Soldiers of The Great War: Jewish Military Service in WW I, as Reported in The Jewish Chronicle – “Osnas the Hero” – A Battle Pictured

Previous posts presented two articles from The Jewish Chronicle of 1914 (“Osnas the Hero“, from September 11, and “War and The New Year”, from September 25) mentioning the award of the Cross of Saint George to a soldier surnamed “Osnas”, who was identified as a medical student from Vilna. 

According to “Osnas the Hero”, Osnas had been, “…invalided and is in hospital suffering from severe wounds received in saving the colours of his regiment in the last extremity during the terrible fighting in East Prussia.  His commander telegraphed a special request to the doctors to ‘do everything that was possible to save the life of Osnas, the hero.’”

Well…  Who, actually, was “Osnas”? 

His identity – thus far, at least based on extensive web searches – remains an enigma.  His given name – “Leo” – has been found at only source (This Day…In Jewish History) under the entry, “1914:  During World War I, “on the Eastern Front, the first award of the Cross of St George, the equivalent of the Victoria Cross in Britain,” went to Leo Osnas, a Jewish soldier, “for exceptional bravery on the field of battle.” 

Unfortunately, no bibliographic reference is associated with this item.

Other references repeat, with elaboration and variation, Osnas’ story as presented in the two articles from the Chronicle.
    
For example, the 1916 book The People Who Run – Being The Tragedy of the Refugees in Russia, by Violetta Thurstan, in a chapter devoted to the suffering and experiences Jewish refugees in Eastern Europe during the First World War, states, “Very sad cases of distress come before the Jewish Committee from time to time.  There was a family in Kazan, living in one little room, who had been extremely wealthy and had lost everything they had.  They had been living in Poland and had been ordered by the military authorities to quit the town at once as the Germans were rapidly advancing.  They managed to lay their hands on three thousand roubles, and as they possessed two large barges, they decided to sail down the river to Kiev, bringing as much furniture with them as the barges would carry.  But a Jewish festival was due just then, and they foolishly decided to wait till it was over.  The Russian military authorities, finding they had not started when they were told to, got hold of the idea that they had German sympathies and were waiting till the German troops entered the town to give them information.  Their barges and money were confiscated and they were turned penniless out of the town, and are now living in miserable poverty in Kazan.  But in spite of unfortunate incidents like this, which must occur during any war, a new respect between the Russians and the Jews is steadily growing, and it is hoped that the old prejudices will disappear.  The heroic action of one young Jewish medical student at the front has done a very great deal to raise the status of Jews throughout the whole of Russia.  In the middle of a fierce battle near Goldap [a town in northeastern Poland, located on the Goldapa River], the Russian standard-bearer was bayoneted by a German soldier and the flag captured.  Young Osnas, a Jewish medical student from Vilna, seeing his chance, sprang forward, killed the German soldier and seized the flag, though he was entirely surrounded for a few moments by the enemy striving to recapture it once more.  Osnas, although severely wounded, managed to hold it until reinforcements came up.   For the heroic courage he showed the Emperor himself decorated him with the St. George’s Cross, the highest reward for courage a Russian soldier can obtain.  May it be a happy omen for the future.

Marr Murray’s The Russian Advance (1914), in a chapter covering fighting in East Prussia, presents Osnas’ story in this manner, “It was during this period of the engagement that one of the most significant events – so far as Russia is concerned – of the whole war occurred.  A Russian battalion was in the midst of a veritable inferno.  The Germans were determined to hold an important position at all costs.  The Russians were equally determined to capture it.  On both sides the carnage had been terrible.  At last, with a desperate rush, the Russians succeeded in getting to grips with the Germans.  Indescribable hand-to-hand fighting ensued.  In the midst of the melee a German bayoneted the Russian Standard-bearer and seized the flag.  Emboldened by this emblem of victory the Germans renewed their efforts and dashed to the assistance of their comrade.  But before they could reach him a young Russian had sprung forward, killed him and recaptured the flag.  With a howl of disappointment the Germans attacked him.  For a moment he seemed to be doomed.  Germans, were all round him struggling for the possession of the flag.  Then there came a deep-throated roar, a sudden rush, and the Germans were hurled back.  The Russians had captured the position and saved their flag.

The youth who had held it against such odds was afterwards discovered severely wounded.  He proved to be a young Jewish medical student from Vilna, named Osnas.  He was at once hailed on all sides as a hero, and on being invalided back to Petrograd the Commander himself gave orders that every care was to be taken to save the life of “Osnas the hero.”  Subsequently he received the military cross of St. George, the Russian V.C., from the hands of the Tzar himself.

