The Oldest Ashkenazi Synagogue in London

The Sandys Row Synagogue has kept its doors open through two World Wars and remained active from its original consecration in 1870 until today.

sandys row

Sandy's Row, corner of Frying Pan Alley. Photo copyright of The Bishopsgate Institute Archives London

Today it is almost impossible to get any sense of a Jewish presence in the neighborhood of East London, but there were once nearly one hundred and fifty synagogues operating in the area. Now Sandys Row is the last functioning Ashkenazi synagogue in Spitalfields, an area of East London at the heart of the former Jewish East End. Dutch Jewish migrants, who began arriving in London from Amsterdam in the 1840s, established the synagogue in 1854. They were economic migrants seeking a better life, rather than refugees fleeing persecution like the thousands of Ashkenazi Jews who came after them in the 1880s from the Pale of Settlement.

This small, distinctive, tight-knit Dutch Jewish community of a few hundred people settled in the streets of Spitalfields. They had their own traditions and customs which were different from other Ashkenazi Jewish groups and continued to practice the trades they had brought with them from Holland. These trades were predominately cigar making, diamond cutting and polishing, and slipper and cap making. Many small workshops were established and businesses were passed down through generations.

“The Chuts,” as they were known locally, refused to join any of the larger existing synagogues. They wanted their own establishment and formed a “Chevra”; the Society for Comfort of the Mourners, Kindness, and Truth, which originally functioned as a burial and mutual aid society and later became a way of raising funds to purchase their own building. By 1867 the Society had amassed enough money to acquire the lease on a former Huguenot Chapel in Sandys Row, a small side street in Spitalfields near Liverpool Street Station and the City of London.

sandys row
Copyright of The Bishopsgate Institute Archives London

The community employed Nathan Solomon Joseph, one of the most famous synagogue architects of the time, to remodel the chapel. He kept many original features of the Georgian interior, including the roof and the balcony and added a new three-story extension onto the building, creating a vestry and accommodation for a rabbi and caretaker. He also designed a beautiful mahogany ark which can still be seen recessed into the eastern wall of the building framed by neo-classical columns. Since it was consecrated in 1870, with ‘an immense throng of Jewish working men assembled – with devotion, enthusiasm, and solemn demeanor – to join in dedicating the humble structure to the worship of God,’ Sandys Row Synagogue has never closed its doors, operating through both World Wars and into the twenty-first century.

Sandys row
Sandys Row Synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper

Apart from some pine wood paneling which was added in the fifties along with some pine pews, the synagogue today looks much the same as it did when it opened in the nineteenth century. It was described in the Jewish press in 1870 as ‘a sacred place…simple, yet charming,’ a building that ‘invites the worshipper to religious meditation.’ The same holds true for the interior of Sandys Row today; it is an oasis of calm from the bustle of the city outside. The building still evokes the sense of awe and quiet meditation described by the journalist who witnessed the consecration ceremony nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Until recently, little has been known outside the congregation about this wonderful building and the Dutch Jewish community who established the synagogue. But during the past few years, I have been working with the synagogue as a historian and archivist to uncover more about the history and heritage of the building thanks to a grant from an anonymous benefactor.

Sandys row
The entrance to Sandys Row Synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper

The project began by collecting oral histories of past and present members of Sandys Row. We have recorded interviews with members in their homes across London, as well as locally with the few elderly Jewish people who remain in the area. They spoke of a neighborhood once bursting with life, filled with kosher butchers, bewigged women, friendly societies and Yiddish speaking traders. They told of a time when there was a synagogue or house of prayer on nearly every street in the area and the vicinity of Sandys Row was filled with Jewish shops, workshops and thousands of stalls from Petticoat Lane.

sandys row
The basement of Sandys Row Synagogue, photo by Morley Von Sternberg.

All of our interviewees had fond memories of Sandys Row Synagogue. Some, like Pamela Freedman and board member Rose Edmands, are directly related to the Dutch founding members.

‘It was a family shul, they used to call it the Dutch shul. All my late husband’s family were members. He was the president, his uncle was the president, I think the grandfather was president,’ said Pamela.

