As early anti-German feeling crested in London at the beginning of the First World War, East End Jewish shops with German-sounding names were attacked, and speakers of Yiddish – the eastern European language that is a dialect of German written down in Hebrew letters – were rounded on. That those Yiddish speakers were, in fact, mostly of Russian origin may have gone unrecognised by those assailants, but soon that identity would become conspicuous and contentious.
Refugees from violent pogroms and desperate avoiders of the brutality of military conscription, many Russian Jews were loath to fight either with or as allies of Russia. Their low volunteering rates caused outrage in the pages of the Daily Mail where Jews were accused of lack of patriotism and of enjoying a parasitical good life (such as that might be in the slums of Stepney) while others fought and died.
This changed, of course, when conscription came in and those Russian Jews started to fight alongside the Jews who had already volunteered. Ultimately, British Jews had a very high per capita rate of participation, with 41,000 serving out of a total population of only 280,000. After the war, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen was formed in part to insist on the facts of the Jewish contribution, to brandish the Victoria and Military Crosses in the faces of the Mosleyite fascists and their antisemitic fantasies of Jewish wartime betrayal. Today, there are plans to establish a British Muslim army museum, perhaps for similar reasons.
The British Jewish world at the outbreak of the first world war consisted of immigrants of several periods: those earliest returnees after medieval expulsion who came to Britain when Cromwell welcomed them in; some established families of the late 18th and early-19th centuries; and finally the largest group, the eastern European Jews who, while others stayed on board and headed for New York, began arriving as refugees in London and other ports in the 1880s and whose descendants form the largest part of the British Jewish community today.
This community contained Socialists and Tolstoyans, Zionists, anti-Zionists, the religious – Orthodox and Reform – East End rag-trade workers, lawyers, boxers, bankers and artists. Among them all prevailed a grateful recognition that Britain was a true place of refuge, offering justice, religious freedom and the rule of law.
Despite this long presence in the UK, the attacks in Britain stemming from the anti-German sentiment were severe. Internal migration occured as families sought safety in other parts of the country. Internal migration was also motivated by German bombing raids, particularly on London. Norman Samuels and his family were part of this phenomena, relocating from Westcliffe-on-Sea (Southend) to Hove. Norman wrote a short memoir recording his experience.
‘Within a few days of being born my parents decided for safety reasons to move to Hove. We occupied the second house down on the left hand side when turning into Montefiore Road from Old Shoreham Road. Soon after settling in Hove my father decided that on account of the influx of co-religionists into the area – some of whom could not walk to Middle Street Synagogue – that a minyan should be set up in Hove. He consulted with Rabbi Lipman (his father in law) and it was decided that he should start a minyan at his home […] The minyan was held in our front room on every Shabbat and, on Yom Tov, my father hired the hall in the church opposite our house (now a Mission) […] After every service my mother prepared a Kiddush.’
Full text can be read here.
The Jewish Museum London hold a handwritten letter from ‘Arnie’ to his grandmother and aunts, dated 1916. From this letter, we can see Arnie was sent to live in Bognor. This is presumably to escape the threat of German Zeppelin raids on London. Arnie remains anxious for the safety of his relatives and reports a Zeppelin passed over Bognor while en route towards Portsmouth. He also states he hopes to be with his daddy for Yom Kippur.
Alongside internal migration, refugees from Europe were fleeing to Britain during the war to escape violence. Though Belgium was officially a neutral country, the German army invaded on 3rd August 1914. The majority of Belgium was occupied and governed by the Germans, while a small area around Ypres remained under Belgian control.
The German controlled sector had a network of regional and local headquarters, with each locality having an assigned German officer. It was in this context that many civilians fled. In 1915, German authorities constructed an electric fence along the Belgian-Dutch border to prevent this. This ‘Wire of Death’ claimed the lives of between 2,000 and 3,000 Belgian refugees trying to escape the German occupied region. Others were able to successfully flee to safer regions of Belgium, the Netherlands, France or Britain. It was here they resettled and found war jobs, with a noticeable presence in the areas they settled.
War Refugee Committees (WRC’s) were set up in Britain and France to provide support and relief, with 1,500 local WRC committees in Britain. The Brighton Hebrew Congregation minutes outline a discussion on this issue. This meeting reports Mr Ernest Schiff, who holds connections with the Refugee Relief Committee, spoke in support of ‘the good work which was being done for thousands of homeless refugees in London and called upon the Jewish Community in Brighton and Hove to assist in this sacred cause.’