The significance of the incident does not lie in the bravery of Osnas, but in the fact that he was a Jew.  His action, which has made him a popular hero throughout the Russian Empire, has done more to improve the position of the Jews than any event in the whole course of their history in Russia.  It has made the nation realise that a Jew can be a worthy son of Russia.”

The story – to a brief albeit similar effect – appeared in the Reform Advocate of September 12, 1914:

London, England, Sept. 4 – A Petrograd (St. Petersburg) dispatch to the Central News says that a Jewish medical student of Vilna, named Osnas, received the military cross of Saint George for saving the colors of his regiment in the last extremity during the terrible fighting in East Prussia.

Osnas was badly wounded and his commander telegraphed the doctors to do everything possible to save the life of “Osnas the Hero”.

The report of Osnas’ bravery was not limited to the Jewish Press.  For example, The Los Angeles Herald of September 22, 1914, carried the following item:

Jew Decorated for Saving Colors of Russian Regiment – LONDON, Sept. 22 – A Petrograd dispatch to the Central News says a Jewish medical student of Vilna, named Osnas, received the military cross of Saint George for saving the colors of his regiment in the last extremity during the terrible fighting in East Prussia.

Osnas was badly wounded and his commander telegraphed the doctors to do everything possible to save the life of “Osnas the Hero”.

In contemporary times, Sir Martin Gilbert presented this account about Osnas in his book The First World War:

The hopes of minorities could be raised in unusual ways.  On the Eastern Front the first award of the Cross of St George, the equivalent of the Victoria Cross in Britain, awarded by the Tsar for exceptional bravery on the field of battle, went to a Jewish soldier, Leo Osnas.  According to a British newspaper, the Yorkshire Herald, by his bravery in action Osnas ‘has won freedom for the Jews in Russia; he has gained for his race the right to become officers in the Russian army and navy, hitherto denied them, and he has so delighted the Russian government that it has since proclaimed that henceforth Jews in the Empire shall enjoy the full rights of citizenship.’  Commented the newspaper: ‘Surely no man’s winning of the “V.C.” ever resulted in such magnificent results for a subject people as this!’  In fact, the Jews of Russia did not receive full citizenship during the war; nor did they escape repeated violent attacks on them by Russian townsmen and villagers looking for scapegoats for Russia’s military setbacks.

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Perhaps more information about Osnas will can eventually be found, but for now, his life and story  – both pre-war and post-war – remain a mystery.

This is ironic, because one image of Osnas does exist.  It shows him as he appeared, or, as he is imagined to have appeared. 

The image is in the form of a painting created by British cartoonist Alfred Pearse (1855-1933), which was reproduced as a picture postcard published by War Photogravure Publications of London.  The painting depicts Osnas wounded, in the midst of battle – an embodiment of courage, determination, and fury – retrieving the Russian flag from German troops.  He is situated in the center of the image, while enemy soldiers surround him, and cavalry, obscured by clouds of dust, observe the scene from behind.

The painting appeared in The Jewish Chronicle’s sister publication, The Jewish World, in late 1914 or early 1915.

Well, it’s an interesting image. (Historically.)

It’s a compelling image.  (Doubtlessly.) 

And, it’s an especially dramatic image.  (Admittedly.) 

But, pondering that no actual photographic portrait of Osnas appeared in the press or – as yet – seems to exist, a question arises:  Is this Osnas as he actually appeared, or Osnas as Pearse imagined him?

Regardless, what became of Osnas after 1914?

References

Gilbert, Martin, The First World War: A Complete History, Rosetta Books, New York, N.Y., 2014

Reform Advocate, September 12, 1914

The Los Angeles Herald, September 22, 1914, “Jew Decorated for Saving Colors of Russian Regiment”

This Day…In Jewish History, at http://jewish1191.rssing.com/chan-15120684/all_p17.html

Cross of Saint George, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross_of_St._George

Jewish Militaria Catalog Part I (Fishburn Books), at http://www.fishburnbooks.com/catalogs/JewishMilitaryPart1_1.pdf

Alfred Pearse (biography), at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Pearse

Soldiers of The Great War: Jewish Military Service in WW I, as Reported in The Jewish Chronicle – “Osnas the Hero”, September 11, 1914

“The Jewish Volunteer Katz” was not the only Russian Jewish soldier mentioned in the September 11 issue of the Chronicle.  Within the same issue, the following article mentioned a soldier surnamed “Osnas”, from Vilna, who received the Military Cross of Saint George.

For most reports in the Chronicle about Jews serving in the Russian armed forces during the First World War, little information would be (or, more likely could be) presented, beyond the soldier’s surname and the military award he received.  This item is an exception, listing the soldier’s – Osnas’ – profession and city of residence.