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Rose, whose original Dutch surname was Engelsman, said her entire family were members.

My great aunts used to sit in the front row and my mother’s generation sat in the row behind, and we kids sat in the back. And, now I sit in the front row – there’s nobody. So the reminder of time passing is very poignant there.’

The current president of Sandys Row, Harvey Rifkind, told me ‘during the fifties and sixties, the synagogue flourished. On Shabbat, there were one hundred to two hundred people there and on the high holy days, you could not get a seat. People literally sat on the floor in the aisles.’

Sandys Row
The Torah ark at the front of the synagogue. Photo copyright of Jonathan Juniper.

Today the synagogue is still functioning with afternoon services every weekday and weddings taking place regularly as a younger Jewish community has started to move back into the heavily regenerated tourist area of East London.

Alongside gathering the oral history recordings of people’s memories of the synagogue my role at Sandys Row has also involved depositing a great deal of handwritten records and other artifacts from the synagogue at the Bishopsgate Institute Archives in London.

sandys row
Sample of the materials preserved from Sandys Row Synagogue, 1919.

Over time, most of the synagogue’s records had been scattered around the building. Some were found in the safe in the vestry, but the majority were retrieved from the eighteenth-century basement which is practically unchanged from when the building was erected in 1766 as a Huguenot Chapel. The documents we found include nineteenth-century marriage certificates and an almost complete collection of handwritten minute books from the time the synagogue opened until the mid-twentieth century. This original material has now been safely deposited at the institute. Furthermore, we have spent many years digitizing the entire collection, which is available to view both online at and has also been deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) at the National Library of Israel. Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia, the director of the archives had this to say:

sandys row
This is the earliest minute book for Sandys Row Synagogue. The first minutes of a meeting to be written in English are dated Saturday 6th September 1873. The rest of the minute book is written in Dutch and appears to cover general synagogue business. The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the rest of the book here.

The CAHJP holds thousands of archives of Jewish communities, institutions, international organizations and prominent individuals from all over the globe. Despite the extensive coverage of communal collections, the CAHJP holdings do not include any full-scale archives of Ashkenazic congregations from London. Hence, the rich archive of the Sandys Row Synagogue, going back to the mid-19th Century, deposited at the CAHJP as a digital copy, is an important contribution, adding missing stones to the mosaic of Jewish history.

sandys row
This book holds a registry of 99 marriages containing biographical information regarding the bride and groom and the date of their marriage. This marriage register covers the period leading up to WWI. View the complete book here.

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.


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Coffee Houses Open on Shabbat… With Rabbinic Approval

Coffee Houses Open on Shabbat… With Rabbinic Approval

Records from 18th century Prague show that the opening of Jewish coffee houses on Shabbat enjoyed the approval of the city’s rabbinic leadership.

A Game of Draughts at Cafe Lamblin by Louis Leopold Boilly

A Game of Draughts at Cafe Lamblin by Louis Leopold Boilly

In the middle of the eighteenth century, religious life in the Jewish community of Prague was at its high point, with nine well-known synagogues and dozens of study houses. But at the same time that the learned men of Prague were producing vast Torah scholarship and the yeshivas were bustling with students, another institution was gaining popularity – the coffee house. Coffee houses became popular soon after coffee’s arrival in Western Europe, and often offered more than just a drink; they were a place to spend leisure time playing games and discussing current events with friends and strangers. Rabbinic sermons and writings from this period warn of the spiritual threat posed by the coffee house.  These establishments’ diverse environment and leisure culture competed with the traditional Jewish lifestyle of worship and study.

In spite of this potential culture clash, the records from that time period in the Pinkas Beit Din – the minute book of the rabbinic court of Prague – show that the opening of Jewish coffee houses on weekdays and, shockingly to modern ears, even on Shabbat, enjoyed the approval of the city’s rabbinic leadership, along with careful, detailed rabbinic-halachic regulation.

