Days of Awe for the Jewish Soldiers of the First World War

Prayer books and diaries preserved at the National Library offer a glimpse of the religious challenges faced by Jewish soldiers in the armies of the First World War.

Yom Kippur in Brussels, 1915

A hundred years ago, at the height of the First World War, many Jews, soldiers in the various armies, were making preparations for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some of the military chaplains arranged places for prayer and sent messages informing the various units, hoping that their co-religionists would be granted permission from their commanders to attend. Food was collected for the festive meals to the best of their ability, and dining rooms large enough to seat the many soldiers were located.

The Rabbis also took care of the soldiers’ spiritual needs. Shofars, prayer shawls and prayer books were provided, while sermons appropriate for the atmosphere and the season were prepared. Several items from this period can be found in the collections of the National Library of Israel.

Jewish German soldiers praying on the Eve of Atonement, 1914. The Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The military chaplains did not print festival prayer books in an orderly fashion, but those that were printed included abridged versions of the festival and High Holy Day prayers. Great Britain had an organized military Rabbinate which had access to the official printing presses. In Germany, in contrast, the Rabbis usually had to take their own initiative, using the budget (or donations) they were given. Therefore, we find many editions of German prayer books, but a single standard British one.

The prayer books printed by the armies are very short compared to the prayer books we are familiar with today, and contain only the main prayers for the entire year. Only a few short pages are dedicated to the High Holy Days.

The order of the blowing of the shofar from: The Prayer Book for Jewish Sailors and Soldiers, London 1914-1918
The Unetana Tokef prayer from the Gebetbuch fur israelitische Soldaten im Kriege prayer book, Vienna 1914

Another abridged prayer book printed leading up to Rosh Hashanah 1915, was published by the Jewish community of Hamburg, “for our Jewish soldiers”. The book begins with a special prayer written by the Rabbi of the community for success in battle, offering a blessing that “in the forthcoming year, you will be saved from the all the suffering of the previous year… we will defeat our enemies for the glory of our king.” This book does not contain prayers for the High Holy Days, but as it was published at the beginning of the new year, it contains a calendar for 5676 (1915-1916).

Gebete wahrend der Kriegszeit: fur unsere judischen Soldaten, Hamburg 1915

There were Jews who were forced to spend the festivals in prisoner of war camps. Some interesting testimonies about this appear in handwritten festival prayer books, photographs of which are preserved at the Library.

These prayer books were written according to the “Apam” rite (“Apam” or “Afam” is an acronym of the Hebrew initials of Asti, Fossano, and Moncalvo – in the Piedmont province of northern Italy) for the High Holy Days in 1673, 1704 and 1729. Inside the books are additional texts written by Jewish war captives in 1916. The writers relate that they are prisoners of war from Galicia and Bucovina who were sent to a camp in Fasano, Italy. Within the text, the prisoners record a long list of the prayer leaders for the High Holy Days and their places of origin.

These items raise many questions, to which we have no answers: who were these Jewish prisoners of war? Soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army or regular civilians? How did they obtain these precious handwritten prayer books? Were they unable to find printed books? How did they decide to write in (and damage) these manuscripts which did not belong to them? What is the explanation behind the recording of the event and the list of prayer leaders? Why was it so important to document a one-time event in a prayer book? This story definitely requires further in-depth research.

A year after the war, we find other Jews imprisoned over the High Holy Days – this time in an English jail in Egypt. These were Shmuel Goldstein from Jerusalem and his friend Aharon Hibler from Safed. The prayer book found in our collection of rare books was sent to Goldstein by his Rabbi, Rabbi Baruch Reuven Shlomo Jungreis, the founder of the Eidah Chareidit in Jerusalem. Similarly to the prisoners in Fossano, the two friends used the title page and inside page of the prayer book to document their stay in prison. Each of them wrote a few words separately, and wished themselves a rapid release from jail. This is what they wrote:

“The festival prayer book sent by my teacher Rabbi Baruch Reuven Shlomo Jungreis, arrived here to captivity on Tuesday 28th Elul 5679 [September 23, 1919], and as an eternal commemoration I will record my name and that of my friend, and may it be His will that we are written and signed in the book of life of the righteous, and that we celebrate the Simchat Beit Hashoeva in the Land of Israel. Shmuel Zenvil son of Alexander Goldstein from the city of Jerusalem and my friend Aharon son of Zvi Hibler.

So that you might remember the day you left the land of Egypt, not only our forefathers, but we as well, ‘for an eternal commemoration’ of the captivity in Egypt, the place our forefathers were enslaved with bricks and mortar, and in the year 5679 in captivity.”

