Ten thousand flames illuminated the Tower of London in commemoration of the centenary of the November 1918 Armistice between Germany and the Western Allies. British cultural spaces were filled with Great War memorial installations and think pieces, all reflecting on the same thing: the death of soldiers. One hundred years after the armistice, European leaders were able to come together to mourn men who had died trying to kill one another. British Jews have fallen in line with their own version of these events, opening a 2014 installation in the Jewish Museum celebrating Jewish war heroes, selling poppies in their synagogues, dutifully visiting the 3500 or so Jewish war dead in nearby cemeteries, and filling the Jewish Chronicle with stories of their war-sacrificing grandparents. But who will mourn the 200,000 Jews who died in Ukraine one hundred years ago?
It’s hardly surprising that a memorial project formally guarded by the state should favour the state and its military, projecting current nationalism back onto the tragedy that occurred a century ago. Historians have criticised the framing of these Great War commemorations – the way women’s contributions and sacrifices go unrecognised, or the failure to link the war with its global, multi-racial face. It’s also worth noting that the Armistice of 11 November 1918 only affected one front of a global war: the Western one.
Yet it is on the Eastern Front that the more central Jewish story of World War I lies – one of many reasons why Jews fit uncomfortably within the commemorative, militaristic narratives offered by the nation-state. There is radically more to the Jewish experience of the Great War – and specifically of 1919 – than British Jews today might realise. The full story illuminates not only the British nationalism inherent in the Day of Remembrance, but the deeply Christian roots of that commemoration.