As for the opening sentence: “The war will change many things in Russia,…” who – at the end of 1914 – could possibly have imagined what the next four years, let alone the subsequent seventy-two, would entail? 

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“OSNAS, THE HERO.”
RUSSIAN JEW SAVED THE COLOURS

The Jewish Chronicle
September 11, 1914

The war will change many things in Russia, and the changes will probably include improvements in the position of the Jews, whose bravery and exploits at the front are attracting attention.  A Jewish medical student from Vilna, named Osnas, has just received the Military Cross of St. George.  He has been invalided and is in hospital suffering from severe wounds received in saving the colours of his regiment in the last extremity during the terrible fighting in East Prussia.  His commander telegraphed a special request to the doctors to “do everything that was possible to save the life of Osnas, the hero.” – Central News, Petrograd

A Jew Among the Cossacks: An Account from The Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia) in 1922 – II – The Original Article

Earlier this year, I presented a transcript of a story that was published in The Jewish Exponent (of Philadelphia) in 1922, by Jacob B. Abramowitz, entitled “My Experience as a Jewish Cossack“.  This intriguing tale presents Abramowitz’s (unintentional, involuntary, dramatic, and eventually memorable) service – as a known and identified Jew – in the Cossack forces of General Grigoriy Mikhaylovich Semenov (Григорий Михайлович Семёнов) during the Russian Civil War

In the commentary that accompanied Abramowitz’s story, I mentioned that I have been unable to find anything, whatsoever, about him. 

He is and remains an enigma.

What is not an enigma is the original story, which, copied from a microfilm master of The Jewish Exponent, is shown below. 

It adds nothing new, really, but it does show you the original item, and gives an indication of how articles were presented in the Exponent nearly a century ago.

A Jew Among the Cossacks: An Account from The Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia) in 1922 – I

In the same way that The Jewish Chronicle (London) accorded great attention to Jewish military service during World War One – naturally focusing on Jewish soldiers of the Commonwealth countries – so did The Jewish Exponent (of Philadelphia) report on Jews in the American military during that time.*  However, given that America’s military effort in “The Great War” substantively commenced in 1917, the number of such news items in The Exponent is far fewer – and far less systematically presented – than such items in the Chronicle.

Given the scope, nature, and effects of World War One, with the major military campaigns in the “East” transpiring across the geographic and demographic “center” of European Jewry (Poland and the Ukraine) the Exponent and especially the Chronicle presented detailed and lengthy articles about the activities, experiences, and travails of – and appalling suffering endured by – Jewish civilians living in those regions.  This coverage would continue well into the early 1920s.

The following article is one such item, and a very unusual one, at that:  An account by Jacob Abramowitz, Russian Jewish art student, concerning his military service in a company of Siberian Cossacks, which appeared in the Exponent in 1922.

A web search for information about the author yields a solitary entry: In Volume 19, Issue 1, of the U.S. Government Printing Office Publication of January 1, 1923, of “Catalogue of Copyright Entries: Pamphlets, leaflets, contributions to newspapers or periodicals, etc.; lectures, sermons, addresses for oral delivery; dramatic compositions, maps; motion pictures,” under page 665 – “Books”, appears the listing: “Abramowitz (Jacob B.) My Experiences as a Jewish Cossack, by Jacob B. Abramowitz, tr. by Maximilian Hurwitz. (In Jewish Tribune)”.  Otherwise, he remains an enigma.

The “General Grigory Semyonov” referred to in the story is – according to Wikipedia – Grigoriy Mikhaylovich Semenov (Григорий Михайлович Семёнов).  Born in 1890 in the Transbaikal region of Eastern Siberia, he served as a Cossack Ensign in WW I, where he earned the George Cross in battle against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. After the Russian Revolution, he fled to Harbin, China.  He left Russian territory by 1921, eventually living in Nagasaki, and then the United States.  He subsequently returned to China, where he was captured by Soviet Military forces in 1945.  Charged with counter-revolutionary activities, he was executed in 1946.  (The information in this Wikipedia entry is derived from the 2009 book White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, by Jamie Bisher.)

According to a biographical note in a short story penned for the February, 1920, issue of The American Hebrew, Maximilian Hurwitz was, “Born in Shati, Russia, in 1887; came to American in 1904, and was educated in the schools of Pittsburgh, Pa.  (University of Pittsburgh, A.B., 1915.)”  He served on the staff of The Jewish News

With very great irony, Hurwitz’s story, “Eili, Eili, Lomo Asavtoni?” (“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”) – from which I extracted the above biographical data – was itself written to commemorate, “the Jewish martyrs who fell in the recent massacres in Poland and the Ukraine”…

And so, Jacob Abramowitz’s story follows below.  

As to its veracity, I have no idea. 

