The Great War’s Jewish Soldiers
On Veterans Day, I remember my grandfather, who fought in World War I as a Jew and an American
When I was growing up, raised by Reform Jewish parents in a secular community in Columbia, Md., my sister and I used to ask each other, “Are you Jewish first or American first?” In truth, the hyphen could have gone one way or the other, Jewish-American or American-Jewish, depending upon the circumstances each one of us presented.
Before their World War I service, my grandfather Benjamin Feinstein and my husband’s grandfather Joseph Sandweiss probably wouldn’t have considered such a question. Immigrants who left their homes in Eastern Europe a century ago to escape poverty, persecution, and conscription, both men lived in America’s Jewish ghettos, segregated and identified as Jews whether they liked it or not. Just a few years later, both young men spent 1917-18 at war. Benjamin served with the American army in France, while Joseph joined the Jewish Legion and served with the British forces on the Middle Eastern Front.
In his book The Long Way Home, David Laskin recounts the experiences of immigrant soldiers who represented one-fifth of the U.S. Armed Forces in World War I. He writes, “In many cases just a few years or even months separated their arrival at Ellis Island from their induction in the American Expeditionary Forces. The coincidence profoundly altered the course of their lives.” For Benjamin and Joseph, did their experiences in the Great War shift their perceptions of themselves as Jewish or American? Before their military service, Benjamin and Joseph probably could have never even entertained the question I posed to my sister. But as we mark Veterans Day—originally known as Armistice Day, set on Nov. 11 to commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended World War I in 1918—I am left to wonder about their military service and how it may have influenced their acculturation and shaped their Jewish and American identities.
In 1897, 4-year-old Benjamin journeyed from his native Warsaw with his mother and sister to join his father in Philadelphia. By the time Benjamin was 6, his parents, Annie and Nathan, added a second son, Louis, to their brood. The family moved to New York, entering the garment business like so many other Eastern European Jewish immigrants. But Benjamin wasn’t interested in his father’s corset shop. Benjamin’s education ended at about age 10 when he went to work as a painter. His great passion, however, was boxing. Small and compact, he was a skilled street fighter with a temperament to match. It was only to honor his mother’s wishes that Benjamin retired his boxing gloves. Still, the fiery young man was known to pick bar fights that frequently ended in brawls. Family legend has it that he even beat future lightweight professional boxer Benny “Ghetto Wizard” Leonard in a street fight.
Joseph, my husband’s grandfather, was by all accounts also a strong-willed young man. Born two years after Benjamin, Joseph grew up in the Russian town of Bereznitz. Sent by his family to cheder with the intention of training to be a cantor, Joseph was more interested in the penny broadsides hidden inside his books than the religious texts he was supposed to study. By age 15, Joseph was eager to leave his village, where boys his age were routinely rounded up and conscripted by the Russian army, a dire circumstance for any Jewish boy. Joseph’s older brother hid in a cellar to avoid the tzar’s draft, eventually dying from an illness he contracted there. Joseph instead made his way to Warsaw, working and walking his way across Europe. Finally, he saved enough to reach England, where a Jewish refugee agency helped him travel to the United States in the hopes of being reunited with his uncle, Shlamie Sandweiss, who lived in Detroit and ran a rooming house. Once he arrived, Joseph took a job sorting glass in a bottle yard and attended night school to learn English. Joseph and his fellow roomers were idealistic young men with Zionist ideals. Perhaps influenced by the Yiddish-language posters recruiting men for the all-volunteer Jewish Legion—serving under British rule in Ottoman-occupied Palestine—21-year-old Joseph was first in line to enlist in the British-led unit at Detroit’s recruiting office after war broke out in Europe.
Meanwhile, in November 1917, Benjamin, like some 40,000 other men in New York, began military training at Camp Upton on Long Island, which he described as a “second cold to the North Pole.” Benjamin’s parents and siblings sent socks and gloves, along with pleas to come home when he had a day off. In addition to exchanging letters, the family visited Camp Upton on several occasions. That December, Rabbi Schulman of New York’s Beth-El Synagogue addressed the Camp Upton recruits: “The Maccabeean spirit is the spirit of what is best in Israel’s history. … The Almighty is testing it in this terrible furnace of this great world-war. Death is not the worst evil. The worst evil is so to degrade life as to cling to it like a whipped slave rather than to rise and fight for everything that makes life worthy.”
Benjamin didn’t try to hide some of the realities of warfare from his family. In his letters, which are in my father’s safekeeping, Benjamin wrote his brother Louis about the equipment he encountered during training: “Dear Brother, as I see you take an interest in warfare, let me explain a few things. About the gas mask. It is made of rubberized goods and the eyes through which you look are made of glass. You breathe through your mouth as there is a pair of pinchers which is the mask which fits tight about your nose. And right under your chin, there is a rubber pipe, which is connected to a tin box. It can protect you for 17 hours. After that it is no good. I had it on for about a half-hour and I nearly choked. But the average time they wear it is eight hours, which is the rule on the European battle front.” By February 1918, Benjamin and his unit were in active service in France where they kept the railroad tracks in good shape and supplied the boys in the trenches with ammunition and supplies. On Aug. 2, 1918, he reported, “As I am writing this letter, I can hear the roar of the Artillery.”
Meanwhile, Joseph began his Jewish Legion training just across the Detroit River in Canada, at Fort Edward near Windsor, Ontario. One of 5,000 North American enlistees, Joseph served alongside David Ben-Gurion, future prime minister of Israel. Joseph’s master sergeant, a burly Irish fellow, frequently taunted and berated his Jewish charges, provoking them to fight. Finally, one day, Joseph agreed. Outskilled, Joseph had to rely on his wits to have any chance of winning the fight. As he faced his rival, Joseph bent down and threw a fistful of sand in his opponent’s face, followed by a quick punch to the blinded fellow. The response was not what Joseph expected; from that moment on, Joseph received the Irishman’s respect. Still, confused by the strong English and Irish accents he encountered, Joseph and many of his fellow soldiers reverted to speaking Yiddish and Russian, which divided them from their British counterparts. By August 1918, Joseph and the rest of the 39th Battalion of the British Fusiliers arrived in Egypt, one of three Jewish Legion groups in place to capture Palestine from the Turks.
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