Jewish Museum remembers the Jews who fought for Britain

Marcus Segal, far left on the front row, with fellow soldiers

Marcus Segal, far left on the front row, with fellow soldiers - Credit: Archant

As the centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, numerous exhibitions will spotlight aspects of the global conflict that left an estimated 17 million dead.

The Jewish Museum has joined forces with the Jewish Military Museum to highlight the experience of Jewish soldiers and civilians during the 1914-18 war.

Exhibition curator Roz Currie from the Hendon-based military museum says while British and German experiences have been thoroughly explored, the stories of minorities in the conflict are now coming into focus.

“We are looking at a community in flux. In 1914, the 300,000-strong Jewish community was divided between settled Anglo-Jews, some very rich, who felt loyal to Britain, and the huge influx of refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia who had fled the pogroms.

“Many spoke Yiddish, were more old-fashioned and, as immigrants, wanted to protect their religion and identity. They were quite alienated by the settled Anglo-Jewish community.”

At the outbreak of war anyone not a British citizen was labelled an alien. There were friendly aliens from Russia, neutral aliens and enemy aliens – from Germany and Austria – who were interned on the Isle of Man.

“Ten thousand Jews signed up initially, largely from the settled community. Some immigrants did feel loyal to their adopted country, some signed up because they wanted to be naturalised, although friendly aliens weren’t allowed to bear arms and had to serve in a labour battalion or work as cooks.

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“Others from Russia refused to serve on the same side as the country that had kicked them out.”

Seminal poem

The exhibition focuses on a range of participants, including East Ender Isaac Rosenberg, whose original draft of his seminal poem Break of Day in the Trenches is one of the exhibition highlights.

The Rev Michael Adler, the first Jewish chaplain on the frontline, is also featured, and Jack Cohen, who used his demob money to set up a market stall that eventually became Tesco.

“We’ve tried to use the voices of individuals who fought to tell the story of the war,” adds Currie.

Artefacts include a pickelhaube, or spiked German helmet, worn by Julius Weinberg in the German army whose son came to Britain on the Kindertransport, and photographs and letters from former UCS schoolboy Marcus Segal, who lived in Mowbray Road, Kilburn, signed up aged 17 and was killed in 1917 in Arras.

“When his sister-in-law died in the 1980s, the solicitor found in the attic an amazing cache of 150 letters he wrote to his family. As a temporary second lieutenant he wasn’t censored and writes of being trapped in a wood for three days with a biscuit and a sip of water and a sniper on him.

“He also writes very loving, touching letters to his parents, asks them to tell his grandparents he is being a good Jew, and attends some of Rev Adler’s services.”

Five Jewish soldiers won the Victoria Cross and the exhibition displays the first, awarded to 27-year-old Lt Frank de Pass, killed in November 1914 after crossing no man’s land to take a German sap (off-shoot trench) then carrying a wounded man back to the British trenches under heavy fire.

“The next day, the Germans had taken it back, so he went back to take it again and was killed.”

“Jewish soldiers were only allowed in the Army in the 1880s and even then it was hard to get a commission. It was always going to be difficult to be a minority in a majority army. Anti-Semitism was a completely normal way of thinking. Eugenics popularly held that Jews were not a martial race or naturally fit to fight. There were no kosher rations and no chaplain at first, despite 40,000 British Jewish men fighting. Later Rev Adler was one of only 10 serving them all and complained he travelled hundreds of miles of trenches.”

Do their bit

Some recruiting officers sent Jewish men away when they went to sign up. Later, when fresh recruits were desperately needed, Yiddish posters in the East End stated that since Britain had looked after the refugees, they should now do their bit for the country in return.

Wealthy Florence Oppenheimer, a 29-year-old nurse from Canonbury, Islington, served on a hospital ship at Gallipoli after a struggle to persuade her conservative father that it was acceptable for women to nurse men.

“Her younger brothers helped persuade him, she signed up immediately and her diary describes taking thousands of wounded men onto the ship. She was passionate about being a nurse and loved looking after people, but she also had fun and really enjoyed the adventure of it, sleeping on deck, playing games and drinking champagne.”

On returning home, she married Jewish Chronicle editor Leopold Greenberg, wrote a famous Jewish cookery book as Florence Greenberg and, in the Second World War, broadast recipes on the radio programme The Kitchen Front.

For King and Country? is at the Jewish Museum, Albert Street, Camden Town, from March 19 to August 10.