Rosh Hashanah 1920: a festival of hope — and mass-delusion

Colin Shindler reflects on the Jewish New Year a century ago


One hundred years ago, Rosh Hashanah 5681/1920, British Jews were beginning to look forward to a better future after the years of lethal stalemate on the battlefields of the First World War.

Almost a million British soldiers had died fighting for King and Country in a terrible conflagration.

The poet, Siegfried Sassoon, described the choking of dying soldiers in the trenches as “the flapping veils of smothering gloom, lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans”. The euphoria of victory in November 1918 had not overcome the loss of thousands of young British Jews during this conflict, where “lions were led by donkeys”.

Many synagogues in London held services on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1920 to remember what had just passed. War memorial tablets were unveiled to commemorate those who had perished. A scroll of honour, listing those who had died, was read out aloud to silent congregants. Fathers lit yahrzeit lights for the sons who never returned. The JC spoke of “the infinite idealism of those young men of brightest hope and brilliant promise over whose dead bodies we marched to victory”.

It was also the end of a two-year long flu pandemic that had taken the lives of a quarter of a million people in this country. The future seemed bright and the rantings of an antisemitic Austrian agitator from Linz, Adolf Hitler, in the bierkellers of Munich, seemed to be an unimportant, distant distraction, unworthy of attention.

Yet the conflict had not ended in Europe. While great empires had fallen, national movements hoped to create new states out of the old.

A new Poland had arisen out of the ashes of Tsarism after over 120 years. However, for many Jews, it proved to be a time of massacre and not liberation.

In the killing fields of Eastern Europe, Jews were caught in the crossfire of ancient ethnic hostilities between Poles and Ukrainians, between the ideological bitterness of the Bolsheviks and their foes in the Russian civil war.

The Jews became the common denominator of hate for all these warring groups including, to an extent, even the Red Army. In 1919, the British government asked Sir Stuart Samuel, the President of the Board of Deputies, to head a commission to investigate the pogroms in Poland and the Ukraine. The mass murder of Jews in the Ukraine was on a scale only exceeded by the extermination of Jews during the Shoah.

Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein) had established and led the Red Army — and arguably saved Lenin’s regime. The anti-Bolshevik military forces who wished to restore the Old Order viewed Trotsky as “the eternal Jew”, bent on subverting Christendom and destroying Mother Russia. He was the embodiment of “the Jewish peril”. All Jews, in their eyes, were Bolsheviks. As the English journalist, John Hodgson, embedded with these forces, wrote: “Many held that the whole cataclysm had been engineered by some great and mysterious society of international Jews who, in the pay and at the order of Germany, had seized the psychological moment and snatched the reins of government.”

The capitalist Jew had morphed into the Communist Jew, but was still held responsible for the ills of the world. Ironically, this mindset threw many Jews into the arms of the Bolsheviks — only the Red Army could protect them.

Many Jews were attracted by the idealism of Communism — ridding the world of antisemitism and creating a just society. Semyon Diamanstein, previously a Lubavitcher Chasid, became the head the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist party. After all, both the Balfour Declaration and the October Revolution occurred within days of each — and elements of both events could be located within Jewish tradition.

In the UK, the equating of Communism with Jews began to create a sense of apprehension among many Jewish leaders, who feared that it would make dents in Anglo-Jewish respectability and hinder their acceptance into British society. The historian Sharman Kadish has comprehensively written about “the Letter of the Ten” to the Morning Post in which they proclaimed: “We desire to dissociate ourselves absolutely and unreservedly from the mischievous and misleading doctrine (of Bolshevism)”. Its signatories included Lionel de Rothschild, Lord Swaythling and Claude Montefiore.

One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1920, a joint Polish-Ukrainian force launched an attack on Soviet forces. Its purpose was to create a buffer region of independent states between the Germans and the Russians who had traditionally colonised and oppressed smaller nations between their domains. The Red Army, however, rebuffed the Polish advance and instead marched on Warsaw. Trotsky wanted a Jewish battalion in his army, but the Yevsektsia blocked it. The response of the Polish Minister of Defence, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, to the military prowess of the Red Army, was to regard all Jews as a Bolshevik fifth column. He ordered the internment of all Jewish officers, fighting in the Polish forces and sent them to the Jablonna camp near Warsaw. Jewish soldiers were removed from the front line.

The Soviets had hoped that a victory over the Poles would pave the way to Western Europe. The leading Bolshevik, Nikolai Bukharin, dreamed of the Red Army entering London. Instead, the Poles unexpectedly defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw. Many Jews, however, fled with the retreating Red Army, fearful that the Poles would enact reprisals. Indeed, Rabbi Haim Shapiro of Plock was executed by a Polish firing squad as a spy.

A ceasefire was declared during Succot 1920 and the borders of Eastern Europe began to solidify. As history records, the inter-war years were more a period of no war rather than one of peace. The World War lasted from 1914 until 1945.

In hindsight, Rosh Hashanah 1920 proved not be a watershed of hope for the Jews of Europe, but a deception of unimaginable proportions. The sound of the shofar became progressively weaker as the storm clouds over Europe darkened.

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