Nov 2004 Journal

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Forgotten veterans

On a recent motoring trip through France we passed a German military cemetery near Arras. Looking at the graves, we found that interspersed with the large number of crosses there were some tombstones. On further examination, we discovered that they were inscribed with both Hebrew and German names as these fallen soldiers were obviously Jewish.

We made a note of one such name and later looked it up in the Gedenkbuch for the 12,000 German Jewish soldiers who fell in the First World War. This book was issued by the Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten (RJF) in 1932 with a foreword by President Hindenburg. Its preparation involved many years of devoted labour by the RJF and it consists of an alphabetical list of soldiers together with their place of origin. This is followed by a list of all places of origin together with the names of the fallen, the dates of birth and death, and the names of places of birth which, in most instances, is the same as the places where they lived at the time of enlistment.

What is so remarkable is the hundreds of places listed in the book, showing that Jews lived in so many places in 1914. It even includes three locations in German East Africa where Jewish soldiers lived and died, as well as four villages of the same name, Reichenbach. My own family had relatives and friends throughout the German countryside and, unfortunately, they are all in the list.

Why was the Gedenkbuch compiled? The short answer is antisemitism - which was virulent at that time. Although Jews could not become officers before the war, they did receive commissions during the war. The most insulting and tragic wartime episode was the so-called Judenzahlung, a census of Jews at the front. Jews were suspected by the authorities of shirking their responsibilities. The results were never published.

This census aroused anger among the Jewish soldiers and I remember an old lady telling me that at the time of the census her brother asked their mother to send him a modern Hebrew primer; he said that if he survived the war, he would learn the language and go to Palestine. He did in fact do so and he became a professor at the Hebrew University.

The sacrifice of the German Jewish soldiers was never taken into consideration after the Nazis gained power. Those who survived the war did not receive any privileges and perished in the Holocaust if they were unable to leave Germany. These sacrifices are, of course, but a tragic shadow when compared with the greater tragedy of the Holocaust but it is still a sad reflection even after all these years.
Max Sulzbacher

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