The Jewish Australian Experience of World War 1

March 26, 2014

Idey Alexander, c.1919

“I am still ok and living”, wrote Australian Jewish soldier, eighteen year old Idey Alexander from the French battlefields, to his sisters in Melbourne in the days following the Armistice of WW1. These words begin his letter home in which he also writes of travelling to Paris for Passover and touring Europe, before his demobilization and return to Australia.

This letter forms part of research now being undertaken at the Jewish Museum of Australia in preparation for an exhibition of Australian Jewish experiences of World War 1. This exhibition will be mounted in 2015 in concert with other events around the community, nation and the world to commemorate the Anzac Centenary.

The Jewish community in Victoria at the turn of nineteenth century was only around 3000 people, and yet a huge proportion of that population, approximately 13%, enlisted to serve their country in WWI. This groundbreaking exhibition will explore the historical and social context of that time, in order to better understand the motivations of these early Australian Jews. So many enthusiastically fought to defend the principles they believed were at stake in the ‘War to end all Wars’. The exhibition will commemorate the contributions of Jewish men and women in the theatres of war through the stories of individuals and their activities during the War years. The impact of this War did not end when the fighting stopped. The exhibition will consider the broader consequences of this conflict on the Jewish community of Australia. Many men lost their lives, and many Jewish women of marriageable age lost potential spouses. The community was decimated, but began to recover in numbers as refugees arrived in response to worsening conditions for Jews in Europe.

Idey Alexander reports that the Germans shot 660 men, women and children from the village in which he was staying, and plundered their homes. “I am at present in a sentimental mood, absolutely sick of this life” he wrote in April 1919 as he prepared to come home. His three surviving letters help us to unravel some of the less well-reported aspects of life during the war years, and give us a way to start to think about the experiences of Australian Jews in and around World War 1.

Deborah Rechter – Museum’s Guest Curator World War 1.