Looking Back at the Jewish Soldiers of the Great War

A century after World War I, people are still surprised to learn the extent of Jewish participation in the military.

From the Felix Theilhaber Collection at the National Library of Israel.

From the Felix Theilhaber Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Armistice Day 2018 marked one hundred years since the end of World War I. The centenary was commemorated with ceremonies and remembrances around the world. But Jewish involvement in the First World War is often overlooked, or even forgotten, by the general public.

Paula Kitching is the project historian, co-founder and project manager of the We Were There Too project, which chronicles Anglo-Jewish involvement in the First World War. She knows from personal experience exactly why the project is necessary.

“I would be giving tours of battlefields, and people—Jewish and gentile—would ask me why there were Stars of David on some of the graves. And I would tell them it’s because the soldier was Jewish. And they would say, Oh, I didn’t know there were Jewish soldiers who fought in World War I. And of course there were.”

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

We Were There Too has gathered materials from individuals and organizations to create an interactive online database, complete with archival resources, personal records, and information on past events. The project has recently expanded into the North West of England, with plans to cover the whole of Britain. “We want to show people that the First World War was diverse,” said Kitching, who has also worked on projects chronicling Anglo-Indian service in World War I. “The project started in London, but every region we’ve been to, we’ve had tremendous interest, which makes me think there really is a national, rather than regional interest.”

Image Credit: We Were There Too, https://www.jewsfww.uk/
Image Credit: We Were There Too, https://www.jewsfww.uk/

The First World War drastically affected the lives of all those involved, of course, but Kitching notes that for many Jewish soldiers, as with soldiers from the working classes, and other minority backgrounds including Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Irish soldiers, the war also served as a chance to prove their patriotism, their abilities, and their love for Britain. The London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) has archived Anglo-Jewish materials through their UK Jewish Community Archives program which display these sentiments in incredibly personal ways. One particularly poignant example in their collection is a letter, pictured below, written to the Chief Rabbi of Beth Din, a court of Jewish law, in 1914 from a member of London’s Jewish community affirming the congregation’s patriotic support of Britain and the War. The letter illustrates how many British Jews saw the war as a space to demonstrate their patriotism and their identity as Britons.

Image Credit: Archives of the London Beth Din, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, London. Note: Items from the Beth Din archive are accessible with written permission of the depositor
Image Credit: Archives of the London Beth Din, held at the London Metropolitan Archives, London. Note: Items from the Beth Din archive are accessible with the written permission of the depositor

Kathrin Pieren, Social and Military History collections manager and curator for the Jewish Museum in London, has found similar levels of enthusiasm for information on the Jewish experience of World War I in her work with the Museum and beyond. Exhibitions on Jews in the First World War at the Museum, including a highly successful featured exhibit in 2014, have generated interest from both the public and the press and are looking to combat what Pieren calls the “knowledge gap” which led to the “nonsense” perception that Jews did not fight in World War I, nor feel the war’s impact on their lives on the home front.

Pieren also found a national, rather than a regional, interest in Jewish involvement in World War I through her own work. In giving talks on the subject in Leeds, and at the University of Chester on minority experiences during the War, she has found that both information and interest on the Jewish experience during World War I extend far beyond London and into the whole of Britain.

Yom Kippur in Brussels, 1915
Yom Kippur in Brussels, 1915

Jewish involvement in the war wasn’t limited to Britain, however. The website, Jewish Heritage Europe marked the centenary with a photo essay on memorials honoring fallen Jewish WWI soldiers that can be found across Europe. For a more personal perspective on the diversity of Jewish involvement, the German-Jewish archives at the University of Sussex shed light on Jewish participation in World War I from an often-overlooked perspective—a German one. The Sussex German-Jewish Archives have been cataloged and made available online at The Keep. This collection includes unique items such as war diaries from German-Jewish soldier Max Sondheimer, fighting in the Kaiser’s army in 1916, and the unpublished autobiographical novels of Selma Kahn, describing Jewish life on the German home front during the First World War and in the immediate aftermath.

The projects mentioned in this article are supported by the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.

