The War and the Russian Jews

By George Kennan

[The Outlook, January 20, 1915]

In the historic "war session" of the Russian Duma, August 8, 1914, when the representatives of the various nationalities and political parties of Russia were given an opportunity to express their feelings with regard to the Government and the war, Deputy Friedman, from 'the province of Kovno, spoke in behalf of the Russian Jews as follows:

"Members of the Imperial Duma: Upon me has been conferred the high honor of giving expression at this historic moment to the feelings that inspire the Jewish people. In the great spiritual uplift which has come to the nation the Jews fully participate, and they will go to the field of battle shoulder to shoulder with the other nationalities of the Empire. Although we Jews have long suffered, and are still suffering, from grievous civil disabilities, we feel, nevertheless, that we are Russian citizens and faithful sons of our Fatherland. Nothing will ever alienate us from our country, nor separate us from the land to which for so many centuries we have been attached. In defending Russia against foreign invasion we are actuated not only by a sense of duty, but by a feeling of profound devotion. In this hour of trial, and in obedience to the summons from the Throne, we Russian Jews will take our stand under the Russian banner and repulse the enemy with all our strength. The Jewish people will do their duty to the end." (Storms of applause and cries of "Bravo!" from the Right, the Center, and the Left.)

Five months have passed since Deputy Friedman expressed the devotion of the Russian Jews to their country, and promised that they would "go to the field of battle shoulder to shoulder with the other nationalities of the Empire." Has that devotion been shown in deeds, and has that promise been faithfully kept?

If anything stands out clearly on the pages of recent Russian history, it is the magnanimity and patriotism of the Jews. Denied many of the rights of citizenship, forced to live in a great national ghetto, restricted in the learned professions, limited to a small quota of students in the universities and schools, crowded into cities within the Pale and expelled from cities without the Pale, insulted constantly by the reactionary press, accused of "ritual murder" in the courts, and beaten to death by pogrom rioters in the streets, the unfortunate Jews would seem to have little reason for loyalty or patriotic feeling; and yet since the war began they have subordinated personal resentment to a higher sense of duty, and, for the sake of "the Fatherland," have done all that the most ardent patriots could do to support the monarch who has oppressed them and to defend the State that has discriminated against them.

Soon after the war began the Jews in Petrograd, Moscow, Odessa, and many other Russian cities began to hold meetings in their synagogues to pray for the health and safety of the Czar, and for the success of the Russian armies in the field. At the same time hundreds of young Jews in the universities and higher technical schools who were not liable to conscription volunteered for active service and were sent to the front. Even Jews who were awaiting trial on political charges or who were already suffering imprisonment for political offenses offered to enlist as volunteers, and promised that, if they should still be alive at the end of the war, they would give themselves up for trial or go back to prison and serve out the unexpired term of their sentences. "We cannot bear, they said in their petition, "to sit idle in prison cells while our comrades are fighting for their country and ours."

As the war proceeded, and the Czar began to go back and forth through Russia on his way to and from the front, Jewish delegations in all the larger towns where he stopped came to him with plates of bread and salt (the Russian emblems of hospitality and good will) and presented him with addresses breathing the most ardent spirit of loyalty and patriotism. In one such address they said:

"It gives us great happiness to know that our brothers and sons are shedding their blood for the sake of their monarch, for the honor of the country that is so dear to them, and for the cause of right and justice with which your Imperial Majesty's name will forever be gloriously associated. We beg you, O Gossudar, to receive this assurance of loyalty from your faithful subjects who are followers of the Mosaic law."

In places which the Czar did not visit or in which he did not stop the Jews went with patriotic addresses to the highest local representatives of the Church or the. State; and this they did even in towns where at the hands of Church or State they had suffered most injustice. If there be in all Russia a city where the Jews might naturally regard the Russians with enmity and the Government with resentment, it is the city of Kishinef—the scene of the bloodiest anti-Jewish pogrom that has ever blackened the history of the Empire. But even in Kishinef the Jews hastened to show that their consciousness of civic duty was stronger than their sense of injustice. They could not get access to the Czar, so they went with bread, salt, and assurances of loyalty to Archbishop Platon, the local representative of the Holy Orthodox Church. The high ecclesiastical dignitary received them with as much courtesy as could have been expected, and said, in reply to their patriotic address:

"The Jews are completely united with us and they have proved their loyalty. I am personally aware of the fact that they have contributed large sums to the Red Cross and other organizations for the relief of our wounded. Their devotion to the country is beyond question."

In almost every city and large town in Russia delegations of Jews have called on .the civil or ecclesiastical authorities and presented addresses confirming or repeating the assurances of loyalty given in their behalf by Deputy Friedman in the Duma.

"But," it may be said, "it is easy enough to pray in the synagogues and make professions of loyalty in patriotic addresses. Have the Russian Jews done anything else?"

If the Russian newspapers are to be believed, they certainly have. A recent number of the Petrograd "Reitch" contained an article on this subject in which the writer said:

"This fact" (that the Jews have actively participated in the war) does not admit of the slightest doubt. Not only have they made enormous pecuniary contributions, but as soldiers they have shown miraculous courage on the field of battle, and many of them have received military decorations. Such behavior on their part, however, is not to be regarded as especially meritorious. It is only the performance of a sacred duty to their country, and Russian Jews could not act otherwise."

