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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But the anti-Semitic language of the publication reveals Otto Armin’s slanderous intent.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bringing Darkness to Light: Singing Hanukkah Songs Through the Holocaust
Rare recordings kept in the National Library's collection reveal the Chanukah songs that gave hope to Jewish children during WWII.
A Chanukah candle lighting ceremony in the Westerbork transit camp, Netherlands, December 1943. Photo: Yad Vashem.
In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill, a Jewish man of Polish descent and a lover of everything Yiddish with a keen historical awareness, made his way uptown on the New York City subway system carrying a bag filled with recording equipment. Word had reached him that Jewish refugees had been brought to a hotel on the Upper West Side, and he wanted to get there as quickly as possible.
When he arrived at the hotel, Stonehill found the lobby overrun; the place looked more like a crowded European train station filled with luggage and lost people rather than a modern American hotel. Every man, woman, and child in that lobby was a Holocaust survivor.
Stonehill set up his equipment and asked the refugees to sing all the songs they knew from before the war. He recorded over 40 hours of music and most likely saved more than 1000 songs from being lost forever.
Men and women, young and old, sang in Hebrew, Russian, and Polish – but most of them sang in their mother-tongue – Yiddish. Children clamored around the music recorder, begging for a chance at the microphone. They wanted to hear their own voices, recorded by Stonehill. The technology delighted them and they were excited to sing the songs they heard at their parents’ knees, songs from their Hebrew school, from their youth movement, from the ghetto, from the camp, and even from where they remained hidden during the destruction. Those pieces of their culture, their voices, would now be alive forever, for future generations.
As we listen, other voices can be heard in the background, other survivors crying, laughing, and singing along.
Among the children that sang for Stonehill was a little boy named Meir, a 9-year-old who survived the war and had just set foot in New York. The song, Simu Shemen (“Put Oil On It”), is sung in Jewish households around the world to this day.
Hanukkah was celebrated and observed throughout the war, in the ghettos and even in the camps, as the survivors hoped beyond hope that the suffering would end and believed that they would be free once again. These were small glimmers of light in the endless darkness and Hanukkah was of specific symbolic importance during the Holocaust.
These rare recordings that Ben Stonehill taped reveal a nearly lost world, barely kept alive as an entire generation and culture were almost completely wiped out.
Thankfully we are able to listen to those days long gone.
This article was written with the help of Dr. Gila Flam, head of the National Library’s Music Department.
The Ben Stonehill Collection of Jewish Folksongs in the Sound Archive was cataloged by Amy Simon, you can listen to more recordings from the collection, here.
The gangsters who murdered Herman Rosenthal: Photo shows "Lefty Louie" Rosenberg and "Gyp the Blood" Horowitz, "Whitey" Lewis, "Dago Frank" Cirofici and the policemen who captured them. Library of Congress, Bain Collection, 1912 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-B2-1234]
68 Second Avenue
At 68 Second Avenue, there is a restaurant in the basement floor underneath the drug store, known as Richman’s restaurant. This place is open a short while and for the past two weeks we have observed that as late as 2, 3, 4 and 4:30 in the morning this place is open. On looking into the basement from the sidewalk there can be seen eight, ten, twelve and fourteen men around the table playing cards with money or chips on the table. This place should be handled immediately.
(From a report of “The Secret Jewish Police.” The original is in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People)
“A cancer gnawing at our flesh, regardless of the level of the crime”
East European Jews who immigrated to New York at the turn of the twentieth century imagined a new life for themselves in the “Goldene mediene” (the golden country), a place brimming with possibilities. Among the new immigrants were those who had owed money, escaped all sorts of run-ins with the Jewish community or the local law, or saw no future for themselves in the land of their birth. All of them had come to realize the American dream, but some were willing to use brute force or crime to do it.
By 1908 there were one million Jews in New York City, comprising one quarter of the population. The chief superintendent of the New York City police at the time alleged that while the Jews made up only one quarter of the city’s population they represented half of its prison population. While the facts weren’t entirely correct and the anti-Semitic overtones of the statement forced the superintendent to resign the following year, there was, nevertheless, some truth to his claim: Jewish organized crime had become a major problem in the city. There were more Jewish thieves, swindlers, gamblers, bootleggers, pimps and murderers among the Jews in New York than among the Jewish communities in Europe. They answered to such names as Kid Twist, Dopey Benny and Big Jack Zelig, among others. These were Jewish gangsters who hid behind aliases, many of them racist monikers, and whose real names were Max Zwiebach, Joseph Tublinsky, William Albert, Benjamin Fine and Harry Horowitz, to name only a few.
The Jewish community that had to contend with these Jewish gangsters was a divided one: Eastern European Jews living on the Lower East Side, in the southern part of the city, faced grinding poverty in addition to all the other difficulties of being new immigrants (language, employment, housing) while the more established Jews who had immigrated to the United States earlier, mostly from Western Europe, lived in the northern part of the city, and their ranks included big department store owners who looked down at the newcomers, and felt no sense of responsibility for their welfare.
