The 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War prompted me to dig out an old family photograph that had stunned me as a child. A creased and worn black and white picture, it depicted a young man wearing a spiked World War I German army helmet.
“What’s that guy with a German helmet doing in our family photos?” I had asked my father.
Bemused, my father, Kurt Lion of blessed memory, responded, “Don’t you recognize Uncle Sigmar?” He laughed. “You just saw him last week. That photo was taken just after he was drafted into the German Army, way back in 1914.”
I was seven years old when I first saw the photograph but I already knew the general story of my German-Jewish family’s history in Europe. Some in the family like Sigmar and his older brothers had emigrated to America in the early 1920s, before the Nazi rise to power. Others – including my father, his parents, and several sets of his uncles, aunts, and cousins –remained in Germany and were trapped in the vise of Nazi brutality.
Seeing the photo of Uncle Sigmar in his youth had left me dumbfounded. Sigmar Guggenheimer, of blessed memory, was my great-uncle and I knew him as a smiling, kind-hearted figure distinguished in our family for the notes and cards he penned in both English and Hebrew calligraphy. It was hard for me to imagine the gentleman I knew being so young at one time. And in a German uniform? It made no sense.
To this day I remember how I stared at the photo in silence. My father, knowing what I was thinking, smiled and answered my unasked question. “Of course Uncle Sigmar didn’t know, and nobody else knew, what was going to happen,” he said. “The world was different then, and we Jews were a part of Germany. Nobody then could ever have imaged how things would turn out.”
And that, in a nutshell, encapsulated all the geopolitical change that would come about from the Great War. The crisis was ignited on August 1, 1914 when Germany declared war on Russia. Quickly, the other European powers, inflamed by fierce national rivalry and bitter border disputes, entered the fray – Russia, France and Britain on one side, the Austria-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Germany on the other.
Significantly, August 1, 1914 fell on the 9th of Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. Unbeknownst to anyone at that time, the Great War would lead directly to an even more catastrophic war a generation later – World War II and the greatest tragedy in Jewish history.
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In their headlong rush to war, the armies on both sides drafted millions, including hundreds of thousands of Jews. In Germany alone more than 100,000 Jews served in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army and at least 12,000 died in combat. The prospect was high that Jews would wind up fighting each other, religious brethren forced by circumstances to slay each other.
Such a predicament is immortalized in a Yiddish ballad about a French and a German soldier grappling in hand-to-hand combat. The stronger, about to bayonet his adversary, hears the man pray the Shema in a quaking voice. He drops his weapon and exclaims, “We’re both Jews; we’re brothers!” This story typifies the predicament of the Jews of the Diaspora, cast adrift without borders of their own, sometimes forced to fight each other under foreign flags, a bitter poison fruit of galus.
I once told my father, who was born eight years after the Great War in a German border village, about this ballad. He nodded and said that during World War I he had relatives on the other side of the Rhine River in France, but thankfully knew of no such confrontation among the mishpachah. He told me Sigmar, who was 27 in 1914, rarely spoke of that time, but he showed me several photographs of Sigmar in a cavalry uniform posing astride a horse.
From history books we know that World War I, with its savage trench warfare and mustard gas attacks, had an atrocious death rate. Sigmar, however, emerged intact. He later moved to America with his wife, raising two daughters and enjoying a peaceful life here until his death in 1985 at the age of 98. But life would not end so peacefully for three of my father’s other uncles – Marx, Benjamin, and Herman – as well as his own father, Philip, all of whom had served in the German army during World War I.
Philip had been drafted at age 43 in the second year of the Great War. At the time he was a cattle dealer and kosher butcher but in his twenties he’d been a master chef at a renowned Jewish-owned hotel in Karlsruhe near the picturesque Black Forest, the German equivalent of Grossinger’s in the Catskills. Experienced in catering and food management, Philip was put in charge of a mobile field kitchen that provided meals for an army company in Serbia on the Eastern front.
In a bittersweet tone my father recounted an incident in 1916 in which his own father became “a hero of the kaiser’s army and the German nation; a lot of good it did for us Jews.”
A Serbian cavalryman had suddenly appeared and was charging toward a food wagon when Philip stopped him with a sharp-aimed shot, saving the lives of the soldiers clustered nearby. For that, he was awarded an Iron Cross of Valor. But in the cauldron of anti-Semitism that followed the Great War and would lead to Hitler’s ascendance, his Iron Cross ended up meaning nothing. On Kristallnacht, Philip, his brother Benjamin, and brothers-in-law Marx and Herman would be arrested and taken to Dachau for the “crime” of being Jews.
They were held for eight tortuous weeks before being allowed to return home to their wives. Two years later, Philip, his brothers, and their wives were deported to internment and death camps where they eventually died. Philip’s wife, my grandmother Rosa, was Uncle Sigmar’s favorite sister. She was gassed at Auschwitz.
I can only imagine how anguishing it must have been for him; he fought so nobly for the kaiser in the First World War only to see Germany turn on the Jews and slaughter his family in the Second. That was an all too common experience of German Jews, 30,000 of whom won field decorations in the Great War. This of course saved none of them, as those who could not escape became victims of the mad German plan to exterminate the Jews. Nazi SS commander Heinrich Himmler received “formal approval” for this extermination policy on August 2, 1941, which also happened to fall on the 9th of Av.
