Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A story to tell

German Jewish soldiers celebrate Hanukkah, 1916
When war broke out in Germany in August of 1914, German Jewish newspapers urged men to volunteer:
To all German Jews! At this hour we must again show we Jews, proud of our heritage, belong to the best sons of the Fatherland.  The nobility of our thousands of years of history demands this of us. We expect that our youth will volunteer for the flag with joy in their hearts. German Jews! We call up on you, in the sense of our old Jewish commandments, to devote yourselves with all your heart, soul and property to the service of the Fatherland.*

An estimated 100,000 Jewish soldiers joined the German army, and for every eight of those who enlisted, one was killed -- 12,000 died in the First World War.**

Much as Israel’s King David asked God in the imprecatory Psalms to punish his enemies, Jewish rabbis led prayers for the destruction of Germany’s foes:
Our Father Our King: Oppose the evil ones of the earth who are fighting against us. Send against them calamity upon calamity, breach upon breach.  Destroy them utterly by your wrath and your anger each time they attack us….Weaken their armies and swallow up their thoughts and let both them and their ships go down together into the uttermost depths….Therefore harm will not come to our country, because You will bring destruction to our foes.***

Alfred Lichtenstein
Alfred Lichtenstein, a Prussian Jew born in Berlin, was less than two months from finishing his year of compulsory military service when the war began.  Lichtenstein had graduated with a law degree in October of 1913, but in August of 1914, he was ordered to the Western Front with the 2nd Bavarian Infantry Regiment.  His friends knew him as “a clown, a wit, a man apart, possessed by a profound sense of the absurdity of the world.”†  Historian Niall Ferguson asserts, “Lichenstein has a good claim to have been the first of the anti-war poets. His ‘Prayer before Battle’ predates Sassoon’s change of style by a year and a half.”††

Prayer before Battle

The troops are singing fervently, each for himself
God, protect me from misfortune,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
That no grenades strike me,
That the bastards, our enemies,
Do not catch me, do not shoot me,
That I don’t die like a dog
For the dear fatherland.

Look, I would like to go on living,
From Chicago Tribune, 20 Dec. 1914
Milk cows, bang girls
And beat the bastard, Sepp,
Get drunk often
Until my blessed death.
Look, I eagerly and gladly recite
Seven rosaries daily,
If you, God, in your grace
Would kill my friend Huber or Meier,
And not me.

But if the worst should come,
Let me not be too badly wounded.
Send me a slight leg wound,
A small injury to the arm,
So that I may return as a hero,
With a story to tell.
            —Alfred Lichtenstein,
            trans. by Sheldon Gilman, Robert Levine, and Harry Radford†††

Lichtenstein did not return home as a hero.  Shot in the stomach in the German attack on Vermandovillers on the Somme, he died several days later on 25 September 1914.°  He is buried in one of the fifteen mass graves in the German War Cemetery at Vermandovillers, the largest German War Cemetery in France and the final resting place of 22,632 German soldiers. 

1920 leaflet "To the German Mothers....
do not tolerate that a Jewish mother is scorned in her grief
The expressionist poet died two years before Germans imposed the Jewish military census of 1916, the Judenzählung, intended to expose Jewish perfidy. As casualties mounted and Germans faced starvation on the home front, old prejudices were exposed. Germans began to blame Jews for the country’s psychological and economic collapse, charging that Jews were war profiteers who shirked military service. For Jewish soldiers, “the census represented a catastrophe as well as a direct insult.  It showed clearly that neither society, nor the military nor the government recognized their patriotism or their sacrifice.”°° In the years following the war, the situation would worsen dramatically for German Jews as “through one of the most immoral conjuring tricks in history,” the Jewish people became the scapegoat for their nation’s military losses: Germans came to believe the invented argument that their army had not lost the war, but “had been betrayed by communists, Jews, and other dissidents.”‡ Lichtenstein was killed fighting for Germany in September of 1914; his mother and two of his siblings were killed by the Nazis 28 years later.‡‡
*Editorial appearing in Jüdische Rundschau, 7 Aug. 1914, cited in Peter C. Appelbaum’s Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Vallentine Mitchell, 2014, p. 49.
**Applebaum, Loyal Sons, p. 272.
***Applebaum, Loyal Sons, pp. 49-50.
† Patrick Bridgwater, German Poets of the First World War, St. Martin’s, 1985, p. 63.
†† Niall Ferguson, “Introduction,” The Pity of War, Penguin, 1999.
††† Alfred Lichtenstein, The Prose and Verse of Alfred Lichtenstein, translated by Sheldon Gilman, Robert Levine, and Harry Radford, Xlibris, 2000, p. 181.
° Ray Ockenden, “The Neglected Voice of Alfred Lichtenstein,” Oxford German Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2012, p. 364.
°° Applebaum, Loyal Sons, p. 261.
‡ Jay Winter, “Foreword” to Peter C. Appelbaum’s Loyal Sons, p. xxiv.
‡‡ Sheldon Gilman, Robert Levine, and Harry Radford, “Introduction,” The Prose and Verse of Alfred Lichtenstein, Xlibris, 2000, p. 13.

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