100 Years & the War that Will End War

Posted on August 1st, 2014 by

Here in Baltimore no one has any doubt what war we are commemorating.  As summer slips into fall one celebration after another will remind us of the events two hundred years ago that gave us our anthem, our pride and our continued independence.  As most of you know, JMM is a part of these festivities, honoring our own favorite Ft. McHenry defender, Mendes Cohen.

However, in much of the world the war being remembered this year is a century later.  On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia, the first in a series of domino triggers that will take the world into its first global maelstrom.  Within a month of the outbreak, futurist H.G. Wells had already published an article declaring that this would be “The War that Will End War”(it’s ok, we also don’t have time travel yet…or a Martian invasion).

The war would be twice tragic for the Jewish people.  First in the loss of life of soldiers drawn to patriotic duty at the early stages of the conflict and second in the inflammation of prejudice as pundits and politicians throughout Europe looked for a scapegoat for their ill-fortune in the fight.

When I was at the Jewish Museum of London this spring, I had a chance to see the exhibit “For King and Country?: The Jewish Experience of the First World War”.  As the “?” in the title implies there were a lot of ambiguities in the Jewish response to the conflict.  After all, many English Jews of the period were recent refugees of lands controlled by Russia and they did not necessarily favor a victory for the Czar, even if he was allied with Great Britain.  Moreover, reflecting the relative size of Jewish populations, more than twice the number of Jews fought for the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) as for the UK and France. In our collection at JMM we have several medals acquired by Jewish soldiers in the service of the German army, carried with them when they were forced to escape on the eve of WWII.

In our collection at JMM we have several medals acquired by Jewish soldiers in the service of the German army, carried with them when they were forced to escape on the eve of WWII. Cross-shaped WWI medal earned by Hugo Bessinger, 2011.4.1

Cross-shaped WWI medal earned by Hugo Bessinger, 2011.4.1

In fact, quickly browsing our collection, it becomes obvious that Baltimore Jews played important roles in the war.  Even before the doughboys went to Europe, the British Royal Fusiliers had begun recruiting American volunteers.  In particular they sought out Jewish young men who wanted to be sent to the front to face the Ottoman Empire in Palestine.

This cap pin, belonging to Simon Soibel, still bears the initials RF, even though the Royal Fusiliers units, the 39th and 40th battalions, were already referred to as the “Jewish Legion.” 1992.154.057

This cap pin, belonging to Simon Soibel, still bears the initials RF, even though the Royal Fusiliers units, the 39th and 40th battalions, were already referred to as the “Jewish Legion.” 1992.154.057

We have just one WWI uniform in our collection, but it unites two prominent Baltimore families.  This coat belonged to Lester Levy, hat maker and civic leader.  Levy, who had ambitions to fight in France, had been turned down by the Army for his poor eyesight.  Although he eventually got a waiver from the US Attorney General’s office, he was assigned to ordnance and never actually went overseas.  And the other prominent Baltimore family?  Well, the coat was manufactured by Henry Sonneborn & Co.



The collection also contains quite a few photos from the war effort.

These include an image of a rabbi and troops at a Passover seder in Paris in 1918, 1993.173.1.15



three Red Cross nurses, named Levin, Fuxman and Ribakow, 1990.44.2

three Red Cross nurses, named Levin, Fuxman and Ribakow, 1990.44.2

As Jennifer Vess wrote in this blog several years ago, the role of women in WWI including not only the nurses but other participants in the combat support effort is particularly well documented in our holdings.

Members of the Jewish Welfare Board in Paris, France; Rose Lutzky, 3rd from right, 1993.173.12

Members of the Jewish Welfare Board in Paris, France; Rose Lutzky, 3rd from right, 1993.173.12

Barbara Tuchman, author of the most famous treatise on WWI, The Guns of August, once wrote “Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.”*  I would add just one thought to her cogent analysis – “without records and artifacts there are no books.”

*Bulletin of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 34, #2, 1980 (pp. 16-32)

Marvin Pinkert A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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Jews in the German Army in World War I

Posted on December 20th, 2012 by

Our final post in the World War I series is a guest post provided by Jonathan Feng, who has graciously agreed to write a little bit about Jews serving in the Germany army. As always we’ll add in some images of photographs and objects from the JMM collection.

