From the shores of Gallipoli to the mountains of Afghanistan, Jews have distinguished themselves fighting for Australia. Now, “Jewish Anzacs” by Mark Dapin — the first book of its kind — explores their heroism.
“Anzac” refers to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps of World War I, an outfit that earned lasting fame at the campaign for Gallipoli as they fought fiercely over the Turkish peninsula from 1915 through early 1916.
WWI occupies a significant portion of the book, including the story of General John Monash, who rose to commander-in-chief of the Australian army in 1918.
The only Jew outside Israel to command an army, Monash was “the most famous Jewish-Australian soldier of all time,” Dapin said.
In recent years, Australia has held centenary commemorations for WWI, including a 2014 ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of its outbreak.
Several events and exhibitions during this period have related to the Australian Jewish community, which at 112,000 represents 0.5 percent of the population and is the ninth-largest Jewish community in the world.
But “Jewish Anzacs” covers a much wider period, beginning when Australia was a British colony and its Jews fought in far-flung conflicts of the empire, and extending to the War on Terror. Included is the poignant story of commando Greg Sher, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, and is the most recent Australian Jew to die in combat.
Dapin’s book “is the first full history” of Jewish Anzacs, according to an email from Deborah Rechter, a consultant curator for the Jewish Museum of Australia and a scholarships and projects manager for the General Sir John Monash Foundation.
The British-born author is well-versed in military history. Dapin’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served, and his great-uncle died fighting in Flanders in 1914. His previous book, the novel “Spirit House,” explored Jewish World War II POWs held by Japan.
But writing an entire history of Jewish Anzacs proved challenging. “The Australian government never kept records of soldiers by religion,” Dapin said. “[Another] researcher called out every file in the Australian National Archives that he thought [represented] someone who was Jewish — the Cohens, Levis, Roses, Rosenbergs, Sterns, who put their religion as Jewish.”
But often, he said, Jewish service members “did not put [their religion] as Jewish. That’s what complicated things.”
According to Dapin’s research, 7,000 Australian Jews served in wars from the British Empire’s Sudan campaign of 1885 to the end of WWII. He estimated that 2,000 more have served in peacetime since then.
Dapin also interviewed Jewish service members such as Scott Leonard, a major in the reserves whose 20-year military career included a deployment in Iraq from 2007 to 2008.
“There were hundreds of rockets while I was there, all incredibly stressful,” Leonard said. “Few hit their target, but at least they made it hard for us to sleep and do our job.”
Yet Leonard and his fellow Jewish soldiers before him have long been doing their job under stressful conditions.
“We hold our heads up high,” Leonard said. “We’re over-represented. We’ve contributed to modern Australia’s history for over 200 years.”
Convicts become free men ‘born in blood’
Reflecting on the continent’s early status as a penal colony in the 18th and 19th centuries, Dapin said, “The first Jewish people in Australia were convicts, free settlers, a very small number.” In WWI, Australia came of age, particularly as it fought unsuccessfully during the Gallipoli campaign to capture the Dardanelles from the Ottoman Empire.
‘It’s the point where Australia, as a nation, was born in blood’
“It’s the point where Australia, as a nation, was born in blood,” Dapin said. “[A] little-known fact here is that dozens of Jewish soldiers were at Gallipoli in the Australian forces. Several died.”
It was there that Leonard Maurice Keysor became the army’s first Jewish Victoria Cross winner. According to Keysor’s citation, on August 7, 1915, he “picked up two live bombs and threw them back at the enemy at great risk to his own life, and continued throwing bombs, although himself wounded, thereby saving a portion of the trench which it was most important to hold.”
Jewish Australians fought on other WWI battlefields, including as members of the Light Horse troops during the campaign for Beersheba in 1917.
In the final year of the war, Monash was elevated to Australian commander-in-chief.
But before Monash could become commander, he faced “a number of prejudices,” including his “being a reservist, of German descent and Jewish,” according to an email from Daniel Mendoza-Jones, a former director of the New South Wales Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and Women, and a current legal officer and squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force Specialist Reserve.
Ultimately, Monash validated his promotion.
“His leadership of the [Australian] Corps in the Battle of Amiens is widely regarded as having accelerated allied victory in the war,” Mendoza-Jones wrote.
For Jewish Australians, WWII would bring new heroes. After the fall of France in 1940, air ace Richard Kingsland daringly rescued the British commander-in-chief and his minister of information from captivity in Vichy Morocco.