Read more about Jewish participation in World War I:

Life Under Fire: The Doctor Who Photographed the Destruction of World War I

The Jewish Soldiers of the Kaiser’s Army

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

A Matter of Faith: Ferrara Manuscript Outlines Orthodoxy and Heresy Between Jewish and Christian Traditions

A 17th-century Italian manuscript sheds light on an important example of Catholic book censorship in the modern age


The Italian manuscript A General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books (henceforth Response), now kept by the National Library of Israel, provides an important example of Catholic book censorship in the modern age. Written by an anonymous Jewish author in Ferrara during the seventeenth century, this document focuses on religious disputes concerning the accusation of blasphemy made by the censors of the Roman Inquisition against rabbinical literature.

The accusations made against Hebrew texts refer especially to Talmudic works whose reading could lead to negative interpretations of Christianity.

In order to effectively forbid these texts, Catholic censors needed to control any source of Jewish culture which could be spread easily among Christians. The printing of books and documents in the modern age revealed itself to be an excellent means of canonization. The main problem concerning Hebrew texts in the modern era was related to their availability as they were often limited to Jewish communities. The view held by the Catholic Church regarding Jews and Judaism was strongly conditioned by the polemic work “Pugio Fidei,” or, in English, “Dagger of Faith,” written by the Dominican friar Ramon Martí. It’s possible to identify two interpretative lines about Judaism in this document: the first interpretation is founded on the idea that holy Jewish books are full of useful evidence of religious truths, thanks to the many resemblances with Christianity, while the second traces a negative connotation of Hebrew texts, with emphasis on the Talmud. The negative inclination in the Pugio reclaims the traditional thesis on the vanity of Talmudic literature, that is seen as a blasphemous attack on Christians. The success of the negative narrative posed about Judaism led to the censorship of Jewish texts.

Since the above-mentioned manuscript is a “general response” to the Roman Inquisition, let us now examine its structure in order to better understand its content.

A page from within the manuscript, “General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books.” In the margins, there are long quotes and citations in Hebrew. From the National Library of Israel collections.

General Analysis of the General Response: A Philosophical and Philological Profile

One interesting aspect worthy of consideration in the manuscript is the use of philosophical reasoning to argue the theory that Hebrew texts do not contain negative remarks about Christianity. In order to support this thesis, the anonymous author of the code presents eight “universal reasons” that would demonstrate the unfoundedness of the accusations against rabbinic literature.

The first universal reason explained by the author focuses on the importance of prayer in Jewish tradition, whose history is proved through important textual references from Flavius Josephus or from Philo of Alexandria, who describes the devotion of Jewish prayer in his “De Legazione ad Caium Imperatorem”. These references serve as fundamental proof of the benevolence Jews had towards other nations and their leaders, even during and after the destruction of Jerusalem, as Josephus’ Bellum Iudaicum shows. Words like “idolaters” and “heretics” begin to appear in the first two pages of the manuscript to exhort the readers to understand that such terms refer to Babylonians and Romans, who are seen as idolatrous pagans. Hence, definitions such these can’t and mustn’t be seen as reffering to Christians, according to the author.

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The second universal reason is founded on a syllogism. It states that all people who follow the seven laws of Noah will partially enjoy Heaven. As Christians follow the seven laws of Noah, they, according to Jewish beliefs, will partially enjoy Heaven. The consequence of this reasoning confirms again that Christians cannot be percieved as idolaters or heretics by Jews, also because they share a common concept of blasphemy. In fact, in both Christian and Jewish holy texts it is forbidden to be involved in actions that offend God, including idolatry, homicide, adultery or theft.

A General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books
A page from within the manuscript, General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books, from the National Library of Israel collections.

It’s also clear that, although Christians share some religious beliefs with Jews, they don’t necessarily observe all the same rules. For example, the precepts regarding the eating of meat from a slaughtered animal aren’t part of Christian orthodoxy, but yet Christians still are till given the opportunity to achieve  “eternal happiness”. This is possible because they are seen as “good and pious.” The author focuses his attention on the meaning of the expression “good and pious”, and dedicated his third  in argument to this point. Since Christians believe that the seven laws of Noah came from God, the requisite of being “good and pious” is fulfilled. In addition, it is not necessary to follow all the seven laws given to Noah as long as one of them is observed with “good intention.” Moreover, the author explains a passage from the ninth psalm of David, recalling that these verses describe the fate of those who are not “good and pious,” pointing out that the expression “all people who leave God”  (Obliviscuntur literally means “they forget” and can be interpreted as “ they leave” in a figurative sense) is meant for those who are neither good nor pious, seeing as they deny the glory of God.