Group of men in the German army during World War I with Gertrude Strauss (nurse) taken at a hospital in Karlsruhe, Germany. Isidor Maier (donor’s father) is in the upper corner of picture. Courtesy of Meta Oppenheimer. 1998.74.1

My name is Jonathan Feng and I have been invited to guest blog by Jewish Museum of Maryland archivist Jennifer Vess about the First World War. I am an earnest civil servant whose only qualifications to weigh in on this matter is a short stint in a graduate program for public history and an unnatural fascination with spiked helmets and trench warfare.

The First World War (1914-1918) is a period of time which serves as a major demarcation between two eras. The nineteenth century was clearly over at the end of the First World War and the world was barreling into the twentieth century with a head of full of steam. Empires which had stood since the end of the medieval period (Russian Empire,Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire) found themselves disintegrated at the end. The grand nineteenth century empires ofGreat Britain and France were soon to follow in a few decades.

Cross-shaped WWI medal earned by Hugo Bessinger in Germany. Courtesy of Claire Beissinger. 2011.4.1

While the role of the Jewish people is well known in the Second World War and is well documented in mainstream scholarship, their role in the First World War is less known. John Keegan, the late military historian, only mentioned the Jewish people three times in his work on the First World War (pages 227, 302, and 344 should you care to look in your own personal copy of the book). Most likely, this is a result of the fact that mainstream scholarship has tended to focus on the major power structures and in the realm of politics and government, the representative Jewish population ranged from minimal to non-existent due to the fact that the Jewish population was, to put it very lightly, not well liked by their non-Jewish neighbors.

Postcard of German soldiers in World War I, boarding a train, c. 1914-1918. Courtesy of Mrs. Paul Kramer. 1994.72.15

This does not mean that the Jewish people did not make any significant contributions to the First World War. In 1916, due to a long-standing tradition of not being nice to the Jewish people, the German high command decided to do a census (Judenz’hlung or Jewish census) to verify their own pre-established belief that the Jewish people were not being good Germans and supporting the war. What they found was that the Jewish people were major participants in the conflict, with 10,000 Jewish men volunteering for service and approximately 100,000 Jewish men in total who served in the German military. The vast majority of them (roughly 78,000 to 80,000) served on the front lines of the First World War and more than 30,000 of them were decorated for their service. Twelve thousand of those Jewish soldiers lost their lives serving in the First World War. Many of those who served did so in the hopes that they would finally earn some respect from their fellow countrymen and prove that they were indeed proud Germans.

Hindenburg Cross, struck to commemorate all German soldiers who served in World War I). Awarded to Kaufmann Sigmund Guthorn. 1984.159.1a

Such would not be the case, though. After the onerous terms of the 1918 Treaty of Versailles were delivered and imposed by the Allied Powers, the German people were looking for reasons for their defeat. The Dolchstolegende or stab-in-the-back myth developed and categorized the Jewish population of Germany as saboteurs who undermined the German war effort on the home front and ultimately caused the defeat of Germany in the First World War. This supposed guilt of the Jewish people fueled more anti-Semitic attitudes and would contribute to the rise of Nazism in the interwar period in Germany.

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The Jewish Legion of World War I

Posted on November 15th, 2012 by

After 36 hours continuous journey we arrived in this town [Trudo, Nova Scotia,Canada] and I gladly jumped into a bath tub and after that I feel almost like new born and start my diary on the most adventurous event of my life: the campaign in Palestine. Ferdinand Breth, October 12, 1918, pg. 1. [MS 53, 2000.50.19]

Herman Carliner, seated in Jewish Legion uniform, Palestine, 1918. Courtesy Rita Miller and Elaine Carliner Millstone. 1996.80.5a

I think that most people’s knowledge of World War I is centered on the battlefields of France or maybe the cold Western Front. But World War I was fought in other places as well, including Israel, then Palestine.

This is a subject I am just beginning to understand, but what I’ve learned this about the fighting in what was then Palestine: Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allies. The Ottoman Empire at that time controlled a region that includedPalestine. Germany and Britain both desired control over the Middle East, and Palestine was a key region for that control. The British established the Jewish Legion to fight the Ottoman Empire (and the Germans) in Palestine. The battalions formed by the British consisted of Jews from all over the world: Britain, Palestine, America, Australia, etc.

