Lessons after Long Wars

What The Armistice Anniversary Means Now
U.S. soldiers with the 1st Division of the 6th Field Artillery Regiment are seen in an undated photo in World War I (CNS photo/U.S. Signal Corps, courtesy National World War I Museum and Memorial)

When I was visiting my grandfather as a boy of about ten, he asked what I was reading. I showed him the book and proclaimed the title, America’s First World War. I was old enough to understand that this was a bit awkward; my grandfather had served in the German army in World War I, with the bad guys. Dr. Samuel Moses came to America in 1938, a German-Jewish refugee who fled three months before the pogrom that the Nazis quaintly called Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.

My grandfather seemed amused at what I was reading, and my father looked maybe a little bit sheepish. At some point—another time, I think—my grandfather showed me a small, worn photo of him standing on the front, a lone figure in a wasteland. He held out his wrist and pointed to a thin white line. It was a scar from shrapnel, he said.

Like many other German Jews, my grandfather and his cousins served with distinction in the war that expired on November 11, 1918, only to have their patriotism betrayed, as was all too obvious with Kristallnacht. The eightieth anniversary of that overnight rampage against Jewish houses of worship and businesses on November 9–10, 1938—ninety-one people murdered, thirty thousand taken to concentration camps—arrives with a particular chill after a gunman shouting “All Jews must die” attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing eleven worshipers. It makes me think of photos I’ve seen of the destroyed synagogue after the Kristallnacht attack in Lörrach, the small city where my grandfather lived on the Swiss and French borders in the southwestern corner of Germany.

These are anniversaries that tell us how futile war is.... Let us hope that history does not repeat.

And then the centennial of the armistice: these are anniversaries that align to warn future generations of the danger of aggressive nationalism, a cause of both the Great War and the rise of Nazism. These anniversaries come as an angry strain of nationalism—and I don’t mean the love a people should rightfully feel for a homeland—spreads, virus-like, through the countries that fought in the First World War. These are anniversaries that tell us how futile war is.

My grandfather served in the war as a doctor with the rank of captain. According to the International Encyclopedia of World War I, German military doctors treated some nineteen million cases during the war, including nearly five million combat wounds.

When he arrived home in Lörrach, he set to work trying to alleviate the enormous suffering the war had brought on. He founded a home for orphans; the war had left more than a million German children without parents. An estimated two million German soldiers died, and hundreds of thousands of civilians succumbed to disease and starvation stemming from an effective British naval blockade. Many also died of the Spanish influenza.

My grandfather became active in the progressive German Democratic Party and was elected to the city council of Lörrach in 1919, a position he held until the Nazis came to power in 1933. In that same year, the government declared an official boycott of his and other Jewish-owned businesses (although some patients, including some who were not Jewish, continued to come to him covertly). And he was stripped of his position as medical director of the orphanage he founded.

My grandparents and father said very little about their experience of the Nazis. If asked, they would say, “We don’t look back.” But just recently, I came upon the English translation of a book that gave a much more detailed picture, The Jewish Congregation of Kirchen (now Efringen-Kirchen), a town close to Lörrach. The Moses family had lived in Kirchen since at least the 1700s; my grandfather, his two sisters, and many cousins grew up there.

The author, the Rev. Axel Huettner, wrote that Jews in the Baden region of southwest Germany were not granted full civil rights as citizens until 1861. This equality was somewhat theoretical, but gradually, Jews were able to assume positions as judges, doctors, and, in my grandfather’s case, lawmakers. After many generations of a poverty enforced by laws rooted in the Middle Ages, the Jewish community in the region was beginning to thrive. Patriotic pride accompanied this and Jews, as much as any other Germans, served proudly in the war (contrary to what the Nazis later said in their effort to stoke anti-Semitic resentment).

According to the Huettner book, my grandfather’s cousin, Julius Moses, served on the frontline in France for the duration of the war and “was gripped by the patriotic fervor.” In letters home, he recounted taking part in the especially severe battle of Loretto Heights in Flanders in 1915, charging into French trenches. He was awarded the Iron Cross and Silver Medal for his bravery.

Julius’s brother, who was named Samuel Moses (like my grandfather), was held as a French prisoner of war for nearly four years after his capture in 1915. Through this book and the online sources it led me to, I learned of another cousin of my grandfather’s, Nathan Moses, a lawyer who served in a field artillery unit in France during the war.  For a time, Nathan had lived in my grandfather’s household after being orphaned at the age of six.

By the mid-1930s, the brothers Julius and Samuel fled to France, only to be interned as enemy aliens. Their confinement was far from ideal but, Huettner wrote, the food was decent and there was access to Jewish religious services for Passover. When German troops began advancing into France at the start of World War II, they fled. The author wondered if Julius, having served so enthusiastically in the First World War, “had ever thought that the welfare of German patriots of 1914–18 would depend on the fortune of war of the former opponent,” France.

Nathan Moses and his wife, Betty, remained in their home in Karlsruhe, Germany, where they operated a travel agency to help Jews overcome a thicket of legal obstacles to emigrate, mainly to Palestine. In 1940, Betty and Nathan Moses and their two daughters were taken by the SS to the disease-ridden Gurs transit camp in southwestern France. Betty Moses was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944; Nathan, who was hospitalized, died the day after she was deported.

Julius Moses was murdered at the Majdanek (Lublin) concentration camp in 1943. His brother Samuel and their sisters Berthe and Mina were murdered at Auschwitz. My grandfather’s two sisters, Regina and Rosa, were murdered at Auschwitz. 

Much of this was news to me; the only murdered relative I was aware of when I visited Auschwitz on a reporting trip in the 1980s was Regina, who had been deported from the Netherlands. There was a world of murder victims I had never heard of.

There were a few survivors, also. The two daughters of Nathan and Betty Moses, Hanna and Susanne, were also taken to the Gurs transit camp but were separated from their parents in 1941 and brought to a French public orphanage. In July 1943, strangers smuggled them into Switzerland, aged fifteen and fourteen, through a slit in a tall barbed wire fence. As Hanna recounted in the Huettner book, they were part of a group of twenty-five children who were well versed in how to maintain the false identifications they’d been provided. When a Swiss policeman questioned them, “We told him the tales taught to us.… We had to be careful to give the same answers.”

Hanna Meyer-Moses became an author and speaker who documented the evils of the Gurs camp and the journey of the Jews of the Baden region. In an interview posted to the website of the Evangelical Church of Baden, she was asked what can be learned from the history she witnessed.

She answered (loosely translated here):

It is extremely important to learn and to know that every human being is equal regardless of his or her skin color, religion, and nationality. In addition, everything must be done to defend and preserve the values of democracy.… Respect your neighbor, because he is like you!

One week after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, I became a grandfather. As I beheld my grandson, I thought that if he lives as long a life as my own grandfather, he will see the twenty-second century.

Let us hope that history does not repeat.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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