For what concerns the goodness of Christians, in the manuscript it is written that the Ten Commandments they follow are thought to have come from God and this proves a convergence between Jewish and Christian beliefs: the Ten Commandments given to Moses include many precepts shared with Judaism and given the fact that Christians follow many precepts of Mosaic Law with good intentions , consequently they can’t be described as heretics or idolaters.

A page from within the manuscript, General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books, from the National Library of Israel collections.

In the Response, the theme of religious observance is often reiterated through references to Don Isaac Abarbanel, a philosopher, statesman and biblical commentator, King David (in his fourteenth psalm), or the prophet Isaiah, whose verses are mentioned to affirm the need to follow even just one precept to avoid damnation. Proceeding in the analysis of the manuscript, the author explains that the rabbinic doctrine on intention in religious observance is surely influenced by the moral philosophy of Aristotle. His theory of purpose is founded on the notion of prudence, as explained in the sixth book of Nicomachean Ethics, where it is written that each moral virtue depends on prudence, defined as the “common form of virtues.”

The anonymous author presents a fourth universal reason, maintaining that there are three aspects to be considered for a correct evaluation of rabbinical texts including when these books were written, who wrote them, and for whom. Following this argument, words like “idolaters” or “heretics” are to be intended for those people living when “ancient rabbis” instituted their doctrines, and without any doubt, in that historical period, Christianity wasn’t yet established. In particular, Babylonian and Roman ceremonies are seen by the ancient Jewish sages as examples of idolatry and blasphemy. In addition, a certain passage from Saint Augustine (De Civitate Dei, 23) is mentioned, which describes both the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and the destruction of the 2nd temple of Jerusalem under the Roman Empire. The first event happened before the emergence of Christianity, while the second was the result of an expansionist policy led by the Roman Empire when Christians communities were persecuted as well.

A page from within the manuscript, "General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books," from the National Library of Israel collections.
A page from within the manuscript, General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books, from the National Library of Israel collections.

The author also states that most of the content reffering to rabbinical texts is unclear, containing many ambiguous terms and figures that are easily misunderstandable, and for this reason they are percieved as offensive by Christians, even if they not addressed to them. Additionally, the author describes Christianity as a religion which is very close to Judaism, since it shares many common beliefs. He even argues that Judaim holds a benevolent attitude towards Christianity. The word “idolaters” therefore appears to be associated with “gentiles.” The term “goyim” refers to a non-Jewish nation and in the manuscript, this definition is used in reference to the Babylonians people. The author’s fifth argument make the case that none of these words refer to Christians, since Christians were called “Nazarenes”, and this epithet is significant since it distinguishes “orthodox” Christians from Arian Christians, who are mentioned as heretics in the manuscript/

This point is strictly related to the sixth argument brought forth by the author, in which he writes that the above-mentioned terms are so generic that they can easily refer to other nations or groups of non-Christian people:  these words even can be associated to communities inside Judaism.

Given the fact that the above-mentioned epithets are ambiguous, it cannot be concluded that they are addressed to someone in particular, as illustrated by the seventh argument; furthermore, blasphemy is assumed to be founded on a malicious intent, therefore something that is never verified cannot be presumed without evidence, in accordance with the eighth argument.

A page from within the manuscript, "General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books," from the National Library of Israel collections.
A page from within the manuscript, General Response to the Desecration of Sanctity in the Hebrew Books, from the National Library of Israel collections.

After the presentation of all the eight “universal reasons,”  the last page of the manuscript seems incomplete;  nevertheless, it makes sense to affirm that the anonymous author of this code managed to discuss all the eight points of his reasoning with historical, theological, philological and philosophical references that together contribute to a better perspective on the relationship between Jewish and Christian traditions.



The Nazi Guide to Finding the Proper Spouse

These "10 commandments" for building a good relationship were found in a pamphlet distributed to all students graduating from a trade school under the Nazi regime.

nazi relationship guide

“I found this on the shelf and thought you might know what to do with it,” she said as she handed me a thin paperback pamphlet with a German title and a swastika embossed on the cover.

