‘Blood Flows Like Water And People Fall Like Flies,’ The Forverts Remembers The Great War
In April, 1915, as The Great War was raging in Europe, your favorite Yiddish newspaper had 176,125 daily readers, according to the masthead’s circulation figures. The United States had yet to enter the fight, but The Forverts covered it aggressively. And on April 9th, New York-based editors and publishers of foreign language newspapers who differed on the war — from over 500 publications including the Croation Novi Hrvat, Italy’s La Stampa, Swedes, Poles even Ruthenians — came together on our pages to sign a non-interventionist ad.
Let us alleviate human suffering and life—not help to destroy it, the ad read so critical a message, the editors must have thought, it was published in bold in Yiddish and also in English.
Around that time, the Forverts also began publishing Milkhome Brief, letters to American relatives from from Russian and Galician soldiers. They wrote and sent letters from battlefields, prisons, and hospital cots where they convalesced from war wounds. The feature began before The Forverts editorials changed from opposition to support of the war in late 1917, and remained a stable item through 1917 as the bloodiest of pogroms would take place during and in the lead up to the Russian Revolution.
The letters were both a form of reports to the public from the front and personal missives to loved ones; once published, they could be picked up at the Forverts offices between 3 and 4 p.m. daily. Brief notices from soldiers unable to write full letters were also published between longer narratives of war; women and others in villages ravaged by the fighting also wrote. Stories of sex crimes and post-traumatic stress were not held back.
For this Veteran’s Day, we went back to the archives to share a few of these treasured letters published in April 1915. They have been edited for clarity and length.
A wounded soldier from Sosnowiec [Sosnovits] writes from Moscow to Mr. Gitler of 94 Sheriff Street, New York City
My darlings, I’ve written you four times already from Moscow and haven’t heard any response as of yet. So now I’m sending this letter to you via a Kiev soldier with whom I served in Astrakhan. He’ll place the letter in the mail and I hope it will arrive to you.
What can I tell you about myself? I’ve been wounded twice, once in each foot, in a battle below Czestochowa, on November 15th. Since then I’ve been in the hospital and have faith that our blessed god led me through the fires and that I will see my dear ones from home soon. I haven’t heard from home at all and I believe they don’t know what’s transpired with me. They probably assume I’m dead. I ask you to write them and let them know you’ve received a letter from me and that I’m alive.
I hope to heal and to be able to reunite with you.
I received the news that war had broken out when we were in the barracks. As soon as the telegram arrived we were sent to the Austrian border. We went as far as Jaroslaw the Austrian town. From Jaroslaw we were taken into Poland to fight the Germans. We passed Radom province, Kielce and in Pietrokow we met up with the Germans. They fight bitterly. In short, in a battle of 14 versts [approx. 9 miles from Czestochowa I was wounded. It was Hanukkah.
Here in Moscow there are a lot of wounded soldiers from Poland. If I were to describe everything going on here, I fear the letter would not arrive. In the meantime, I am in Moscow…when I can use my feet again I wouldn’t stay in Moscow for even one hour…
I greet everyone, apologies for sending the letter postage due but I have no money
From Czernowitz in the Bukovina region, Clara Feler wrote her sister Bertha Halpern at 71 East 3rd Street in what is now the chic East Village :
Thank god our city of Czernowitz is back in Austrian hands. We thought we’d forever be under Russian rule and could barely believe the Russian pig would eventually retreat. God is good!
Most of Czernowitz’s residents have escaped town. I also tried, and got as far as the train station, but then returned home practically dead, and so here I remain. The Russians did great damage, but I’m one of the lucky ones they left unharmed.
I’m sending you a photo of my husband and brother-in-law. They both fought the entire time against the Russians and finally won. The Russians were driven from Czernowitz and they, along with the victorious Austrian army returned to our city.
You can imagine the joy when the victorious Austrian forces entered Czernowitz and the residents received them with song and such happiness we just grabbed their hands. I looked for my Berl and my brother-in-law among the entering Austrian soldiers. I started shouting for joy so much so that folks ran over to me thinking I’d lost my mind.
Families wrote to relatives, and Jewish veterans, now prisoners of war, in poignant one- line offerings, and without any known relatives were given space to address the community as they appealed for help:
D. Kleyber, a Russian prisoner in Austria seeks his cousin Yakov Shmulevitz.
From the battlefield, an Austrian Jewish soldier writes to Mr. Rosenblatt of 323 Reed Avenue in Brooklyn:
It’s redundant to tell you that the Russians are wild and corrupt. One hears plenty of their horrid acts, their murders, sex crimes and pillaging against the civilians, the defenseless women—that’s all been news throughout the world.