But, it is an interesting read, with a mild air of Isaac Babel to it…

* This applies even moreso to coverage of Jewish military service in WW II.  More about that – much (much) more, I hope – in the future.

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(Following the format of my prior posts concerning articles from The Jewish Chronicle of 1914, the story can be accessed in PDF format, here.) 

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For more about this period of history, I strongly suggest The Slaughter of the Jews In the Ukraine in 1919, by Elias Heifetz, published in 1921, and, David Vital’s magisterial 1999 book, A People Apart – A Political History of the Jews in Europe, 1789-1939.  More recently, this tragic period of Jewish history – seemingly superseded in Jewish collective memory by geographic and psychological distance, and especially the magnitude of the Shoah only two decades later – was the subject of a Discussion at YIVO – “A Forgotten Genocide: The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-1919, and their Impact on Memory and Politics” – on May 16, 2016, with videos of the four presentations available here.

– Michael G. Moskow

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My Experience as a Jewish Cossack

 The Jewish Exponent

May 26, 1922

By Jacob A. Abramowitz

(Copyright 1922 by the Jewish Writer’s Guild – All Rights Reserved)

This is a thrilling yet true story of the adventures of a Russian Jewish art student who, shortly before the Russian Revolution, was called to the colors and assigned to a Siberian Cossack regiment, was captured by General Gregory Semenoff and condemned to die, and was saved only through the intercession of a Cossack officer, his former commander and friend.  Mr. Abramowitz, the author and hero of this story, which was translated from the author’s manuscript by Maximilian Hurwitz, derives additional interest from the presence in this country of General Semenoff. – Editor’s Note.

The call to colors, which reached me during the last days of the Czarist rule, found me a student at the Odessa Art School.  I had to leave school and report to the local commandant.  Owing to poor eyesight I was sent to an army hospital for observation.  There I was found fit for military service and sent back to the commandant to be assigned to some unit.

Meanwhile the revolution broke out.  The Provisional Government offered amnesty to all deserters who would report for duty within a given time; if, however, captured after that time, they were to be severely punished.  As everybody then believed the war was over, many gave themselves up, and the commandant was kept busy by the deserters.  Accordingly I was temporarily assigned for clerical work in his office.

Then the rush of deserters came to an end, the commandant informed me that he intended to assign me as a clerk to a company of Siberian Cossacks, then stationed in Odessa.  Their clerk had taken sick and gone home, so the company commander had applied to the commandant for a clerk, and the latter thought of appointing me.  I was terrified when I heard of it, and begged him not to send me, a Jew, to the Cossacks, who would be sure to persecute me.  He, however, persuaded me to go there, pointing out that I ought not to be afraid, as the revolution had made all men equal, and there was no longer any difference between Jew and Gentile.  Nevertheless he agreed that if after a week’s trial I found it impossible to remain I was to report back to him and he would assign me to some other unit.

With a heavy heart I reported the next day to the commander of the company, Yesouf Lavrov.  Contrary to my expectations, he received me in a very friendly manner.  He looked over my papers and asked me where I had studied, and was delighted when I told him it was an art school.  He told me that at one time he, too, had dreamt of becoming an artist.  We then had a long conversation about art and literature, so that I quite forgot I was talking to a Cossack officer and my prospective commander.  I had entertained a different notion about a Cossack.  I had expected to meet an ignorant, savage, blood-thirsty brute and here was a cultured gentleman talking about literature and art.

When we were about to part, he expressed his satisfaction that it was I and not some one else that had been sent to him, as the old clerk was a very ignorant man and the commander felt lonesome having no one to talk to.  I replied that I should be glad to serve under him, but feared that the Cossacks might treat me roughly because of my race.  Lavrov burst out laughing and told me to leave it all to him, and ordered me to report early the next day.

When I arrived at the appointed time, Lavrov was already waiting for me.  He greeted me very warmly, and then ordered the company to fall in line in the courtyard.  When we stepped out into the courtyard, the Cossacks were already mounted and lined up in a semi-circle.  He then presented me to his command, as follors:

“This is our new clerk.  He is a Jew.  This is the first time in the history of our Siberian Cossacks troops that a Jew joined our ranks.  Till now, we regarded the Jews as the enemies of our country, but the revolution has opened our eyes and we know now who the real enemy was.  It was the Czar, who incited us against one another.  Do you know that we are generally considered wild beasts?  And really we have sinned against all and particularly against the Jews.  But let us show in our behavior toward our new comrade that we have become enlightened men.  Our new comrade is afraid to join our ranks, believing that you have not changed.  But perhaps he is right and I am mistaken about you.  Maybe there are those among you who still cling to their old ideas.  If so, it would be better off for him not to enter our ranks at all.  Decide for yourselves whether you want to take him into our family or not.  Talk this matter over and let us know your decision.”

