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August 1, 2014: The Centennial of World War One

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A prayer for the Russian czar found in a Siddur, Otzar HaTefillot, Vilna 1914, read, “May nations surrender under his feat, and may his enemies fall before him, and wherever he turns, may he find success.”

Many Russian Jews lived with hope that the Russian Czar would finally grant them emancipation. They hoped their hour of freedom was forthcoming. By the middle of 1917, over 60,000 Jews were decorated for heroism and 26,000 were promoted to higher ranks.

Yet, despite all manifestations of patriotism by Russian Jews, as in Germany, Jews would be blamed for failures in the war. Russian Jewry would also be the targets of widely publicized accusations of treason and spying for the Germans, despite their vehement denials and displays of patriotism.  For Jews living under the yoke of the Russian empire, pogroms, and forced evacuations, would devastate much of Polish and Russian Jewry.

And when the Czar was forced to abdicate in the wake of the Russian Revolution in March, 1917, the initial euphoria expressed in the secular Jewish media would be replaced by fear with the rise of the Bolsheviks in November of that year. The horrors that awaited humanity under the rule of communist dictatorships were unimaginable. Russian Jewry as well, faced a new dark chapter in its history.  Their hopes turned to nightmares.

In a small Galitzian town over the Russian border within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, news of the war was received not much differently from the small towns of the Pale Settlement within the rival Russian empire. War brings upheaval and trouble, its’ outcome is unpredictable.  An author, Manes Sperber wrote, “For us this war is a terrible disaster.” “Why a disaster?” Someone asked, “Our Kaiser will be victorious and the Czar will be defeated and will never oppress his subjects again.” He replied, “For us every war is a disaster, no one in this room can be sure of his survival.”

It was a war of unprecedented horrors. For Jewry it was a war of immense suffering along with broken dreams.

In 1913, the following poem penned by the writer Zalman Schneur entitled “The Middle Ages Draw Near,” foresaw the modern day catastrophe emerging from the new post  ‘enlightenment’, world in which hatred and anti-Semitism was on the rise. Zalman Shneur foresaw the horrorswhich awaited Jewry in Europe during this ill fated era, and exhorted his fellow Jews to awaken and see the imminent dangers facing the Jewish people.  His words were a warning to Jewry of the coming storm.

Mighty is the approaching winter for summer tarried in the land.

The middle ages draw near!

Like a cloud in the distance

Open wide your eyes and ears, ancient people!

The wheel is…the turning wheel:

and a wild wind before it.

 

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