BETWEEN 1918 and 1920, the Spanish Flu killed far more people than the number of soldiers killed in World War I and yet there is no national day of remembrance for its victims. Indeed, until the recent COVID pandemic, few people would have heard of the Spanish flu. Why then have Australia, Britain and other countries instituted a national day of remembrance to commemorate the sacrifices of its servicemen and women of war?
Initially, it was the surviving soldiers who began the tradition of commemorating the lives of their comrades. On April 25, 1916, Sir John Monash ordered his soldiers in Egypt to take their leave, so that they could celebrate a solemn service in remembrance of their fallen comrades who died in Gallipoli, and then enjoy an afternoon of organized games.
Many of these soldiers were closer to their deceased companions than they would later be to their wives, as many former servicemen and advisers can attest.
So were the intimate gatherings of returning Jewish soldiers that took place in Sydney from 1919 to remember their lost friends and support each other after the traumas they had suffered.
These gatherings were the embryonic origins of the NSW Association of Jewish Service & Ex-Service Men & Women (NAJEX), later, along with its state counterparts, to eventually become probably Australia’s largest Jewish organization with a huge footprint in the Jewish community. community.
At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, when hostilities ceased on the Western Front, ending the “war to end all wars,” the carnage and scale of the dead were previously inconceivable.
And never before has the impact on the remaining civilian populations been greater, whether from the relentless war, occupation, death or injury of close relatives, or the massive upheaval that had taken place. produced in societies and economies to wage war on this scale.
No one was spared. On a personal level, I still remember my grandmother telling me in tears that during World War I she lost all of her male friends.
It is therefore natural that a national day of communal commemoration is born for those who disappeared from the war. This day was Armistice Day, now called Remembrance Day.
According to the Australian War Memorial, it was Edward Honey, an Australian journalist working in London, who suggested that at 11 a.m. on the first anniversary of the 1918 armistice, a two-minute period of silence. be observed.
After the British cabinet approved the idea, King George V personally called on all the people of the British Empire to suspend normal activities for two minutes at the time of the armistice “which ended the global carnage. of the four previous years and marked the victory of Droit et Liberté ”.
The Australian War Memorial displays a photo of a massive crowd packed into Martin Place on November 11, 1919 and a commemoration has taken place there each year on that date (2020 being a sad exception).
The impact of World War I was felt disproportionately by the Australian Jewish community. The main spiritual leaders of the time, Rabbi Jacob Danglow in Melbourne and Rabbi Francis Lyons Cohen in Sydney, had regularly urged young men in their communities to enlist.
Many of them came from parts of Europe and Russia where anti-Semitism was vicious and pervasive. Many of them had known the sneers that the Jews were cowards and crooks and they were determined to deny these ducks.
So, out of sheer gratitude for the refuge they had found in Australia, they enlisted in numbers proportionately as high, if not greater, than the general population and died and were injured as a result. The famous Weingott family lost two sons in Gallipoli.
Shortly after World War I, the Jewish community of NSW established their own Jewish War Memorial, the historic building which now houses the Sydney Jewish Museum and which contains in its lobby a roll of honor of the names of those NSW Jews who died in wars. This memorial, funded by a large municipal appeal, was inaugurated on Armistice Day 1923 by Sir John Monash.
Since then, NAJEX has organized commemorations there for Remembrance Day and Anzac Day. They are well followed by the community and by parliamentarians and other non-Jewish community leaders, as well as a proud and enthusiastic cohort of students from Sydney’s Jewish schools.
Roger Selby is President of the NSW Association of Jewish Service & Ex-Service Men & Women (NAJEX).
Receive the AJN newsletter by email and never miss our best stories Free sign up