We stand between Armistice Day and AJEX Shabbat, the Sabbath prior to the annual parade of Jewish Ex-Service-men and –women, which takes place tomorrow at the Cenotaph at 2.30pm. This year the reviewing Officer is Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce KG GCB OBE DL.
The first parade took place in 1928 when the wreath was laid by a 97-year-old Corporal (retired) H. Jessel, a veteran of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.
It was during the First World War that Jews began to serve their country in large numbers. 55,000 joined up or were conscripted into the British Army, of whom five were awarded the Victoria Cross. Even greater numbers served in the German Army, and many won the Iron Cross for valour. Jews fought in the ranks of virtually all the lands of Europe, defending their countries with patriotic fervour against armies which similarly included their co-religionists. The words with which the Jewish Council of Notables responded to the questions put to them by Napoleon were ironically born out:
The love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful… that a French Jew considers himself in England as among strangers, although he may be among Jews… During the last war French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subject of countries then at war with France.
It’s a further irony that many of the very Jews who enlisted in 1914 and risked their lives for Kaiser and Fatherland were driven from their country, interned or murdered less than a generation later.
In World War 2 over 60,000 Jews fought for King and Country. It was with huge admiration that I learnt at the memorial service for him that the gentle Alfred Shields, who for so many years was Shammash, supervising the smooth organisation of services at the New London Synagogue, had flown on bomber missions for the duration of the war. Often when I ask people of a certain age, ‘How did your parents meet?’ they answer: ‘My father was on leave and heard there was a dance at the town hall. My mother was doing war work and was taken along by a cousin. My parents-to-be took a shine to each other at first glance’.
Among the most eager to enlist in the British Army were refugees from Germany who sought little so much as to play their part in the defeat of the regime which had destroyed the lives of their families. Once the British Government came to understand that nobody could be more devoted to the Allied cause than these men and women, their continental accents notwithstanding, they became in the affectionate phrase ‘His Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’ and entered the ranks of all the Forces.
I’ve wandered many times between the graves in the war cemeteries of Normandy, looking for a Magen David among the crosses, reading the inscriptions, puzzling over the meaning of the moving words ‘Known Unto God’.
The wars of Europe are prominent in our minds at this time, with this year’s centenary commemorations of the start of World War 1 and, in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps and of VE and VJ Days.
I’ve asked members of our community about relatives who gave their lives. There are many, and if you would like to send me details of those in your family (before Shabbat) I would appreciate it. My wife’s father’s brother was a navigator in the RAF when, on a mission to drop supplies to the French resistance in 1944, they lost height due to a faulty altometer and crashed into the hillside in central southern France. He is buried in the cemetery of Epimac-les-Mines.
This Shabbat, in special prayers in all our services, we will remember those who died fighting for their country and gave their lives for those freedoms which we readily take for granted:
For your tomorrow we gave our today.