JMM Insights: Baltimoreans in the Jewish Legion
For this week’s edition of JMM Insights, we took our inspiration from last week’s Veteran’s Day observance. Below, Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church gives us a look at some of the Jewish Marylanders who served in the Jewish Legion during World War I. Credit must be given to former JMM Archivist Lorie Rombro and the research she did for our pop-up exhibit on this same topic.
Remembering Jewish Veterans: Baltimoreans in the Jewish Legion, World War I
A finer collection of enthusiastic and idealistic young men it would have been difficult to find in many an army. – Dr. Herman Seidel, Chairman, Baltimore Recruiting Committee for the Jewish Legion, in “The Jewish Legion and Baltimore’s Part Therein,” Baltimore Jewish Times, February 20, 1920
Samson Margolis (1897-1972) was born in the Ukraine, where he became a Bar Mitzvah in 1910. He is counted as a Baltimorean on most lists, though his pre-war history in the US is unclear. After leaving the Legion in 1919, he married a British woman, Minnie Fishman, and returned with her to Baltimore, where he was a respected artist and calligrapher.
The Jewish Legion – officially, the 38th, 39th, and 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers – was a volunteer fighting force raised by the British Army starting in August 1917, under the command of General Edmund Allenby, set to engaging the Turkish army in Palestine. Thousands of American and Canadian Jews, along with Jewish men from England, Russia, Palestine, and other countries, joined the Legion. Though they fought together for only a few years, these young men forged strong ties that lasted for the rest of their lives.
Herman Carliner (1900-1959) was born in Poland, and came to the US as a teenager. After serving in the Legion, he returned to Baltimore and founded The Fashion Millinery, a successful wholesale hat company. He served as a Commander in the Baltimore Chapter of the American Palestine Jewish Legion.
The Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917), in which the British government promised to create “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine should the Turks be expelled, was a rallying cry for many young Zionists; other men simply wanted to join the world-wide war effort but were unable to enlist in the US Army. According to a 1920 account by Baltimore’s Dr. Herman Seidel, in order to join the Legion one had to be ineligible for the US Army draft: i.e., not an American citizen, and not of draft age (from June 1917 to September 1918, the draft age was 21-31). For many young Jewish immigrants, this was the perfect opportunity to join the war effort.
The recruitment period was brief but active. In Baltimore, the Jewish Educational Alliance on East Baltimore Street served as recruiting headquarters, with Dr. Seidel as the examining physician. The newly enlisted soldiers traveled by train to Canada (Halifax, Nova Scotia) for basic training; from there to England by ship, for more intense conditioning; and then at last to Egypt, to join the British Army at the Palestinian front.
A group of volunteers who had already enlisted would take a position on the corner of a busy intersection in East Baltimore…. Sometimes they would sing a Hebrew song or someone would play a musical instrument. When a crowd would gather, one of us would climb on a ‘soap box.’
He would speak to the audience about the idea of a Jewish homeland, or the revival of the Hebrew language, or freedom for Palestine, or the breaking of the chains of the Galut. Then he would appeal to the listeners to join the Jewish Legion and fight in a Jewish Army, under a Jewish Flag, with Jewish officers and with Hebrew commands. -William Braiterman, “Memories of the Palestine Jewish Legion of 1917,” 1967
Benjamin Ruttenberg (1896-1965) was born in Kiev, Russia. He emigrated in 1912, moving to New Haven, Connecticut where he worked for the railroad until his enlistment. After the war, he moved to Baltimore where he raised a family, attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, and worked for many years at the Union Brothers Furniture Company.
Much of the Legionnaires’ time in Egypt and Palestine was spent in general duties, as an occupying force. Nonetheless, some members participated in one of the crucial battles of the end of World War I: the Battle of Megiddo (September 1918), an Allied victory on the Sinai and Palestine Front that helped lead to the capture of Damascus—and the surrender of thousands of Turkish troops—later that month.
Jewish Legion soldiers in Palestine, ca. 1918. Simcho Sibel sent this photograph to family back home, noting in Yiddish on the reverse, “We are leading Turkish captives to their work. I and other Baltimoreans are standing right in front. To my right stands Zalis—after me stands Schein.”
After the end of the war, some Legionnaires returned to their home countries; others settled in Palestine, temporarily or permanently; and a few remained attached to one last battalion, the First Judeans, through late 1919. Happily, there were relatively few casualties amongst the members of the Legion, though there were reports that one Baltimorean was lost.
It notes that one Gentile, an Irishman, signed up in solidarity with the Jewish cause; other sources say that one local African-American man joined the Legion as well. The newspaper estimated that 90 Marylanders joined; William Braiterman (unofficial historian of the local Legion veterans) later claimed that it was closer to 150.
It was several decades before the British made good on the promise made in the Balfour Declaration. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, several Legion veterans played important roles in the new country, including David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
In the decade after the war, US veterans of the Legion formed the American Palestine Jewish Legion to ensure that their legacy would be remembered, both in Israel – where a veteran-funded museum, Bet Hagdudim, opened in Avichail in the mid-1950s – and in the United States. The group remained active for over seven decades. As late as 1988, the four surviving members of the Baltimore chapter were still meeting regularly. Several of their families have generously shared their fathers’ and grandfather’s memoirs, photographs, and mementos with the JMM, and we are proud to help preserve and share those stories.
A reunion of local Jewish Legion veterans, circa 1950. Seated left to right: Herman Carliner, Walter Yaniger, Julius Sussman, Milton Zalis. Standing left to right: Louis Scherr, Benjamin Ruttenberg, Abraham Shapiro, William Braiterman, Samuel Waxman, Samson Margolis, Robert Rosenthal, Louis Zalis, Simcho Sibel.
William Braiterman (1900-1993) was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to Baltimore as a young boy. He was a member of the Poale Zion Junior organization and was eager to join the Legion. When Dr. Herman Seidel, the local examining physician, refused to enlist him due to his young age (and the fact that Dr. Seidel knew the young man’s mother), Braiterman went to Philadelphia and, claiming to be 18, signed up as “Velvel Cohen.” He was later one of the most ardent supporters of the American Palestine Jewish Legion veterans group, organizing its many social and charitable activities, and serving as its unofficial historian.
Read more on the Jewish Legion here at the JMM blog. You might also enjoy these posts about Jewish participation in World War I: