Western Jewish Perceptions of Russian Jews at the Beginning of the First World War

in European Judaism

As illuminated by the contemporary Jewish press and the texts of Jewish sermons, many British Jews were initially deeply ambivalent about going to war on the side of Czarist Russia, with its legacy of recent pogroms, against Germany and Austria, both with emancipated Jewish communities. Jews in the west were reassured by reports that the Russian Jews had been uplifted by a wave of patriotic enthusiasm, expressed in massive numbers of volunteers for the Czarist army. For many weeks in the autumn of 1914, articles in the Jewish press featured the bravery and devotion of Russian Jewish soldiers, some of whom were rewarded by high military honours, amid claims that even Russian anti-Semites were re-thinking their assumptions. In dramatic contrast comes the report of a Russian Jewish soldier who suffered a breakdown when he heard the words Sh'ma Yisra'el from the lips of an Austrian soldier he had just fatally bayoneted. The beginning of the Great War exposes the clash of these themes: sacrificial patriotic identification by Jews with the war effort of their own countries, and the international solidarity of the Jewish people being painfully subverted by Jews fighting in opposing armies. The story - perhaps something of an 'urban legend' - would be re-told in many different contexts and literary expressions.

European Judaism

A Journal for the New Europe