We went back to the office.  Less than fifteen minutes later the sergeant came in and announced that the company had unanimously voted to take me in and to protect me against insult by Cossacks from other companies.

We again stepped out into the courtyard.  The commander delivered a short speech, thanking the Cossacks for their decision.  Then he gave orders that a horse be selected for me and that the flag be brought out.  Thereupon I was sworn in by Levrov, who embraced me.  A horse was then brought up and the Cossacks helped me mount it, giving three cheers.  And so I became a Cossack.

My duties were quite simple and easy.  I was taught riding part of the day, although I never learned to ride like a real Cossack, for Cossacks grow up and spend most of their lives on horseback.  The rest of the day I spent in drawing up reports.  I had lots of leisure and spent a good deal of time in the company of the commander, who became my chum.  The Cossacks were very friendly to me, and I endeared myself to them by writing letters for them to their folks at home and reading the letters they received.  The called me “Sonny” because I was the youngest and shortest among them.

Thus we spent the whole summer.  Suddenly an order came for us to report to the front and to join a Cossack regiment.  We arrived at the front.  The Cossacks of the other companies looked askance at me, but the Cossacks of my company argued with them and convinced them that I was as good as they, if not better.  Little by little they got used to me and they would boast to Cossacks of other regiments that “we are the only Cossacks who have a Jew among us.”

Meanwhile the old clerk of the company got well and reported back for duty.  I was then transferred to regimental headquarters, where I was also employed as a clerk.  Here the work was easier yet.  I was asked whether I would like to be sent to an officers training school in Odessa, but I preferred to remain a private in the ranks, in order not to part with my regiment.

When the Bolsheviki came into power and all our soldiers began to leave the front, our division decided that there was nothing left for us to do there.  Besides, news had come from home that Chinese bandits were raiding and plundering the Cossack villages, and the soldiers wanted to return home as soon as possible.  The officers, on the other hand, were against returning home.  They wanted the division to join the forces of General Kornikoff and General Kaledin and fight against the Bolsheviki.  We, however, decided to remain neutral and began our homeward journey across the Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government tried to force us to join Korailoff and hindered us at every step.  The government wanted to break up and scatter the division, because united the division was a power to be reckoned with, especially since it had its own artillery.  In their efforts to detain us the Ukrainian authorities advised us to proceed on horseback up to a certain point, where trains would be put at our disposal to take us home.

The journey was a very trying one.  We spent whole days on horseback, in winter weather that was particularly severe that year.  The peasants would sometimes be hospitable and sometimes hostile.  Sometimes we would stay several days in a village and then suddenly be ordered to go back to another village.  The moved us about like pawns on a chessboard.  The Cossacks became ever more impatient and hostile toward the officers, although their attitude toward me remained unchanged.  I foresaw that trouble was coming and I spoke about it to the head of the regimental staff with whom I became quite intimate and who would listen to my advice.

I urged him to issue strict orders to the Cossacks of our regiment to act right toward the inhabitants, not to plunder or steal, but to pay for everything; otherwise, I warned him, we would die of starvation.  I pointed out to that we could not rely on the Ukrainian Government; the only ones that might help us were the inhabitants and so we must not arouse any hostility on their part.

He followed my advice.  And so, while other regiments often had trouble getting provisions, we were everywhere received well by the inhabitants, who soon found out that we were behaving properly.

We often had to pass through Jewish cities and towns.  Everywhere the Cossacks told the Jewish inhabitants that there was among them a Jewish Cossack.  The Jews would not believe it until I convinced them.

On a certain Friday we arrived in a town near Kiev.  The regimental office was installed in the house of a prominent Jew, who was president of a synagogue.  As soon as we were established in our new quarters, the Cossacks who stayed there with me told the master of the house that I was a Jew.  He would not believe them.  When they pointed me out to him and I confirmed it, he still refused to believe it, thinking that I was a renegade and wanted to play a trick on him.  When I had finally convinced him that I was really a Jew who, moreover, was even versed in the Talmud, he simply did not know what to do with me.  He invited me for dinner, but I excused myself, saying that if I alone were invited it might arouse the envy of my fellow Cossacks.  Thereupon he invited all of us for the Sabbath eve meal, and we accepted.

He then went out and told everyone in town that one of the Cossacks stationed in his home was a Jew.  Soon a crowd began to gather in front of the house.  They tried to guess which one was the Jewish Cossack.  Meanwhile our hostess was busy running to the neighbors borrowing eatables for her Cossack guests.  The neighbors gladly shared their provisions with her, and brought the food in personally so as to get a glimpse of me.

