Tisha B’Av and the First World War

by Larry Domnitch

According to tradition, the messiah is born on Tisha B’Av. It also stands to reason that the redemption of the Jews can only follow their exile.

On Tisha B’Av, the First and Second Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and Judean independence was lost to the Romans following the fall of the city of the city of Beitar, the last stronghold of the Bar Kochba revolt. As a result, the Jews lost their spiritual center and were exiled from their homeland.

Many additional tragedies throughout history have marked the day of Tisha B’Av. One of the most ominous was Tisha B’Av-August 1, 1914. On that day Germany and Russia had declared war on each other transforming the European conflict between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Serbians into a World War between opposing alliances.

The declaration of War on Tisha B’Av, 1914 brought the unthinkable to reality. Millions died on the fronts. Many were lost in trenches where suicidal charges were launched, artillery incessantly pounded wrecking destruction and disease abounded. Military casualties from new weapons technologies produced tools for killing en masse; powerful artillery, poison gas canisters, tanks, airplanes for dropping bombs from the skies. Civilians caught in the fighting often faced persecution, expulsion, starvation and disease. Over one million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman Turks.

The twentieth century was a post enlightenment era where new ideologies portrayed mankind as the arbiter of his actions, possessing a personal autonomy to act as he saw fit. Yet, mans primal instinct endured, and his capacity for evil had not diminished despite the onset of modernity.

This storm that had swept over the world severely impacted the Jews who were caught in the middle. Young Jews stood on different sides of the lines in trenches facing enemies some of whom were fellow Jews. Over one hundred and seventy thousand Jewish soldiers were lost in combat.

Amid the chaos of war, Jews were targeted, suffering Pogroms at the hands of Cossacks, and mass expulsions in Poland and Galitzia by the orders of the Russian High Command. Tens of thousands were murdered. Many also died from hunger and disease. Well over one million Jews fled, or were forced from their homes into dire circumstances.

Following the war, Jews would face additional horrors. Catastrophic massacres during the Ukrainian Civil War of 1919-1920, a rise of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and the world.

The rise of communism following the 1917 Russian Revolution which was also a direct result of the war would soon threaten Jewry with a new virulent form of anti-Semitism. Nazism would gain a foothold in Germany, and grow with the rise of Hitler, and the eventual economic chaos of the Great Depression of the early 1930’s.

The year 1914 was a massive storm upon the world and the Jewish People. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Graubart in the introduction of a book he authored on the extreme difficulties of the First World War cites a sentence from the Psalms, “Hashem looks to the Earth and it quivered.” (104:32) The events of 1914 shook up the world whose aftershocks still reverberate.
The letters of the Hebrew word, “Tirad” from the sentence meaning, “The ‘Earth’ Quivered” is the numerical equivalent of the year, 5674, which is 1914.

Perhaps, as the war which shook the world and caused hatreds against the Jews to surface; it also unleashed powers of redemption.

As victorious British and allied forces over the Turks in the Middle East were engaged in the conquest of Palestine in 1917, the famous Balfour Declaration endorsing Jewish statehood in the Land of Israel was issued. During this era of nationalism and the advocating of national rights for minority groups, the Balfour Declaration had received support among many world

War weary Jewish communities around the world, paused and celebrated. A popular Yiddish daily, Dos Yiddishe Folk, stated, “for the first time in two thousand years we again enter into the arena of world history as a nation which deserves a national home” The religious Zionist movement Mizrahi, issued a statement, “It seems that Holy Providence which guided Israel in its
long night of exile is about to reward the Jewish people for all their suffering and tribulations.”

That dream while appearing near was still remote. Its realization was soon prevented by the British who maintained a mandate over the land and eventually imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration with the infamous MacDonald White Paper of 1939 which called for 15,000 Jewish immigrants per year for the next five years and nullified the principle of Jewish Statehood as called for by the Balfour Declaration. With no sanctuary, European Jewry was
faced destruction.

The Balfour Declaration did not cause the rebirth of the Jewish State, but it did give Zionism international support and caused its eventuality. Zionism gained a footing during these tragic and trying times.

One century later, the Jewish world still lives in the shadow of the dark days of ‘The Great War’. Forces of hate still abound. The dangers of war remain; the clamor for the destruction of Israel and Jewry continues. The euphoria of the events of the Balfour Declaration ultimately helped lead to Jewish Statehood and the continual ingathering of the exiles. The Jews
en masse have returned and reconnected with their spiritual home. They no longer need to be prey for their enemies in foreign lands as in the days of that horrific conflict.

The hope of Tisha B’Av yesterday and today; that the light of redemption shines bright, illuminating the world, and that sorrow be a painful memory of the past.

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