Armistice Day 2017
By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
In Britain, the first official Armistice Day events were held at Buckingham Palace and led by King George V on 11 November 1919. They marked the first anniversary of the armistice signed at Compiègne, which ended the fighting on the Western Front in the First World War at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.
It was, and remains, a date on which to reflect on the horror, pity and waste of war, nowhere more powerfully expressed than in the poems of Wilfred Owen, killed just one week before the hostilities ended:
“Whatever hope is yours
Was my life also…
I am the enemy you killed my friend...”
In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day as, “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”
Jews fought in all the armies of the First World War.
In 1917, the British Army finally agreed to the formation of its first Jewish battalion, the Jewish Legion, which saw action against the Ottomans and participated in the critical Battle of Megiddo in September 1918. They thus played a key part in enabling the realisation of the intentions set out in the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the State of Israel.
In Germany, Jews enlisted with patriotic fervour, an enthusiasm turned to bitter dismay when the War Office held its notorious Judenzaehlung, or ‘Jews’ Census’, intended to prove that Jews were shirkers or profiteers, avoiding front line duty. The results were never published and can never now be known, because the German military archive in Potsdam was destroyed by Allied bombing in WW2. But it is generally believed that they proved the exact opposite of the instigators’ intentions: that Jews served, and died, in large numbers in the German army, as they did in all the armies across Europe.
During the interwar years, Armistice Day also offered the opportunity for protest. In the USA, Jewish veterans succeeded in securing legislation requiring the American Battlefield Monument Commission to place Star of David markers on the graves of Jewish soldiers buried in war cemeteries in France.
In 1938 in Britain, just days after Kristallnacht, the Dean of Westminster included the following words in his Armistice Day prayers: “Let us remember in silence and sympathy the Jewish people in their troubles.”
During the war, Armistice Day became an even more poignant reminder of the price which had to be paid for the protection of liberty. In 1941, President Franklin D Roosevelt focussed his address on those who doubted the significance of the day. No doubt, he also had in mind the ‘isolationist’ opponents of his strong support for Great Britain: “The thing they forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and stop. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them."
Less than a month later, the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl harbour and the United States joined the war.
In recent years, the main Armistice Day commemorations take place on the nearest Sunday, Remembrance Sunday. The date has, if anything, grown in the public consciousness over the last decades as further conflicts and the growing threat of fresh wars make us more deeply aware of the sacrifices brought by soldiers across the globe and the appalling impact of war on many civilian populations. In the United States, Veteran’s Day focusses on honouring those who have served, or are currently serving, in US forces. The public holiday of Memorial Day in May honours the dead.
In the UK, Jewish commemorations are led by AJEX, (the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women). It has traditionally held its parade on the Sunday following Remembrance Sunday. Arthur Lawson, a former chairman, recalls: “I was in Glasgow and we had a special train to bring down the branch contingent. Manchester had two. It was a huge thing, a celebration of British Jewish service.”
A further purpose was to show the country the contributions and sacrifices of the British Jewish community in the war.
AJEX has a current membership of over 4,000 individuals who served in the British Armed Forces, during or after the World War Two. It is a matter of respect, honour, and pride to show them our solidarity in our synagogue services on or close to 11 November, and to support them in the AJEX parade at Whitehall and the Cenotaph.
For myself, I’ve often visited the Allied cemeteries in Normandy, where those now lie at peace who gave their lives in June and July 1944 for the liberation of Europe. Many graves say simply ‘Known unto God’; others give name, rank and date of death and are marked by crosses, and not a few by a Magen David.
However often this has been said, it remains the simple, chastening truth that these men and women died so that we and our families might live in security, peace and liberty. They remind us that freedom is not always free; that it constantly requires the dues of vigilance, and sometimes the sacrifice of lives – lives of people who had everything for which to live, love, hope and dream.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the rabbi of New North London Synagogue and the senior rabbi for Masorti Judaism