The New Lamentations = Megilat Ekhah ha-ḥadashah = Di Naye Megilas Ekhah, a small, trilingual booklet in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish by Israel Fine, was published a century ago in 1917 as a fund-raising effort for the Central Relief Committee.

Immediately after the outbreak of World War I, urgent pleas for help from Jews in the war zones in Eastern Europe and Palestine reached their brethren in the United States. In response, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations established the Central Relief Committee (CRC) on October 4, 1914, three months after the War started in Europe. The CRC’s motto was: “shed tears for the dead, give bread for the living.” Fine’s The New Lamentations aimed to do both. The book cost twenty-five cents, and the proceeds were “devoted to the relief of the Jewish war sufferers.” The Hebrew portion of the book utilizes and creatively re-uses Biblical passages, primarily from the book of Jeremiah and from Megilat Ekhah (Eicha – Lamentations), traditionally recited on Tishah B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, to describe the horrific realities Jews faced during the First World War.  Fine equates Jewish suffering during the War with the lot of the Jewish people in the time of the destruction of the Temple. The New Lamentations employs traditional Jewish literary tropes to craft a new, unique Jewish literary creation, a Jewish lament for World War I for the ages. Fine, a clothing merchant in Baltimore, was also a Hebrew poet who had published a book of poetry, Neginot ben Yehudah, in 1907.

The Hebrew section of Fine’s The New Lamentations was translated into English by Dr. Tobias Salzman. To provide a sense of the work and the tragic fate it portrays, some selections from the English section will serve as examples:

“And it came to pass when the Czar destroyed the cities of Judah and the Children of Israel were driven out to go into exile… [came] the wailing of the unfortunate… from the land that consumes her inhabitants, the empire of the wicked Russia.”   “At the command of the Czar, the oppressor of the Jews, the ferocious Russians are eagerly conspiring like hungry wolves against Jewish cities and Hebrew centers to loot and to carry away. Outside, the avenging sword makes mothers childless, and within, the dread of death reigns.” … “Even at this time, the wrath of the ruler has not abated … he orders to drive out the Jews from their settlements … and on account of their religion and their faith, he drives them out from their homes and their possessions, to go wandering to the four corners of the heavens, after having delivered all their properties to cruel strangers, everything, their houses, their stores; and thus, were they expelled and driven out, without food and provision, left naked as on the day of their birth, without a shelter and without protection.  Woe unto me! … And moreover, they accuse them that they are the enemies of Russia, and are siding with the Germans. The peasants say that the Jews are spies, that it was they who devastated the land of Russia.” …

“Travelers are amazed to behold thousands of Israelites, all walking and weeping continually. They have been separated, the husband from his wife, a man from his friend, parents from their children; children do not know where their parents are, for they have been suddenly driven out, driven out to go and migrate into exile on roads and paths, in forests and villages, caravans and societies and communities from Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Galicia. … With their bundles on their shoulders, the rich, the poor, noblemen and beggars, the powerful, the weak, walked bare-footed, naked and weary, all went to sink in the depths of exile! … Even the sick were not spared; they were dragged from their beds while in the hospitals… They even did not allow them to bury those dead who had been slain or stabbed on the exciting [?] day of banishment and expulsion, those who died from starvation remained unburied on every street corner or died in their hiding places, in pits and in dugouts.”

In some instances, the author’s descriptions of the plight of the Jews during World War I seems to foreshadow World War II and the Holocaust:

“… they are all driven to the railroad station; there, so many cars standing by the hundreds and waiting for them. Therein they are placed and therein they are to find their sepulchral houses. And thus are they driven and forced into those infernal enclosures; old and young, women and children, the healthy and the sick, as a cage full of fowl, or men herded like a flock of sheep. There the blind, the lame, the pregnant and the one to give birth, all together, and there they are to shed their tears, weeping and bitterly bewailing, deploring the fearful misfortune of their exile, their young men that fell by the sword and their children that are no more and do not know where they were left. Suddenly the cars are opened, exhausted crowds are driven like cattle and locked in. The trains begin to move. Whither are they going? Where shall be their stopping?  Where shall they arrive? God only knows!”

The New Lamentations ends with the hope that the Lord will punish Russia, and a plea to God to have compassion on his people and to urge the “powers of the world to cease their bloody warfare and strife, and to restore peace among men. Bless us with peace, Oh Lord, for Thou Art the King of Peace.”

Fine’s Lamentations was not the first time the CRC employed the awesome, powerful terminology of lamentations in the service of its work;  the traditional Megilat Ekhah, the biblical book of Lamentations, has served as a prototype  for Jewish suffering throughout the ages. The Kansas City office of the CRC used the phrase “Fear and a snare is come upon us, desolation and destruction” … from the third chapter of Ekhah on its letterhead starting in 1914. Not a surprising choice, since the war started on July 28, 1914, the fifth day of the month of Av, a scant four days before Tishah B’Av.  And in 1916, CRC’s New York office published a circular, “The Lamentations of 1916” just prior to Tishah B’Av, to urge donors to contribute.

“The Lamentations of 1916” and Fine’s The New Lamentations of 1917 both include illustrations, some by J.  [Josef] Foshko, which graphically depict the dire plight of the Jews in the war zones.

These works were written in the midst of the conflagration and offer no consolation beyond the implicit; by invoking traditional archetypes these compositions offer the hope that Jews have overcome destruction in the past and will survive to rebuild again.

Indeed, while the primary focus of CRC’s relief work during World War I was on providing food, medicine, and clothing, after World War I the organization’s mission changed to supporting spiritual and cultural work, such as funding yeshivot and Orthodox educational institution in Eastern Europe and Palestine.

 

Loading relief supplies at a CRC warehouse in Chicago

The publication of “The Lamentations of 1916” and The New Lamentations are only two examples of the many novel fundraising techniques the CRC designed to encourage contributions. The logo of the CRC, published on the title page of Fine’s Ekhah, cites a paraphrase of the Hebrew Biblical verse God thundered at Cain after he killed his brother Abel: “Kol deme ahekha tso’akim elekha,” “your brothers’ blood cries out to you.” The figure of Lady Liberty stretching her hand to Jews overseas is symbolic of American Jewry’s aid to their co-religionists in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in part thanks to the efforts of the CRC, Jews endeavored to be their brothers’ keepers during the First World War.

For more information on the Central Relief Committee, its fundraising activities, and relief work during the First World War, you are welcome to visit the exhibit, “Service to God, Country, and Their Jewish Brethren: American Jews and the First World War,” on the fourth floor of the Mendel Gottesman Library, or to read about it.

 

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger

 

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