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Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, by Martin Sugarman. London: Vallentine Mitchell 2010. 474 pp. $32.95.
This is a book with a mission. Its aim, explicitly proclaimed on its very first page, is to refute the antisemitic slander that Jews made a disproportionately low contribution to the British war effort during World War II. Convinced that quite the opposite was the case, Martin Sugarman has conducted what must surely be one of the most intensive searches ever undertaken for evidence of “Jewish fighting spirit.”
Clearly, he has invested an enormous amount of time and effort in the task. His first step was to scour the 70,000 Jewish Chaplain Index Cards kept at the Jewish Military Museum in London, itself a daunting enterprise. But he could not stop there. The cards were compiled on a random basis whenever British Jewish chaplains happened to meet or hear of Jewish personnel in the armed forces. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of persons did not fall into this net—either deliberately (because they wished to hide their Jewish identity in case of capture by the Germans), or because they served in isolated postings, or because their affiliations with any form of organized Jewry were so weak that they did not recognize a Jewish chaplain when they saw one. Hence, Sugarman had to supplement the cards by resorting to pioneering research in scattered regimental and service archives, to wide reading in secondary sources, and to personal interviews in order to follow up every possible hint and lead. Over several years, he has done all of that (I shudder to think what his photocopying and telephone bills must have looked like) and done it thoroughly.
To say that he proves his case, by demonstrating the high incidence and wide variety of Jewish contributions to the British war effort, would be an understatement. Large sections of the book consist of long lists of names of Jewish personnel who participated in different branches of war service (the spectrum ranges from the Fire Service to code-breaking at Bletchley Park and from the RAF to the “Paras” who fought at Arnhem). Other chapters are devoted to detailed descriptions of individual acts of bravery, both by regular Jewish servicemen in scattered theaters of war and by Jewish men and women who served as “undercover agents” on behalf of the SOE in occupied Europe.
The statistics alone are impressive. As Sir Martin Gilbert points out in his introduction to the book, just about every sixth member of the Anglo-Jewish community (60,000 out of 350,000) participated in the British war effort; 3,000 were killed. Just as important as the quantity is the quality of the contribution. Three Jewish soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest award for heroism), 168 the Military Cross and 188 the Distinguished Flying Cross. Many of their exploits remained secrets for years, a characteristic especially true of the “Special Operators” of 101 Squadron, most of whom were Jewish, often recently arrived refugees from Germany (p. 201).
By relating these and other tales of derring-do, Sugarman has skillfully added flesh and bones to what might otherwise have been a somewhat tedious chronology. In addition, he has also uncovered some fascinating tidbits of collateral information, the relevance of which far exceeds the immediate bounds of his study. How many of us knew that a small group of Hassidim maintained a “shtiebel” in Bletchley Park, at which some of the Jewish code-breakers occasionally prayed? (p. 109); or that some Jewish wounded soldiers were repatriated from German POW camps in the midst of the war? (pp. 135, 137); or that there was a “Supreme Rabbi” (Major Baruch Steinberg) in the Polish Army in 1939? (p. 149), or—while we’re at it—that at least three Jewish fireman were killed in New York on 9/11 (p. 67)?
True, at times Sugarman does seem to get carried away. Entire chapters are not concerned with World War II at all, but with “The Jewish Company of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps,” the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and British forces in the Korean War. Moreover, many of the personnel he mentions were not British Jews at all, either by birth or adoption, but—as in the case of members of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in mandate Palestine)—Jews who volunteered to enlist in the British army, which they then fought against as soon as the war was over. Another possible criticism is that the book is rather thin on sociological analysis. At times, one wishes that Sugarman had exploited the information contained in all those lists to paint a compound portrait of the Anglo-Jewish community of the period, noting (for instance) the different patterns of military careers followed by its three principal layers: scions of established families; children of east European immigrants; and more recent refugees from Germany and Austria.
But these must be considered minor faults that—thanks to Sugarman’s ground-breaking research—can be repaired by others. They in no way detract from the value of his contribution to what he movingly proves deserves to be considered the “finest hour” of Anglo-Jewry as well as of the British people at large. The book will obviously be read by those members of the community who lived through the war years (sadly, not many remain) and, one trusts, by their children who—like myself—for years found it difficult to believe that their mild-mannered father had at one time actually participated as a soldier of HM King George VI in the most savage war in history. It also deserves to reach a much wider audience, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
Stuart A. Cohen
Dept. of Political Studies