On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah in 1917, the words of one German Rabbi, Joseph Carlebach evoked a powerful message.
In 1915, thirteen German Rabbis, were sent by the German Army high command to the Eastern front to administer to the needs of Jewry under German occupation in the Eastern Zone. These lands included Lithuania and Congress Poland. This was a daunting task, as Jewish masses suffered from pogroms, and mass expulsions at the hands of Russian forces. Under German occupation, war shortages and requisitions of supplies by the German army caused a humanitarian crisis in Jewish communities, especially in areas overcrowded by refugees.
These Rabbis were also entrusted with an additional task.
The German occupation forces deemed it important to provide an education for Jewish children that included secular subjects. One of the Rabbis, Joseph Carlebach, was delegated the task of organizing an educational system for Jews under German occupation in the Lithuanian city of Kovno. The Rabbi devised a program based upon the German model of Torah Im Derech Eretz, “Torah Education with the Ways of the Land,” as he consulted with local Rabbinical leaders. The relatively small school soon grew as parents put their trust in Rabbi Carlebach. The Rabbi was also responsible for the reopening of the famed Slobodka Yeshiva which was closed due to the ravages of the war.
On that Saturday night, September 15, 1917, Rabbi Carlebach preached at the synagogue Ohel Yaakov in Kovno. Jews converged upon there to hear the words from the esteemed scholar and leader. The German commanders insisted that the German-Jewish soldiers sit on one side of the Synagogue, Russian Jewish prisoners of war on the other and in between them, the local Jews.
That night, Rabbi Carlebach stunned the audience which expected to hear words in support of his native Germany. He began with commonly heard words in German circles, “We did not want this war” which was a phrase often used by German leaders to imply that Germany’s enemies, the Entente, drew her reluctantly into the conflict. But the Rabbi’s implied message was far different; that no one in that room wanted this destructive and devastating war, for which Germany bore much of the responsibility. The Rabbi praised the level of Torah study in the Eastern territories and stated that German Jews had much to learn from the Eastern Jewry. He mentioned how German Jewish soldiers were learning Torah from local Jews. He also stated that it was symptomatic that Jews from different sides sat together in Synagogue, separated by a German ruling, prohibited from mingling.
That night they sat together as one entity. They were not enemies on opposing sides or superiors; they were not victors and prisoners. They were indeed brothers commiserating over the immense tragedy of that war, praying to the same Father in Heaven. Amid the madness, there was some light.
Rabbi Carlebach’s brave words were reported to the authorities, who had the Rabbi sent to the front lines for a month as a punishment. There must have been at least one irate German soldier present who reported the event. If not for the intervention of friends, the punishment would probably have been far worse.
During those moments of reflection as Rosh Hashanah was approaching, the Rabbi spoke directly to the audience disregarding the consequences to him. Germany, whose leaders had professed equality for all German citizens when the war began in 1914, was already turning its back upon its Jews.
Together, Jews on opposing sides could reflect upon the events of the day and call out to their Heavenly Father as one beseeching His mercy upon Mankind and Jewry.
That night was a moment of reckoning. Rabbi Carlebach’s words that night resonated in his time and serve as an example for future generations.
Parts of this article were adapted from “Voices of Opposition to the First World War among Jewish Thinkers” by Rivka Horowitz. Leo Baeck Institute vol. XXXIII, 1988.