Forgotten chapter in history: Jewish refugees in the First World War

Jewish refugees in Havlíčkův Brod 1915-1917, photo: © Jewish Museum in Prague

This year the whole of Europe is commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The Jewish Museum in Prague is marking the anniversary with an exhibition focused on the fate of the Jewish refugees, a chapter in history that has been largely forgotten. The exhibition entitled “The Orient in Bohemia” displays photographs that document the life of refugees but it also explores the response of the local population to the wave of migrants. I visited the Jewish Museum’s Robert Guttman Gallery to see the exhibition and talk to its author, Michal Frankl. I started by asking him what happened after the Russian Army broke into to the border regions of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Jewish refugees in Havlíčkův Brod 1915-1917,  photo: © Jewish Museum in Prague
“This is the territory where a large part of the Jews of the Habsburg monarchy live. In Galicia alone there were some 800 000 Jews living in 1910. These people were very often more religious than other Jews, more traditional, Chasidic or orthodox. And just like the other inhabitants of the region, they were usually very poor, especially in Eastern Galicia and that’s the territory in question.

“And these people - Jews but also Poles and Ukrainians and Ruthenians, they flee or sometime are also evacuated by the Austrian army into the interior of the Habsburg monarchy, namely the Bohemian lands, in what is today the Czech Republic and Austria. Other refugees come from the south, especially after 1915. After the opening of the Italian Front there is a large influx of Italian refugees, and all these people are partially evacuated by the Habsburg Army.”

In terms of numbers, how many people are we talking about?

“The numbers are very difficult to estimate. It has been estimated that there might have been more than one million refugees in the monarchy in the first year, later on the numbers went down, because in 1915 a large part of the territory was recaptured and some of these people were allowed or even forced to go home. In Bohemia and Moravia alone we don’t know exactly. In 1915 there were up to two hundred thousand refugees, two thirds of them Jewish. But what we know is that the number of Jewish refugees almost equalled the number of local Jews.”

What was the immediate reaction of the authorities?

“The state felt obliged to assist them in different ways, because these people were the citizens of the state. The main way was financial assistance to those in need. However, while the state supported them, the authorities were also very keen to control them. At the beginning the refugees come to Vienna, Prague, or Brno and other cities but later on authorities try to stop this and refugees are sent to refugee communities: towns and villages that were meant for the settlement of refugees. A lot of them were sent to refugee camps, barrack camps that were very hastily built. Each of these camps would take up to roughly six thousand people, and especially at the beginning the living conditions were very poor, with epidemics and also low hygienic conditions, and apparently dying.”

And what was the reaction of the public and the local Jewish community?

Michal Frankl,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“The public reaction was building on existing images of eastern Jews, as uneducated criminals, dirty, involved in all kinds of shady dealings and so on. It drifted from some kind of assistance and understanding at the beginning towards hatred, especially as the living conditions in the monarchy were getting worse. “In the Jewish community, people were assisting. What was much more disputing was what lesson they should take from the presence of these Jews who differed so much from integrated Jews. Some were looking at the eastern Jews as the authentic source of Jewish culture that western Jews seemed to have lost in the process of assimilation. Whereas for the assimilationist group the presence of Jews who differed so clearly presented a problem because it undermined their ideology of being Czechs or Germans and differing only by their religion.

The exhibition Orient in Bohemia features mainly photographs that reflect the sense of difference that you were talking about. Can you tell me more about the pictures?

“We display around a hundred photos at the exhibition. One of the hidden agendas is to catalyze critical thinking about photographic representation of the subject or otherness as such. I could divide them into three types. One would be photos by state agencies or state agencies or refugee committees. The other group are family photos, where the name and identity of the person matters and those photos differ very much from the pictures in the last part of the exhibition, which is focused on difference.

“In this part of the exhibition, the photographers’ focus is led by what he perceives as being different. So we are trying to lead the visitors to think very critically about this type of pictures. Also because I think being fascinated by difference is not something that would have stopped after the First World War.”

Jews in Vienna,  photo: Public Domain
Would you say that the sudden influx of so many Jewish refugees was the main trigger for the development of Anti-Semitism at the beginning of the First Republic?

“I don’t think it was the main trigger, but apparently it was an impetus. It helped to structure the Anti-Semitic campaigns. The impetus was first of all the nation building itself. The other reason is that what happens in 1919 is that the political consensus which existed at the very beginning of independent Czechoslovakia starts to dissolve. It’s a time of political cleavages between the Left and the Right getting stronger so it also has to do with the differentiation of Czech political landscape at that time.”

What happened will all the refugees after the end of the war?

“A lot of them returned to Galicia already during the war or after the war simply because they didn’t get much of a choice and they were ordered to do so. It was very difficult for them to return to the Polish national state where they were becoming a minority and clearly not very wanted minority, a region were strong pogroms were raging at that time. Smaller part of them stayed. We don’t know their numbers. I assume that in Czechoslovakia there were thousands of people. They wouldn’t receive Czechoslovak citizenship, so at the time when borders matters and passports were essentials they lived as foreigners and sometimes they would become stateless. Very often it took them years to receive citizenship and a lot of them never succeeded.”

Are there any physical traces left that would document such a large number of Jewish refugees in the Bohemian lands?

Photo: Jitka Erbenová,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“In many ways their presence is forgotten, the physical traces are lost, even in museum collections. So for instance in the Jewish museum in Prague we do have objects that describe them, show them, for instance in the collection of visual arts, but we do not have any objects that would have been verifiably used or brought by the refugees themselves. So that in the end the main physical trace of these people are tombstones on Jewish cemeteries all around the Czech Republic.”