All we know too well, some six million Jews were slaughtered in World War II, a direct outgrowth of the First World War twenty years before. This number comprised two thirds of European Jewry and a full third of the world’s Jewish population, a catastrophe from which we Jews, at least in numbers, have not yet recovered.
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The world wars caused unimaginable anguish for the Jews but God also scripted a great glory for our people. The medieval-style Turkish Ottoman Empire had held sway over the Middle East for more than four hundred years. Under Ottoman rule, Eretz Yisrael was left uncultivated and neglected, a wasteland of desert, malaria-ridden swamps, and crumbling villages, with even Jerusalem falling into ruin. In his 1867 travelogue The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain described his trip to the Holy Land where he found a “desolate country.”
It is “a silent mournful expanse,” he wrote, “whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds…. We never saw a human being on the whole route…. There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
The land, pervaded by poverty and neglected by uncaring absentee landlords, had always had some Torah-observant Jews living there in such places as Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Tiberias. These were mostly poor souls living on the tzedakah of Jews in the Diaspora; the Turks at best tolerated their presence. Palestine remained in this forlorn state until the virus of anti-Semitism flared up anew and brought an increasing number of Jews to its shores in the early 20th century.
In the last decades of Tzarist Russia, waves of deadly pogroms were unleashed on the helpless Jews there, prompting many thousands to settle in Eretz Yisrael. These pogroms and the notorious Dreyfus Affair galvanized prominent Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl to seek salvation for the Jewish people by creating the modern Zionist movement.
Herzl tirelessly wrote and spoke about Jewish emigration to Palestine. He even met with Abdul Hamid, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and with Kaiser Wilhelm, asking them for help in establishing a Jewish homeland. They said no – and in World War I they and their regimes would be toppled.
Russian Jews who fled to Israel began transforming the neglected, barren land. There was a Zionist-minded scientist, however, who went in a different direction. Born in Belarus in 1874, Chaim Weizmann left his birthplace to study in Germany and Switzerland, receiving his Ph.D. in chemistry. In 1904 he arrived in England where he became a lecturer at the University of Manchester.
At the university he developed a groundbreaking method to mass-produce acetone, an important ingredient in ammunition. This process became essential for the British military in meeting its armament needs during the Great War and Weizmann became famous for his work.
Still an ardent Zionist and now with connections in the British Parliament, Weizmann lobbied for the milestone Balfour Declaration in which Britain expressed support of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This all came about as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and was carved up at the end of World War I.
While the Balfour Declaration gave our people an “official” foothold in the Holy Land, Britain closed its doors to Jewish immigration in our greatest time of need barely a generation later, favoring Arabs over Jews in the hopes of getting oil from the rest of the Middle East.
Attempts were made to partition Palestine between Arab and Jews, with the Jews getting only a small fraction of the land. This was contrary to Britain’s original promise in the Balfour Declaration. When the British Mandate expired on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared a Jewish state in this truncated area. But the surrounding Arab armies immediately descended upon it “to drive the Jews into the sea.”
And so it was that a small ill-supplied army representing 600,000 Jews in the infant Jewish state defeated well-armed Arab armies representing millions of oil-rich Arabs, the victory a stunning testament to divine providence – hashgacha pratis.
Created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire were the Arab countries we see today falling into bloody tribal chaos. States created with arbitrary borders by the victorious powers after the Great War, they all had populations of Jews who in most cases had lived there long centuries before the Muslim Arab conquests. When these new Arab states became independent of Turkish and Western imperial domination, the persecution of their native Jews rose to intolerable levels. These Mizrachi Jews poured into Israel, well over half a million of them.
Though it had started on the winning side, another political casualty of the Great War was the Romanov dynasty of Russia, whose regime had presided over the bloody pogroms. Russia fell to the Bolsheviks in 1917 but amid the ensuing chaos Jewish communities were once again caught in the crosshairs of violence. Between 1917 and 1921, Jews were attacked by a succession of anti-Semites – Cossacks, Polish militias, Ukrainian nationalists, and demobilized Austrian and German troops who on their way home from the Eastern front took delight in brutalizing our people.
All told, as many as 250,000 Jews were killed and more than half a million left homeless in the recorded 1,326 pogroms that destroyed hundreds of centuries-old shtetls where Jewish life had once thrived. This destruction was centered in the Ukraine where a generation later more than a million Jews were killed by the Nazis and their enthusiastic Ukrainian collaborators and where today nationalistic conflict still rages on.
Under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, the Jews were virtual prisoners for much of the century and when it finally dissolved in 1991, Russia’s Jews left for Israel in great numbers, in what Benjamin Netanyahu termed “a great miracle.”
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Before our very eyes ancient prophecies are being fulfilled – the ingathering of the exiles, the blooming of the land, the beginnings of the return of the ten lost tribes. Today, for the first time since before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, more Jews live in Israel than anywhere else in the world – nearly 6.2 million of the world’s total Jewish population of 13.8 million. All this came about as a result of World War I and its ramifications.
The first principle of Jewish faith as elucidated by Maimonides, his first Ani Ma’min, is “I believe with complete faith that the Creator is the Creator and ongoing Driving Force behind everything that is created. He alone brought about, brings about, and will bring about everything that happens.”
From our vantage point today, as we look back 100 years to the Guns of August, we can perhaps catch a glimmer of His plan, a plan He assures us will be for the eternal good of the Jews and of all humanity.