April 13, 2022
By Resident Historian, Emeritus Professor Dr Konrad Kwiet
Not much has been written about Jewish soldiers fighting in the Allied armies against Germany during World War II. One estimate puts the number at 1.5 million. They came from many walks of life and wore an array of uniforms. They all contributed to the defeat of the Nazi regime that destroyed the Jewish world in Europe.
Some 550,000 Jews served in the armed forces of the United States. Almost 500,000 fought in the Soviet Union’s Red Army. Over 60,000 joined the ranks of the British army, and among them were numerous German refugees and internees such as the Dunera Boys. The rest were spread among the various European exile-armies and troops dispatched from Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Many never forgot the horrors they encountered in 1945: witnessing the liberation of Holocaust survivors from concentration camps, or at the end of their long and harrowing death marches.
Their military identification insignia, colloquially known as dog tags, often displayed their religious affiliation. The abbreviations varied: Australian dog tags were engraved with the letters “J”, “Jewish”, “Heb”, “Hebr” or “Hebrew”.
Thousands of Jewish soldiers fell in combat. They were buried in special sections of military war cemeteries without any religious rites. 200,000 were taken prisoner and incarcerated in Prisoner of War (POW) camps run by the Wehrmacht, the German army.
Captured Jewish soldiers of the Red Army, labelled as “Jewish-Bolshevist world enemies”, were murdered, either shot immediately or put to death in gassing installations. Polish Jewish soldiers captured in the Autumn of 1939 were discharged and permitted to return home. It did not take long, however, before they were incarcerated in ghettos and included in the “Final Solution”.
Yet, with very few exceptions, Jewish Prisones of War (POWs) from Western countries survived the Holocaust under the custody of the German Wehrmacht. This also applied to the Jewish volunteers from Palestine and members of the Jewish Brigade who fought in the ranks of the British Army. A list at the Sydney Jewish Museum displays the names of 19 Australian Jewish POWs, discharged at the end of the war.
The Wehrmacht who were complicit in the murder of the Jews, rejected the constant demands of the SS to stigmatise Jewish POWs with a Yellow Star, to incarcerate them in separate Jewish barracks, or to hand them over to the SS to be murdered. The rescue and survival of this distinct Jewish group was the result of intervention by the Western powers.
Military and political leaders hastened to warn the Nazi leadership that any fundamental breach of international law, especially the killing of their captured soldiers, would have drastic consequences for the treatment of German soldiers and civilians interned in England, the USA and other countries.
This threat forced German generals to keep Jewish POWs alive.
They did not, however, offer them any privileges. Jewish prisoners received starvation rations. Observant Jews were forced to eat non-kosher food. Subjected to harsh labour, they were compelled to work on Jewish festivals and a ban was imposed on religious services and prayers.