A Century Later, the Jewish Legion’s Fallen Finally Reap Their Glory

The legionnaires, who fought with the British during World War I, were the first Jewish fighting force in the modern era to use Jewish symbols

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A man laying flowers at the grave of a member of the Jewish Legion who died during World War I, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, October 10, 2018.
A man laying flowers at the grave of a member of the Jewish Legion who died during World War I, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, October 10, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Pvt. Robert (Pinkus) Marks, son of Aaron and Paula from London, died in battle fighting with the British Army in the Holy Land in August 1918. He was 23. A few months earlier, Marks had witnessed Gen. Edmund Allenby’s famous entering of Jerusalem's gates and the liberation from Turkish rule.

Marks, who hebraized his name to Pinchas Ben-Aryeh, arrived in the country as a proud Jewish fighter, a member of the Jewish Legion that operated under the British Army during World War I. He and his friends wanted to help free the Holy Land from the Ottoman Empire and contribute to the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people.

The Jewish Legion's Robert Marks.Credit: Giving a Face to the Fallen

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But ever since his burial in the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, only his family had honored his memory. For the State of Israel, established 30 years after his death, he has been a forgotten man, like most of his peers in the Jewish Legion, some 45 of whom have been buried in Israel.

A first memorial of its kind was held Wednesday at Mount Scopus, marking 100 years since the deaths of the Jewish Legion fighters. The ceremony was preceded by intensive archival work across the globe in an attempt to document the biographies of the fallen Legion members, whose life stories were hitherto unknown. Photographs of only a few of them remain.

Dorit Perry, of the organization Giving a Face to the Fallen, spearheaded the initiative. The group strives to locate missing information on fighters killed in action. In recent weeks a team of eight from the organization sifted through archives in Britain and the United States in London, Leeds, Chicago and Cleveland, places where Legion fighters hailed from.

“The investigative work was complex because none of the information was located in Israel, and it involved material about people who lived starting at the end of the 19th century, most of whom were born in places like Russia and Poland and immigrated to England and the U.S., leaving behind not a trace in Israel,” Perry told Haaretz.

A man who took part in a ceremony for the Jewish Legion dead, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, October 10, 2018. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“We dug into the British military archives over the internet looking to find out who was notified about the soldier’s death, who received his belongings, and so on. And from there we slowly managed to dig up information to trace the soldiers’ families.”

Allenby’s entrance

In other archives, birth and marriage certificates were found, and other details were gleaned from family-tree websites.

Relatives provided photographs and helped fill in biographical details. “Pictures were critical,” Perry said. “To find pictures of people who died 100 years ago, you have to get them from the family.”

Marks’ story was one of the more interesting biographies. His family, which later immigrated to Israel, had saved postcards he sent during his service in the Holy Land and Egypt. In one of them he mentioned Allenby’s entrance into Jerusalem in 1917.

He wrote to his mother and sister about how he was among the first Jewish soldiers to enter the city; he was doing policing duties that day. Other postcards dealt with less dramatic events; in one, the soldier asked to be sent a shaving kit.

Left, the niece of Robert Marks, who died serving in the Jewish Legion, meeting with Karni Rubin Jabotinsky, granddaughter of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, Mount Scopus, October 10, 2018. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

His niece, now 103, was delighted to hear about the memorial for her uncle and came to the ceremony.

The initiative to hold the memorial followed a request to Perry by a Jewish community in Hull in northeast England. One Samuel Abrahamson had fought with the Jewish Legion and was buried on Mount Scopus.

Relatives who have held a memorial to him every year in Britain asked for help to hold an event in Israel for the 100th anniversary of his death. Their personal memorial turned into a broader project to memorialize other Legion troops buried in Israel.

Researchers documented Abrahamson’s biography. It turns out he was born in Lithuania, immigrated to Britain and lived in Hull as a shoe merchant before heading off to war. In early October 1918 he took part in a trek from the Jordan Valley to Jerusalem, escorting Turkish prisoners. Most of the British troops, including Abrahamson, came down with a fever and died on October 14. His photograph was preserved in the Hull city archive.

Fourteen of the 45 Legion members were buried at the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus. The names of four others whose places of burial are unknown are also noted there. The rest are buried in other Israeli cemeteries.

The Jewish Legion, which were combat units, were established at the initiative of early Zionist heroes Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor. The idea was that this would advance demands for the founding of a national home for the Jewish people.

Three Jewish Legion units were active in the war. One was established in London; its volunteers included young Jewish men from Russia who were in England at the time. Another was established in the United States, included Jews from both the United States and the Holy Land – among them David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. The third was founded in Egypt, was made up of volunteers from the Holy Land.

Soldiers after they laid wreaths for Jewish Legion fallen at the British military cemetery in Jerusalem, October 10, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Death by illness as well

Some 5,000 Jews fought in the Legion, one-third from the United States, the Holy Land and Britain each. There were also small groups of Canadians, Argentines and Jews who had served in the Ottoman army and had been captured by the British.

Eran Tirosh, chairman of the Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel, told Haaretz that the Legion was “the first Jewish fighting force to operate in the modern era with Jewish symbols.” Alas, they didn’t receive enough training.

“They were involved in fighting, but minimally and not with a great deal of success,” Tirosh said, adding that only some of those who died fell in battle. “Most of them died of illness; there were terrible epidemics. They had been deployed in the Jordan Valley, the worst place to be.”

Samuel Abrahamson, who died serving with Britain's Jewish Legion during World War I.Credit: Giving a Face to the Fallen

The fallen were buried first on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The Jabotinsky Institute’s archives contain a 1919 letter by the Jewish Legion’s chaplain to the Jewish community in Jerusalem: The graves were being neglected.

“It took a lot of work to find the graves …. What I saw filled me with sadness and grief …. The site chosen for burial on the mountain’s slopes isn’t even marked,” the rabbi wrote. “This is a crime and an outrage against the Jerusalem community.”

Later the graves were moved to the British cemetery established on Mount Scopus in 1927.

Participants at Wednesday’s ceremony included descendants of Jewish Legion members and a delegation of the Jewish community of Hull, as well as a representative of the British military attaché in Israel. The memorial was a sequel to the 2014 burial of the remains of the Legion’s commander, Col. John Henry Patterson, at Moshav Avihayil north of Tel Aviv.

Patterson’s remains were flown in from the United States for the burial. Patterson was the godfather and namesake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni Netanyahu, who died in Israel’s legendary Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976.

In his speech at the burial, Netanyahu said he considered the Jewish Legion “the first Jewish fighting force since the Bar Kochba Revolt and the foundation on which the Israel Defense Forces were later built.”

Dozens from Israel, Britain and the United States attended Wednesday’s event, where it was recalled how the Legion’s motto was “every dreamer must also be a fighter,” suggesting how not only thinkers but also military men and women were needed to establish a Jewish state.

Tirosh said: “Nowadays a Jewish fighting force is something we take for granted, but at that time, the idea of sending a Jewish force to fight with Jewish symbols seemed like an impossibility.”

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