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The First World War through the eyes of London’s Jewish children

Two bound manuscripts of stories, essays, poetry and drawings compiled by children and young people from the Religion School of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London during the First World War, 1915-1916. 

The First World War affected everyone in British society, young and old, upper and lower class, Jewish and non-Jewish. We often focus on those who fought or who served in auxiliary medical and military roles but the war had a huge impact on civilians too. 

Books discovered in the archives of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue (LJS), St John’s Wood, provide a testament as to how the war influenced Jewish children and young people of the period. 

LJS was founded in 1911 and its original location was in Hill Street, Park Road. Over the course of the First World War the congregation grew and new premises were sought. In 1925, LJS moved to the current site in St John’s Wood. An important part of the LJS concept was a religion school that held sessions for all ages - adults and children. During 1915 and 1916, children and young people attending the religion school created pieces of work that were collated into books, two of which have survived.

Visit the life story of Alice Engelbert and Dorothy Behrman , who took part as young artists in the creation of these books

Ian Cooke, head of contemporary British publications at the British Library, said that such a large collection of children's work from the war era is extremely rare:

“In our own collection at the British Library we only have two accounts written by children about a Zeppelin raid in London, but I’ve never seen anything else like this from Britain,” he said.

(Telegraph online, 24th February 2017)

On the whole, the British Home Front was a safe place to be despite Zeppelin raids, the German bombardment of the North-East coast, explosions in ammunition factories and the daily fear of what might happen next. However, regular reports of what was happening in the various theatres of war were published in the press. These, combined with personal letters from relatives serving at the Front or the arrival of dreaded War Office telegrams bringing official news of the loss or injury of loved ones, created a general sense of unease. Some of that unease and the effect of war propaganda is reflected in the children’s work; opinion pieces, poems and pictures. 

The two books provide a rare insight into the feelings of children living in London during the war; what they witnessed and how they responded to the precarious and dangerous world they were living in. The written pieces often contain a reflection on ‘what it is to be Jewish’ at the time or have a Jewish reference, making the books of even greater significance as a record of the Jewish experience of the First World War.

As Martin Impey, well known illustrator of children’s books commented:

‘Their [the children’s] worries about life and what the future holds is a very clear and underlying theme through many pieces …………that these were written without any knowledge of how or when ‘The war to end all wars’ was ever going to be over, is hugely important.’ 

To read Martin’s full commentary on the volumes. Please read the pdf at the foot of the page.

After the war, the books were placed in storage boxes and left for decades until the LJS archivist discovered them. In the last three years, they have gone through an extensive preservation process and been digitised. However, neither the books nor the digitised versions were open to the public until the ‘We Were There Too’ project offered the ideal platform for them to reach the wider world.

This remarkable collection appears to be unique as, so far, we have not come across anything similar from any other synagogue of the period. The words and images of the children and young people of 1915 and 1916 remind us that war has an impact on everyone – even those you try most to protect. 

Download Martin Impey's full commentary

 

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