~ Posted by Maggie Fergusson, March 20th 2014

I suspect we’ll all soon be sick of the slew of books and events commemorating the outbreak of the first world war. It’s not going to be over by Christmas, that’s for sure. But in a quiet terraced street in Camden, in London, the Jewish Museum has collaborated with the Jewish Military Museum to host an exhibition coming at the war from an angle I’d never considered.

Fifty thousand Jewish soldiers fought for Britain between 1914 and 1918. A smallish number, you might think, if you consider that 60,000 troops were killed in one day alone at the start of the Battle of the Somme. But then the total Jewish population of the UK was only 300,000, and huge numbers of British Jews had every reason not to join up. Many had come to this country to escape persecution in Russia. Now they’d be fighting alongside their persecutors.

“For us here in England,” the Jewish World announced on August 5th 1914, “it’s a bitter, bitter feeling that we have to fight shoulder to shoulder with the Russian government.”

Not surprising, then, that many Jews went into hiding, deliberately injured themselves, or fled to Ireland, to escape recruitment. Some, like the poet Isaac Rosenberg, joined up only because they needed the money (a first draft of Rosenberg’s masterpiece “Break of Day in the Trenches”, written as part of a letter home, is one of the highlights of the exhibition). But many seem to have felt genuine gratitude, even devotion, to this country: “Britain has been all she could be to JEWS,” announced a poster printed by the Jewish Chronicle in the autumn of 1914. “JEWS will be all they can be to Britain.”

This made me squirm with shame. I thought of the grindingly slow progress of the bill for Jewish emancipation through the Lords and Commons during the 19th century; our failure to provide either chaplains or kosher food for Jewish soldiers on the Western Front; the terrible turning of blind eyes by many in the government to the horrors of the concentration camps; the covert anti-Semitism that simmers beneath the surface of many Englishmen to this day.

We weren’t just asking these men to volunteer themselves as cannon-fodder, moreover, we were forcing them to fight against their fellow Jews, who had been enlisted by the enemy. Over 100,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the German army; over 12,000 of them died. On display in the exhibition is the pickelhaube, or spiked helmet, worn by a soldier called Julius Weinberg during the war, and the iron cross awarded to him by Germany in 1918.

Wandering round the exhibition, one’s mind inevitably wanders from the first world war to the second. The Holocaust is barely mentioned, but, in a small note on Julius Weinberg, one discovers that his son came over to this country on Kindertransport. And that, although his iron cross bought him two weeks’ reprieve, Weinberg himself was sent to Buchenwald.

"For King and Country? The Jewish Experience of the First World War" is at the Jewish Museum until August 10th 2014

Maggie Fergusson is Intelligent Life's literary editor and director of the Royal Society of Literature

Image Jewish Military Museum