A prayer book for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Vilna 1906

As can be expected, the military Rabbis adapted their sermons to topics connected to current events. Several Yom Kippur and Sukkot sermons were published in 1916 in a booklet named “The Blessing of the Military Rabbi to the Jewish Comrades of the German Army” which was distributed to the soldiers. Several German military rabbis who served in the different fronts helped to put this booklet together.

Ein Gruss der Feldrabbiner an die jüdischen Kameraden im Deutschen Heere, Berlin 1916

The military Rabbi of the Fifth German Army was Rabbi Georg Salzberger. In his diary, he wrote that on the second day of Rosh Hashana all the soldiers were on the battlefields and he had no choice but to pray alone. In his diary, he described the story read on Rosh Hashanah, of Abraham who is prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac and how in his mind’s eye he saw all the fathers of the Jewish soldiers following in his footsteps and sending their sons to the front for the sake of Germany, while their mothers cried.

 “A voice is heard on high, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”


The title page of Rabbi Salzberger’s wartime diary

Rabbi Salzberger comforted himself and the many worshippers he felt were joining him in prayer. The sons may have been at war, but just as God promised Rachel, they would soon return:

“Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says God; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your latter end, says God; and your children shall come again to their own border.”

The Jewish Soldiers of the Kaiser’s Army

12,000 Jews were killed in action serving the German Army in the First World War, but Jewish loyalty to Germany was always doubted and questioned.

Jewish soldiers in the German Army celebrate Hanukkah on the Eastern Front, 1916. Photo: Jewish Museum Frankfurt, S. Ajnwojner Collection

Many countries and nations found themselves fighting against each other during the First World War. Spread throughout these countries and nations were the Jews, citizens of their particular locales; they participated in combat and could be found fighting in the various armies throughout the Great War. Jews have always been minorities in their various countries of origin, yet their percentage in the nation’s armies was always higher than their percentage in the general population. In the same token, their efforts in the war were also greater.

German Jewish Soldiers in a Catholic Church in Northern France, Yom Kippur, 1914

Due to the fact that historically the Jewish people were a nation among many, Jews often found themselves in the absurd and tragic situation of fighting each other on opposite sides of the fence. A Jewish soldier would be standing in front of the opposing force, not knowing that a Jewish brother would be an enemy as well. Legends surrounding the meeting of fellow Jews on the battlefield emerged.

Jewish Soldiers in the German Army Radio Unit, 1915

In hand-to-hand combat, Jews were known to cry the “Shema”, which notified an enemy combatant who also happened to be Jewish that their enemy was a brother, and so he would avoid a killing blow. When killing could not be avoided, the utterance of the “Shema” more than once made sure that Jewish enemy soldiers found comfort in each other in death.

A prayer Siddur for Jewish soldiers, Berlin, 1914

The First World War was not the first armed conflict in which Jews fought beside their gentile compatriots, while their enemies included fellow Jews. In the century that preceded the First World War, Jews fought in the armies of kingdoms and Empires from all over Europe. In the New World, Jews could be found fighting for the North and the South during the American Civil War.

German Jewish Soldiers during a Yom Kippur prayer in Brussels, 1915

The Jews of Germany were quick to enlist in the army of the Kaiser, just as their French and English brothers enlisted in their armies. Almost 20% of German Jewry enlisted. Due to the tension between the anti-Semitic and the more liberal attitudes that German society held towards the Jewish people, many German Jews saw the First World War as an opportunity to prove their love and loyalty to their German homeland.

But very quickly anti-Semitic rumors spread about the Jews’ lack of patriotism and their low enlistment numbers. In October 1916, the German Military High Command announced a Judenzählung, “A Jewish Count”, to find out and report if the claims were true. The results of the report were never published and rumors continued unabated. It was in this atmosphere that Otto Armin (whose real name was Alfred Roth) published the so-called report and its results, claiming it proved that Jews avoided enlistment.

Anti-Semitic poster: The Jewish soldier “the last to charge, the first to head home.”

But the anti-Semitic language of the publication reveals Otto Armin’s slanderous intent.

The cover of Otto Armin’s anti-Semitic book “The Jews in the Army”, published in 1919

Jews did not remain silent in light of this libel, and Dr. Jacob Segall published a book loaded with facts and figures regarding the Jewish soldiers of the German Army, going into great detail regarding their feats during the war.

