By BOB MICHAELS
SCHENECTADY–“Jews in WW-I” was the topic of Col. Richard Goldenberg’s presentation to an overflow audience at the Sunday, Nov. 20, Congregation Gates of Heaven Breakfast-and-A-Speaker Program. Goldenberg’s lecture helps to mark the centennial anniversary of United States’ entry into the ‘War To End All Wars,’ this April. Goldenberg has served 28 years in the Army and Army National Guard, and now commands the Jewish War Veterans Capital District Council.
In the era of WW-I, according to Goldenberg, Jews primarily were identified by their religion, not their nationality. Jews were conscripted and forced to serve in tsarist Russia, especially in the Pale of Settlement region. This situation gradually changed with a groundswell of voluntary military service of Jews to their home countries, including Turkey, Britain, the U.S. and, most surprising to me, Germany.
Persistent questions about the likely allegiance of Jews to their home countries were answered with formation of effective Jewish fighting units, including in the U.S. and Britain. Eventually, the military contributions and sacrifices of Jews were acknowledged. Military contributions in WW-I did not help German Jews, however, as the Nazis cared not a whit for the medals that Jews previously had earned serving their country.
In contrast, in the U.S. Jews were recognized for their military contributions, “in parallel with international recognition of the U.S. as a post-WW-I world power.” In Britain, recognition of Jews’ contributions gave rise to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and to British support for formation of the State of Israel by the United Nations in 1948.
The Jewish Welfare Board was formed to support Jewish soldiers serving abroad. This was done, in part, via wiring money, largely from the U.S., to places around the world, in rough proportion to the degree of need. The desire to support Jews in uniform later gave rise to formation of the Jewish War Veterans, which according to Goldenberg, actually did not originate with “appreciation of discounted beer and soda.”