Apparently, spring cleaning in the office can lead to some interesting discoveries when you work in the National Library of Israel Digital Content Department.

The book I now held in my hand was a copy of “Du Und Dein Volk,” or in English, “You and Your People,” a widely spread piece of Nazi propaganda that was published in early 1940 and distributed by the Reich Education Ministry to young adults finishing their education. Thousands of copies of this pamphlet were printed and distributed across Nazi Germany, providing the young graduates with an easy to read, condensed version of the Nazi doctrine that all Germans were required to know.

Du Und Dein Volk

This particular copy of the pamphlet found on our shelves was bestowed to a graduate of the “Berufsschule für Tischler,” vocational school for carpentry in Vienna, named August Feigel. His name was written in cursive in blue ink on the first page of the book. It appears there alongside the name of his school, the date the book was gifted (July 6, 1940), and the signature of the school’s headmaster, suggesting this book was given as a gift to all graduating students.

Du Und Dein Volk
The opening page of the book showing that it was gifted to August Feigel, a graduate of the “Berufsschule für Tischler,” vocational school for carpentry in Vienna.

Upon further inspection, and with a lot of help from my German-speaking colleagues, I understood that this “light reading” contained a general summary of Nazi ideology that outlined the responsibilities of the average German citizen, encouraging the youths to marry and have many children while warning them of the dangers of marrying someone improper, including those without the proper German mindset or someone who is not of Nordic blood.

In a section entitled, “Your Marriage and Your Children,” the text emphasizes the importance of marriage and of bearing as many healthy children as possible, to maintain and strengthen the right racial components for the good of society.

Du Und Dein Volk
Adolf Hitler’s portrait included at the center of the pamphlet.

“Your genetic line is like roots underground. When two such roots meet and unite, a person grows like a plant and breaks through the soil,” reads the text. “The sun smiles upon it, rain falls, it’s blown by storms, it wilts and withers, and finally dies a human death. Yet the genetic stream flows on long after the sun and rain and storms of that one life have passed.”

The section goes on to discuss the importance of maintaining a clean genetic pool and the critical nature of choosing an appropriate spouse who has within them the appropriate racial ancestry, as well as the responsibility that lies with every individual to strengthen the Aryan race by producing healthy children. The chapter concludes with a summarized and condensed list of the ten key commandments to follow when choosing a spouse with which to build and strengthen German ideals.

Du Und Dein Volk
The 10 commandments of Nazi doctrine for finding a spouse.

“You now know how to choose your spouse and understand the meaning of the following principles from the Reich Office for People’s Health,” reads the text. It then goes on to list the 10 commandments for finding a spouse:

  1. Always remember that you are a German.

  2. Be sure to marry if you are genetically healthy.

  3. Ensure that you keep your body clean.

  4. Keep your soul and spirit clean.

  5. As a German, you should only take a spouse of German or Nordic blood.

  6. When deciding on a spouse, investigate his or her ancestry.

  7. Physical health is the prerequisite for outward beauty.

  8. Marry only for love.

  9. In relationships, do not seek a temporary plaything, look for a partner for marriage.

  10. You should want as many children as possible.

This emphasis on maintaining the proper bloodline and increasing the pure German population was a key point for graduating students as they moved out of the structured environment of their education to the real world where they would fend for themselves.

After listing the ten initial commandments, the text adds an important warning to the reader: “People of absolutely pure blood are rare among us.” Just because someone matches the external criteria of the Aryan race, “that does not mean that he necessarily possesses all the spiritual characteristics that correspond to the physical appearance.”

“Enough advice and warnings,” concludes the section. “If you understood these rules, you can be assured that your instincts will lead you in the right direction. You should not marry out of the calculation, but rather from love!”

Du Und Dein Volk
The ideal German family according to Du Und Dein Volk.

A few pages later, the pamphlet includes a photo depicting the ideal family, featuring a blonde woman surrounded by her children. The text goes on to describe the importance of family before switching to a discussion of “The Jewish Question” and preventing the birth of genetically ill offspring.

The final pages in the pamphlet include a template for the student to fill in his own family tree, leading back to his great grandparents, so that he could prove his pure lineage. August Feigel, the recipient of this book, did not take advantage of this opportunity.

Du Und Dein Volk
A family tree template for the student to fill out.

