The Centenary of Armistice Day
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
My mother was born two weeks before the Armistice. My grandparents married in the late spring of 1917, when my grandfather finally took a furlough from the Western Front where he served as chaplain in the German Army for the duration of the war. His bride, Natalie Charlotte, helped her doctor father care for war-wounded in Posen. The Jews of Germany, France and Britain were overwhelmingly loyal citizens, enlisting in large numbers. Albert Einstein was one of very few German-Jews opposed to the conflict. A century earlier, in 1806, Napoleon had asked the leaders of French Jewry whether Jews born there and treated as citizens felt bound to defend France as their country. The Assembly of Jewish Notables replied that ‘the love of the country is in Jewish hearts a sentiment so natural, powerful and consonant with their religious opinions’ that in previous conflicts ‘French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, subjects of countries then at war with France’.
To my grandfather, enlisting alongside Christian colleagues provided the opportunity to prove beyond all doubt that Jews were loyal and equal citizens. Afterwards, anti-Semitism would surely disappear because it was patently devoid of justification. He was proud of his Fatherland’s troops. So were his fellow Jewish chaplains, one of whom even wrote admiringly about gas as a weapon. Little could he have predicted then that the very Fatherland he served would subsequently use it to murder him. My grandfather’s opinion changed sharply when, in the autumn of 1916, the German Army conducted a census solely of Jews, intended to prove they were cowards and profiteers, occupying safe positions far from the front line. The results, never published and subsequently destroyed by the RAF in WW2, are widely thought to have proved the opposite. Still, my grandfather never lost his love of German culture, which he always respected, alongside his gratitude to Britain for saving his family. Like all my generation, I grew up on Wilfred Owen’s Parable of the old Man and the Young, based on an adaptation of the binding of Isaac in which the father refuses to obey the voice commanding him to spare his child: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
Later this month I will speak in Frankfurt at the centenary of a war cemetery consecrated by my grandfather. I’ll find it hard to remove from my mind the image of a small graveyard in the nearby town of Bingen. There, next to the tomb of a Jewish medic killed serving his country on the Eastern Front, is a memorial to a woman murdered by the Nazis twenty-five years later. The two World Wars are closely connected. Hitler might never have come to power had he not been able to manipulate anger over Germany’s defeat, the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, and the feeling that its tough army had been ‘stabbed in the back’. The SA and SS drew recruits from nationalist soldiers never fully demobilised in 1918. By 1945, many millions were dead and much of Europe was a land of shell and hell holes.
Even today, the remarkable creation of the State of Israel notwithstanding, Jewry is gripped by the aftermath of the traumas of the Shoah. People often ask what can be learnt from history. The answer is obvious: the horror of war. There is also a subtler, equally troubling, response: the danger signs which precede war, the seductive lure of conflict, the lethal exaltation of populist pride, the illusion that we don’t need other nations, that peace is expendable. We must honour all those who paid with their lives, with incurable disabilities, and with unending heartache and nightmares, for a peace we must never take for granted.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of Masorti Judaism.