Yiddish newspapers and leaders of the American Jewish community responded defensively to the matter of Jewish crime, viewing it more as an image problem than a social ill. Only a few took it seriously. Louis Marshall, a leader of the Jewish community, said that Jewish crime was “a cancer gnawing at our flesh, regardless of the level of crime.” It was clear that old and new immigrants needed to overcome their differences and work together to eradicate the organized crime in their midst.
This is where Reform Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes enters into the picture. Magnes, who was ordained at the age of twenty-three, served as an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, the first Reform synagogue in New York and a New York landmark. In contemporary sermons he often described the ordeals of the new immigrants, but he emphasized that Jews have undergone worse trials without descending into lives of crime or prostitution. Magnes was a man of stature, connections and influence and he raised the idea of establishing an organization that would speak on behalf of the Jews, preserve their rights and deal with the problem of crime in a real way. Thus, the “Kehillah of New York City” was established in 1909 with the participation of 222 New York Jewish organizations.
Apart from departments that dealt with assistance for the needy, Jewish education and schools, religious life, and commerce, a department was established to deal with the fight against Jewish organized crime.
The Unfortunate Case of Herman Rosenthal
In July 1912, the New York World newspaper published the testimony of the Jewish gambling entrepreneur Herman Rosenthal regarding his ties to corrupt police inspector Charles Becker who headed the gaming and racketeering department in New York. Becker had given Rosenthal a loan and also provided police protection for his dubious business dealings and in exchange Rosenthal had made Becker a silent partner in his gambling business. As a result of pressure from his superiors, Becker eventually betrayed Rosenthal by raiding and then shutting down his casino. Rosenthal then turned state’s witness and testified against the corrupt police officer. A few days later he was shot dead in broad daylight near Times Square.
Becker would eventually be convicted and become the first police officer to be sentenced to death. His execution by electric chair took nine minutes.
The murderers were Jewish gangsters sent by the corrupt police. It turned out that almost everyone involved in the crime – the police, the criminals and the witnesses – was Jewish. The well-publicized case once again raised Jewish awareness of the problem of rising crime among the city’s Jewish community.
In light of the Rosenthal affair, Magnes reached an agreement with the city’s mayor and chief of police to establish a “social morality task force,” to be operated by Jewish detectives whose duty was to comb the south-eastern areas of Manhattan for information about crimes and then transmit their findings to the police would handle matters under the law.
The detectives presented Magnes, the “Kehillah,” the police and the mayor with reports of their impressions of visits to private gambling casinos, brothels and illegal clubs that sold alcohol and drugs. They also drew up lists of names of Jewish criminals and their aliases and provided information regarding their whereabouts, inside or outside of the city limits, or in jail.
Below are some reports submitted by detectives containing information about particular Jewish gangsters of New York who had been scouted out. The reports are preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People:
280 Broome Street – Restaurant Hangout This restaurant is in a basement store on Broome Street between Allen and Eldridge Streets. The owner here is Max Margulies, alias Rossele. Margulies came from London a short while ago, where his chief business was picking pockets and a crook of every kind. He was also a thief in many parts of Russia. This joint is running strong. It has become a hangout for new Russian thieves and new thieves who came here from abroad. Some of the old timers found on the premises on the evening of November 23rd were
Muttelley, gun. Joe Trop, fence and gun. Carl Cassel, fence and gun.
210 Second Avenue – Disorderly Furnished Room House
210 Second Avenue, a furnished room house, was visited November 29th. There are three girls bringing in men into this house.
Hungarian Mary – previously reported. She once ran 303 East 18th Street.
Mary Less alias Fat Mary, alias Mary the Bum, previously reported.
Lizzie Articles – previously reported.
From the War against Organized Crime in New York to the Founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The operation continued thanks to the strong personality of Magnes and the support of the city’s mayor, but when the new mayor took office, the cooperation waned and eventually stopped. Yet all was not in vain, the “Kehillah” organization was an inspiration for other collaborative efforts between Jewish organizations and Jewish communities in other parts of the United States and its educational and philanthropic branches remain active to this day.
Magnes’ status as a community leader also changed. A pacifist, he vehemently opposed US involvement in the First World War. His stance hurt his reputation as well as his relations with the Jewish community and with other influential elements.
In 1922 Magnes came arrived in Mandatory Palestine where he took part in the founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A decade later, he would serve as its president. Magnes continued his controversial political activities in the Land of Israel, supporting a binational state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and even traveled to the United States in an attempt to persuade government officials not to recognize the establishment of the State of Israel. However, once the plan was accepted, he met with Chaim Weizmann, shook his hand and congratulated him.
Judah Magnes suffered a stroke while in the United States and died six months later. Among his personal papers sent to Israel in the 1930s, following the disolution of the “Kehillah”, were copies of the many reports the detectives of the “Secret Jewish Police” had written as part of their battle against the Jewish gangsters. The rest of the Magnes estate was given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People where they are preserved.
Thanks to Hadassah Assouline and Yochai Ben-Ghedalia of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People for their help in writing this article.