How British Jews greeted the end of World War I

At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War came to an end. Among the vast number of casualties, it had cost the lives of 3,500 British Jews and 12,000 German Jews. It had uprooted millions, demolished
great empires and destroyed the ordered worlds of so many.
By Rosh Hashanah 1918, there was finally a turning of the tide on the battlefield after four long years of military stalemate. Tens of thousands of German troops had been captured and there was much defeatist talk in the air in Berlin. As Yom Kippur started, American forces succeeded in pushing back retreating German armies in the St Mihiel salient in France. Psychologically it broke the will of the already despondent Central Powers, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, to continue the struggle. A JC editorial spoke of “the military disaster that has taken hold of the German heart”.
Austrian forces in Italy mutinied while two Bulgarian regiments refused to fight. In Palestine, General Allenby attacked the Turks in Afula, Megiddo and Nazareth. In Germany, revolutionaries took to the streets inspired by the Bolshevik
revolution a year before. On November 1, 1918, the Kaiser told his detractors that he would not “dream
of abandoning the throne because of a few hundred Jews and 1,000 workers”. Just over a week later, he had fled into exile in Holland.
As the clock struck 11 on November 11, the East End of London erupted in celebration. In the “yinglish” vernacular of the time, Jews wished themselves “Mossel Tov” and cursed the “der Daatch Ganneff” (the German villain). It was, in the words of one writer, “just like a heimische chasanne [wedding]”. The Union Jack flew over Jewish homes, shops and houses of worship resounded to the repeated refrain of God Save the King, and firework displays lit up the skies. The Zionist flag was hung from windows while many sang the Hatikvah.
As a JC correspondent reported: “Zalig Hoiker, the fishmonger, instantaneously brought out a fleshel [bottle], and drank
l’hayim! Two Gentile munition girls, in overalls, singing at the tops of their voices and dancing such a lebedik [lively] dance,
that seemed to make the whole pavement switchback to the rhythm, suddenly stopped, and shouted out, ‘Lekayim! I say, old sport, give us a drop!’”
Bus rides were free while passengers threw pennies to the multitudes of schoolchildren who had abandoned their lessons. Boy scouts cycled down the Commercial Road, blowing the “all clear” signal on their bugles.
Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz issued instructions that the following Shabbat should be one of thanksgiving. In a special prayer, he thanked God for securing an Allied victory: “

Thou didst judge our cause, and hast justified us in judgment. Thou didst turn a day of wrath and desolation, a day of alarm and sorrow, into a day of gladness and rejoicing, a day of victory and salvation unto us. Broken is the sceptre of the oppressor.
Thou didst cause Tyranny to vanish like smoke and the Dominion of Arrogance to pass away from earth.

The Reverend Morris Joseph of the Reform movement’s West London Synagogue similarly “exulted in the triumph of
Britain and its allies”.
Yet this was a war of futile conflagration in which millions had perished — to be capped by a flu pandemic at the conflict’s end that claimed almost 230,000 more lives in the UK. In the hours before the armistice, Philip Levy of Middlesbrough, Louis Cohl of Liverpool and Dave Friedlander of Hackney were killed in action.
Nurse Dora Bernstein of the South African Medical Services was killed tending to the wounded. Alexander Isaacs of Tottenham
had served for the entire duration of the war only to die at literally five minutes to midnight.
The most tragic case was that of Lieutenant Claude Telfer, aged 22, who was killed on November 9. He had been called up two days before the outbreak of the conflict. His brother, Henry, had been killed at the battle of the Somme in July 1916. The brothers had worshipped at St John’s Wood Synagogue and it was there that their parents, who lived in Belsize Park, mourned for their only sons.
Amid the triumphalism of the times and the proclamation that Britain was now a land fit for heroes, the poet Siegfried
Sassoon wrote in his work, Suicide in the Trenches:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

In this “hell”, several British Jews were recognised for their courage. One of them, Second Lieutenant H L Seligsohn of the
London regiment, was awarded a bar to the Military Cross “for conspicuous gallantry in action”. He had attacked German
troops in a wood, killing several, capturing others and securing machine guns for British troops. Hermann Gollancz, the biblical scholar and first rabbi to be knighted, called upon citizens in a poem “to guard the peace now newly sown”. The phrase “Never Again” was first uttered in 1918.

As history records, a proud Germany was stripped of its status in many areas. Humiliated nationalists coalesced as embryonic Nazis — economic crisis and mass unemployment proceeded to devour the Weimar Republic. Authoritarian figures gained power, and the scene was set for another conflict. For the appeasers in the 1930s, it was the genuine fear of repeating the trauma of the trenches that coloured their actions. Even so, the Great War of 1914-1918 now became the First World War.
One hundred years on, the personal tragedies of a century ago have become a distant memory for even the families who lost loved ones. For succeeding generations, the conflict has become a chapter in the history books.
Even so, the power of poet Laurence Binyon’s evocative words still resonate and convey a responsibility to all of us:
“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Jewish Chronicle magazine 7 September 2018

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