THE MUSEUM OF FAMILY HISTORY presents
Jews in the
Wearers of the "Mogen David" Enlisted in a British Contingent to Fight the Turks
by Bertram Reinitz
Joseph L. Cohen, a fellow of Columbia
University, was the first to enlist. A lot of kosher butchers’ helpers
joined not long after him. Within a week, on February 27, 1918, one
hundred men had enlisted for service with the Egyptian Expeditionary
Forces in Palestine. They were aliens, Russians, many of them, and not
subject to the American draft. They enlisted specifically for service in
the Holy Land. They annoyed the recruiting officers. Some were less than
five feet tall and came around every day. Some had chest measurements of
thirty inches inflated. Others were sixteen years old, and then others
In a Hurry to Go
They wanted to go as speedily as possible after they passed the tests. They did a number of things to pass these examinations. Samuel Elianov, for example, made the weight minimum by drinking $2 worth of inexpensive beer and olive oil. Then he rushed up to the recruiting depot and weighted in. Joseph Branin, son of the foremost Hebrew literary critic, enlisted. Hyman Persky, whose father sold baked sweet potatoes under the Williamsburg Bridge at East Broadway, also offered himself and was accepted.
Fifth Avenue saw a new kind of banner and a novel brand of prospective fighters at various times in March two years ago. Contingents of Palestinian recruits, with a brassard on one arm and a tearful family on the other, would tramp bravely up or down the street-of-many-farewells. Before them Finkelberg’s band, or sometimes it was the musical men of the U.S.S. Recruit, would swing along, playing “Hatikwa,” the Jewish national anthem, with its meaning the yearning of a race—Hope.
The ancient flag of the promised nation—promised by the British to the Jews—would be carried by two of the tallest men, between the American flag and the Union Jack. The squads usually had some sergeant major, often a Canadian back from Far Eastern service, setting the marching pace.
On the evening before departure there would be a dinner in Beethoven Hall or Stuyvesant Casino. The legionnaires would be toasted and cried over. They would be kissed and presented with things. Joseph Barondess and other noted Jews would voice thhe appreciation of the Jews of America for the crusaders and would ask them to please hurry their fighting work, because some of the older folk wanted to die in the emancipated Jerusalem.
Most of the contingents sailed late in the afternoon, on the Fall River Line, from Pier 14. Roses mingled with tubs of butter along West Street as the legionnaires made their way to the boat which would take them on the first leg of their journey
Private Bushmitz was a member of one of these contingents, the second to go. It caught up with the first at Sorrento, Italy, and later all the contingents became the 39th Battalion, Royal Fusileers. And the Royal Fusileers is the only regiment which may march with fixed bayonets before a king!
The passengers on their boat complained,
Private Bushmitz said the other day, that they couldn’t sleep because
the little fellows with the trick brassards on their arms were raising
hell all evening.
Learned Brave Oaths
Private Bushmitz swore often as he narrated the story of the last crusade. His auditors, fellow members of the B’Nai Am Chei, of 201 East Broadway, hadn’t heard him swear before he went away. They liked it, though. In fact, they liked every word he released, judging from the way they withheld their own comment. The B’Nai Am Chei is a Hebrew social club, where economic and other problems of to-day are thrashed out in the pure Hebrew of many days ago.
Girls would come in from time to time and bestow encomiums on the returned warrior. He merely shook their hand gravely and thanked them for their greeting. One of these days the B’Nai Am Chei is going to hold a grand blowout, with wine. It is also reported that the local rabbis will have a few duties to perform.
Windsor, Canada, Private Bushmitz said, was the first stop worth talking about. It was there that the legionnaires glimpsed the inside workings of a large army in a still larger war. The men, now out of the warm, loving eyesight of their relatives and friends, found themselves in a country that was chilly of nights and among sergeant majors whose speechmaking seemed limited to “Fo-o-a-r-d, Y-oo-oh,” or something equally cryptic.
For eleven days, at the concentration camp at Windsor, life was one drill after another with Private Bushmitz’s contingent. Their clothes were beginning to offer great openings to the sharp Canadian air when they were given warm British uniforms.
Private Bushmitz admits that the conduct of the legionnaires caused considerable bewildered head-scratching among the Canadians. The latter couldn’t understand why men who were going twice as far as Flanders to fight an enemy who was proving just as tough as the Germans should sing at breakfast, sing some more at dinner and then sing again at supper time. They danced, too, Private Bushmitz said, their steps revealing their various birthlands.
After two days at an old fort called York Redoubt, near Halifax, the legionnaires, 200 strong, took their stiffened but still singing selves aboard H.M.S. Elia Glasgow on April 9. The transport was never lonesome on the voyage to England, Private Bushmitz said. There were eleven other ships along, and a low, gray destroyer which nosed about like a collie with a flock of valuable sheep.
The legionnaires made two interesting discoveries aboard ship. They met a Canadian army captain named Friedman and learned that the ship’s doctor was also a Jew.
