By Gerard Leval
Intense joy, incompressible joy, unique joy, composed of the purest instincts and sentiments of our being.” So exulted Rabbi David Haguenau in speaking to his congregants at Paris’ Nazareth synagogue on Nov. 15, 1918, just days following the signing of the armistice that ended the Great War — the war we now know as World War I.
The rabbi’s expression of profound happiness at the victory of the French armies over their German counterparts was a reflection of the deeply-felt patriotism that characterized the French Jewish community throughout the bloody war. From the very first days of World War I, French Jews rallied unflinchingly in support of France. They went to the front enthusiastically, fought bravely and sacrificed enormously.
By the war’s end, more than 6,500 French Jews (out of a total community of approximately 180,000) had paid the ultimate price for their patriotism, and thousands of others had been wounded. The price in blood for the victory so lauded by Haguenau had been extraordinarily high for the relatively small French Jewish community. Memorial plaques that still today adorn the walls of many French synagogues stand as a silent
tribute to the fallen.
At Paris’ main synagogue on rue de la Victoire, more than 2,000 names of young members of that kehillah who died in the war are inscribed in stone. The name of my great uncle, André Simon Geissmann, killed at the age of 24 while leading his platoon out of a trench at Verdun in July 1916, is among them.
The importance of the cause was beyond question to the thousands of young Jews who flocked to the French tricolor to defend against the invading “boches.” France, the nation that had given them legal equality in 1791, long before any other Western nation, was well worth defending. The opportunity to give proof of their loyalty made Jewish soldiers particularly fervent supporters of the French cause and, not coincidently, resulted in a far higher rate of fatalities than among their gentile fellow soldiers.
In his moving remarks to his congregation at the Kol Nidre service in 1915, as the violence and desolation of the war was reaching its height, Haguenau sought to bring consolation to the many in his synagogue who had already lost loved ones. He cited French exceptionalism as a source of comfort and compared French Jewish soldiers to Jewish heroes of ancient times. “Like their ancestors who died then for our God, they have died today for France,” he proclaimed.
Beyond physical sacrifice, symbols of loyalty played an important role in the effort to cement the relationship of the Jewish community with their non-Jewish neighbors. In particular, one act of bravery was a source of inspiration to Jews and non-Jews alike. In the midst of one of the earliest battles of the war, a Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Abraham Bloch, had created a cross out of two pieces of wood and held it in front of a dying Catholic soldier in order to comfort him. As he was performing this act of kindness, the rabbi was himself fatally shot.
Bloch’s martyrdom became the ultimate symbol of Jewish loyalty to the French nation. For a generation, Jewish veterans, my grandfather included, would regularly (and in my grandfather’s case every year) go to Bloch’s grave in Eastern France to pay their respects and through that act reaffirm their loyalty to France and to its ideals, sanctified by the sacrifice of the numerous
The four years of violent conflict afflicted every French family and similarly every French Jewish family. No family was left untouched by the war. Sacrifice was both personal and communal. And so, when an armistice that brought the war to an end was finally proclaimed, France’s Jews rejoiced together in complete harmony with their fellow French citizens. They perceived the armistice as a clear case of good having prevailed over evil. The feared, aggressive and autocratic Germans had been defeated. Liberal, enlightened and hospitable France, with the assistance of American and British allies, had won.
The tremendous sense of joy felt by the Jewish community is epitomized in a photograph that was taken on Nov. 12, 1918, of the large building in the very heart of Strasbourg owned by my great-grandparents and members of their family. The house is festooned with garlands and French and American flags. A crowd of soldiers and locals is gathered in front to celebrate the French victory. Over their heads is a large sign adorning the building, proudly bearing the very Jewish name of the owners: “Lévy.”
The end of the Great War was the high-water mark of fraternal solidarity between the members of the French Jewish community and their Christian neighbors. At that time of victory, it was inconceivable that just a little more than 20 years later the nation for which so many young Jews had suffered so much would become complicit in the destruction of thousands of Jewish lives.
Armistice Day, 100 years ago, was a moment of seemingly endless possibilities for France and for its loyal Jews. It was a time, as Haguenau wrote just a few months afterwards, of thanksgiving for “permitting us to reap the harvest of the heroism of our children.” The rabbi died but a short time later, and therefore did not live to see how sadly mistaken he had been with his unbridled optimism. n
Gerard Leval is a partner in a Washington, D.C., law firm. He writes and lectures on topics of French and Jewish interest.