Ten thousand flames illuminated the Tower of London in commemoration of the centenary of the November 1918 Armistice between Germany and the Western Allies. British cultural spaces were filled with Great War memorial installations and think pieces, all reflecting on the same thing: the death of soldiers. One hundred years after the armistice, European leaders were able to come together to mourn men who had died trying to kill one another. British Jews have fallen in line with their own version of these events, opening a 2014 installation in the Jewish Museum celebrating Jewish war heroes, selling poppies in their synagogues, dutifully visiting the 3500 or so Jewish war dead in nearby cemeteries, and filling the Jewish Chronicle with stories of their war-sacrificing grandparents. But who will mourn the 200,000 Jews who died in Ukraine one hundred years ago?
It’s hardly surprising that a memorial project formally guarded by the state should favour the state and its military, projecting current nationalism back onto the tragedy that occurred a century ago. Historians have criticised the framing of these Great War commemorations – the way women’s contributions and sacrifices go unrecognised, or the failure to link the war with its global, multi-racial face. It’s also worth noting that the Armistice of 11 November 1918 only affected one front of a global war: the Western one.
Yet it is on the Eastern Front that the more central Jewish story of World War I lies – one of many reasons why Jews fit uncomfortably within the commemorative, militaristic narratives offered by the nation-state. There is radically more to the Jewish experience of the Great War – and specifically of 1919 – than British Jews today might realise. The full story illuminates not only the British nationalism inherent in the Day of Remembrance, but the deeply Christian roots of that commemoration.
In the United Kingdom, Jews felt the direct impact of violence through military deaths, as Jews fought for their King and Country in greater proportion than their Christian contemporaries. But in a population composed largely of first-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants, British Jewish connections to their roots were still living links. East End Jews had family members and friends living and dying in the war zones of the Eastern Front. The British alliance with the Russian Empire posed particular difficulties for British Jews, who were deeply critical of Tsarist Russia’s antisemitic policy. Yet Jews who felt they must unequivocally support Britain’s war effort to assure their own place in Britain were hesitant to voice their reservations.
Instead, immigrants in the East End spearheaded initiatives to send relief to Jewish war victims in the Russian Empire, using the alliance with Russia to help Jews in need, even as more acculturated British Jews felt it was impossible to act. However, the most significant British connection to the war effort from a Jewish perspective was the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which laid the political groundwork for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Both the Balfour Declaration and the British Jewish relief committees demonstrate how deeply concerned British Jews were about their brethren on the Eastern front. After all, Chaim Weizmann was not arguing that British Jews should collectively migrate to Palestine. Nor were British Jews primarily worrying about Belgium; they were looking further east. At the start of the war the majority of the world’s Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, along the Western edge of Russia and across its borders in Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, and the Ottoman Empire. There some seven million Jews were caught in the crossfire along the Eastern Front. While Jews in the West were fighting and organizing politically, Jews in the Eastern war zones were dying as soldiers and civilians – casualties of both war and anti-Jewish persecution.
In Central and Eastern Europe, too, Jewish men sought social acceptance and masculine pride through military service. Overall about 1.5 million Jews were mobilised for the war effort. They fought each other on opposing armies, were falsely accused of espionage, and were shipped far away from their families on the Eastern Front. Those families, deprived of their young men, had to face the war’s violence without their strongest members.
Jews faced all the usual horrors of civilians during wartime: exposure, starvation, and disease. But they also suffered additional violence directed specifically towards them, including forced expulsion from the front in Russia and Romania. In almost all of Russia’s military theatres the entire Jewish population would be presented with legal orders to leave – typically with little consideration as to how or where the Jews should go. Mass deportations from April to May 1915 along the Northwestern Front involved hundreds of thousands of Jews. Hundreds of thousands more fled or were sent packing from their small hometowns in all directions away from the front, crowding into nearby cities, crossing Siberia on foot or in sealed trains, heading across the Black Sea into the Ottoman Empire or westward across Europe.
Nor did the killing on the Eastern Front end with the November 1918 armistice. Here, the worst was yet to come. The landscape between the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Empires has been called the “bloodlands” and the “shatterzone” for a reason. The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Polish-Soviet War meant violence was ongoing. No government or military protection could be relied upon whatsoever; no state relief was forthcoming. One to two million Jewish war refugees were homeless, wandering, stateless. In response, Western countries shored up their wartime borders, making them permanent. There was nowhere safe to go.
