Joe Carlebach is a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls today, serves for me as it does for many as a point in time when we can reflect on the catastrophe which befell European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis. It has a particular poignancy for me, since I lost my grandparents, three teenage aunts and other family members in the Holocaust. My father escaped just in time on the kindertransport less than a year before war broke out.
As part of my personal journey, I have been revisiting the life and times of my grandfather [pictured, right], who was a scientist, a community leader and an outspoken critic of the Nazis and all they stood for – which ultimately cost him his life. I was surprised to learn that, at the outbreak of the First World War, he volunteered for the German Army, initially enlisting as a telegraph operator and then serving as a Jewish chaplain for the German army on the eastern front, which leaves two points that I have struggled to comprehend – first, that he served in the German Army at all and, second, that had fate posted him to the western front, he might well have faced other close members of my family in battle. They fought for the British Army, most notably Colonel Sir Phillip Carlebach of the London Fusiliers.
Examining the wider subject of German Jewish soldiers serving the Kaiser, I was again taken aback when I learned that approximately 100,000 Jewish Germans served in uniform. Approximately 12,000 died in action in the First World War. It seems that German Jews felt it their duty to fight for ‘their’ country, just as Jews in Britain, France and the US did for their respective nations. This was of course no different from the followers of other religions in Germany at the time.
Early signs of institutionalised anti-semitism became evident in the German Army’s attitude to its Jewish ranks. In October 1916 a report was commissioned (Judenzählung or the Jewish Census) looking into the dreadful aspersion that Jews failed to serve on the front line and were generally a negative influence on their brothers in arms. The results of the report were ‘doctored’ to support this theory, deliberately ignoring the truth and thus sowing the seeds for a future tragedy. After the First World War, the Jewish community mourned its sons who had laid down their lives for the “Fatherland” – even as the very nation they had fought for turned on them.
In 1935, Goebbels issued an order that the names of fallen Jewish soldiers should be struck off (literally chiseled off) war memorials across Germany, a bitter blow for the families of the 12,000 fallen Jewish soldiers. As late as 1937, my grandfather led a service of remembrance for the war dead at the Ohlsdorf Jewish Cemetery in his role as Chief Rabbi of Hamburg. A member of the Gestapo was present listening carefully and making notes of everything he said in his address – as they did on every occasion my grandfather spoke in public, even from the pulpit of his synagogue. There is a dark irony that on Kristallnacht, when many synagogues were looted and destroyed, plaques commemorating and honoring the communities war dead lay amongst the ruined buildings.
As the Second World War got under way and the Nazi deportations to the Ghettos and extermination camps began, even hardened Nazis were shocked to see Jewish fellow Germans wearing their war decorations on their way to their deaths. These included some of Germany’s highest military decorations for bravery.
Some Jewish German veterans did manage to escape to Britain and the US to serve as members of the Allied armed forces. This gave rise to utterly bizarre and ultimately heart-breaking scenes such as one reported in the Royal British Legion Journal describing a wreath-laying service at the Cenotaph in Manchester. A group of German Jews all serving in the British Army, in uniform, had participated in a wreath laying service and I quote) ‘practically every man was wearing German war decorations’.
The tragic conclusion to this aspect of the Nazi genocide is the desolate presence of Jewish soldiers’ graves in and amongst the First World War German cemeteries. There is no-one left to mourn them or to place a stone on their grave (the traditional Jewish custom on visiting a Jewish grave). These soldiers gave their lives for their country. Their country rewarded them by taking the lives of their wives and children, their mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers.
Such was the cruelty and sheer heartlessness of the Nazis.
It is very difficult for me, as someone who has always regarded himself as a patriotic “Brit” and keen supporter of our veterans, to comprehend this part of my family’s history and the wider tragic ramifications. However, on a day when we remember the victims of the Holocaust perhaps we should spare a thought for these ordinary brave men in uniform. They fought and died for a country that ultimately turned on them and sought to strike their sacrifice from history.
But in thinking of them we can deny the Nazis and their attempt to rewrite the past – and show that in Britain we continue to be a beacon of tolerance and understanding in a still troubled world.