Standing up for Canberra

Centenary of Armistice: Jewish Commemoration

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on, the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Despite its size, the Canberra Jewish community is strong and vibrant and makes a significant contribution to Canberra, and I hope it will continue to flourish in the future.

Despite its size, the Australian Jewish community has also made a significant contribution to Australia’s defence with its participation in the armed services – from the Boer War to the most recent conflicts.

Today I want to share some of the stories of the individuals who have made that contribution.

The Boer War

In the Boer War, there was a small, but solid Australian Jewish presence, including Major Walter “Karri” Davis who endured two years as a prisoner of war, Myer Blashki, Louis E Phillips, Alfred Saunders who was the son of Melbourne Rabbi Reverend Moses Saunders, and two sons of Ballarat’s Rabbi Reverend Israel M Goldreich.

Jewish women also volunteered to tend the sick and wounded on the South African front, including Sister Rose Shappere who was the only Australian nurse who went through the entire siege of Ladysmith.

Her experiences – of organising neutral hospitals to tend to both English and Boer fighters, her train being shelled by the Boers, of nursing in a flooded camp filled with 12,000 sick and wounded people -  led to Sister Shappere being mentioned many times in despatches and receiving the Royal Red Cross honour along with another medal from the King.

World War 1

In the First World War, it is estimated that 2,304 Jewish males enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces – approximately 13 percent of the Australian Jewish community at that time.

Of these enlisted men, 300 made the ultimate sacrifice, and more than 100 earned military honours or were mentioned in despatches.

Two men were awarded the Victoria Cross for the ‘most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’. Leonard Keysor was awarded the VC for his bravery at the Battle of Lone Pine, and Israel Shmulevitch, or Issy Smith as he was known, was awarded the VC for heroism at Ypres in 1915.

Once again, a number of Jewish women also served on the front lines in the First World War with distinction, among them Sister Leah Rosenthal. Sister Rosenthal served in one of the most dangerous locations, a Casualty Clearing Station, which was often bombarded.

In her letters to family, Sister Rosenthal mentioned how she would wear a gas mask on her shoulder in case of emergency when crossing the hospital compound.

But she also mentions her service with pride, noting she is one of only five nurses retained in the most dangerous spot on the Western Front.

And of course, the most distinguished of all Australian Jewish servicemen was former engineer Sir John Monash who was once described by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George as ‘the most resourceful General in the British army’. 

Following the Armistice, it was Sir John Monash who directed the repatriation and demobilisation of the AIF and got them home. It was in 1930 that he was conferred the full rank of General – the first Jewish person in any army to attain that rank.

World War 2

Australian Jewish personnel were also conspicuous during the Second World War when 4,000 enlisted in the various services. It is estimated that 200 died in action, 40 were decorated for gallantry and 30 more mentioned in despatches.

Prominent Jewish servicemen included Major-General Sir Paul Cullen, Brigadier Alexander Roby, Major Hedley Freedman, Brigadier Philip Masel and Captain Colin Pura.

Several Jewish nurses also served with distinction, including Rachel Reuben.

Sister Rae Reuben was the youngest nurse to enlist in the AIF at the age of 24. She worked in Egypt before being transferred to Marseille and moved up to just behind the firing line on the Somme.  She fell victim to a gas attack while in France, which affected her health for the rest of her life. Sister Reuben died at the age of 45.

Centenary of ANZAC

In the gardens of the Australian War Memorial, a sea of handmade, red poppies pays tribute to Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War. More than 330,000 Australians served overseas in the four years of the war, and 62,000 Australians died.

Today, we pause to commemorate 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front. 

It is 100 years today since the Armistice was signed ending the First World War – the war that was supposed to war to end all wars; only, it didn’t.

Today, we pause on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to remember those who have died or suffered for Australia's cause in all wars and armed conflicts.

Today, we remember the bravery, honour and sacrifice of all those who served during this conflict and the ones that followed.

As the sun sets on the Centenary of ANZAC, we must also remember the hundreds of thousands who came home wounded from previous wars, and provide support for those veterans who return from current conflicts.

Australia salutes the courage and honours the sacrifice of all who served, and their families.

Lest we forget.