This Day in Jewish History, 1890

A Bantamweight Soldier and World War I Poet Is Born

'I killed till all my strength was gone,' wrote Isaac Rosenberg: 'And still they rose to torture me, / For Devils only die in fun.'

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November 25, 1890, is the birthdate of Isaac Rosenberg, the Jewish-English poet of World War I, who before his death in the trenches of France, in 1918, wrote some of the most directly evocative verse to emerge from the war.

Isaac Rosenberg was the second of six children born to Barnett (Dovber) Rosenberg and Anna (Hacha) Davidov Rosenberg, both of whom had emigrated to the United Kingdom from Dvinsk in the Russian Empire (today Daugavpils, Latvia). Isaac was born in Bristol, but when he was 6, the family moved to London, where they resided in Stepney, in the heavily Jewish East End.

The family was extremely poor: Barnett briefly owned a butcher shop, but when that failed, had to work as an itinerant peddler). Thus Isaac left school at age 14 and began an apprenticeship in an engraving shop.

Barnett showed a facility for drawing and also for poetry from a young age. With the help of several Jewish benefactors, he studied art in the evenings at Birkbeck College. In 1911, he began attending the Slade School of Fine Art on scholarship. There he became serious about writing poetry, although his lack of formal education made him self-conscious about his work.

Slum children of Whitechapel

At around the same time, he became friends with a group of other impoverished young Jewish men, aspiring writers and artists, who referred to themselves as the Whitechapel Boys. As another member of the group, the writer Joseph Leftwich, described the group: "We were the slum children, the problem youth, the beneficiaries of the Board of Guardians and the soup kitchen, and some of us (like Rosenberg and [David] Bomberg) of the Jewish Educational Aid Society."

In 1914, in poor health and poor finances, Rosenberg joined his sister Minnie in Cape Town, South Africa. By now, he had self-published one book of poetry, and would publish a second book the following year. But he didn't stay long. He returned to England after the start of World War I, not out of a sense of patriotism but because his prospects as a writer and artist were no better in South African than they had been at home.

When he did volunteer for the army, it was, he wrote to a patron, because of the allowance his mother would be paid by the government.

Horrible rabble in the Bantam Battalion

The diminutive Rosenberg – his height was under 1.5 meters – could qualify only for assignment to a “bantam battalion,” and from October 1915 until his death he served in several different regiments, most of the time in the trenches of France. As a working-class boy who never rose above the rank of private, as opposed to most of the other well-known English poets – including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen -- who served as officers, Rosenberg suffered from terrible physical conditions and from fellow soldiers whom he described as “a horrible rabble” and anti-Semitic.

A friend had sent his poetry to Ezra Pound, who passed it on with a recommendation to the editor of Poetry magazine, in the U.S., which published the first of three poems from him, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” in December 1916. With its grim humor – the author addresses a rat that allows itself to scurry between opposing camps: “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies” – it describes war from very close up.

In another poem, “The Immortals,” he describes the enemy he is unable to vanquish: “I killed them but they would not die/ … I killed till all my strength was gone. / And still they rose to torture me, / For Devils only die in fun. // I used to think the Devil hid / In women’s smiles and wine’s carouse. / I called him Satan, Balzebub. / But now I call him, dirty louse.”

Critics have observed that Rosenberg seemed to rediscover his Jewish identity at the front. Not in the “no atheists in foxholes” sense, but in taking comfort in the longevity of his people, whose “spirits grope / For the pools of Hebron again / For Lebanon's summer slope.”
He applied for a transfer to the Jewish Legion fighting in the Middle East, but was turned down. On the night of April 1, 1918, Rosenberg was killed near the village of Fampoux, on the western front, in Northern France, while the British were trying to recapture Arras from the Germans.

His body was buried in a mass grave until his remains were finally identified in 1926, and reburied in Pas de Calais, France.

His collected poems were published in 1922, and he is one of 16 poets of the Great War who are commemorated on a slate stone dedicated in Westminster Abbey in 1985. One of his self-portraits hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, another in the Tate Gallery.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen