The Reich Association of Jewish War Veterans [Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten (RjF)] and its Hamburg chapter, the German-Jewish War Veterans’ Association [Vaterländischer Bund jüdischer Frontsoldaten]
The Reich Association of Jewish War Veterans [Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten] (RjF) counted up to 55,000 members at one point, which made it the Weimar Republic's second largest Jewish organization after the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith [Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens]. The German veteran's organization “Stahlhelm, Bund der Frontsoldaten” founded in December 1918 refused membership to Jewish veterans. When the organization of Jewish war veterans was founded in February 1919 on an initiative by Dr. Leo Löwenstein, it was therefore also conceived of as an association to combat antisemitism. The formation of its Hamburg chapter, which always retained its original name German-Jewish War Veterans’ Association [Vaterländischer Bund jüdischer Frontsoldaten], occurred in the spring of 1919. Its chosen name was programmatic: according to its by-laws, the Hamburg chapter considered it its fundamental task to “unite all Jewish war veterans of the former German infantry located in Greater Hamburg regardless of their political or religious orientation in order to jointly combat all attacks against the Jews.” Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Jerusalem, AHW 794, sheets 124-130; printed in: Ina Lorenz / Jörg Berkemann, Die Hamburger Juden im NS-Staat 1933 bis 1938/39, vol. V, Göttingen 2016, documents, 9-12, here: 9. Any Jewish war veteran in Hamburg who had seen active battle and served at the front was able to become a member. About 85,000 German Jews fought at the front during the First World War, some sources speak of roughly 80,000, about 12,000 of whom fell. In the fall of 1918, völkisch groups claimed that the Jews were mainly responsible for the German defeat due to their “shirking” and breaking morale at the home front. The question how many Jewish soldiers from Hamburg had fallen remained unanswered during the initial years after the local chapter's establishment and was not satisfactorily answered until 1929. The chairman of the Hamburg chapter at that time, attorney Dr. Siegfried Urias, calculated a number of 457 casualties. A complete list of the names of all fallen Jewish soldiers from Hamburg was compiled in the 1932 memorial publication “Gefallenengedenkbuch des Reichsbundes jüdischer Frontsoldaten” [Memorial book of the Reich Association of Jewish War Veterans]. Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten (ed.), Die jüdischen Gefallenen des deutschen Heeres, der deutschen Marine und der deutschen Schutztruppen 1914-1918. Ein Gedenkbuch, Berlin 1932.
Under the leadership of its energetic chairman Siegfried Urias, the Hamburg chapter of the RjF seems to have quickly gained a significant reputation within Hamburg's Jewish community. This might have encouraged its members in February 1921 to call for donations for the establishment of a dedicated cemetery and memorial for Jewish soldiers. The appeal testifies to the broad support this effort received from influential Jewish institutions.
The appeal was written by an advertising committee consisting of 20 persons, among them well-known dignitaries from within the community and the three religious associations and their respective rabbis. The content of the appeal was kept simple. The existing resting place for fallen soldiers was meant to be given a permanent designation as a memorial cemetery for Jewish soldiers who had died in the war. In case a very large amount of donations should be received, the Hamburg chapter hoped to also support suffering veterans and their families. Its appeal emphasized soldierly honor, thus reflecting an explicitly German-national Jewish identity. Both the enlisted Jews' patriotism and their readiness for sacrifice were pointed out in particular. Hamburg's other Jewish residents were also supposed to feel addressed by this appeal. In 1922, only a year after this appeal was circulated, the establishment of a memorial cemetery for Jewish soldiers was realized on the grounds of the Ilandkoppel cemetery in Ohlsdorf. Thus Hamburg became the first major Jewish community in Germany to honor its war dead not only with a dedicated burial place, but also a large-scale memorial. Berlin followed suit in 1927 while it took other communities until the 1930s.
The German-Jewish War Veterans’ Association [Vaterländischer Bund jüdischer Frontsoldaten] remained a constant presence in the life of Hamburg's Jewish community. In the course of the 1920s, the local chapter managed to hold impressive commemorations at the memorial cemetery. These commemorations of the dead were not exclusively Jewish events, however, for they were attended by a significant number of state representatives and non-Jewish associations as well. The setting of these commemorations gained such a high profile that Hamburg mayor Carl Wilhelm Petersen attended in 1925 and state councilor Dr. Leo Lippmann in 1929 to represent the senate. In the late 1920s it became customary for the rabbis of the Temple Association and the Synagogue at Neues Dammtor to attend the commemorations. In February 1933 the association still presented its memorial publication, “Gefallenengedenkbuch des Reichsbundes jüdischer Frontsoldaten” [Memorial book of the Reich Association of Jewish War Veterans], and a separate list of fallen Jewish soldiers from Hamburg to the Hamburg senate during a commemoration ceremony. On September 9, 1933 a gathering of 575 war veterans from Northern Germany took place; another event held several weeks later counted more than 700 participants. When a referendum on Germany's leaving the League of Nations was scheduled for November 12, 1933, the RjF campaigned to vote “yes.” In an appeal published in the German-Israelite Congregation newsletter, they wrote “we stand in old soldierly discipline with our German homeland until the last.” Gemeindeblatt der Deutsch-Israelitischen Gemeinde zu Hamburg, vol. 9, no. 8/9, November 9, 1933, p. 1. In December 1933 the Hamburg chapter organized a rally attended by about 2,000 people. Once again they demanded “to be considered part of the German nation, sharing all its duties but also all its rights.” When antisemitism was elevated to state doctrine under National Socialist rule, this prompted the RjF to rethink its political course toward the state. By 1933 the beginning of legal and social marginalization could no longer be denied. The RjF had to admit that its initial policy of hoping for complaisant toleration by the National Socialist regime had failed. It was only after the “Nuremberg Laws” were passed in September 1935 that the Hamburg chapter began to distance itself from its earlier strict rejection of emigration and in 1936 began to openly advocate it. The RjF now called for a return to “religion” while increasingly giving up its strict opposition to Zionism.
In the spring of 1935 there still was a public, open air commemoration ceremony held at the Jewish section of the Ohlsdorf cemetery that was attended by about 1,000 participants; a similar commemoration took place at the Jewish cemetery in Harburg. As of 1936 such events were no longer possible. The “Heldengedenktage” celebrated by the National Socialist regime certainly did not include commemorations of Jewish soldiers. Hamburg's Jewish community now mostly commemorated their fallen soldiers by non-public events such as a religious services held in the two major synagogues in March 1937 and on October 31st, 1937 by an event in the funeral hall at the Ilandkoppel cemetery followed by a ceremony at the memorial cemetery. Following the November pogrom of 1938 the RjF dissolved at the end of that year. By that point, a large number of its members had already emigrated from Germany.
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Ina Lorenz, Prof. Dr. phil., works after her retirement as research assistant at the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ). The focus of her work is German-Jewish history in the 19th and 20th century, especially in Northern Germany, she published several source editions on the Jewish congregations of Hamburg, Altona and Wandsbek from the 17th to 20th century and also worked on the social and congregational history of the Jews in Hamburg.
Ina Lorenz, Appeal to Create a Jewish Memorial Cemetery in Ohlsdorf (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, February 27, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-45.en.v1> [May 29, 2017].