The same paper publishes also an article commenting upon the fact that in the lists of killed and wounded telegraphed from the front there are Russian names, Polish names, Tartar names, and Armenian names, but not a single name that can be recognized as Jewish. The paper explains, however, that the absence of Jewish names is due to racial discrimination. "Only casualties, to officers are reported by telegraph, and no Jew is permitted to become an officer. If deaths and injuries of private soldiers were telegraphed, the lists would be thickly sprinkled with Jewish names. The Jews share in the work of the nation on the battlefield as well as at home. Wherever national help is needed, there they participate with contributions and work."

But even racial discrimination fails to exclude Jewish names wholly from the newspapers. They may not become officers, but the Russian generals who command them insist that, they shall have crosses of honor for gallantry in action, and then their names are telegraphed, and published. The highest military decoration that is given in Russia is the Cross of St. George, which corresponds with the Iron Cross of Germany and the Victoria Cross of Great Britain. Every few weeks a common Jewish soldier distinguishes himself so greatly that he is awarded this coveted honor, and not long ago a Jew won two of these decorations in a single week. The latest case that has come to my attention is that of Mendel Gluckman, who received the Cross of St. George about a month ago for a whole series of daring exploits under the walls of Przemysl. (Petrograd "Reitch," November 22, 1914.)

Moscow and Petrograd newspapers publish many letters from Russian officers describing the bravery of Jewish soldiers in action. In one of the most recent of them Lieutenant Gogulinski says:

"There were eight Jews in my company, and at the time when I was wounded only two of them were left alive. One hardly expects Jews to show fighting characteristics; but in my very first battle I became satisfied that the Jewish soldier is a real soldier, with plenty of daring, self-sacrifice, and indifference to death. Almost every one of them thinks first of his duty and his comrades. I have witnessed their devotion, to the wounded, and I have seen them climb out of the trenches at deadly risk and bring back through a storm of bullets men who had been disabled in a charge. One Jewish bugler, for example, left shelter in that way for the purpose of bringing in a wounded comrade who was slowly bleeding to death in the open. He succeeded in crawling up to him, but before he could do anything more he himself was killed by a bullet in the spine. Then a second one made the attempt, and he succeeded in dragging the "wounded man into the trenches…. After a bayonet attack in which many were killed or disabled I went with a couple of stretcher-bearers to a group of wounded, where, lying side by side, were a Russian and a Jew. A bullet had smashed the Russian's collar-bone and another had gone through his leg. I ordered the bearers to take up one of them, and they began to lift the Russian. He refused assistance and said: 'Take the Jew; he's hurt worse than I am.' The Jew's face was gray and blood was running out of his mouth; but he whispered faintly: 'I've got only one wound; he has two. He's suffering the most—take him first.' How natural, but how fine!"

In another letter Cornet Novikof, of a hussar regiment, writes:

"Meyer Lovinski, born in the village of White Church, died a hero's death on the 26th of August, near the forest of Lashchova. Disregarding a heavy fire, he rode constantly in advance, reconnoitering coolly the enemy's dispositions. But a bullet hurled the gallant scout from his saddle and he died heroically for his country, his Czar, and his people. On the following day we recovered his body and turned it over to the Jews in Lashchova, who buried it with all honors in the Jewish graveyard. May the kingdom of heaven receive my dear Lovinski—unforgetable comrade and fellow-soldier!"

In this last letter two things are particularly noticeable: first, the tribute of a Russian to the coolness and gallantry of a Jew in action; and, second, the affection of a Russian for a Jew in an environment of danger and death. Cornet Novikof seems wholly to forget that the dead man was an alien and an unbeliever, and evidently hopes to meet his "dear, unforgetable comrade and fellow-soldier" in the kingdom of heaven. But it is not only Russian lieutenants and cornets who speak well of the Jew. The "Russkiya Vedomosti," of Moscow, published recently a letter from the well-known philanthropist N. A. Shakhof, pleading for justice to the Jew, and closing with the words: "One wants to believe that better days will come for Russia's stepson and that he will be in future not the stepson but the real son of the Fatherland for which he is shedding his blood." A Russian general at the front read these lines a week or two later, and was so moved by them that he wrote an open letter to Mr. Shakhof over the signature "A General in Active Service," in which he said:

"It is impossible to read your admirable letter—and especially the part of it that refers to the Jews—without a feeling of approval and sympathy. The great and warm heart of the Russian people, like gold in the furnace, is only now showing its worth. Less and less frequently are heard expressions of intolerance and hatred, and more and more apparent become the virtues that lie in the depths of the Russian soul. I profoundly believe that a multitude of our people, whose consciences and Christian feelings have not been smothered by hatred, and whose common sense has not been eclipsed by prejudice, will join heartily in your hope that the Jew may soon become the real son, and not the stepson, of the Fatherland for which he is shedding his blood."

If the Russian Jew is thus regarded by "generals in active service;" if Russian archbishops declare that his "devotion to the country is beyond question;" if Russian commanders in the field recommend him for the Cross of St. George; and if his Russian leaders in battle refer to him when he is dead as their "dear and unforgetable comrade and fellow-soldier" and hope to meet him in the "kingdom of heaven," who are his haters and persecutors?

This question I shall try to answer in another article.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury