Battle of the Somme

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Christian, Muslim and Jewish graves on the Somme.

I spent the first 17 years of my life in a French department called Somme where war memorials and cemeteries were extremely common. As regards World War I, this region is best known by the British who lost thousands of soldiers there during the Battle of the Somme; so many that this battle has been nicknamed by French historians “The Verdun of the English”.

Here is a short summary of this battle:
The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, fought from July to November 1916, was among the largest battles of the First World War. With more than 1.5 million casualties, it is also one of the bloodiest military operations recorded. The Allied forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 12-mile (19 km) front north and south of the River Somme in northern France. One purpose of the battle was to draw German forces away from the Battle of Verdun; however, by its end the losses on the Somme had exceeded those at Verdun. By the end of the war the Allied losses proved replaceable, the German losses less so.
Verdun was an icon that would affect the national consciousness of France for generations, and the Somme would have the same effect on generations of British people. The battle is best remembered for its first day, 1 July 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead—the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army
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Nowadays it is quite impressive and moving to visit these sites. All the more so as some of these young soldiers were not 18 yet; some of them having lied about their age to join the British army.

Tomorrow we are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the armistice treaty between the Allies and Germany which was signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest and marked the end of this war.

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Broken Glass

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On November 9th, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous night during which 267 synagogues were burned down, 7500 Jewish-owned businesses and institutions were destroyed, 92 Jews were murdered and an additional 30,000 were arrested and many were sent to concentration camps.

To commemorate this event, Le Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris organizes an exhibition. Three History teachers and I will go there in December with two classes.

Shabbat Shalom, the OU online magazine, features a slideshow which shows some aspects of the vibrant Jewish community of Berlin today.

The Litvaks

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A summer post written by Leora gave me ideas for a lesson on the Jews of Lithuania, or rather this provided me with a concrete example of a vanished community that the Holocaust destroyed.

Since I did not know much about the Jews of Lithuania, I bought and read a book Jew Wishes had recommended, The Litvaks: A Short History of the Jews in Lithuania. Isn’t the virtual community wonderful? Although it deals with the whole period when Jews lived in Lithuania, this book concentrates on the years 1918-1945. Now a French book, Les Litvaks L’héritage universel d’un monde juif disparu, about which I heard a review on Sunday has just been released. Its authors spoke about it and have helped me understand the particularities of the Litvak community.

The word Litvak comes from the Polish Litwak and means Lithuanian yet specifically refers to a Lithuanian Jew. The term Lithuania is slightly misleading if you think of the country as it is today; the map on Wikipedia gives a fair idea of the size of Lithuania in the Middle-Ages.

The first Jews arrived in Lithuania great numbers from the 12 th century. They came from the Rhine Valley from where they had been driven away by the crusades. The Jews were famous for their talents in crafts and trade and were therefore encouraged by the authorities ruling the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to move there to help develop the country. The same thing happened with Turkey when the Jews were forced to leave Spain in 1492.

At that time Lithuania was not a Christian country yet; it only formally adopted Christianity in 1389, which probably explained why the authorities had no prejudice against the Jews and thus granted them far more rights than in any other part of Europe. Thus in 1388, the Jews were granted a special charter. This is its preambule:
In the name of God, Amen. All deeds of men, when they are not made known by the testimony of witnesses or in writing, pass away and vanish and are forgotten. Therefore, we, Alexander, also called Vytautas , by the grace of God Grand Duke of Lithuania and ruler of Brest, Dorogicz, Lutsk, Vladimir, and other places, make known by this charter to the present and future generations, or to whomever it may concern to know or hear of it, that, after due deliberation with our nobles we have decided to grant to all the Jews living in our domains the rights and liberties mentioned in the following charter.

Thus the Lithuanian Jews formed a class of freemen subject in all criminal cases directly to the jurisdiction of the grand duke and his official representatives, and in petty suits to the jurisdiction of local officials on an equal footing with the lesser nobles (szlachta), boyars, and other free citizens. (Wikepedia). In the book mentioned above I was surprised to read that, at that time, hitting a Jew was a serious an offence as hitting a noble men.

These equitable laws allowed the Jews of Lithuania to reach a degree of prosperity unknown to their Polish and German co-religionists at that time. It also allowed them to develop a unique culture and religious organizations.

Unfortunately this Golden Age ended when Poland was partitioned – the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was part of Poland – in 1793 and the Jews became subjects of Russia.

Bad News for the Jews

Anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and fascists slogans and graffiti were sprayed on the walls of a French junior high school last week. It is probably no coincidence that the school is named after René Cassin, the man who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Judging from the slogans, which included references to White Power, the culprits must be extreme-right activists.

– Three young Jewish boys were attacked and beaten up by a group of ten teenagers yesterday evening on their way to shul. This happened in the same district as the June attack. The youngsters said their aggressors attacked them because they had “the traditional Jewish profile” and wore kippot.
I’ll provide update when I have more information.

– The theological commission of the World Evangelical Alliance has reiterated its commitment to proselytize European Jews. One may wonder what the WEA was thinking when they decided to issue their call from Berlin.

Nota Bene: The link provided for the last news is to a Jewish site, no need to boost the WEA’s readership.