The Pinkas (minute book) of the Rabbinic Court of the Holy Congregation of Prague, currently preserved in the Jewish Museum of Prague, is a hand written book which, records the decisions of the rabbinic court, one of the most important governing bodies of the Prague Jewish community. This pinkas, written in a mix of Hebrew and Yiddish, begins in 1755 and survived the Holocaust even as the community it records was wiped out, provides important testimony to Jewish daily life in Europe.

A pinkas from 18th century Prague, the National Library collections
A pinkas from Halberstadt, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge.

In the Prague Pinkas Beit Din, the numbers alone – seven discussions about coffee houses within fifteen years – tell us how pressing and how complex this issue was. The entries show a swift progression, from disapproval and severe limitations to support with minimal caveats. Evidently community members had embraced coffee-house culture and were not about to give it up. The pinkas entries also show the style of religious leadership adopted by the rabbinic courts of Prague in this case: instead of opposing a cultural trend that threatened traditional life, the rabbis accepted the new trend, which gave them the opportunity to regulate and contain its impact, and to integrate the new institution into the traditional mode of Jewish life.

One of the first discussions in the pinkas, from around 1757, begins by taking a hard line – Ideally the coffee houses in the Jewish ghetto should be closed, and people should instead dedicate their time to Torah study. Since that is impossible, they should open only for an hour in the morning, after morning services at synagogue, and then for an hour following afternoon services. Women should never enter coffee houses. With regard to Shabbat, “no man should dare to go to the coffee house and drink coffee there on the holy Sabbath. This is punishable with a large fine!

This discussion is followed by another paragraph, presumably added days or weeks later:

However, due to the travails of war (presumably the siege of Prague in the spring of 1757, part of the Seven Years War) and other concerns, many have protested that we cannot be so stringent on this matter… the way to distance from sin will be that on the holy Sabbath, no one should go to the coffee houses to drink coffee, but anyone who wishes to drink should bring it to his home. And on weekdays, any time they are praying in the Old New Synagogue (Altneuschul), no man should dare go drink in the coffee house.

The added paragraph shifts the balance significantly, permitting Jews to frequent coffee houses at all times except during prayers; allowances are made for procuring coffee on Shabbat as well. Apparently the Jewish coffee sellers had an arrangement in which customers paid before or after Shabbat, and they could prepare the coffee without violating Shabbat laws about cooking, perhaps with the help of non-Jewish workers. The main concern is the propriety of spending time in the coffee house on Shabbat, so getting the coffee as takeout is a suitable compromise, but not one that lasted long.

The famous bridges over the River Vltava, Prague.
The famous bridges over the River Vltava, Prague.

The next two entries on this topic in the pinkas, dated 1758 and 1761, are each signed by eight Jewish coffee house owners. One declares that coffee will be sold only until noon on Shabbat, and one states that coffee will be sold without milk on Shabbat, presumably in order to avoid serving dairy to customers who had just eaten a meat meal.

A fourth entry, dated 1764, declares:

From this day onwards, on Shabbat and holidays, women are not to enter coffee houses to drink coffee at all. And even on weekdays, from 6 PM onwards, no woman or women should be found in the coffee house…

These entries assume that, despite earlier restrictions, women are indeed entering coffee houses. Moreover, coffee houses are not only providing coffee for takeout on Shabbat, customers are sitting and drinking coffee there, and the rabbinic court is only trying to limit that clientele to men.

A fifth entry, dates 1774, states:

The owners of the coffee houses stood before the rabbi and the rabbinic court, who warned them that they should be careful to avoid selling coffee on Shabbat and holidays to non-Jews, as the prohibition of commerce on the Sabbath applies. They are permitted to sell only to Jews, for the sake of Oneg Shabbat, delighting in the Sabbath day, since not everyone is able to prepare coffee for himself on Shabbat at home.

A pinkas from 18th century Prague, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge.
A pinkas from Zülz, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge.

