I know that Memorial Day is about American veterans, but this being the Intermountain Jewish News, and me having just visited three World War I battlefields, I was inspired to expand the definition slightly to include all Jewish soldiers, no matter their national origin.
It is inevitable — and the nature of history — that later events eclipse earlier ones, especially if the more recent event is particularly horrific. We’ve discussed this previously with regards to Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, and I experienced a similar feeling when I traveled to France last week to visit the WWI battlefields of Verdun, Somme and St. Mihiel, where the Americans fought under JJ Pershing.
In the Jewish community, our focus is so strong on the Second World War that we tend to forget how deadly the first was. I have never visited the concentration camps, but now, having visited the sights of other, earlier, blood baths, I can actually imagine how difficult it would be to step foot on Auschwitz, Treblinka, Buchenwald. In fact it’s for this very reason that I’ve avoided visiting the camps; when it comes to the Holocaust, I personally don’t feel that I need the same reality check. I’ve grown up hearing firsthand the stories of survivors, knowing of the many relatives that perished in the camps, and later even studied Nazi Germany at university.
With the First World War, a conflict to which I have no personal connection, visiting the battlefields brought to life an era that was far removed from my life.
I learned an incredible amount over those few days, and in my preparation for the trip. I learned about the horrific first day of the Somme Battle, on July 1, 1916, when almost 20,000 British soldiers died; the battle itself lasted five months. I learned about the hellhole of Verdun, the French fortress city, where nearly one million people died in a ten-month long battle, and from where the motto “They shall not pass” originates, which was later adopted by Spanish republicans fighting fascism. I walked through German trenches, saw their labyrinthine bunker system, and even found shrapnel on recently plowed fields. Farmers here continue to find shells, bombs and grenades from those years — that’s how many ballistics were employed during the war. I learned about the more than 100,000 soldiers, from both sides, who to this day have no known grave.
I learned about the massive human sacrifices made for the smallest of gains.
And I visited cemeteries. Those overwhelming war cemeteries, with row upon row upon row of headstones, usually crosses, but dotted with Stars of David. And it made me — for the first time in my life — really think about the Jewish soldiers who gave their lives in a conflict prior to the Second World War.
I was especially rattled by the Jewish headstones in the German cemetery near the Somme. These souls gave their lives for the same ‘Fatherland’ that two decades later recognized their sacrifice by disowning them as German. It made their deaths feel especially tragic, for in hindsight, they gave themselves for naught. Despite some reprieve for World War I veterans during the early days of Nazi Germany, ultimately, service to the Kaiser didn’t save Jewish veterans from the same treatment as all other Jews.
In all of the cemeteries — German, Commonwealth, American — small stones were carefully piled on Jewish headstones. I had never given much thought to this custom, but here, in these cemeteries far from home, I experienced how this ritual illuminates an epitaph associated with the First World War: “Gone but not forgotten.” For me, the lasting nature of the stones symbolized remembrance, both of the individuals and their sacrifice. It was humbling to place a stone upon these graves, no matter the nationality of the cemetery.
The American memorial in Montsec, near the ground where so many ‘Doughboys’ gave their lives, bears the following inscription: “Their devotion, their valor, and their sacrifices will live forever in the hearts to their grateful countrymen.” For an American visiting the site nearly 100 years later, the sentiment of gratitude was extremely powerful.