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Into battle with Rifle and New Year Cards

A New Year card sent out by the Jewish Soldiers Organization to Jewish servicemen in the World War I

Story and photos by Lydia Aisenberg

A Rosh Hashanah greeting, printed on a flimsy card and depicting a silhouette of two soldiers shaking hands under an archway engraved with 'For a good and happy new year,' with two more silhouetted soldiers crouching with rifles at the ready and canvas bags strapped to their backs astride the arch above them, was sent out in World War I to Jewish servicemen of the British and American Armed Forces by the Beit Hatsavah HaIvri (Jewish Soldiers Organization).

On the back of the card is an equally powerful design. In large bold letters, Beit Hatsavah HaIvri (an organization of the Yishuv in pre-State Israel) is written, above which can be seen a wagon bearing a lion, a Magen David, a menorah and banners with the slogans Ba'ad Amenu (for our people) and Ba'ad Artzanu (for our country). The wheels of the wagon are two field guns pointing in opposite directions.

So lifelike are the powerful outlines of the two soldiers, clad in flat caps, army drill khaki tunics, breeches, gaiters and heavy boots, that one can almost hear a gravelly voice asking: "How are you, mate?" as they enthusiastically greet one another in the middle of nowhere. Far from home, thoughts of yet another Rosh Hashanah away from family and friends in Europe, America or Palestine under the Ottomans is probably uppermost on their minds as yet another Jewish holiday approaches. Rosh Hashanah, New Year –with its apples, honey, wine and good cheer – is something these fighting men certainly had not experienced that year and still had no no idea of when that situation would change for the better.

This First World War Rosh Hashanah card was printed in Egypt on behalf of Beit Hatsavah HaIvri by the Cairo-based Jewish printing company of M. Ayni. The name of the company appears in Hebrew tucked under one of banners and also in the corner above the two crouching soldiers surreptitiously crossing the arch or bridge above the pair of silhouetted servicemen shaking hands underneath their perch. 

A change of guard, a change of clothes ... back to Civvy Street

"Unfortunately there is no date printed on the card but it is definitely from World War I," commented Aviram Paz, an Israeli collector of Judaica with a particular penchant for memorabilia of Jewish soldiers serving in both the First and Second World Wars.

The artistic style - using cut out silhouettes was popular with some Jewish artists, particularly at Bezalel, a school of art established in Jerusalem in 1906 by Jewish artist and sculptor Boris Schatz. Without a doubt, the art that was created by a cadre of teachers and students at Bezalel in the early part of the 1900s became the basis for the development of Israeli visual arts as we know them today.

Bezalel artists developed a very distinctive style, influenced by the European Art Nouveau, but they concentrated more on subjects of Biblical and Zionist interest, Islamic design revered by Jewish artisans from Arab countries and portrayals of European Jewish traditions. This was all part of a concerted effort to create a different, new and distinctive style of Jewish art for the Jewish homeland and State that they were part of physically, emotionally and artistically creating.

The silhouetted scenes of pioneers draining the swamps, tilling the soil, holding on to horse-drawn ploughs preparing the land,reaping the harvest – wielding ominous looking long curve-bladed scythes - are still popular material for modern 'vintage' posters, calendars and greeting cards.

In recent years, a metal reproduction of such artistic silhouette depictions of daily life in the 1920scan be found at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek (where Aviram Paz and the writer are members) displayed at the foot of the old concrete water tower in the center of the community. Tossing hay with a pitchfork onto a horse-drawn wagon or pushing a heavily laden wheelbarrow,daily happenings at that site a century ago, send silent but strong messages of a hard but fruitful past to the kibbutz children playing on the main lawn at the feet of their metallic great-grandparents whose never-ending physical and ideological strength never wavered.

Among them were men who had fought in World War I before exchanging army uniforms for the cotton shirts and shorts of the Jewish pioneers in Eretz Israel.

"In World War I, most of the Jewish soldiers serving in the British and American Forces were billeted at large camps in northern Egypt, Alexandria and Cairo. Many had either been conscripted or volunteered and they were given the nickname of 'HaHayatim' (The Tailors), a trade many Jews were, of course, working in at that time," explains Aviram Paz.

The Jewish Soldiers Organization also published a Hebrew-language newspaper entitled Hadashot from HaAretz (News from Israel), originally printed in Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

"Fearful of the Turks, especially after they decreed that the Jews under their rule should become Muslim or face the consequences, the offices were moved to a hotel in Cairo. The paper was published in Egypt and distributed to the servicemen, particularly those serving in the Jewish Legion, created as a unit in the British Army by Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion," said Paz, gingerly replacing the silhouette soldier card under a plastic sheet in an album containing scores of cards from World Wars I and II

Leafing through the album. Paz removes another Rosh Hashanah card that he is particularly fond of, this one from 1946 and sent out by the 524 Royal Engineers Palestine Field Survey Company. The Jewish cartographers, who in the main served in Italy, chose to emphasize the end of the war and re-entry into civilian life by showing a young man, smiling broadly and dressed in a green blazer and white slacks, with one hand resting in his pocket, and a red and black striped tie showing up brightly on a white shirt. The fellow is jauntily waving a brown felt hat toward a bright future, but looming behind, twice his size, is the shadow of a metal helmeted soldier, rifle protruding skyward from his shoulder, and the Hebrew letters – taf, shin,vav –for 1946 emblazed across his chest. Above the heads of the demobbed soldier-civilian and shadowy soldier, the inscription: 'Year of Freedom and Redemption!' fills the card from one corner to the other.

"The 524 were blessed with some very talented artists whose work we can appreciate even more these days. For instance, the Pesah Haggadot they wrote are extremely rich in illustrations and caricatures. They also incorporated a great deal of humor into their work and here, with the humor - banter between Jewish soldier and British officers in particular - we see so many examples of the love-hate type of relationship the Jewish soldiers serving in the British Army had with the Brits themselves," said Paz, one of Israel's foremost collectors of memorabilia from Jews in military uniform during World Wars I and II.

"Through their artwork and the texts they wrote for Jewish holidays, - particularly in the Haggadot - one can feel the struggle they had undergone between their respect for the British and the way they conducted themselves while at the same time having to contain their feelings about the British not allowing immigration to Israel of their fellow Jews from Europe. The years they served alongside the British influenced them in many ways, consciously and unconsciously, but is very apparent in many of the texts and illustrations where that tussle really shows up," said Paz.

"The 524 Royal Engineers carried out invaluable work because the maps they drew assisted the army in more accurately bombing German positions. After the war, many of them returned or immigrated to Israel, becoming leading engineers and planners in construction and other industries contributing greatly to the building of the State of Israel," said Paz, returning the album of war - booty of a different kind to the shelf. 



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