Thursday, November 26, 2009

Two soldiers and a Shema Yisrael.

I'm sure many readers of this blog have heard or read some variation of the following story:

During a fierce battle two enemy soldiers were engaged in fierce hand to hand combat. One soldier overpowered the other and was about to drive his bayonet into him, and the soldier called out "Shema yisrael . . . !" The other soldier was also Jewish, and answered his call, and the two looked at each other, realized who (or what) they were, and presumably the slaughter stopped. In some versions the bayonet was already lodged.

In every version of this story I heard this legend takes place in World War I. So I was interested when I came across the following version of it, printed on February 13, 1885 in the Jewish Chronicle. In this version, it occurred in the Crimean War>, approximately thirty years earlier:

As you can see, this letter concerns prayer in Hebrew vs the vernacular. I will post the entire letter, which is interesting in its own right, at the end.

Here's Allan Nadler's review of a book of Jewish war time sermons, by Marc Saperstein:

Addressing one of the earliest Jewish community rallies, held in Washington and on behalf of the Jewish victims of World War I, on October 24th 1914, Gedaliah Silverstone, a Lithuanian Orthodox immigrant rabbi, spoke in heartbreaking tones of the terrible dilemma of the Jewish soldiers who were fighting valiantly on both sides of the “Great War”:

“Our brothers… are not fighting for our country, as is the Russian army, which is fighting for Russia, and the British army, which is fighting for their country, England, and the German army for Germany, and similarly the French and the Turks. Not us! We Jews are compelled to fight for all of these, not for ourselves… that is the greatest source of pain.”

Powerfully dramatizing this point, Silverstone then recounted the horrific experience of a Jewish soldier convalescing in a Russian army hospital in Petrograd:

“Whose heart did not throb with agony, whose eyes did not fill with tears, whose blood did not turn cold in his veins upon reading in the newspapers about a Jewish soldier in the Russian army who stabbed with his bayonet a soldier from the Austrian army? The mortally wounded man cried out with his last breath: ‘Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad’ and with the word Ehad his soul departed. When the Russian soldier realized that he had killed one of his brothers, that he had thrust his bayonet into a fellow Jew, he went out of his mind with grief.”

This particular sermon stands out from most of the 40 assembled by Saperstein, as it takes no position on the merits of a war into which America had not yet entered. There is not to be found among the book’s other sermons so blunt an affirmation that the Jewish people have no stake in the wars of the nations.

As you can see, this image was used in a sermon during WWI. It claims that such an account was in newspapers. Since Russia and Austria first fought in WWI, it would seem that the claim is that such an incident had occurred recently.

Below is a poem which was printed in 1917:

This powerful image occurs again and again.





Another from 2005:

Judith Bleich, in an Orthodox Forum volume which she edited:

Finally, the image appears in a French novel from 1886, David-Léon Cahun's La vie juive:

Here the event occurs during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Cahun tells of a soldier in Alsace who recalls the image of a Jewish soldier friend holding a Russian Jewish soldier he has slain in his arms. The Russian had recited Chema Isroel as he died, and it greatly pains the soldier who killed him.

I have no idea if this ever really occurred, or if it really occurred once or perhaps even several times. It is interesting that there are two versions, a heartbreaking one where one soldier kills the other, which was surely true to what actually happened as Jewish soldiers in enemy European armies fought in wars, and inspirational ones where the enemy-brother is spared. In any case, I was surprised (but also not surprised) to learn that the legend dates back much earlier than WWI. Indeed, since the 19th century is the first time that it became widespread for Jews to serve in European armies, it makes sense for the story to have emerged in that century. I was gratified to find a source earlier than Cahun's novel. I wonder if indeed there is any source from the Crimean War period (1853-56) for it, and that will require more research. It is interesting, however, that because of the Eretz Yisrael angle of the Crimean War, this seems to have aroused the interest in foreign events among many European Jews, who had never before read or demanded a newspaper. This war in fact seems to have spurred the creation of Hebrew newspapers for a news-hungry public. It would make sense if such a vivid scene became known at that time.

Below is the full letter from the Jewish Chronicle:

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