Liverpool, on April 19, loomed up, looking good to many of the legionnaires, not because it was Liverpool, but because it was land. The sea had been disturbed considerably. They had their first taste of British transit on the following day, going from Liverpool to London, rousing the farmers en route to wonder at the kind of soldiers who can ride in third class coaches and still sing. They paused outside of London on the grass at Anselm Barracks, stayed there a day within soot smelling distance of the Large Town and then moved over to Crownhill Barracks at Plymouth.
There were a bunch of N.C.O.’s who never had an ideal in their lives at Crownhill, Private Bushmitz averred. They sent the legionnaires into play trenches filled with real mud and fenced about with equally effective barbed wire.
Guns were funny things to most of the legionnaires. A few had seen them in pawnbrokers’ windows on the Bowery. Isidore Tugendmen had carried one once when he worked for a junk dealer. That gun wouldn’t go off, he said, although there seemed to be nothing the matter with it. At least he hadn’t been able to see anything wrong when he looked down the hole in the front, he said.
After thirteen days of drill the legionnaires went out on the firing range. They kept imagining the bullseyes were Turks, Bushmitz said, and they almost made the sergeant majors appreciative. They had established a new record in reaching rifle practice after seventeen hours of school and squad of the soldier.
On May 7 they took their first military walk. For five hours they carried full equipment through most of England, it seemed to Bushmitz. Many of the legionnaires were five feet in height and some weighed one hundred and no pounds.
Every man completed the distance and completed it singing, Private Bushmitz said, and the only thanks they got came from a group of British veterans, who said they must be batty.
From May 12 to May 22 the legionnaires saw London and the most damaging air raid of all. Bushmitz said he liked the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, a lot of palaces and Parliament. The few German aeroplanes, he said, were more interesting than the more quiet architectural wonders.
The air raid occurred on the night of May 19. Bushmitz remembers a long, rising wail, a forty-five-minute run through the street with an almost hysterical mother and a fully hysterical child, and then 14,000 people crowded in a shelter built by some forgotten architect and intended to house about 1,400.
There were feasts, pageants and prayers in the Rothschild synagogue for the legionnaires during their stay in London. It was capped by a farewell banquet on May 21, after which, still singing and joking, they left for Plymouth.
They had an especially prepared supper on June 16, and that night they sang with greater vigor than ever. They had become accustomed to especially prepared suppers. They always came before leavetakings. The omen was correct. The next morning they moved out of Plymouth, with bayonets fixed and glinting, with the blue and white flag of the Jewish nation borne between the American and British flags. Those were the colors which the legionnaires followed throughout the crusade. They marched behind them first on Fifth Avenue and last on the fine grained sands of Jerusalem.
At Southampton, where they detrained, they met a wharfful of Yankee doughboys and were soon searching out their friends with surprising success. On Rivington Street they had never once greeted a friend with a hearty slap on the back. They did it now, with a force that evolved echoes. They gripped hands with their friends and trooped aboard a Channel boat, which rolled through the trough toward France. These men, who had scarcely wandered out of their Assembly district on the East Side, reached Cherbourg, France, the next morning, marching snappily to a nearby rest camp behind their three flags.
“Italy next,” they sang, as they crowded in third-class coaches and rode in them for two days until, reaching St. Germain, France, they cheated some perfectly good cattle out of their medium of transportation.
They had a chilly ride through the Alps, Private Bushmitz said. Inside it was so warm and outside it was go cold that it was great to be a crusader but not mind the climate, he declared. On June 24 Faenza, Italy, drew up beside the track and the legionnaires piled into it. They had their first ice cream there since leaving home, and met a contingent of Canadians returning from service in Palestine. The Jewish population in this Italian community brought their best their farms afforded for the legionnaires, and were there to see them entrain for Sorrento on June 28. At Sorrento they got tropical suits, which had pants like runners wear, and short socks. On June 28 the men received their Mogen Davids, or stars of David, to be worn as their divisional insignia on their right shoulder.
An American battlecraft was firing a little of everything it had in honor of the 4th of July when the legionnaires, still eagerly facing the East, embarked aboard the Rose of Glasgow for Corinth, Greece. They slept on deck and looked up at the stars. It was pretty good, Bushmitz said, to be able to feel that the stars looked upon their loved ones at home and upon Palestine. Corinth was reached on July 8, and on July 11 the crusaders went on another ship, this time bound for Alexandria. Alexandria, they remembered was in Egypt, and in Egypt bricks were once made without straw. It must have been even harder, they thought, than sewing pants in an East Side sweatshop.
For three days they sailed the warm seas, and on July 14, summer in the tropics, they reached Alexandria. It was dark when they arrived and they entrained almost immediately for Helmih, which is just outside of Cairo. Here companies were formed, and the New York legionnaires became members of C and D company of the 39th Battalion Royal Fusileers.