Legionnaires standing at attention. Courtesy of Paulyne R. Hyman. 1998.35.11

We have very little in the museum related to the Jewish Legion, but we are lucky enough to have a few pictures and the diaries of Ferdinand Breth who joined the Jewish Legion with many others from the US and travelled to Palestine. The following are pictures of various soldiers in the Jewish Legion and excerpts from Breth’s diaries. Breth actually reached the Middle East after the armistice went into effect so he and his fellow recruits didn’t see any military action. But Breth wrote in detail about his comrades (including one Ethiopian Jew), camp life, and the Jewish communities he visited while abroad.

Louis Brandeis and Harry Friedenwald passing between two soldiers. Courtesy of Hanan Sibel. 1992.154.18

The most interesting persons of the Boston Bunch were 5 Christian Syrians, who joined the Jewish Legion because they want to free their homeland Palestine from the Turks. Pg. 14, October 16, 1918. [MS 53, 2009.50.19]

Jewish Legion soldiers in their daily dress at their camp, n.d. Courtesy of Hanan Sibel. 1992.154.4

As leader we now get a recruiting sergeant Rodman, who in some nondescript uniform was taken by most of us for real sergeant. He was a Hebrew teacher inBaltimoreand knew Sonneborn. Pg. 15 October 16, 1918 [MS 53, 2009.50.19]

Michael Margolis, Jewish Legion, c. 1918. Courtesy of Aaron and Dorothy Margolis. 1994.193.71ab

We crossed the Suez Canal on a pontoon bridge and then marched about a mile thru the camp, till we finally came to the tents destined for us. Next morning we were full of wonder about our new station. The camp is the biggest we ever saw, as far as the eyes could see the dessert sand is dotted with white tents.? Everywhere we see soldiers of all branches and of all nationalities. The camp is now used for demobilization and they arrive here by thousands soldiers from Palestine, Mesopotamiaand other places and are sent from here home. There are here Indian soldiers with big Khaki Turbans, long hair and long beards, Sundanese and other African troops, Australians, Scotch and many other troops. Also we about hundred Legionnaires, from the 38th Batailon [sic], which saw action in Palestine. They are mostly Egyptian and Algerian Jews…speaking Arabic and French, but we found also some American Boys among them, which told us the story of Palestine Campaign. Pg. 150-151, January 1919 [MS 53, 2009.50.19]

Jewish Legionnaires marching along a road lined with people and under suspended American, Israeli, and British flags, n.d. Courtesy of Paulyne R. Hyman. 1998.35.12.3

At about 3pm we arrived in Rafa, the first station inPalestine. We were in land of our dreams and many times before I was thinking what a wonderful moment it will be, when our Legion will reach the Palestinian ground. I expected that our boys will lose their heads in enthusiasm, that we will smile on our knees and kiss the land for which liberation we were willing to sacrifice our lives, but nothing like this happened. The Russian Jew is not a sentimentalist and the crossing of Palestineboundary, did not interrupt the quarelling [sic] of our bunch or the poker game of the other. We even did not sing Hatikwah, and as soon as the train stopped most of us were running to the cantine [sic] to buy cakes or cans of preserved pineapples. Pg. 159 January 1919 [MS 53, 2009.50.19]

The Palestine Legion, in Haifa on Shabbos, on Shul parade. Man with head down is Colonel Samuels, Simon Sibel’s former colonel. Courtesy of Hanan Sibel. 1992.154.2

Soldiers in front of their tents, n.d. Courtesy of Paulyne R. Hyman 1998.35.12.1

By the summer of 1919 Breth’s father was very ill and he asked to leave the service.

The repatriation papers I wrote about last night, came to-day and I may leave Palestine next week. It came so suddenly that I hardly can adjust my mind to it. Leave Palestine and maybe for ever, and still I have accomplished so little. It appears to me like deserting my post and even when I assure myself that I will come back, it cannot quiet my mind. I may come back, but so many things may happen. Pg. 16, August 24, 1919 [MS 53, 2009.50.20]

Funeral ceremony, n.d. Courtesy of Hanan Sibel. 1992.154.40

Jewish Legion veterans reunion, c. 1950 Identified are Abraham Shapiro, third from left in back row, William Braiterman, fourth from left in back row, and Julius Sussman, third from left in front row. Courtesy of Erich and Thelma Oppenheim. 1994.38.5

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