To the rabbis of eighteenth century Prague, the coffee house’s ambiance of levity and cultural exchange competed with the traditional understanding of the proper Shabbat atmosphere. The rabbinic court therefore made efforts to restrict Jewish coffee houses’ activity on Shabbat, with limited success. But in their final entry on this topic, the Prague Beit Din provided the coffee houses with a religious stamp of approval, pointing out that Jews attending coffee houses on Shabbat was in fact a fulfillment of the religious injunction to delight in the Sabbath day. The rising cultural significance of coffee in European regions, since its import a few decades ago, is now reflected in the the pinkas; the new product is incorporated into halachic language, labeled, for the first time, as “Oneg Shabbat” – a positive value which should be carefully considered.  The coffee house and the synagogue need not always be rivals: within certain parameters, both could be part of a meaningful and enjoyable Sabbath day in Prague.

The National Library of Israel, together with the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, holds the largest collection of pinkasim in the world. Through international academic co-operation, the Pinkasim Collection aims at locating, cataloguing, and digitizing all surviving record books, making them freely available. At the first stage of the project, the focus is on pinkasei kahal, the pinkasim of the central governing body of Jewish communities. On June 20th, the National Library will host an event marking the launch of the Pinkasim Collection, which will feature experts from around the world, and will include a lecture by Maoz Kahana about coffee houses in Prague.

You can read more on this subject in the article by Dr. Maoz Kahana, ‘The Shabbes Coffeehouse – on the emergence of the Jewish Coffeehouse in eighteenth-century Prague’, Zion 78,1 (2013), pp. 5-50 , which you can find here.


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Samuil Polyakov: Life as a Jewish Tycoon in 19th Century Russia

Samuil, the second of the brothers Polyakov, lived an interesting life, balancing his identity as a Jew with his position in the Russian business elite.

Letter of Mary Poliakov to Kurt Grunwald, 20 December 1967, with the photograph of the statue of Samuil Poliakov (CAHJP, P77-22.2)

Letter from Mary Poliakov to Kurt Grunwald, 20 December 1967, with a photograph of the statue of Samuil Poliakov (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

Samuil Polyakov and his brothers, Yakov and Lazar, were anomalies in mid-19th-century Russia. Samuil was the second of three brothers who were part of a Jewish banking family of Russian nobility in the mid to late 19th century. His older brother, Yakov Polyakov, was one of Russia’s greatest Jewish tycoons who built up the railroads across the country. Yakov kept a detailed diary of his thoughts, business dealings, and activities that are now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. His diary gave us much insight into his world but uncovering the thoughts and actions of his younger brother Samuil took a bit more work.

Kurt Grunwald
Jerusalem Resident ID of Kurt Grunwald, The Central Zionist Archives, A343/3

Kurt Grunwald, a native of Vienna who moved to Ramban Street in Jerusalem, wrote a vivid biography of Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the biggest Jewish philanthropists, whose business model was just like that of the Poliakov brothers in that he combined banking with obtaining concessions for railway construction. Baron Maurice de Hirsch most famously sealed the deal for building the railway connecting Vienna and Istanbul, and despite the fact that this vision was only partially realized because of the shaky political situation, it nevertheless became the major railway in the Balkans and for many years hosted the famous Orient Express.

Grunwald’s research naturally led him to the Polyakov family. As it turns out, these two families were in fact related as the brother of Maurice de Hirsch, James (Jakob) de Hirsch de Gereuth married the daughter of Samuil Polyakov, Zinaida. In the 1960s, Grunwald got in touch with the descendants of the Poliakov family who were scattered across post-war Europe. Mary Polyakov, a granddaughter of Yakov Poliakov, was a fiction writer who spent time living in Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Mary provided Grunwald with some insight into her family:

Mary Polyakov Letter
Letter from Mary Polyakov to Kurt Grunwald, December 20, 1967 (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

“I know that Jacob and Samuil lived in St. Petersburg. Each had a palace. The first entertained politicians, diplomats and such like. Samuil’s house was open to artists and writers. There must be somewhere a bronze statue of his, the work of the known sculptor Antokolsky, a fine work.”

Photograph of the statue of Samuil Polyakov made by Mark Antokolsky (CAHJP, P77-22.2).

