This is a picture on a handkerchief depicting Jewish soldiers praying in the open against a landscape of mountains. The picture is surrounded by branches, leaves, and flowers and on the top there is a rectangular banner held by two angels and topped with a Star of David. On the band is a partial quote from the Book of Malachi (2:10) written in both Hebrew and German: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?”
In the corners of the handkerchief are four circles containing verses from a German poem. The poem describes the friendship between all German soldiers and their readiness to protect one another. Beneath the picture there is a frame with text written in Hebrew and German: “Day of Atonement service 1870 at the (military) camp facing Metz.”
The picture in the centre shows a man standing wrapped in a tallit (prayer shawl) in the middle of a crowd of soldiers. He is standing at a prayer podium (amud) on which are two lit candles. Next to the amud hanging on a pole is the eternal light (ner tamid). In front of him are stairs leading up to the Ark which is decorated with the Tablets of the Ten Commandments and covered by a parochet (curtain) with a Star of David. The Ark appears to have been an impromptu construction created from wooden planks.
The soldiers are dressed in uniform with a variety of helmets indicating their different ranks. Some are wrapped in tallitot and others are reading from books, probably prayer books. The outline of a city, presumably Metz, can be seen on the horizon. On the ridge overlooking the city are columns of soldiers. This handkerchief was given to one of the soldiers who participated in the Siege of Metz which was a battle in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). The Germans besieged the town of Metz until it yielded. The defeated France then surrendered Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans and paid heavy compensation. Metz was only returned to France after World War I.
This picture emphasises the Jewish soldiers’ allegiance to Germany and the German non-Jewish soldiers’ readiness to protect the Jewish soldiers during their prayer service. Historical records suggest that the prayer service was actually much smaller than pictured here and that only a few soldiers participated in the service, which took place not in the open fields but in a small building. Nonetheless, this prayer service was clearly an important event which cultivated a sense of pride for German Jewry, as can be seen by the number of different artistic variations of this scene. German Jews viewed this scene as evidence that they were fully-fledged members of society, fiercely patriotic while also faithful to their heritage and traditions.
Although this picture depicts Prussian-Jewish soldiers, there were also French-Jewish soldiers on the other side of the frontline. In this war and, subsequently, in World War I many Jews were forced to fight against their brethren in opposing armies.
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German Jews in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries – After many centuries of oppression, segregation from the general population, and poverty, the German Jewish community went through major changes. Germany, together with other European countries, began to adopt liberal ideas about religious equality and civil emancipation. This was also the time of Enlightenment, and many German Jews received a secular education and began to integrate into general German society. The late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries mark the transition of the Jews to modernity and the integration of many into Germany’s cultural, scientific, and financial elite. Moses Mendelssohn is an example of an Enlightenment thinker who aspired to bringing secular culture into Jewish life. These social changes also brought about a transformation in the identity and practices of the German Jews, as exemplified in a famous saying of the time: “Be a man abroad and a Jew in your tent.” Due to these changes, this period saw both the foundation of Orthodox Judaism and the birth of the Reform Movement in Germany, a movement that aimed to adapt traditional Judaism to modern times. This period did not, however, see an end to the discrimination or riots against the Jews, as can be seen by the 1819 Hep Hep riots, tax legislation against Jews, severe limitations on marriages, dismissals from public office, anti-Semitic literature and preaching, more. This discrimination led to many Jews emigrating, in particular to the United States.