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Rabbi Eliyahu Gut

Arnold Zweig and Hermann Struck, two Jewish officers in the German army during World War I, discovered an old-new world: the Jewish shtetl, unchanged for centuries

Monday, September 18, 2017

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Coming from positions of privilege and enlightenment in Germany, Zweig and Struck had been conditioned to see the Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe as a dying breed, miserable products of a backward society. What the two actually saw took their breath away

W orld War I, which started during the Nine Days of Av in 1914 and concluded with the armistice of November 1918, changed the face of the planet. Now, a century later, it is hard for us to recognize its significance: in the meantime humanity has endured World War II and the Holocaust, Communism and the Cold War, and the rise of Islamicism and mass terror. The Great War, the “War to End All Wars,” is enshrouded in the mists of history — yet it clearly set the stage for all that followed.

Besides the massive physical destruction, the war also broke down social barriers. It sparked a certain sense of adventure in the men who fought in it. As the British writer H.G. Wells put it in 1916, “This is the end and the beginning of an age. This is something far greater than the French Revolution or the Reformation and we live in it.”

Many young Jews in Western Europe were swept up in the call to arms. Having grown up under the benefits of the Enlightenment, they felt beholden to the lands of their birth and volunteered for military service along with their countrymen. In Germany, two such Jewish volunteers from different regions and backgrounds were thrown together in the Eastern Front. As German forces crossed over the frontiers of the Russian empire and occupied the territories of Poland and Lithuania, these two men would be brought face to face, for the first time, with the G-d-fearing Jews of Eastern Europe.

When the German army first appointed them liaisons to Jewish communities in the conquered lands, Arnold Zweig, a secular 29-year-old writer from Glogau in Prussian Silesia, and Hermann Struck, a 39-year-old religious Zionist artist from Berlin, had little enough in common with each other, much less with the pitiable, impoverished, Orthodox “Ostjuden” under their charge. Zweig was an intellectual who would go on to write dozens of works, earning numerous nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and eventually become an ardent Communist. Struck was an accomplished artist known for his etchings, and also a cofounder of the Mizrachi movement in Germany; later in life he would move to Haifa. Article 1

 

Their posting to Eastern Europe gave them a common goal. The encounter would leave a lasting impression not only on Zweig and Struck but also on the Jews of the West. Zweig had begun his military service as a loyal Prussian patriot, but his experience with anti-Semitism in the army had soured him on German nationalism. On meeting his brethren in Poland and Lithuania, he came to see the war as pitting Jew against Jew. Struck’s official role was to influence the local Jews to remain neutral and not support the nationalistic Polish movements against the German occupiers. But he came to see it as a chance to help his brothers in Klal Yisrael.

Coming from positions of privilege and enlightenment in Germany, Zweig and Struck had been conditioned to see the Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe as a dying breed, miserable products of a backward society. What the two actually saw took their breath away. Despite their desperate material circumstances, these Jews were far from miserable or backwards. The splendor of their authentic Judaism cast a light that enthralled these German officers.

Zweig and Struck decided to collaborate on a book, an eyewitness account that would eventually be published under the title Das Ostjüdische Antlitz (The Eastern-Jewish Face). Zweig, who knew barely anything at all about Judaism, penned the text. Struck provided the illustrations, faithfully portraying the characters he met in all the places he visited — Lodz, Vilna, Grodno, Bialystok, Kovna, and many more anonymous locales. His 52 drawings preserved for future generations the many personalities he came across: the tailor, the beggar, the watchmaker and the porter, the newspaper seller and the shoemaker, the shamash and the shopkeeper. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 678)

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