The Great War marked the most extensive, most rapid, geopolitical displacement in Jewish history since late antiquity. Jewish Great War refugees evolved into a permanently, fundamentally precarious group whose mere debased presence aroused antisemitic feeling – and who later could be easily funnelled into the machinery of the Holocaust.
In particular, the 1918 Armistice did nothing to stem the waves of pogroms spreading across Ukraine, the deadliest anti-Jewish violence in history up to that point. The toll is currently estimated at about 200,000 pogrom deaths from 1917–1920. But the number could reasonably be much higher, especially if one thinks about indirect casualties: Jewish orphans dying on the street, women who never recovered from rape, those rendered homeless who later starved or froze to death, elderly people who could not flee dying alone. The pogroms that began in 1917 in Ukraine in connection with the Russian Civil War were systematic, and officially-sanctioned. As time went on, this persecution began to look less like the archetypal Imperial Russian pogrom and more like mass interethnic violence.
The death toll was unprecedented, simply astounding. One observer described Jewish deaths in Russia since 1914 as “race suicide to a degree that threatens national annihilation”. Others spoke in terms of “extermination” (the word “genocide” did not yet exist). To put it in perspective, casualties from the Ukrainian pogroms alone among the 14 million Jews then in the world account for nearly the same percentage of deaths (1.4%) as military deaths among the general UK population (2%). Factor in the other Jewish deaths – military and civilian – and it is clear why Jews at the time compared the Great War to the most devastating tragedies in our history, like the Spanish Inquisition.
The language in reports on Jews in the war zones is strikingly resonant. From The Jews in the Eastern War Zone by the American Jewish Committee in 1916, before the pogroms in Ukraine: “Hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes […], the more fortunate being packed and shipped as freight […] the less fortunate driven into the woods and swamps to die of starvation.” In 1921, Elias Hefetz’s The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine in 1919 featured chilling “pogrom pictures”: in Novo-Mirgorod, “The murderers went from house to house, raping, beating, and killing.… When loaded full, the vehicles were taken to the cemetery, where the living and the dead were thrown in … and covered with lime so that … bodies were no longer recognizable.” In Cherkassy, “The Jews, seeking safety from the shells and the bandits, fled from loft to cellar and from cellar to loft.… And so it goes during the five long, long days and nights … and then … then you see dead bodies lying everywhere.”
If the Balkan wars and the Armenian genocide opened a violent century, the Jewish disaster of the Great War continued it – and presaged its tragic intensification. Those years, especially the pogroms in Ukraine, can be seen as the bridge connecting the 19th-century Russian pogroms to the Holocaust.
Even as the horrors of the Eastern Front were peaking in 1918–1919, the Armistice was being agreed on the Western Front. In the winter of 1919 the victorious Great Powers and other leaders crowded into Paris to discuss the terms of the peace. Humanitarians assembled to start organising postwar civilian relief. Among them were Jews – from America, England, France, and Eastern Europe. Lucien Wolf, British Jewish journalist and diplomat, was a key figure negotiating for Jews in the remaking of the global order.
In 1919, the peacemakers created the League of Nations and established new nation-states between Germany and Russia. Jews had a corollary set of international legislation: the Minorities Treaties, designed to protect minorities and give them group rights in these new nation-states of East Central Europe. Jews hailed the Minorities Treaties as a victory alongside the Balfour Declaration, yet Jews were still dying of violence and exposure on Europe’s Eastern periphery. The Treaty of Versailles and the Minorities Treaties no more ended the war than the Armistice – neither had any bearing on the Soviet Union or Ukraine – but Jews could see a possible future in Europe and Palestine.
If British Jews are to grapple with the commemoration of Armistice Day and the centenary of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, they cannot do so in the context of British national history alone. Certainly their ancestors did not – even as they tried to suppress publicly their diaspora ties. It is the Jewish story of this moment, one hundred years past, that is in fact the far more difficult story. Yet that story is completely absent from the Jewish collective memory – or the commemorations of any state. In the inconceivable calamity of the Holocaust, the Great War was promptly forgotten. But for the majority of the Jews in the world living along the still-violent Eastern Front, 1919 was a disaster of stupendous proportions – and the root of a massive Jewish refugee crisis that was never solved. One hundred years later, who will light candles for them?