Historian, writer and battlefield guide for Rayburn Tours, Paula Kitching, has released a new book called Britain’s Jews in the First World War. Paula tells us why it’s so important to tell the story of the Jewish community and why it needs to be recorded and preserved for future generations.
Why is it so important to tell the story of the Jewish community?
I’m a cultural historian of war and genocide. I spent a lot of my early career working with Holocaust survivors and one of the things that I was interested in was the people and the world that had been destroyed, not just looking at the numbers and the methodology of the Holocaust.
The more I explored this, the more I realised that we are often ignorant of the rich history of minority groups in the UK and of the contribution and participation of those groups. We are also ignorant of the difficulties those people faced in becoming British. The Jewish community has a long history in Britain and it has been important to the development of the wider British Society; I felt that some of that contribution needed to be made clear to people.
The First World War centenary was an opportunity to look at the huge range of people and groups that were involved in the conflict. I hoped at the start that some of the media coverage would have focused on the diversity of those that contributed and were affected. In the end I thought the media coverage was a bit limited and often formulaic.
What it did do though was make the First World War a topic that was being discussed. That meant people like myself and far better known historians and commentators could start to raise the issue of the diversity of those involved, in particular those involved with the British and Allied forces.
The support of the Heritage Lottery Fund helped to fund small community projects on the First World War, which allowed myself and others to address some of the different cultural, religious and ethnic groups that were part of British Society between 1914-1919 to be researched.
What prompted you to build a digital archive on the Jewish experience?
50,000+ Jewish men and women directly contributed to the war effort through military service, and thousands more served on the Home Front; that is from a community of approximately 300,000-350,000 across the UK and British Empire. That is a hefty contribution, but it is largely unknown.
I have taken groups of all ages and many different backgrounds across to the Western Front and they have been surprised to see a Star of David on the headstones of those who were killed. I felt that needed to be addressed. One of the remarkable things about the British fighting forces of the First World War is the diversity of those involved and how willing so many people from different backgrounds were to contribute, and I felt that story needed to be recorded and preserved for future generations.
Who is your book for?
My book is not an academic history of the Jewish community. It is a book written to be read by a non-Jewish and Jewish audience that tells the story of some of the different men and women that served during the First World War. It tells the story of the difficulties and prejudices that some had to overcome in order to contribute and demonstrate a loyalty to a country that was not always fair.
It tells the story of the how Jewish men served in many different regiments, no differently to anyone else from the UK. It also tells the story of the specifically Jewish regiments that the British authorities created to help Jews from many countries support the war effort.
Paula’s book Britain’s Jews in the First World War will be published on 15th February and is available to pre-order on Amazon.