Photo Credit: Israel Mizrahi

“More recent troubles cause the earlier troubles to be forgotten” states the Talmud (Berachot 13a), a good example of such a scenario is the many troubles that befell the Jews of Eastern Europe in WWI. As per the usual plot, which has been repeated until this day; the Jews were accused by both sides of the war of supporting the enemies and serving as spies. An unusual and extremely rare document I acquired recently is a passport issued for a Jew in Ponovezh, Lithuania, by the German occupying forces in 1917, during World War One.

On Jul 19, 1841 Germany declared war on Russia. In Czar Nicholas II’s manifest the next day, he stated a call to forget “in the terrible hour of trials … internal strife.” A Jewish newspaper of the era, the Novyi Voskhod (New Dawn), 24 July 1914, wrote “Least of all do Russian Jews think about it (strife) in this fatal moment. In the general rush to the defense of the motherland, they stand shoulder to shoulder with the remaining population of Russia and by their heroic behavior show that now is not the time for internal altercations, now is not the time to think about the deep offenses carried out and being carried out against us”. Despite Jews being persecuted mercilessly by the Czar’s government, Russian Jews joined their countrymen in their fight against the enemies of Russia. Over 300,000 Jews were estimated to have joined the Russian Army.


However, the Jews faced an additional conflict, since Jews were fighting on the other side of the war as well. “German Jews,” wrote S. M. Dubnov in his diary of 1 August 1914, “go forth to fight with ‘barbarian Russia’ and speak of revenge for Kishinev and the October pogroms. Revenge for whom? For tens of thousands in the Russian Army, and the German Army would come to lay waste to the very “Pale” where the Russians who carried out pogroms were masters …”

Antisemitism though was rampant, particularly in Poland. A Polish newspaper wrote: “From Siauliai it is reported that Jews have made underground tunnels through which they drive livestock and poultry to Germany. German Zeppelins often come here, land near Siauliai and Jews fill them up with livestock and geese, after which the airships fly off to Prussia.”

The Jews of Ponovezh were from the first to suffer. In the spring of 1915, the Germans had approached the Baltic coast, Zeimelis and Bauska. Nikolai Nikolaevich, the Tsar’s uncle, had to explain the defeat and he accused all Jews as being spies and expelled them all in 24 hours. Within a day, every Jew in Ponevezh was expelled. Within a few days, all the Jews of nearby villages were expelled as well. Feivel Iosifovich Zagorski, who was then 5 years old recorded “When in 1915 all the Jews in Zeimelis had 24 hours to evacuate, there was chaos and haste. They drove us out, evacuated us. We had a Lithuanian neighbor. Evidently they had given him an order. He harnessed his horse and led us out. I was a boy. I slept all the time. For a child to travel, that was always a joy. I remember that we stopped somewhere. My father took a little wine and performed kiddush. The day we were driven out, or the next day, was the festival of Shavuos. My father was religious and blessed the wine on the way. They took us to Daugavpils. There they loaded us on railroad cars.

At some station we were met. Young people from some organization with white and blue ribbons on their sleeves were standing there. When they saw the children, refugees, they gave them sugar and bread and helped us.”

At the same time, in Germany, every defeat was an opportunity to blame the Jews. Despite the Jews fighting bravely in higher numbers than proportionate to their population, they were attacked endlessly, even by official government representatives.

In Ponovezh, the Jews eventually slowly returned, but during the period under German Occupation, they had specific regulations and restrictions. This passport of an elderly Jew, born in 1858, was issued in 1917, and contains regulations and details in both Yiddish and German throughout, alongside his photo and fingerprint.


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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].