Further writing of Belgian refugees in Brighton and Hove reports the first refugees arriving on September 3, 1914. This arrival consisted of three women, one child and two men, all from Antwerp, and all Russian Jews. On the following day, more refugees arrived described as ‘Belgian perhaps.’ This shipment was larger in numbers, consisting of extended families who want to remain together. This record reports ‘in the first six weeks of the Belgian exodus sexty-nine families, numbering altogether two hundred and thirty individuals.’ This number of Belgian’s in Hove was supplemented by wounded Belgian soldiers at the Hove hospital in Sackville road.
The Brighton Herald reports the housing situation for refugees in their publication on 23 Jan 1915. This article reports the refugees were housed according to class: ‘the ‘Belgian peasants home’ was at 13 Chesham Place, ‘Belgian tradespeople’ were at 22 St Aubyns [and 5 Manchester St]. The ‘Belgian Ladies Club’ was opened at 7 Chesham Place [later closed for use as a depot] and St Aubyns, Hove ‘to meet the needs of those of higher social position.’
“The reaction of the Brighton & Hove Jewish community was targeted initially at Jewish refugees from Belgium, which was invaded by Germany at the very beginning of the war. By the end of August, the Brighton Hebrew Congregation, in the person of Rev A C Jacobs, was participating in the National Relief Fund, and by November the Congregation had agree to give £100 (equivalent to about £10,000) to the Chief Rabbi’s Fund for relief of Russian victims of the war.” P.19
“A further meeting was held in February for the Jewish Belgian Refugees Fund which raised almost £260.” P.22
“At the end of July , Rev Liebermann took up his appointment as Minister, leaving his post in Manchester, and shortly afterwards his engagement was announced. He continued the work started by Rev Jacobs, including fund raising for refugees, and visiting wounded soldiers in the by now four hospitals in Brighton & Hove. In September, some 35 of those wounded soldiers enjoyed an afternoon at Brighton & Hove Ladies Golf Club, where Baron De Worms had been President. Such events continued until after the war, even though the course was closed from 1916. “ P.23Support from Brighton Hebrew Congregation for Refugees, Extract from Michael Crook’s Jewish Historical Society of England talk, Nov 18th 2019.
In Portslade, The Catholic Women’s League worked to turn St Mary’s School on Church Road into a temporary haven. Beds were improvised, and rooms were adorned with religious pictures. Toys were provided for children, while newspapers and periodicals in Flemish and French were provided. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove hold a collection of photographs of Belgian refugees at this haven.
Brighton became the home of many Belgian refugees during the war, acting as a safe place while their home country was occupied by German forces. On 17th October 1914, the whole of Sussex was declared a prohibited area, with no more refugees entering the area.
After the war, Britain’s willingness to help refugees had ended. Historian Tony Kushner writes ‘Britain had an obligation to help refugees during the war but the narrative quickly changed when it ended, the government didn’t want foreigners anymore.’ Within only 12 months of the war ending, over 90% of Belgians had returned home.
The Belgians who did remain integrated into British life, many marrying Britons they met during the war. Some became naturalised citizens, assimilating into British culture.
Sussex became the home for individuals and families of all ages from across the globe. Daniel Mayer was in Westphalia, Germany but came to Britain as a two-year old child in 1858 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1892. He first visited Bexhill for children’s health, around 1893. Two years later, he moved to Bexhill and became a prominent citizen, helping to develop the town as a resort. Daniel Mayer was mayor of Bexhill four times (1905, 1911-1914), a Justice of the Peace (c.1914) and he sat on East Sussex County Council. The outbreak of war ‘killed the season’ for Bexhill’s tourist trade, in part because foreign hotel staff returned to their home countries.
By October 1914, Mayer was coming under pressure because of his German origins and he stood aside as mayor 5 because he felt his patriotic spirit had been questioned. There appears to have been a misunderstanding with Earl de La Warr, and Mayer’s mayoral portrait was subsequently removed. This was despite the fact that Mayer was a British subject who had expressed his loyalty in print, and that both his sons fought for Britain in the war. At the time, letters to the newspaper expressed the opinion that Mayer had been unfairly treated. A later, more conciliatory, interpretation of the incident suggested that Mayer’s withdrawal was a ‘generous action which increased the esteem in which he [Mayer] was already held by the borough’.
Jewish individuals from across the UK and Europe migrated to Sussex, for various reasons, though safety was often a concern of these migrants.
As for the Belgian refugees, most quickly returned home. Those who remained integrated into British society, meaning there is little trace of these 250,000 refugees who fled to the UK during the war. Soldiers and families wanted to move on from the war, which has meant the stories of these refugees, and the individuals who helped them, has not been remembered in British collective memory.
Further information can be found at the following pages: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/14/king-country-jewish-museum-first-world-war-adam-foulds