A Guest Blog Posting by Daniel Morgan-Thomas
Anniversaries are ever popular. We have just celebrated the 65th anniversary (or birthday) of the creation of the State of Israel; this year sees celebrations too of the composers Verdi and Britten, and half a century since the creation of television classic Doctor Who. Much anticipation then has been caused by the prospect of next year’s centenary of the start of that calamitous world event, the First World War. There has been much discussion from the corridors of power to the newspapers as to how the occasion should be commemorated: speculation ranges from the manner of public ceremony to the nature of television coverage. It may well, however lead to all sorts of opportunities and further questions for Jewish genealogists.
As with other historic occasions, large commercial data providers like Ancestry or Findmypast are likely to promote their military records; the National Archives have already completed digitising the War Diaries of the period – numerous further records are due to be added by the summer of 2014. Though many of these records will have been open to the public before, there will be more available, and more easily accessible, than ever before, which will be very handy if you do have any family members who served. It remains to be seen whether the national establishments of the other countries that took part in the War will do similar things; there would be much of Jewish interest in German, Austrian or Russian records should they exist.
As the nation as a whole comes to re-examine World War One and its legacy, it is worth reflecting on its impact on the Jewish community in Britain. The last Jewish veteran of the conflict died some time ago now, and indeed this year is the first that sees no British survivors. Perhaps understandably, it seems that the Second World War has overshadowed its predecessor in the popular imagination, but nevertheless now seems a good time to bring the latter back. Are there 1914-18 medals languishing in a drawer somewhere in your house? This is the ideal time to find out the story behind them. We are also in danger of losing as a community the vital memories of the war; commemoration boards and plaques in synagogues have failed to be recorded and photographed as Church or civil memorials have been by local authorities; some may have been lost in demolition or renovation since. Sadly, even graves of Jewish servicemen in Jewish cemeteries in this county have not always been well maintained. Whatever the symbol, it is surely worthy in this year of being restored and remembered.
Genealogically, such efforts would bear fruit for future generations of family historians. Some of the most exciting parts of genealogy are to be found in the First World War: stories that are exhilarating and heart-breaking in equal measure; a greater understanding of the social effect of War on the lives of our families past; rediscovering our ancestors’ connections with sometimes alien ideas of militaristic patriotism. As a Society, perhaps we could theme our 2014 conference, or have a World War One based Shemot? I believe it would help Jewish genealogists connect with the key historical event of the time. For, whatever our reactions to the War itself or to the military and state commemorations that will inevitably surround the centenary, there is genuine genealogical interest to be found in it for many of us.