The cover of Dr. Jacob Segall’s book “The German Jews as Soldiers in the War of 1914-1918, a Statistical Analysis.” Published in 1922

Some 100,000 Jews served in the German Army throughout the First World War. 12,000 were killed in action, and no less than 35,000 received medals and accolades.

A German poster in memory of the 12,000 Jewish soldiers that were killed in action

Despite all that, the rumors and doubt regarding the German Jewish contribution to the War effort never really died down and was an essential part of Nazi propaganda, years before the Nazis took over Germany.

1695: What Is Missing from the Young German’s Medical Diploma?

It is unusually beautiful, but a small detail is missing from the diploma Capilius son of Yosef Piktor received.

In 1695, Capilius son of Yosef Piktor completed his medical and philosophy studies (which was a general name for sciences at the time) in the Padua University in Italy. In December of that year he was awarded a certificate attesting to completion of his studies – a magnificent diploma formed like a booklet and comprised of three sheets of parchment illustrated and decorated with many colors and figures.

Apart from an illustration of Piktor’s birthplace (Bingen in Germany), the diploma is missing an important detail related to its recipient’s identity – the new doctor’s Jewish status. Even the name the doctor is mentioned by is simply a Christian-Latin name given to him – apparently in order to register for studies. His true name was Yaacov Mahler.


A portrait of the newly-certified doctor Yaacov son of Yosef Mahler

What was the reason behind this peculiar omission?

Testimonies from the fourth century CE onward reveal an interesting fact about Italian history: the presence of Jewish doctors. Specific Popes periodically forbid Jews from being accepted to study medicine in Italy, or prevented the Jewish doctors from treating Christian patients, but the presence of medically-educated Jews on the Italian Peninsula, or of Jews from various European communities (such as Mahler) who studied medicine in Italian universities, was a permanent fixture. The medical profession – every stereotypical Jewish mother’s dream – was one of the only professions available to Italian Jewry, despite requiring long years of education and training.

The dignified diploma Yaacov Mahler received reveals something about the ambivalence and perhaps even discomfort of the Christian majority when dealing with the existence of Jewish doctors in Italy: young Jews were permitted to study medicine and to work in it in their communities, but for as long as they studied in a Christian university – they must adopt a suitable Christian name and discard any external signs of their Judaism.


Yaacov Mahler’s full diploma. Click here to view the item in the Library catalog


Moving Testimony: A Prayer from the Anusim of the Communist Revolution

A rare manuscript reveals that even in the midst of Soviet oppression there were Jews who insisted on preserving a remnant of their ancestors' faith.

A Yizkor prayer written by a Soviet Jew on the blank pages of a printed book

As soon as the Soviet revolution tightened its grip throughout the vast expanses of the Tsarist Empire, upon whose ruins it arose, many believing Jews were forced to abandon the faith of their forefathers and declare their uncompromising loyalty to the values of the Revolution. Many did so willingly, confident in the limitless possibilities the Soviet Union offered them. Others did so reluctantly and from a lack of choice. A significant minority of Jews decided to secretly uphold the principles of the religion which they gradually found themselves forgetting.

The entire item consists of three leaves, this is one of them. This is a printed page with the Ministry of Culture approval to print the work – the name of the work is unknown.

Moving testament to preservation of the embers of Judaism by the “Anusim of the Revolution” can be found on the protective leaves (the first pages before the body of the text of the book) of a Soviet book printed in Homel (Gomel), a city located in south east Belarus. Next to the Ministry of Culture’s official approval for the book to be printed, the book’s Jewish owner wrote a prayer in memory of the souls of his family and relatives.

The other two leaves of the item. This is a handwritten transcription of the Yizkor prayer in memory of the souls of the writer’s family

A study of the manuscript reveals that Hebrew was not a language this anonymous Jew was used to writing, and the prayer is replete with spelling mistakes. This fact strengthens our hypothesis that the prayers were written from memory and not copied from written text – which would have constituted a grave crime at the time.

Our attempts to date the manuscript were unsuccessful. We know that the book itself was printed in Gomel, a city which boasted a Jewish community from at least the 16th century. The Wehrmacht captured the city in August 1941. Most of the Jews of Gomel were evacuated before the invasion by the retreating Red Army. The 4,000 Jews who remained in the city were murdered by the Nazis.

Does this fact provide proof that the prayer was written before the Second World War? This could well be the case. However, we do know that a small number of Jews who survived the horrific war returned to Gomel at its end, and  one of them may be the author of the manuscript.

The article was written in collaboration with the Manuscript Department and the Institute of Microfilmed Manuscripts.