I’m enclosing a photograph of a soldier’s execution, for committing a crime. The Russians would give him a medal for his acts, but our leaders saw it as an offensive act and the lowlife got his due. A soldier raped a young woman and the war tribunal sentenced him to death. I was on the battlefield when the trial took place and the image was made. I’m sending it to you, it says everything there is to say.
Leybe Rabinovits of Grodne, a bookbinder by trade who received the Georgievsky crest and 15 rubles for his outstanding performance in the war, wrote to his father, Yosl Rabinovits, at 372 Cherry Street:
Beloved, dear father,
I’m writing after a long time to tell you that I’m well and am now eight versts [5.5 miles] away from where the war still rages. I’m now among soldiers prepping guns and bullets for those on the front lines. Though I’m several miles from the battle, the bullets reach us. One witnesses such dreadful things my entire body trembles.
Blood flows like water and people fall like flies. If it’s fated for us to meet again, I hope we once again will get to talk about everything. I truly hope for this, my loving father.
Since the war began our unit has passed through Suwalki into Germany. We drove the Germans into a retreat and we’re already at Konigsberg. The Germans ran off and left everything behind them in retreat. We enjoyed their geese and their cognac and momentarily are living well.
They gathered a large force and sent us retreating back to Russia. Five days and nights we were battered mercilessly with no let up. We’d turn back to look behind us only to hear shots and see bullets fly overhead. Nearing Kovne, everybody took off so the Germans wouldn’t capture us. I was left alone on guard over a treasury chest.
I didn’t run off but sought to save the money from falling into German hands. I hid it over those five days and nights without any relief. I would bend my head to allow the bullets to pass but wouldn’t leave that money trunk until our artillery returned to beat the Germans. I and the treasury chest could no longer move, we were caught between both armies. Yet, I remained on my post until the last minute, until finally the Germans retreated and my commander came to me and handed me fifteen ruble as a gift and awarded me the Georgievsky crest given me by the Generals.
After all that, I was sent into Poland where there are smaller battles ongoing. The earth was frozen and no major ones could occur until the thaw and we could dig trenches.
I hope and await the time we’ll see each other again, my beloved father.
Write me news of the world, it’s hard to imagine where I’ve been and I’ve really heard very little. Write how America thinks of this war and what your papers are saying about it.
Regards to all, especially Bents should you see him.
I can tell you that Hyat the smithy, who served with me in the battery was killed near Warsaw. Farye from Amdur is in Plen.
I’ve got no more news to write,
Your son who wishes to see you soon, Leybke Rabinovits
An imprisoned Russian Jewish soldier, R. Emanuel seeks his relatives in New York. He asks for Natshey Sheynen of the Mohliver region. The soldier has written a postcard to Mr. Louie Mansheyn of 78 Market Street, New York. Mr. Mansheyn also has an imprisoned brother in Germany, together with Emanuel.
A wounded soldier writes from Smorgon in the Vilne district to Mr. Vilner of 89 Grafton Street, Brownsville.
Dear Friend, What can I say, two months into the war and I was with Leyzer until I was sent off to Smorgon. I heard he’s been taken prisoner of war by the Germans. I’m recovering from my wound but as for further on, I’ve no idea what will be with me. Nights I dream of the war.
As I’m dropping off, it seems I’m being attacked, tortured and falling into water fighting, feeling as though I’m drowning. Somebody drags me down. Suddenly I’m woken up to see I’m lying in Beyle’s canopy bed and it’s so good, so homey and pleasant. I can’t believe I’m not on the battlefield.
Seems I can still see ripped off arms, feet, heads and pieces of human flesh. Dear friend, I must stop here for a while. I can’t finish writing this letter because my hands and feet are trembling now. It’s awful. It’s horrible.
I have two questions to ask:
Why does this happen to me? How have I sinned and been abandoned in Smorgon a lonely man who had to survive all manner of war horrors? Again I’ll ask why is an ocean of blood and tears necessary? Whatever did we do? Why this sinister life?
I wish you, your wife and child better fortune, to live happily there and not to forget your disabled friend if only with a nice little note, with a warm word.