Toward evening our host came to me and urged me to come along with him to the synagogue.  I was too busy to grant his request, but promised to do so on the morrow.

In the evening the table was set for us.  The Cossacks were pleased because they were put at the same table with the host, and they enjoyed very much the Jewish dishes.  They were so delighted that the following day they chopped wood for the hostess, cleared away the deep pile of snow in front of the house, and did other chores.

Early in the morning of that day I went to the synagogue in company with our host’s boy, and arrived there while the weekly Portion of the Law was being read.  The moment I entered a tumult arose.  “Here’s the Jewish Cossack!” and they began to crowd around me.  Women bent over the women’s galley in order to get a better view of me.  As for going on with the reading of the law that was out of the question.  I was so closely surrounded that I could not move.  People looked at me as if I had descended from Mars.  I began to feel rather uncomfortable, but at this point my host came to my rescue, thrusting the crowd aside and making a way for me.  I was led up to the East Wall and given a seat next to the Rabbi.  When the services were somehow finished, the Rabbi shook hands with me, and inquired as to how the Cossacks were treating me.  I told him, and he entreated me to try to keep the Cossacks from committing any excesses against the Jews.

When we left the synagogue, a large crowd followed us up in the house.  In the evening, many came, bringing me all kinds of gifts – soap, linen, sugar, tobacco, paper, food and whatnot.  I begged them to take the gifts back, but they refused, so I distributed the presents among the Cossacks, telling the latter that the Jews gave these things to them in appreciation of their good conduct, and that if they continued to behave, they would everywhere be welcomed.  And as a matter of fact, the Cossacks behaved well, and few complaints were heard against them; and when we were leaving the town, the Jews regretted the departure of the “nice, quiet” Cossacks.

I succeeded in averting a pogrom in another town.  The Jews there, having heard that Cossacks were coming, had closed the stores and concealed everything.  The Cossacks arrived, and being unable to purchase anything, they became enraged and wanted to loot the town.  I urged the regimental commander to try to calm the Cossacks, while I would endeavor to come to an understanding with the Jewish inhabitants.  I went to the house of the rabbi, told him who I was, and asked him to summon a meeting of the townspeople.  At the meeting, which took place that evening in the synagogue, I pleaded with the storekeepers to open their shops, assuring them that the Cossacks would pay for everything, and that that was the only way to ward off a pogrom.  The storekeepers followed my advice.  I then went to the regimental commander and told him that it was not from fear of the Cossacks that the Jews had kept their stores closed, but because they had been celebrating an important holiday.  My ruse proved successful, and the Cossacks harbored no grudge against the Jews.

Finally we managed to get trains to take us home.  As we left the Ukraine, the Cossacks began to get even with their officers, depriving them of their rank and special privileges.  When we arrived in a town near Chita, the Cossacks of our regiment arrested the old officers, elected new ones and placed the old ones on trial.  But they were all acquitted, following which they deserted and joined General Semenoff, who had just begun to organize his bands.  The regiment I was serving in joined the Bolsheviki and released any one who desired to return to civilian life.  I availed myself of the opportunity and asked for my discharge.  They wanted to keep me and the new commander offered me a high post if I would remain, but I refused, saying that I wanted to go to my folks in America.  They finally gave me my discharge papers and I left for Vladivostok.

While on the way I was detained by one of General Semenoff’s bands.  The only charge against me was that I was a Jew and had served in a regiment that had revolted.  I and many others were placed under arrest.  They took away all our belongings and flogged us mercilessly, not sparing even the women.  About forty persons, myself among them, were held as Bolsheviki.  As they were marching us off to jail, they ordered us to halt, took six of our comrades and shot them on the spot, forcing us to dig graves, and bury the victims.  They also made us trample upon the graves, so as to make them level with the ground, so that no one would ever know where they were located.

They would have shot me, too, had not their leader told them that Semenoff might want to question me regarding the occurrences in my regiment, and that I would be executed anyhow.

At the hearing I assured Semenoff that I was not a Bolsheviki.  Luckily he was in a good humour then, and he asked me to prove by a witness that I was not a Bolsheviki, and added that I might summon as witness any of the old officers of my regiment.  I inquired if among these officers there was one Yesouf Lavrov.  Fortunately that proved to be the case.  My old commanding officer and friend was summoned, and he spoke highly of me; accordingly I was released.

I managed somehow to reach Vladivostok, where I remained for nearly a year.  From there I went to Japan, where I spent eleven months, and then proceeded to South America, whence I finally got to the United States and rejoined my family.

Soldiers of The Great War: Jewish Military Service in WW I, as Reported in The Jewish Chronicle – “Russian Jews and The War”, October 9, 1914

A brief item from The Jewish Chronicle about Russian Jewry during The Great War.