Samuil Polyakov and Horace Günzburg

The palaces of the brothers Polyakov were situated on Galernaya street near the Hermitage, which is still one of the most luxurious in the city. At the end of the 19th century, multiple buildings on Galernaya street belonged to the two most prominent clans of Jewish bankers and entrepreneurs – the Polyakovs and their neighbors the Günzburgs, the most famous Russian Jewish family of the time. Several banks were also located nearby.

Historian Ben-Zion Katz collected information about Samuil Polyakov and Horace Günzburg from persons who knew them and presented it in his memoirs. He writes that Samuil was religious and prayed with his tallit and tefillin every day, but did so in secrecy. Samuil also kept a kosher kitchen though he was insistent that his non-Jewish guests not know that he kept his food kosher. Horace Günzburg’s guests, including the Russian royal family members, knew they would receive only kosher food in his home. Count Shuvalov, a Russian noble who often dined at Günzburg’s, used to eat cheese for dessert after dinner, like most of the Russian nobility who had adopted French culture. Günzburg’s maids would promptly clear the table and replace meat dishware with a dairy set.

Not a Jewish Philanthropist?

Samuil was actively criticized among his Jewish compatriots as his philanthropy was geared only toward Russian organizations and never toward the Jewish organizations. Samuil’s reasoning, it seems, was the wish to assimilate, to be favored at court, and to gain a much desired noble title. Henrich Sliosberg, a famous Jewish lawyer, said the following:

“He avoided the Jews of St. Petersburg, stayed somehow apart from them, but very cordially accepted all sorts of dignitaries, princes, counts, who sought his favor for their material interests. They kneeled before him, they considered him a business genius, but I never heard any of the high-ranking officials who knew him closely say that Polyakov was loved and that even those whom he had helped were attached to him. His business reputation did not have any beneficial results for the Jews; it irritated people more than it appealed to them.”

Samuil donated large sums of money toward education and to many provincial theatres and museums. Paradoxically, Samuil also happened to make a certain accidental contribution to the Russian revolutionary movement which was, of course, absolutely against his wishes. This is how it happened.

Samuil donated 200 thousand rubles to the construction of the student dormitories of Saint Petersburg University. The administration decided to host a celebratory assembly and present Polyakov with a letter of thanks for his donation. While we don’t know exactly what was written in this letter, many of the students who were asked to sign the address found the tone of the text too servile. When the administration refused to change the text, the students decided to object to the ceremony since the letter was composed as if coming from the entire student body. The students called a meeting in the university lobby and staged a protest.

Dorms for the students of Saint Petersburg University constructed by Samuil Poliakov
Dorms for the students of Saint Petersburg University constructed by Samuil Poliakov

The whole situation could have been resolved easily and quietly, but the administration decided to bring the police and the mayor to the building where the protest was being held. Several students were arrested and, in the end, about one hundred students were expelled from the university. This incident provoked additional student demonstrations in other cities. Among the students who took part in the initial ‘uprising’ in Saint Petersburg was Sergey Nikonov, a future revolutionary, who later took part in the preparation of the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III. In his memoirs he writes:

“I can say for myself that the “Polyakov Story”, which played out before my eyes and with my modest participation and was essentially insignificant, completely determined my position in relation to the autocracy and its organs — administrations, police etc. From now on, I could only be an ardent opponent to this system, and for me the question was brought up to how I can be more productive in the fight against it.”

Crafts versus Agriculture and the Rabbis’ Conference at Polyakov’s Palace

Samuil’s policy of philanthropy started to change in the 1880s: he began taking interest in Jewish initiatives and became the major promoter of the establishment of ORT: Obschestvo Remeslennogo Truda, ‘Association for the Promotion of Crafts.’ The change in his philanthropic perspective came due to the strong influence of Professor Nikolay Bakst, a physiologist, writer, and Jewish activist. Bakst strongly believed that the condition of Russian Jewry could be drastically improved by developing their skills in various crafts, enabling Jews to find work as artisans. This view contradicted the view of Horace Günzburg who invested, like Maurice de Hirsch, in putting Jews to work in agriculture.

