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Soldiers' Tales: Two Palestinian Jewish Soldiers in the Ottoman Army during the First World War, by Glenda Abramson, editor

London: Vallentine Mitchell / Portland, Or.: International Specialized Book Services, 2013. Pp. xviii, 284. Illus., gloss., notes, biblio., index. $84.95. ISBN: 0853039569.

  Rare Insights into the Ottoman Army by Two Jewish Conscripts

There is an abundance of first-hand reminiscences in letters, diaries, autobiographies, poems and stories from soldiers (that is, non-officers) who served on the European Front in World War I, representing both the Allied and Central Powers. There have even been well-known accounts (one legendary) of the fighting in Palestine, Egypt and Arabia. A noticeable dearth exists, however, of comparable writings from soldiers in the Ottoman Army. This is not particularly surprising, as the vast majority of Muslim common soldiers were illiterate; however, diaries and memoirs from Jewish conscripts (again, as opposed to those trained as officers), among whom literacy in one or more languages, was nearly universal, are rare to find. Furthermore, especially overlooked in official military histories have been the Ottoman Army’s Amele Taburlari (Turkish, labor brigades). It is a conspicuous gap significantly addressed by Glenda Abramson, a South African-born, Israel-educated retired Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford.

Soldiers’ Tales: Two Palestinian Jewish Soldiers in the Ottoman Army During the First World War , was originally written in Ladino, or Judeo-Spanish, and then translated into Hebrew. Abramson edited and annotated the unpolished wartime diaries of two Sephardic Jews from Jerusalem who were conscripted into labor units of the Ottoman Fourth Army during World War I to bring their story to the attention of scholars. The diarists are eloquently literate, quoting or alluding metaphorically to Scriptural texts (Job was especially relevant), and honest about their flaws and failings, and their despair. 

Middle class and religiously observant, Yehuda Amon and Haim Nahmias were transported far from home to Western Anatolia and thrust into inhumane conditions that became their daily reality for two or three years – the chaos, corruption and cruelty of the Ottoman military. Their reminiscences, based on notes made at the time and recopied, reconstructed and expanded postwar (also embroidered and with some literary license taken in spots), are relentless catalogs of misery: of filthy, lice-ridden, overcrowded barracks akin to prison camps (with much the same agenda, preventing escapes), of being worked to exhaustion and beyond, of constant, senseless, humiliating and brutal beatings and lashings by Turkish officers and NCOs (Amon refers to one commander as “the Lord of the Lashes”), of being extorted for what little money they had or robbed of possessions outright, of being subjected to perpetual hunger and thirst (when there was food, it was often contaminated; in one memorable anecdote, Nahmias relates how a dog sniffed and walked away from their bread), and of pointless marching and maneuvers, heavily-laden and clothed in tatters, without shelter in extreme heat and cold, and long transports in rail cars “crammed like sardines in a barrel.” Yet despite it all, the two men clearly kept their spirits; “Apart from this we didn’t have anything to complain about,” writes Amon with characteristic Jewish irony.

Additionally, as Jews they faced other, unique hardships: their beards were shaved off, they had to work on the Sabbath and eat non-kosher food, even leavened bread during Passover. Still, they were resilient, and attempted to adhere to rituals and prayers, and observe holy days and festivals to preserve a semblance of identity. Despite hunger, when they could, they shunned meat and only ate vegetables. In the midst of their ordeals (“as long as the Babylonian and Egyptian exile”), they were able to record their experiences, and so retain some dignity as they waited for their deliverance and return to Jerusalem.

Though self-described as hayalim ragilim (Hebrew, “ordinary soldiers”), they were not regular soldiers; their service was rather in Amale units, that is to say, compulsory work gangs, they replaced troops – and pack animals – needed at the front. Neither Amon nor Nahmias ever saw combat, as Anatolia was not a battlefront, nor were they trained to be sent to a battlefront (they were, after all, Jews). Amon, however, was at times armed and stood guard duty (desertion was a severe problem) and spent the final months of the war in the hospital (a prayed-for reprieve); Nahmias, a skilled bootmaker, ultimately was given a craftsman’s privileges and even permitted to live in a town. 

Nevertheless, while literally far from the war’s momentous events in their little corner of the Ottoman Army (Amon “felt only boredom” at the “tidings” of the Turkish victory at Gallipoli and attendant rumors of the war’s imminent end), their personal and private chronicles present a wealth of details about Ottoman military laws, discipline and protocols, primitive transportation (there was a lack of railroads and motorized transport; officers were fortunate to have horses, trucks or lorries were German), the daily life of Amale soldiers, uniforms, weaponry (guns, bullets and hand grenades), techniques of target practice, guard duty procedures (“stand[ing] in [a] hellish place”), medical disinfection, the building of military installations and the nature of encampments (with too much about latrines), attentive descriptions of landscapes, terrain and cities passed through, and even observations of easygoing Turkish Air Force pilots. It is evident even from these humble eyewitnesses that the Ottoman Army, which had not adequately rebuilt after its losses in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), was disintegrating.

Abramson also contributes a fascinating introduction on Jerusalem prior to and during the war, covering the split between the Old and New Yishuv (generations of Jewish settlement in Palestine), the debate on taking Turkish citizenship (“Ottomanization”) and serving in the Army (David Ben-Gurion argued that it would show Istanbul the Jews’ loyalty and benefit the Zionists postwar), the autocratic rule of Jemal Pasha, the Turkish governor of Syria-Palestine, who, not unjustifiably suspected the Zionists of supporting the Allies (particularly after the Balfour Declaration), and the wartime scarcities and deprivations, famine (two of Nahmias’ children starved) and illness within the city (this was, by the way, of special interest to this reviewer, as my great-grandfather lived there at the time), worsened by a devastating plague of locusts in 1915. It is, however, of dubious relevance to the two conscripts’ accounts.

Though frequently repetitious (as was their wretched term as soldiers), Amon’s and Nahmias’ stories are punctuated as well by flashes of erudition and even humor (mostly irony), and valuably provides insight into sorely neglected areas of the Great War, namely the lives of lowly Amele soldiers in Western Anatolia, of Jews certainly, but also their companions in misfortune, Turks, Arabs, Kurds and Christians.                                    --Mark Blackman


Note: Soldiers Tales is also available as an e-Book, 978-0-85303-966-2




Reviewer: Mark Blackman   

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