Short; direct, the article would seem to imply that the attitudes of soldiers, and, actions of civilian authorities at Bielostock, were small signs of the impending; eventual, social and political acceptance of the Jews in Russia. 

Whether one is powerless, or incorrectly believes oneself to be powerless, then any perceived sign of goodwill, even if motivated by simple practicality, can be seen as a harbinger of hope…

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RUSSIAN JEWS AND THE WAR

Christian Soldiers Commend Jews

(FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT)

The Jewish Chronicle
October 9, 1914

PETROGRAD

One of the pleasant features of the War is the good feeling established between Christian and Jewish soldiers in the active army.  The wounded soldiers in the hospitals speak highly of the conduct of their Jewish comrades on the battlefield.  They are also full of praise for the treatment they receive in the military hospitals organized by the Jews.

JEWS PREFERRED

Striking evidence of what the authorities now think of Jewish loyalty has been forthcoming at Bielostock.  Some five hundred and fifty Jews offered their services to the Red Cross for the purpose of assisting in the removal of wounded soldiers to the hospitals.  At the same time seventy Poles also enrolled themselves, but they refused to co-operate with the Jewish contingent.  The authorities thereupon accepted their resignations and refused to dismiss the Jewish volunteers.

– Transcribed by Michael G. Moskow

Soldiers of The Great War: Jewish Military Service in WW I, as Reported in l’Univers Israélite (The Jewish World) – Les soldats juifs dans l’armée russe (Jewish Soldiers in the Russian Army), January 15, 1915

Oddly, despite the enormous losses thus far incurred by the French armed forces, the first detailed account of Jewish military service carried by l’Univers Israélite did not cover French Jewish soldiers.  Instead, it concerned the military services of Jews in the army of Imperial Russia, and paralleled The Jewish Chronicle’s coverage of military service of this topic.

This item – published on January 15, 1915 – appears below.

The article is different from similar items in the Chronicle, in that the source of the information is revealed – J. Antokolsky – but no further information about him is presented.  Given the details in the article, perhaps Mr. Antokolsky was a Russian citizen, and therefore had direct access to the Russian media, as well as newspapers issued by the Jewish press – details from which were forwarded to l’Univers Israélite.  Or, perhaps he was living in France and maintained contact with news sources in Russia, or, subscribed to Russian news publications.

In any event, even considering any embellishment to these stories, they do suggest the level of assimilation, acculturation – and ultimately, patriotism – present among the Jews of Russia at this time.

As for the image at the head of this post – from The Jewish World of September 9, 1914? 

Perhaps this man is the “Miller” referred to in the concluding paragraph, who is said to have become an assistant sergeant in the Cossacks…

A PDF version of this item is available here

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  Les soldats juifs dans l’armée russe

Jewish Soldiers in the Russian Army

l’Univers Israélite
January 15, 1915

The Jewish World
January 15, 1915

Les préoccupations que nous avons ici ne doivent pas nous empêcher de suivre avec une attention vigilante ce qui se passe en Russie, où le sort de sept millions de juifs se joue en ce moment. Nous nous proposons de revenir, et de revenir sans cesse, sur la question juive en Russie et sut le rôle des juifs dans la guerre actuelle. Nous publierons prochainement une étude statistique sur le nombre des juifs dans l’armée russe. Pour amorcer ce sujet, voici quelques renseignements qu’a bien voulu nous communiquer un de nos lecteurs, M. J. Antokolsky.

The concerns we have here should not prevent us from following with careful attention what is happening in Russia, where the fate of seven million Jews is being played right now.  We intend to come back, and come back constantly, on the Jewish question in Russia and know the role of Jews in the present war.  We will soon publish a statistical study on the number of Jews in the Russian army.  To initiate this, here is some information kindly sent us by one of our readers, Mr. J. Antokolsky.

J’applaudis de tout cœur à votre idée de publier dans le journal que vous dirigez avec tant d’habileté les faits d’armes extraordinaires accomplis par nos frères sur les champs de bataille. Il n’est pas douteux que vos lecteurs ne soient heureux d’apprendre que nos coreligionnaires russes se montrent dignes de leurs camarades en France. Vous me permettrez donc de vous signaler quelques actions d’éclat dont les héros sont nos coreligionnaires russes et dont les journaux russes ont parle avec admiration.

I applaud with whole heart your idea of publishing in the newspaper that you lead so skillfully extraordinary feats performed by our brothers on the battlefield.  There is no doubt that your readers will be pleased to know that our fellow Russians show themselves worthy of their comrades in France.  So allow me to point out some brilliant actions of our heroic fellow Russian coreligionists of whom Russian newspapers speak with admiration.