List of the allowances given to craftsmen for relocation to the cities of the internal provinces if the Russian Empire. Inside of the book of protocols of ORT sessions, published in Saint Petersburg in 1882. From ORT collection at CAHJP (ORT-465).
List of the allowances given to craftsmen for relocation to the cities of the internal provinces of the Russian Empire. The protocols of the ORT sessions, published in Saint Petersburg in 1882. From the ORT collection at CAHJP (ORT-465).

Bakst and Polyakov both believed that, in order to improve the lives of the Jews, they should be taught secular disciplines. Willing to help this cause, Polyakov got involved in the fate of the most famous Jewish religious school of the time – the Volozhin Yeshiva. Russian authorities tried to enforce the teaching of the Russian language and arithmetic in the yeshiva, but the head of the institution, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, thought that his yeshiva was not the place for these subjects and there was a serious risk that the yeshiva would be closed due to his stubbornness.

Volozhin Yeshiva

Albert Harkavy, a former student of Berlin’s, went on to become a librarian at the Imperial Library and a renowned scholar in Saint Petersburg. Berlin traveled to see him and Harkavy introduced Berlin to Polyakov and Günzburg who interceded for him with the famous liberal Count Pahlen, who was privy to the secret affairs of the ministries. The Count managed to arrange a license to open a yeshiva that would only teach religious subjects without having to teach the national language.

The question of secular studies came up again in 1887. On the initiative of Bakst, the Congress of the most prominent rabbis in Russia was convened. The Congress met in Saint Petersburg in Samuil Polyakov’s house, and, after a long and stormy debate, the attendees drew up a protocol that established that yeshiva pupils in Volozhin would learn Russian and arithmetic, but that these subjects would not be taught in the hall of the yeshiva, but rather in a separate room.

Unfortunately, this outstanding event and document did not prevent the closure of the yeshiva which happened soon afterward, but for reasons unrelated to the teaching of new secular disciplines.

Two Tragic Deaths

Samuil Polyakov had a close friend named Abram Moiseevich Varshavsky who was also in the railway business. His son married Rozalia Polyakov, Samuil’s daughter. Varshavsky was famous for his kindness and he was known to help everyone who turned to him. Perhaps this generosity is what led to his financial difficulties. Unable to face the humiliation of declaring bankruptcy, Varshavsky committed suicide. Samuil Polyakov died of a heart attack at his friend’s funeral.

polyakov diary
A page from Yakov Polyakov’s diary. Sad events are marked with a blue pencil including the death of Samuil and the death of Ernestina Rubinstein, mother of the famous ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein. A red pencil marked a happier event -The graduation from the universityof Yakov’s son, Boris (CAHJP, P238).

Here is how his brother Yakov describes that sad day:

“On April 7, my brother, his wife and I went in his Landau [automobile] to Varshavsky’s funeral (how many times did his wife and I plead with him not to go to the funeral, It led to nothing). The three of us left Varshavsky apartment following his coffin and immediately at half past ten in the morning my poor dear brother fell and died of heart failure. He fell near me on the street next to the apartment of Varshavsky and only thanks to the urgent orders of Mayor Gresser my unfortunate brother was lifted and brought into a shop near this apartment. Otherwise, he would have been trampled over for there were several thousand people attending the funeral of Varshavsky, and when they found out about what had happened to my brother they all rushed to this place and only Gresser was able to stop this crowd. I cannot give any other details about our great misfortune.”

A local newspaper reported from Samuil’s funeral:

“Along the route of the funeral procession, a countles multitiude gathered. All balconies, windows and even some of the rooftops along Nevsky Prospect were littered with the curious. Behind the coffin, marched crowd of several thousands of Jewish artisans, who arrived to pay their respects to the founder of the ‘Jewish craft fund.'”

Special thanks to Moshe Goncharok from the Central Zionist Archives and to my grandmother Ksenia Guzeeva. 


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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,
Image Credit: We Were There Too,

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