‘Far from home, enemy bullets struck him and put an end to this fine young life … there is nothing of him left to me except the memory ...”
Almost in tandem with the government’s recent announcement of its plan to commemorate the Great War next year, I have emerged from a unique and bittersweet book translation project, The War Letters of German and Austrian Jews.
Written in 1914 by Jewish soldiers in the trenches in Eastern and Western Europe to loved ones at home, these letters are a poignant and often humorous tribute to the little-known contribution made by Jewish soldiers on all sides in the conflict. The book highlights several aspects of the war which made their experience of the fighting different from that of their comrades.
To begin with, prejudice did not end simply because a battle had started. As I coaxed the German words in the text over to the English side, (and there were some truly heroic efforts required to ease the scattered German Yiddish expressions into anglicised Yiddish!), my attention was drawn to the way Jewish soldiers were often treated so dismissively.
The following sentences hint at the atmosphere that surrounded the Jewish boys when they joined up, 10,000 as volunteers: “In future, no one will be able to say that we Jews went into this difficult battle as cowards. Yesterday, a major told me that the first Iron Cross in the battalion went to a young rabbi from Strasbourg who had been unanimously recommended by his company.”
More intriguingly, however, we are shown the enormous efforts to which the soldiers were prepared to go to preserve their religious rituals and beliefs.
The strong bond to their community that Judaism gave the soldiers is striking. Of course, Jewish soldiers were not the only men in the trenches missing the atmosphere in their homes intensely. But the rituals that take place at home are a distinguishing feature of the Jewish religion, and strengthen the bond to the family.
As one young soldier wrote: “All my thoughts flew to you my dear ones, who will also be thinking of me over here this evening, longing for the Sabbath evening that lights up our house and our hearts with the beams of the Sabbath light, the Sabbath peace, and gathers us around you, beloved mama, safe and happy. I imagine it all to be so beautiful; how thankful I would be to enter the prayer house again, how happily all of us who are fighting for the security of our homeland, would stretch out our hands in greeting, how festive my dear parents’ house would radiate on this evening. But the realisation of this hope dwells in the far distant future.”
Death was never far from the men’s thoughts; they were writing in the front line trenches after all. The following quotation speaks to the hearts of fighting men everywhere: “Suddenly we heard the call: ‘Forwards!’ The enemy is pulling back. I quickly turned to Kremer and tugged his arm. ‘We’re advancing.’
“But oh, such pain, Kremer doesn’t move. He was kneeling as before with his notebook in his hand, with his serious, deep face ... My heart turned over inside me ... Now the battle is over and we are able to rest. I no longer have my friend, I am an orphan.”
One final point lends these letters an even greater tragic aura; the firm belief among the men that a new world was being forged by the war and that Jews would be treated as equals within that new society. The hopes of Jewish soldiers everywhere were buoyed by this. Most of those young, idealistic men, never lived to see their dreams so cruelly crushed just a few short years later.