Jacob Kaplan the Soldier, Jacob Kaplan the Rabbi

© The city hall of the ninth arrondissement of Paris.

The Jews of France rallied to stand up for their homeland in 1914. Among 180,000 French Jews, 36,000 — including 14,000 from Algeria — battled on the front, joined by 8,500 foreign Jews. One of these servicemen was a young seminarian whose name is indelibly linked to the history of the French Jewish community in the twentieth century: Jacob Kaplan.

Aiming at the moon

Jacob Kaplan, who joined the Jewish seminary in Vauquelin Street in 1913, was born in Paris on November 7, 1895 to a family from Minsk, Lithuania. He was enlisted in December 1914, when he was only 19 years old. Transferred to the 128th Infantry Regiment, he was attached to a marching regiment, the 411th, formed in Brittany and composed of Parisians, Bretons and Northerners, in which he remained for most of the war. In “Justice for the Jewish Faith”, a book of interviews with Pierre Pierrard -Le Centurion, 1977- the Chief Rabbi of France Jacob Kaplan recounts his experience as a man of principle and temperament.

“I had left as an infantryman and simple soldier. At the front, I bonded with the men of my squad; a real camaraderie had been created between us that all those who fought in the war know. In this regard, we spoke of the brotherhood of the trenches: the word is not exaggerated. I knew this brotherhood of the trenches,” said the Chief Rabbi of France.

“In September 1915, on the eve of the Champagne offensive, to my great surprise, I received a letter from the Chief Rabbi of France, Albert Lévy, who suggested a position as a Jewish chaplain on a hospital ship (editor’s note: military chaplains were assimilated to the rank of captain). We needed more Jewish chaplains,” continued Jacob Kaplan. “However, I had an answer to give: an extremely serious answer, because it involved the future, my very life. It was clear that if I accepted, I would be much less exposed than if I had stayed at the front as a fighter…”

Self-denial and recklessness

This proposal means that the young soldier-seminarist is challenged by a “real conflict of duties”, to use his own words. “On the one hand, as a chaplain, I understood that I could perform many services; on the other hand, moral considerations obliged me to remain at the front. I felt profoundly that because I was Jewish, I had to stay with my comrades: I did not want to give the impression that I was trying to hide,” says Jacob Kaplan, who then decided not to leave the 411th RI. Wounded by shrapnel in April 1916 in the trenches of Champagne, he will live the hell of Verdun with his comrades for sixteen months, from May 1916 to August 1917, within this regiment which was four times mentioned in the order of the army, while he will receive the war cross and a commendation to the order of the regiment for his acts of valour.

The Chief Rabbi of France stated: “I became a liaison agent, and I preferred to stay there. For, by facing the same risks as my fellows, I did not have to fire, I did not have to provoke death.”

An iconic character

The last years of Jacob Kaplan’s journey are well known. An emblematic figure of twentieth-century French Judaism, he accepted the office of Acting Chief Rabbi of France during the Occupation. He was awarded the War Cross on May 15, 1946, a decision motivated by General Alphonse Juin, future Marshal of France: “Throughout the Occupation, he participated in a large number of actions against the enemy. He was a model of valour and abnegation for all Resistance fighters,” the official title of “Voluntary Resistance Fighter” being awarded to him in 1976.

He then had an essential role in the improvement of Jewish-Christian relations, watched over the integration of Jewish repatriates from North Africa in France, spoke out publicly whenever the Jewish community or the image of Israel was called into question, and above all, he achieved unanimity around his person of the different tendencies of French Judaism, without any exclusion and with respect for all diversities. His whole life-course experience of the Great War, as well as the rest of his life, remains emblematic of what it is like to be Jewish and French.

These few lines are the result of a documentary review visualized via the French INA (editor’s note: National Audiovisual Institute)



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Writer @ the Times of Israel. Journalist @ Le Petit Journal de New York. Philatelist. Numismatist. Haikist. Researcher in Judeo-Andalusian cultural legacy.