Jews on the front line

Jews on the front line

A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia highlights the profound impact of World War I on the Jewish soldiers caught up in it, and on the fledgling community back home.

Curator Deborah Rechter holds a shell casing that was transformed into trench art during World War I. Photo: Peter Haskin
Curator Deborah Rechter holds a shell casing that was transformed into trench art during World War I. Photo: Peter Haskin

A LETTER that 18-year-old Digger Idey Alexander wrote from the still smouldering battlefields of France shortly after the November 11, 1918 armistice that ended World War I, speaks stirringly of the fragility of expectations shared by the young Australians as the horrors of combat raged around them.

“I am still OK and living,” wrote Alexander to his sisters in Melbourne, as he divulged plans to do some touring in Europe and spend Passover 1919 in Paris before his demobilisation.

In his letter, the Jewish Digger reports the Germans shot 660 men, women and children from the village in which he was staying, and plundered their homes.

“I am at present in a sentimental mood, absolutely sick of this life,” Alexander wrote in April 1919, as he prepared to come home. His three surviving letters help unravel some of the less reported aspects of life during the war years, and offer a way to study the experiences of Australian Jews in and around World War I, according to Dr Deborah Rechter.

Rechter is the curator of True Jews and Patriots: Australian Jews and World War I, an exhibition the Jewish Museum of Australia (JMA) is staging in partnership with the Victorian Association of Jewish Ex and Servicemen and Women (VAJEX) which opened on June 30.

The letters underpin some of the research undertaken at the JMA for the exhibition, which focuses on Australian Jewish experiences in World War I, as part of the Jewish community’s commemorations of the Anzac Gallipoli ­centenary.

The exhibition features artefacts from the war including ankle boots worn by Sir John Monash, acclaimed Jewish commander of the Australian forces, and The Australian Jewry Book Of Honour, listing Jewish Diggers.

There are samples of the soldiers’ literature and art. There is Oswald Benjamin’s custom-made uniform, an autograph book kept by Phyllis Stanton (nee Slutzkin) and Algie Sander’s photographs.

Rechter describes a Jewish community in Victoria at the turn of the 19th century that was only around 3000-strong, and yet a huge proportion, around 13 per cent, enlisted to serve their country in World War I.

“Victoria in the 19th century really was an extraordinarily innovative place, pioneering votes and representation for women, the eight-hour day, minimum wage, and arbitration courts. Jews in Australia benefited from this situation as there were no legal prohibitions excluding them from full civic participation. This situation was very different to that around the world,” Rechter tells The AJN.

“In the [Jewish] newspapers of the time, we can read of the strong involvement of Jews in their community and in the wider community. We can read the commitment to Australia and to being Australian.

“When the war begins, the newspapers encourage and reflect the strong support of the Jewish community for this conflict as vital for retaining the freedoms and democracy of colonial Australia. Jews here were free, while elsewhere they suffered persecution and restriction.”

The impact of World War I did not end when the fighting stopped, she asserts. The exhibition will consider its broader consequences on the Jewish community.

“Many men lost their lives, and many Jewish women of marriageable age lost potential spouses. The community was decimated but began to recover in numbers, as refugees arrived in response to worsening conditions for Jews in Europe,” she says.

“Jews fought hard, for strong reasons, with devastating consequences, and suffered tragic legacies that transformed Australian Jewish life. Australian Jewish experience was the same and different to the broader Australian story. Our exhibition considers why and how this was so.”

Rechter says the aim of the exhibition is to engage descendants of Australian Jewish fighters, to build a knowledge base for posterity.

The JMA has devised an education program with VAJEX, its exhibition partner. Stories of individual participants in the war have been researched and presented by Jewish schoolchildren. Students’ responses to the experiences of this earlier generation will form part of the display.

Focusing on people rather than battles, Rechter identifies a shift in scholarship to emphasise the human experience of war and its context at home and abroad.

“That now distant conflict has come to mean many things to people,” she reflects. “The events of World War I have been framed for many purposes as people struggle to make sense of what was arguably a senseless slaughter.”

The True Jews and Patriots exhibition is at the Jewish Museum of Australia, 26 Alma Road, St Kilda, Melbourne until January 31, 2016. Enquiries:

REPORT by Peter Kohn

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