Regular readers of this column know that every Rosh Hashanah, I like to feature thematic cards that tell a story of time and place. With Rosh Hashanah messages written at a time when Jews deeply reflect about the year that has passed and the year to come, these cards reflect thoughts and dreams and provide unique insight into Jewish religious, political, social, cultural, and artistic practices.
In this article, I present cards sent by soldiers in the Jewish Brigade, the Chativah Yehudith Lochemeth (literally, “Jewish Fighting Force”), which became the only independent military unit to serve during World War II in the British Army; in fact, it was the only such Jewish force to serve in any of the Allied forces.
It came about only after a prolonged and challenging struggle by the Zionist movement in general, and by the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in particular, to represent the Jewish people in the military struggle against the Nazis.
The forerunner to the Jewish Brigade was the Jewish Legion during World War I, when Zionist leaders, led by Zev Jabotinsky, successfully petitioned the British government to permit the creation of a Jewish military force. The Legion went on to make an important contribution to both the Allied war effort and the liberation of Eretz Yisrael from Ottoman control.
Shown here is an extremely rare Jewish Legion Shanah Tovah card from 1919, bearing the Legion slogan: “For our Nation and for our Land.” At the bottom in red is the menorah symbol of the Legion, with its motto “Kadimah!” (“Forward!”) on its base. A Jewish soldier has written on the verso (not exhibited here): “Camp of Eretz Yisrael Battalions by Sarafend (Tzrifin).” The British established Sarafend, a strategic area in the Dan region in central Israel located on the eastern side of Rishon Letzion, as a strategic base during WWI. Interestingly, it was the very place where, 25 years later, the Jewish Brigade was formed.
At the start of World War II, Jews were serving in various capacities throughout the British Army, and Chaim Weizmann, as president of the World Zionist Organization, offered the full cooperation of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael to the British government. He did so notwithstanding Britain’s issuance of the hated White Paper of 1939, which had essentially revoked the Balfour Declaration and quashed Jewish hopes for a homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
The Jewish Agency sought to collect all Jewish soldiers into a single Jewish force fighting under a Jewish national flag, but Weizmann’s request for permission from the British government to establish such a unit was summarily rejected. Soon after, the British did reluctantly agree to enlist Jewish soldiers in the Royal Army Service Corps and in the Pioneer Corps, but only if an equal number of Jews and Arabs were accepted into the force.
There was no problem getting Jewish recruits. However, although the Jewish Agency undertook a massive attempt to sign up sufficient Arab volunteers, even offering cash bonuses for enlistment, the Arab recruitment effort proved unsuccessful, as even the low-quality Arabs who signed up quickly deserted their units after pocketing the cash bonus.
Jewish groups re-petitioned the British to permit an all-Jewish force, but they were again rebuffed, in part because the British and Neville Chamberlain feared that the establishment of a Jewish fighting force could serve as the embryo for a Jewish army that could lead a military rebellion against the British and ultimately pose a challenge to their control of Eretz Yisrael.
As it turns out, this British fear was justified, as evidenced by this 1943 Jewish Brigade Rosh Hashanah card depicting Jabotinsky (who passed away in 1940) at the upper left looking down approvingly from the clouds on high upon a marching Jewish army supported by planes and tanks. The caption reads: “A year of the founding of the Jewish army.”
In 1944, after some six years of negotiations and with the war almost over, Winston Churchill finally agreed to permit the Jews to form a “Jewish Brigade,” which consisted of Jewish infantry, artillery, and service units. As Churchill explained, exhibiting his characteristic great sensitivity for the Jews:
I know that there are vast numbers of Jews serving with our forces and the American forces throughout all armies. But it seems to me indeed appropriate that a special Jewish unit, a special unit of that race which has suffered indescribable torments from the Nazis, should be represented as a distinct formation amongst the forces gathered for their final overthrow.
On July 3, 1944, the British government established the Jewish Brigade with hand-selected Jewish and non-Jewish senior officers, and on September 20, 1944, the British War Office officially proclaimed the formation of the Brigade with more than 5,000 volunteers headquartered in Egypt. Officially, the Brigade was required to fly only the British Union Jack, but it also flew a blue and white flag with a Magen David at the center, in the middle of which was featured a blue “P” (for Palestine).
The Brigade soon participated in important battles in the Italian Campaign and in the 1945 Spring Offensive. It later searched for Holocaust survivors, provided relief to them, and assisted their efforts to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.
Broadly heralded as the contemporary embodiment of the Maccabees, some 30,000 Jewish volunteers from Eretz Yisrael served with the British Army during World War II, and more than 700 were killed in active duty. Britain’s Imperial War Museum recognized the important contributions made by the Brigade by characterizing its soldiers as “terrorists.” (The Museum later apologized in 2015.)
Shown here are two incredible Rosh Hashanah cards sent by soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, which are exhibited along with an authentic insignia and flag patch worn by Brigade soldiers on their uniforms. The card to the left, which displays the Brigade’s logo at the upper right and is dated at the bottom left “Europe, Rosh Hashanah Eve, 1945,” carries the message “A Year of Redemption and the Establishment of the Jewish State.”
The internal page (not exhibited) contains the lovely words of Michah 5:7, so beautifully appropriate in reflecting the theme of Holocaust survivors flourishing in the Jewish state of Eretz Yisrael: “And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of the many nations, like dew from Hashem, which is neither hoped for by man nor awaited by people.”
The Rosh Hashanah card on the upper right, also sent in 1945, cites Isaiah 63:4, whose message and relevance are unmistakable: “For the day of vengeance that was in my heart, and my year of redemption, have come.”
After the war, many Brigade soldiers joined the Bricha movement which, taking advantage of the frenzied and anarchic situation in post-war Europe, moved Holocaust survivors between countries, facilitated their movement out of DP camps and to Eretz Yisrael, and smuggled arms to the Haganah. Many broken survivors found great consolation in being cared for by Jewish soldiers.
Brigade soldiers also joined with the Nokmim (“Avengers”) in clandestine missions tracking down and dispensing vigilante justice to Nazi murderers. The experience of the Jewish Brigade members – not to mention their British uniforms, equipment, and documentation – helped the Nokmim find and kill over 1,000 Nazi killers. The Jewish Brigade was finally disbanded in the summer of 1946, but many of its soldiers went on to play important roles in Israel’s military victory in its War of Independence in 1948, including 35 who became Israeli generals.
Finally, shown here are two very rare, double-page 1945 Jewish Brigade greetings cards, which cite two of the most poignant prophetic verses. The first, sent by a soldier in Squad Aleph of the General Transportation Unit, depicts a soldier extending an olive branch from Italy across the sea to a sunbeam-bathed Eretz Yisrael, in which both Jewish industry and Jewish agriculture are evident.
One can only imagine the emotions generated by the citation of Isaiah 2:4 in the hearts of the soldiers of the war-weary Jewish Brigade, Shoah survivors, and, indeed, the entire Jewish people: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.”
The second card was sent from Austria to Jerusalem (the verso is hand-stamped “By Air Mail/ Concessional Postage/Palestinian Personnel”) by a member of the Jewish Unit for General Transport of the Jewish Brigade. Citing the prophecy from Jeremiah 31:16, the printed message sums up everything the Jewish Brigade stood for then, and everything the State of Israel continues to stand for today: “Shnat V’Shavu Banim L’Givulam,” “[And there is hope for your future, says Hashem], and your children shall return to their border.”
Wishing a Shanah Tova to all.