on the headstones.

“We don’t have discretion. My hands are tied. I don’t dispute the information Mr Sugarman has provided, but unless he can prove that a mistake was made between the family’s wishes and what we did, nothing can be done.”

Mr Andrews reasoned that “it wasn’t uncommon for Jewish families to conceal their faith at the time”, and also suggested that those named as the soldiers’ next of kin may not have been Jewish.

However, Mr Sugarman believes that the Commission’s refusal to mark the graves as those of Jewish soldiers “lowers the profile of the sacrifice of our community”.

The CWGC recently agreed to place a star of David on the headstone of Jewish Second World War RAF pilot, Squadron Leader Cyril Anekstein, whose grave had previously displayed a cross.

Last updated: 11:45am, September 4 2013