In 1942, Japan threatened Australian shores when it invaded nearby New Guinea. The Australians who thwarted the invasion on the Kokoda Trail included Paul Alfred Cullen, who won the Distinguished Service Order. Dapin called the Kokoda Trail “very prominent in our national consciousness.”
From Cohen to Cullen
Australian Jews faced an additional opponent: anti-Semitism. Cullen changed his name from Cohen, as did Kingsland.
“[Cullen] did so out of concerns of how he would be treated if captured,” Dapin said. “Kingsland was worried about anti-Semitism within Australia.”
Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe for Australia were also cruelly treated on the British ship Dunera.
‘They were abused, their passports and papers destroyed’
“They were abused, their passports and papers destroyed,” Dapin said of the infamous 1940 incident. “They were beaten. In the end, the ship commander was court-martialed.
“Here [in Australia], they were further interned in camps in the country, till they had an opportunity later in the war [to serve on] employment battalions,” he said.
During WWII, Jewish women entered the Australian military in “their largest, highest point,” Dapin said. “There was a huge national mobilization… There were women’s branches of the army, navy, air force.”
Today, Dapin said, “there’s at least one Jewish [female] intelligence officer, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
‘There’s a small but constant number of women in the military’
When his book was published, he said he received a letter “from a woman [whose] daughter graduated from the Royal Military College here. There’s a small but constant number [of women] in the military.”
In 2015, the Jewish community of New South Wales held an Anzac centenary service at the Great Synagogue in Sydney. The audience included then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott and New South Wales Gov. David Hurley.
Four women lit yahrzeit (memorial) candles, representing the three branches of the Australian Defence Force, as well as four generations of Australians. (The candles will continue being used in Anzac centenary commemorations, up to that of the armistice in the capital of Canberra in 2018.)
The women included Navy Captain Lisa Jackson Pulver, a professor whose grandfather died in WWI while serving in the navy himself.
Mendoza-Jones served as master of ceremonies. “The strong connection between my family and the Australian military effort over the years made the occasion tremendously meaningful,” he wrote.
His great-great-uncle, Jewish Anzac Private Mark Myers, was killed in action at Poziers, France, in WWI. Myers’ brother, Joseph, also served in the war. During WWII, Mendoza-Jones’ grandfather, Lieutenant Mark Myers, was in the Australian army, while other family members were in the air force.
A new era of religious tolerance — and support
Today’s Jewish service members describe the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as responsive to their religious needs.
Lieutenant Commander Paul Koerber, who has served in the Royal Australian Navy for 38 years, wrote, “I have had excellent support from the ADF and my immediate supervisors, particularly in allowing me to attend the regular weekly prayers and during the High Holy days. ADF Jewish chaplains arrange yearly Passover commemorations which I normally attend and they support me during the year.”
Mendoza-Jones also praised the ADF Jewish chaplains, “one of whom happens to be an Air Force officer at my base.” And there are “very good organizations such as the New South Wales Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and Women, which organize well-attended Jewish military commemoration services and other educational events,” he noted.
“I am confident that today’s Jewish ADF members would not encounter the kind of prejudice that General Monash needed to overcome in order to succeed,” he wrote.
Yet the danger of death in wartime has remained a constant. During the Iraq War, Leonard assisted with the American-led Multinational Security Transitional Command-Iraq, helping retrain and reequip the Iraqi army. He also joined “B’nei Baghdad,” an informal Jewish communal gathering on the grounds of the US embassy.
“We had 15 regular members in the International Zone for Friday night services, Shabbat services,” Leonard said, with “very nice kosher wine from Australia, shipped to Baghdad, for a cup of wine on Friday night.”
Leonard’s B’nei Baghdad friend and fellow Jew, American Major Stuart Wolfer, was tragically killed in action on April 6, 2008.
Australian Jews have also died in the War on Terror, including Sher. He was stationed in Afghanistan with at least two other Jews, Dapin said: base commander Jacob Kleinman and Tank Corps member Arthur Shisman.
“There was an impromptu memorial for Greg [Sher] at the same base,” Dapin said. “Someone left a wooden plaque with Hebrew [lettering].”
The plaque reportedly came from a US intelligence officer, “but no one was certain,” Dapin said. “Afghanistan and Australia, more than people realize, is a Jewish story.”