At Helmih the legionnaires encountered the Palestinian legionnaires, Jews of Palestine, who had been formed into a fighting organization at their own request.
The New Yorkers caught their first glimpse of a group of real Turkish prisoners here. These were Jews who had been impressed in the Turkish army. A petition signed by the New York and Palestinian legionnaires was forwarded to the commanding general, asking that the Turkish Jews, at their own request, be freed and permitted to enlist with the British forces. This permission was granted after a short time, and there were many reunions. The father of a Palestine warrior was found to be among those who had been impressed into Turkish service.
The commanding officers were liberal with their passes, Bushmitz and his fellow legionnaires saw the Pyramids and wondered what happened to the nose of the Sphinx. They also learned that “baksheesh” is the Arabian for handout or tip.
The men were embarrassed by the heartiness
of the welcome extended them by the residents of the Jewish colony.
There were feasts in their honor, and when they couldn’t eat any more
there were dances. They managed to get nearer the front on August 25,
when they moved to Kantara, near the Suez Canal, the principal base of
the E.E.F. They swam in the Suez Canal, Bushmitz said, and frolicked
about like the kids do around the stringpieces under the bridges.
And Then Jaffa
Two days later they were riding on a fairly modern train over the ancient peninsula of Sinai to Leudd. From there they plodded a singing way to Surfeud, near the Richon Lezion, and came to Jaffa, their Palestine.
Their greeting there was beyond all expectations, Bushmitz said. It made them want to not only regain Palestine, but to eat live Turks without seasoning. This was a strange feeling, he said, for people who had never even wanted to harm a new cornet player.
The Zionist commission came to Jaffa while they were there, Bushmitz said, and seemed proud at the way the legionnaires stood at attention and saluted.
All of the Jewish colony at Jaffa who could walk or steal a ride were lined up when the legionnaires marched away on September 2, bound toward the front, which was then becoming the back for the Turks.
The sand was deep, the packs were heavy, and the sun was hot, but the officer in command of his platoon had a difficult time keeping the legionnaires from beating their schedule. They sang, hummed and whistled. “Over There,” sung both in English and Hebrew, mixed in a tuneful democracy with “Sayusano Zions” and the “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” as aids to marching. Nobody fell out of line and nobody complained of sore feet.
They made seventeen miles the first day, six miles the second and twelve miles on the third, September 4. Then they moved into the Judea mountains at Ramalah, where they rested in a reserve line for eight days. On Rosch-ha-schonah, on September 7, they exchanged telegrams with the 38th Battalion, which was up in the line.
The 39th moved forward on September 11 and made twelve miles, reaching the outskirts of Jerusalem. At 4:40 in the afternoon of September 13 they reached the Holy City, but did not hesitate. They trudged twelve miles on September 13 and thirteen to Jericho on September 14.
On Yom Kippur, at 4:30 a.m., they stole away from camp for a steady jaunt to a camp near the Jordan. They were passing over the remains of Turks and here and there an Australian or a Canadian. The guns boomed dully off to the East, where the Turks were almost succeeding in outrunning the horses of the Australians, which were also the inspiration for their bursts of speed.
On September 18, the 39th took
over a section of the reserve line, and the Turks made a canopy of
flying lead over their heads. It was not at all disturbing, this moving,
smoking roof, Bushmitz said. He didn’t see, at all, at the time, why his
lieutenant should get so excited and swear at them for not rushing
behind some rocks for shelter. Two of the boys were playing checkers, or
some game, Bushmitz said, but the lieutenant interrupted even them.
Physical Strain Too Great
On September 23 they marched forward, to the bank of the Jordan. The Jordan was crossed on a pontoon bridge on the following day, and a camp which the Turks and Germans had just deserted was taken over. Papers and souvenirs abounded here. The town of Essalt was occupied by the crusaders on September 25 and a systematic search of the houses was made.
The strain on the hastily augmented physical resources of the men and made itself felt in Essalt. The unsanitary conditions of the town and the exposed state of dead horses were the chief elements making the legionnaires susceptible to the peculiar Eastern charm of malaria. Ninety per cent of the New Yorkers went to the hospital. The remainder, including Private Bushmitz, were placed on guard duty, with the guarding of prisoners their specialty.
For more than a year the legionnaires waited for orders that would send them back to their homes in America. Then, finally, the orders came for some of them, and Private Bushmitz was one. He brought back twenty pounds of newly made muscle with him.
It is comfortable on the old East Side, he said; far more comfortable than in older Jerusalem. The food is better here, and there are elevated trains and subways which, even though the service might not be the best at all times, are better in a transporting way than anything the Holy Land has to offer. There are more theaters here, too, he said, and better actors.
Just one other thing he wanted known. As soon as Palestine’s destiny is determined he—and 80 percent of the other legionnaires from New York—are going back there, and on one-way tickets.
But in the mean time, Private Bushmitz, who has looked upon Jerusalem and rested beside the Jordan which King David knew, is going back to cutting knee pants next week.
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