Aïsik Goutman, en reconnaissance à la tête d’un peloton de cavalerie, a fait preuve d’une grande intelligence et bravoure. Blessé aux deux mains, il continue à diriger le mouvement en avant. Ayant eu son cheval tué sous lui et ne pouvant se relever, il continue à donner des ordres à son peloton et lui indique le chemin à suivre pour éviter l’ennemi. Fait prisonnier et questionné par l’ennemi sur l’emplacement et l’importance de sa troupe, il donne des renseignements volontairement erronés. Profitant du sommeil de son gardien, il s’évade dans la nuit, se cache tout le jour dans les bois, et rejoint son régiment, d’où il est aussitôt transporté à l’Hôpital de Wilna. Il y reçoit la visite de son chef de corps, qui lui apporte deux croix de Saint-Georgés — la plus haute récompense en temps de guerre — et lui dit textuellement “Mon petit frère, toute ma vie je me souviendrai de toi et de ta bravoure, et je te propose pour la troisième croix.”

Aïsik Goutman in reconnaissance at the head of a squad of cavalry, has shown great intelligence and bravery.  Wounded in both hands, he continues to lead the movement forward.  Having had his horse shot out under him and being unable to get up, he continued to give orders to his platoon and shows them the path to follow to avoid the enemy.  Captured and questioned by the enemy on the location and extent of his troop, he gave deliberately misleading information. Taking advantage of his sleeping guard, he escaped into the night, hiding all day in the woods, and joined his regiment, where he was immediately taken to the Hospital of Wilna.  He is visited by his commanding officer, who brings him two Crosses of St. George – the highest award in wartime – and told him verbatim “My little brother, all my life I will remember you and your bravery, and I propose for you the third cross.”

Oswald, jeune soldat de 20 ans, arrache à l’ennemi le premier drapeau, décoré de la croix de Saint-Georges, soigné à l’Hôpital de Wilna.

Oswald, a young soldier of 20 years, snatches the enemy’s first flag, decorated with the Cross of St. George, treated at the Hospital of Vilna.

Elie Archin, pointeur dans une batterie. Toujours à son poste de combat, a pris part à six grandes batailles; décoré de la croix de Saint-Georges pour sa bravoure hors ligne et sa grande intelligence. Son commandant écrit personnellement une lettre au père Archin pour lui marquer combien il est heureux d’avoir sous ses ordres un soldat d’une si grande valeur.

Elie Archin, aimer in a battery.  Always at his post, took part in six major battles; decorated with the Cross of St. George for bravery offline and great intelligence.  His commander personally wrote a letter to Mr. Archin to mark him how happy he is to have under him a soldier of such great value.

Katz, promu au grade de sous-lieutenant sur le champ de bataille (fait tout à fait rare en Russie) pour faits d’armes tout-à-fait exceptionnels. Le journal russe qui rapporte ce fait avec enthousiasme ajoute qu’il est heureux d’annoncer que Katz, en reconnaissance de son grade, a embrassé la religion orthodoxe.  Mais notre héros riposte immédiatement par une lettre au même journal: “Je suis né juif, je reste et mourrai juif.”

Katz, promoted to sub-lieutenant on the battlefield (in fact quite rare in Russia) for feats made entirely exceptional.  The Russian newspaper reported this fact with enthusiasm adding that he was pleased to announce that Katz, in recognition of his rank, embraced the Orthodox religion.  But our hero responded immediately by a letter to the same newspaper: “I was born Jewish, I am and will die a Jew.”

Un jeune écolier de quinze ans et derni quitte la maison sans prévenir ses parents, suit un régiment et combat sur le front héroïquement.  Blessé et fait prisonnier, il est torturé par les Autrichiens, qui veulent obtenir des renseignements sur son regiment; mais le jeune héros ne répond rien.  Il est jeté dans un hangar froid où il reste plusieurs jours sans nourriture; il s’évade et rentre dans son regiment.  Nommé sergent malgré son jeune àge.

A young schoolboy of fifteen and a half leaves home without telling his parents, following a regiment and fighting at the front heroically.  Wounded and taken prisoner, he is tortured by the Austrians, who want to obtain information about his regiment; but the young hero does not answer.  He is thrown into a cold shed where he remained many days without food; he escaped and returned to his regiment.  Named sergeant despite his young age.

Je ne vous parle pas du jeune cosaque Miller (vingt ans), nommé sergent-adjoint, décoré trois fois sur le champ de bataille, car tous les journeaux de Paris et de province ont publié des articles élogieux en son honneur.

I’m not talking about the young Cossack Miller (twenty years), appointed assistant sergeant, decorated three times on the battlefield, because all the newspapers of Paris and the provinces have published favorable articles in his honor.

– Transcribed and Translated by Michael G. Moskow