“Woe to the generation that is given clarity and does not make use of it,” concludes the text. “There are only two options: to climb to liberating heights or to decline. We choose the first path, though we know it brings sacrifices and challenges, though it is difficult and will take more than one or two or three generations.”

Looking back over the last three generations, the Nazis did not achieve their goals in “purifying” the genetic pool but this pamphlet, now preserved in the National Library of Israel, stands as a witness to the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism that are still apparent today.

Special thanks to Dr. Stefan Litt for his help in writing this article.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

German Police Transfer Max Brod Papers to the National Library of Israel

Among other items, the collection includes a diary of Brod's, written when he was Kafka's closest friend in Prague. Thought to be lost in recent years, the diary has drawn interest from literary scholars around the world.


מקס ברוד ושירים בכתב ידו

On Tuesday, May 21st, 2019, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police (BKA) handed over thousands of stolen, previously unknown papers from the Max Brod Archive to National Library of Israel officials at an event at the Israeli Ambassador’s residence in Berlin. Max Brod was a close friend of Franz Kafka, and the man responsible for bringing his famous works to light.

Max Brod
Max Brod

The event is part of the renewal process undertaken by the National Library and the expansion of the Library’s international cooperation initiatives, including a range of joint projects with German research and cultural institutions.

The National Library Chairman David Blumberg and CEO Oren Weinberg arrived in Berlin in late May, 2019 to present the the Library’s collections and goals to leading members of German society. As part of this special visit, the two participated in an event at the residence of the Israeli Ambassador to Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff, during which Mr. Weinberg presented the renewal process underway at the Library, including the ongoing construction of the new National Library of Israel Campus adjacent to the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), to a group of German public figures as well as cultural and media personalities.



The culmination of this event was the handing over of thousands of papers, including letters, drafts of plays, diaries and other manuscripts written by the author, composer and playwright Max Brod, by a senior representative of the German police to the heads of the National Library.

Max Brod in pictures

Back in 2013, the documents were offered for sale to the German Literature Archive in Marbach and other potential buyers in the country.  Following the attempted sale, the authorities were notified and it became clear that the some 5,000 pages of documents were part of Brod’s private archive, and had been stolen from the home of his secretary. Alongside Brod’s personal papers, the collection includes a 1910 postcard signed by his close friend Franz Kafka.

Brod, an accomplished writer and composer, was a confidant of Franz Kafka and is primarily responsible for Kafka’s success as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, having published many of his works after the author’s death in 1924.

Legal proceedings in Israel and Germany resulted in a verdict by the regional court in Wiesbaden declaring that the stolen papers should be transferred to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem where they will be made publicly available. Three large suitcases containing the materials were transferred to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) for temporary safekeeping. These are the documents that are now being handed over to the National Library of Israel.



In accordance with Max Brod’s own wishes that his collections, including Kafka’s writings, be made accessible to the public and kept in a public archive, the National Library has been working in recent years to make this a reality. As part of this activity, many of Brod’s manuscripts were collected, including personal diaries. Among these is a diary written when Brod was Kafka’s closest friend in Prague. In recent years, the document was thought to be lost and had drawn interest from literary scholars around the world. Other diaries in the collection describe Brod’s extensive relationship with members of the Prague Circle (a group of Zionist students in Prague who surrounded Franz Kafka and who were the first in the Zionist movement to formulate the idea of ​​a bi-national state in the Land of Israel). Many of the personal archives of the members of this group are also preserved in the National Library. Over the years the Library had become aware that items from the Brod estate had made their way, one way or another, to Germany, with the purpose of eventually selling them.



According to National Library archivist and Humanities Collection curator, Dr. Stefan Litt, who is tasked with reviewing the materials, “The correspondence found in the archive is extensive and impressive. It can be characterized as a type of ‘who’s who’ of the European cultural world in the first four decades of the twentieth century.”

The Chairman of the National Library’s Board of Directors, Mr. David Blumberg, said: “We are pleased that even after so much time has passed since these papers were stolen, there is now some closure and they will be coming to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, in accordance with Max Brod’s wishes. Brod was a prolific writer, composer, and playwright and his personal papers will now fittingly join the hundreds of personal archives held among the National Library collection, including a number belonging to figures from the famed “Prague Circle”, of which Brod and Kafka were members.”


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