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Same faith but fighting on opposites sides in the Great War

    German troops in the trenches — Jews fought on both sides in the war. (Photo: AP)
    German troops in the trenches — Jews fought on both sides in the war. (Photo: AP)

    The stories of the Jews who sacrificed themselves for king and country in the First World War will be told at a landmark exhibition at London’s Jewish Museum in Camden next summer.

    The display, which will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the war in August 2014, will tell the story of the conflict “through a Jewish lens” by featuring letters, eyewitness accounts, photographs and memorabilia, including details of the first Jewish recipient of the Victoria Cross.

    It will be one of a range of communal events held alongside the national commemoration, announced by the government last week.

    In addition to recalling the more than 55,000 Jews in the British forces, the exhibition will explore the legacy of the 100,000 Jews who fought loyally for Germany only to face the Holocaust two decades later.

    The museum’s curator Roz Currie said: “We have a German Jewish prayer book from the war, which is half in German and half in Hebrew. It’s a really curious thing to look at given what happened next. In my view, we should remember all the people who served and died because it was a horrific waste of life.”

    The First World War was the first conflict that involved the British Jewish community en masse. Those who had been in Britain for several generations felt strongly that they should fight for their country and were quick to enlist, with some 10,000 joining up after the JC published a front-page appeal in December 1914.

    For newer immigrants who had recently fled Russia, the situation was more complex. Some believed joining the forces would help new immigrants to integrate. But, as aliens without citizenship, many were prohibited from serving on the front line. In some cases, deals were struck whereby Russian Jews who signed up were naturalised; for others, army pay was a way of providing for their families.

    “There were many reasons why people signed up — it wasn’t just a pure sense of loyalty,” said Ms Currie. “The new immigrants found it really difficult. There wasn’t kosher food, they weren’t with their people, and they spoke Yiddish.”

    As well as the exhibition — which will be the first event in a longer-term collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Jewish Military Museum — events marking the community’s contribution will be staged around Britain. The Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women will use its annual memorial march in November 2014 to focus on casualties of the conflict, while educational events are being planned at the London Jewish Cultural Centre.

    The hope is that the centenary will prompt people to come forward with family recollections of the war. “We’ve got such an interesting story to tell,” said Ms Currie. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to capture people’s imagination.”

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