Uruguayan book sheds new light on Jewish Legion

A previously unknown Yiddish book, Zichronot Fun Yiddischen Legion (Memories of the Jewish Legion) by Moshe Krel, written, published, and printed in Montevideo, Uruguay in May, 1938, was discovered by this author at the Astor Judaica Library, Jewish Community Center in La Jolla, in the Spring of 2012. The Library donated the book to the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts in August of 2012.

Every Spring the Astor Library conducts a Used Book Sale to raise funds for its Acquisition Fund. That Spring the Library had thinned from its shelves the no longer utilized portion of its Yiddish holdings (retaining in its Rare Book room the Yiddish noted on Baker’s 1000 List). There were twenty-seven “Staples” –sized boxes filled with Yiddish. I offered to catalogue these books to facilitate their offering to the commercial vendors.

After I had gone through over a dozen boxes, I pulled a little book, 5 ½ “ x 7” When I got to the bottom of the title page and saw the letters: Mem-Nun- Tet – Vav-Vav – Dalet- chills went up my spine. I knew this was a very unusal book. Yiddish letters were not associated with very out of the way places such as Uruguay. But there it was.”

Krel’s book narrates the experiences of the Argentine men who responded to Jabotinsky’s call for a Jewish Legion to serve with the Allied armies during The Great War of 1914-1918. Much of the material in this jewel of a book is unknown to scholars working in this area. The Jewish Legion was known to have opened the fords to cross the Jordan River; that was considered the extent of their eastward participation in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s campaign against the Ottoman Armies. However, detailed maps in Krel’s book place two of the battalions of the Jewish Legion in formation at the siege of Amman. How did it come to pass that two battalions of the Jewish Legion were in position of the east bank of the Jordan? Moshe Krel raised the question in 1938. The answer has yet to come forth.

These men and youths, from Uruguay and the Argentine were no ordinary people. They were steeped in the whirlwind of changes that had swept through Ashkenaz Jewry from the end of the eighteenth century. From the Haskalah, through the Jewish Enlightenment, the rebirth of Jewish nationalism, the pogroms, and rising, virulent anti-semitism of the last quarter of the 19th
century–these developments were in the forefront of the minds of these young men, whether they abided in the Latin or North Americas, the Russian slums of the East End of London, in Italy, Salonika, in Dagestan in the Caucasus, or in the Yishuv. The young men who responded to Jabotinsky´s call to form an all-Jewish National Army to free the land of Israel “…were only motivated by our internal force, like children of a normal and healthy people, whose best progeny fight to be the first to give their lives for their people and their land”.
After the high commands of the British and French armies had destroyed the cream of their youth on the Western Front, they turned to the Jews “…because we represented strength…and only because of this and not because of anything else, we received the Balfour Declaration, which brought us positive hope…that we would eventually realize a certain degree of our national aspirations.” Anticipating the betrayal of the Jewish communities twenty years hence by the Judenrates during the Shoa, Krel describes the reception of the Legionnaires by the Zionist leadership. Disembarking in Liverpool, “no one was waiting for us at the port. No one knew about us…” at Zionist headquarters. There was no food, no sleeping accommodations, nor was the British military post in Liverpool aware of their existence. This pattern continued: there was no “…contact with the Zionist leadership in England or in Palestine itself.”

While British soldiers from the colonies in India and Africa were supplied with chocolate and cigarettes, the Jews were not only provided with meager rations that were not augmented on days when pork was served, but the Legionnaires were deliberately kept from contact with the Jewish communities of the Yishuv. They finally rebelled. Colonel Patterson, their commander rushed to the scene, surrounding this company of the Legion with British Black African soldiers, when the Colonel was offended by the list of grievances and the manner in which they were presented, he ordered the African troops to aim their rifles at the Jewish Legion. At which point, the British Jews who had distanced themselves from the fracas, returned to the scene and set up their machine guns, and aimed them at the Colonel and the Black African Rifles. Seconds before a massacre erupted, the Rabbi strode from the side of Colonel Patterson and stood beside the Argentine Company of the 40th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, effectively defusing the situation.

The British would go on to renege on all of their commitments to the volunteers of the Jewish Legion: no one was permitted to remain in Palestine to make a life for themselves. The British betrayals continued to 1948 when the Jews resolved the situation with their own hands, in exactly the manner Moshe Krel described at the beginning of his story.

Krel was a good man who led a good life in Montevideo. His grandchildren´s children abide in the city; he helped to found ORT, and is well remembered and well regarded. In two months in the Spring of 1938, he sat down and wrote a marvelous book with writing skills of such exquisite fineness, that a paragraph serves for what others would take over 300 pages. His economy of language and turn of phrase explodes with images and events, and his understanding of the time of the Jewish Legion in 1917 – 1920, presages the tragic events that would unfold in twenty years, shortly after he completed the writing of this book.

After noting a partial bookstore label on the inside cover which identified Boston as the point of sale, I wrote the BPL’s (Boston Public Library) on-line research service and within 17 hours received a positive identification of the store. The label partial had indicated the street name (now part of Chinatown) and with the year parameters of late 1930’s through the early 1950’s, it made the BPL search quite expeditious.

A year later I was surfing through JDate when I noticed a woman from Montevideo. I wrote to her and mentioned this book and asked if she would look for it. I recounted thatI had written to two of the national Jewish organizations in Montevideo but had received no response. Professor Teresa Porzecanski, Anthropologist on the faculty of the University of the Republic, former Guggenheim scholar at YIVO, agreed to approach the Kehila (Communidad Israelita del Uruguay). The Kehila agreed to permit Professor Porzecanski to explore the Yiddish Collection presently residing in the basement with the accompaniment of a Yiddish docent. The book was not found but the extent of the holding was estimated at 1000 to 1500 volumes. The Kehila indicated it no longer desired retaining these volumes as their readership was gone and asked me to find them another home. I made presentations to the trade and the National Library of Israel. A three-continent arrangement has been put in place. The kehila has requested that I prepare a catalogue of the collection before it moves on to its new home. The collection represents a testament to the century plus years’ presence of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Uruguay.(I departed for Montevideo on November 15, 2013)
The collection has lain in abeyance for over three decades. It was formerly composed, in addition, of Yiddish posters announcing the various cultural entertainments that were available: theatre, opera. The room where the collection resided for decades was informally known as the la pieza de caos (the Room of Chaos). The last person to utilize the collection was Professor Porzecanski for her work on Jewish immigration patterns from Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean basin to Uruguay. When the local resources proved insufficient to requite her research, she went to New York City and completed her research at YIVO(IWO) Yiddish Scientific Institute.

In a related development, the December issue of The Israel Philatelist will be carrying an article on the unique postal identity of the battalions of the Jewish Legion in the Holy Land, replete with photographs of insignia in both English and Hebrew used on mail from the soldiers of the Legion battalions.

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