Preserving stories from home and battlefronts


The digital archive project recording London Jewry’s contribution to the war effort is to be extended to other regions.

Capitalising on the interest in the Armistice centenary, events will be held in Manchester and Liverpool later this month to launch a North-West addition to the London Jewish Cultural Centre project, We Were There Too, whose website has received around 300,000 hits.

Since its establishment in 2016, We Were There Too has collated thousands of personal records. Other features of the site include “heritage history windows” — for example, on the Zion Mule Corps, Jewish poets of the First World War and stories such as that of Solomon Solomon, who pioneered the use of camouflage in warfare.

It has also digitised all First World War material held by the Jewish Museum and memorabilia held by specialist collectors.

“There is some fantastic material which was at risk of being lost,” said Alan Fell, the project director.

Painstakingly illustrated poems, essays and cartoons are among a treasure trove of material contained in bound volumes of work by pupils of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue religion school in 1915 and 1916, which had been gathering dust in storage boxes.

“We are preserving family legends that are extraordinary — letters, books, diaries,” Mr Fell said. “People come to us almost desperate to tell a story they don’t want to be lost. And if they want to donate the items, we give them a list of approved museums. A family turned up at one of our roadshows with a great-uncle’s trench diary. He talks about being sent to the front and surviving by hiding among dead donkeys before managing to crawl back to the trench.”

The section on nurses features Florence Greenberg “the Jewish Florence Nightingale”. The wife of former JC editor Leopold Greenberg, she became the JC’s food columnist and went on to author best-selling cookbooks.

But Mr Fell stressed that the project was as much about what life was like on the home front as it was on the battle-front.

“Diet was bad, housing was bad, there was no welfare system. Many women had large families and spoke little English but they kept it all together.”

Having contributed £400,000 to the £528,000 cost of the London archive, the Heritage Lottery Fund has given a £100,000 grant towards the North-West addition. The total cost is £250,000 and the shortfall is being met from donations from the Rothschild and Pears foundations and Ajex.

The London archive was judged by Heritage Lottery as the best First World War project relating to life in the capital it had funded and the archive was showcased at a Westminster event for MPs and peers last week.

Mr Fell continues to promote We Were There Too through roadshows at care homes, friendship clubs, schools, synagogues and churches.

Beyond Liverpool and Manchester, he hopes to further extend the archive to cover Yorkshire and Humberside.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive