There was a cart for the dead, a cart for the liv­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY KEREN DAVID

THE BAND played On­ward Chris­tian Sol­diers as the sol­diers marched, car­ry­ing bay­o­net-fixed ri­fles, from the Guild­hall — where they had been feted at a spe­cial ban­quet — to the Lon­don docks. Each sol­dier had been given the Free­dom of the City of Lon­don.

This was Mor­ris Buznic’s in­tro­duc­tion to army life in 1917 as vol­un­teer for the 38th Bat­tal­ion of the Royal Fusiliers, part of the Jewish fight­ing force of the First World War.

Mor­ris was my grand­fa­ther, and the sto­ries of his war ser­vice come from my fa­ther. I’ve filled in some gaps us­ing a book, We Are Com­ing Un­afraid by Michael and Shlomit Keren, which tells the wider story of the Jewish sol­diers who fought for the British against the Ger­mans and the Ot­toman Em­pire in the later stages of the First World War.

That they were there is mainly down to the Zion­ist leader Ze’ev Jabotin­sky, who lob­bied the British govern­ment from 1915 to cre­ate a Jewish le­gion. When they did, it con­sisted of sol­diers from Pales­tine, Canada, Ar­gentina and the US, as well as those liv­ing in Bri­tain, who largely formed the 38th bat­tal­ion. The Guild­hall ban­quet came af­ter ba­sic train­ing in Ply­mouth, and be­fore the troops were dis­patched to the Mid­dle East.

For many of Mor­ris’s com­rades, there was no choice about join­ing up. They were Rus­sian im­mi­grants and a re­cent agree­ment be­tween Bri­tain and Rus­sia meant they had to join the army or be repa­tri­ated to Rus­sia.

But he was from Poland, not Rus­sia; his grand­mother had been born in Wales; and he and his brother had been liv­ing in South Wales for more than a decade, work­ing as ped­dlers. His brother stayed in Merthyr Tyd­fil, but Mor­ris, still sin­gle in his mid-20s, trav­elled to Lon­don and queued overnight to en­list.

He was “very pa­tri­otic” says my fa­ther, not­ing that join­ing up meant reg­u­lar meals, clean un­der­wear and a rent­free roof over his head, plus pocket money and even­tual British nat­u­ral­i­sa­tion.

Once on board, the Jewish sol­diers were read a no­tice said to come from the Chief Rabbi per­mit­ting work on the Shab­bat and eat­ing of non-kosher food while un­der army dis­ci­pline. “Their first meal was baked beans and pork,” says Dad, “but whether sausages or bits of meat I was never told.”

They landed in Egypt and went sight-see­ing, be­fore “get­ting down to the se­ri­ous busi­ness of de­feat­ing the Turks who were hold­ing Gaza against var­i­ous British as­saults. Gaza was shelled for three days and nights by 200 ar­tillery field guns. The Turks broke and fled north to Lebanon, pur­sued by the British who di­verted long enough to cap­ture Jerusalem.”

In Jerusalem, the non-Jewish British of­fi­cers had a prob­lem when their Jewish troops did not want to go onto Tem­ple Mount, “the fear be­ing that the Mount was sub­ject to a cherem (curse) for any­one who breached its ho­li­ness,” says my fa­ther.

“The Chris­tian of­fi­cers would not ac­cept this and or­dered a pla­toon up to clear the Mount of any en­emy. The Jewish pri­vates were pre­pared to dis­obey the or­der but the Jewish se­nior NCO pointed out that would be mutiny pun­ish­able by death and there were one or two of­fi­cers who would be pleased to carry out the ex­e­cu­tion.

“The pri­vates con­sid­ered this and fi­nally agreed to a pla­toon of Co­hanim and Le­vites vol­un­teers to do the duty. My dad was a Levi and went up with his ri­fle, fixed bay­o­net and ‘one up the spout’ — in other words, the ri­fle was loaded and primed. There were no en­emy troops there and the pla­toon had the hon­our of be­ing the first Jews bear­ing arms on the mount since the Ro­mans de­stroyed the Tem­ple.”

The next stop for the bat­tal­ion was the trans-Jor­dan val­ley — “a pest­hole” ac­cord­ing to my grand­fa­ther. In the Kerens’ book, there are quotes from the di­ary of Abra­ham Ja­cob Robin­son, who called the march into the val­ley “a Mor­ris Buznic (left and be­low; on the right in both shots) with a com­pan­ion and (bot­tom left, stand­ing) as a teenager with his brother in War­saw

ter­ri­ble or­deal”, through chok­ing “sul­phurous dust” which sucked their feet down with ev­ery step. The uni­forms were too hot, and the troops did not have enough wa­ter. The val­ley was strewn with the de­cayed bod­ies of Turk­ish sol­diers, which did not smell due to the dry heat but “on turn­ing the bod­ies over, scor­pi­ons and taran­tu­las would be seen in large num­bers”.

“When they ar­rived at the banks of the Jor­dan River they were al­lowed to rest, but were mad­dened by thirst and most ran into the river to cool off and drink,” says Dad. “The Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer was hor­ri­fied or­dered them out and rode on horse­back, wield­ing his whip to drive them out — but it was too late.” There­after, the men con­tin­ued to march, but with some drop­ping from malaria and amoe­bic dysen­tery. “The bat­tal­ion was fol­lowed by two carts, one for the dead and one for those still alive. My fa­ther col­lapsed and was about to be thrown in the death cart when one of the Red Cross bear­ers said ‘this one is still alive’ and the next thing he knew was in a field hos­pi­tal and then be­ing taken to a big hos­pi­tal in Cairo as soon as his dysen­tery al­lowed.”

In hos­pi­tal he was is­sued with light­weight py­ja­mas, which helped his tem­per­a­ture down from a high of 108 de­gree Fahren­heit. “The rule was that any­one who was hos­pi­talised for more than 29 nights had to be sent home to Blighty,” says Dad, “but so many were sick that the army ar­ranged for ev­ery­one alive af­ter 28 nights were to be taken out and left overnight on the steps out­side.

“So many were killed by night rob­bers that the Ghurkas were set to guard them and no fur­ther fa­tal­i­ties of British sol­diers oc­curred, but a num­ber of night rob­bers were found with cut throats.”

We think that some of Mor­ris’s sol­dier­ing was spent as a mo­tor­bike despatch driver, as he was once dis­patched to de­liver an in­vi­ta­tion to Mr Jabotin­sky him­self. He cer­tainly served un­der Gen­eral Ed­mond Al­lenby. “He didn’t like him,” says Dad. “He didn’t like any of the of­fi­cers.”

The First World War was an ad­ven­ture that took my grand­fa­ther far from home, and won him British cit­i­zen­ship, but left him with the af­ter­math of malaria, which gave him high fevers ev­ery year or so. He went on to serve in the Home Guard and taught my dad to shoot and to make ex­plo­sives in case of a Ger­man in­va­sion. In such a sit­u­a­tion, the 12-yearold was in­structed to kill his mother and younger broth­ers, and then him­self in a sui­cide at­tack.

He died in 1955, a bro­ken man who could never come to terms with the loss of his fa­ther and the re­main­ing Pol­ish fam­ily at Auschwitz.

I wish I’d known him.

Jewish pri­vates who re­fused to en­ter Tem­ple Mount were told they would be ex­e­cuted

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