When I tell friends that I work at the Jewish Military Museum the most common question I get asked is ‘Did Jewish people have their own army?’ I have to explain that that the Jewish Military Museum tells the personal stories of Jews fighting for the British Armed Forces.
However, there have been Jewish fighting forces as part of the British Army. The Jewish battalions attached to the Royal Fusiliers known as the ‘Jewish Legion’, or the ‘Judeans’ are one example. Five of these battalions were formed in January 1918; three service battalions (38th-40th Royal Fusiliers) and two reserve (41st and 42nd). Attached to these were a Labour Corps who undertook various manual jobs on behalf of the fighting battalion. These included building and repairing roads and railways, building defences, moving ammunition and stores, guarding Prisoners of War and burying the dead. In parts of France and Belgium the men of the Labour Corps worked unarmed within the range of German guns.
This week I have been looking at the story of a man who belonged to a Jewish Labour Corps. Private Hyman Rutstein was born on 3rd July 1886 in Kovno, Lithuania and emigrated to England in 1905. He was a watchmaker and worked as a jeweller in the Mile End Road.
He joined the British Army in 1918 and his son Jack wrote in a letter to the museum that there were two reasons behind his decision. Firstly his friendship with a British police officer and secondly as he was promised that if he survived he would become a naturalised British citizen. Jack describes how the latter appealed to his father as ‘he wanted to turn his back on the land of his birth due to the Russian Pogroms. ‘
‘Has served in his Majesty’s forces’ is noted on Hyman Rutstein’s naturalisation papers of the 2nd January 1922. This rather implies that Hyman’s service during the war aided his naturalisation application. Above are the naturalisation certificate and the Oath of Allegiance that Hyman took on 9th January 1922 (my birthday!).
Hyman joined the Labour Corps attached to the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers in 1918. This was the first Jewish Battalion, formed in August 1917 and made up of Jews from the East End, many of whom were Russian immigrants. Due to Russia’s withdrawal from the war there were concerns that the loyalty of Russian Jews might be in question. Therefore after 8th August 1918 most Russian Jews were posted to the Labour Corps rather than the fighting battalions of Royal Fusiliers.
Hyman Rutstein used these Tefillin whilst he served during the war, maintaining his Jewish faith in the trenches
The work was very dangerous and Hyman was wounded in France around the Somme Basin by a violent explosion. He suffered serious head injuries and was taken to a military hospital in Sheffield. He became one of the walking wounded and was honourably discharged on December 1919.
The Silver War Badge above was worn by Hyman. It was issued to troops who were honourably discharged from service during the war due to wounds or sickness. The badge was to be worn on the right breast while in civilian dress, never on a military uniform. The badge told the public that the wearer had already served in the forces and was not a ‘shirker’.
Almost all of the Jewish regiments were discharged immediately after the end of World War I in November 1918.
Hyman Rutstein with wife Tillie and son Jack (?) post WWI.
After the war Hyman became a self-employed jeweller and his son writes that he became known as the ‘Watch-maker of Stepney Green’. Hyman served as an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) warden during the Second World War and was awarded the Defence Medal.
Hyman attended the Armistice Day congregation every year at the Cenotaph until his death in 1962. His son Jack writes;
“Each year on November 11th…he gained permission from the Headmaster to take me out of the classroom and accompany him to Whitehall…Once I saw tears in his eyes and I wondered.”