Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to Prof. Dov Ber Kotlerman give a talk about Jewish prisoners in Japan.
Prof. Kotlerman is an Associate Professor at the Department of Literature of the Jewish People at Bar Ilan University in Israel. He specializes in the fields of Eastern European Jewish culture, Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Jewish theater and cinema. He was a guest at our community synagogue this past Shabbat, so that’s how I learnt about his planned lecture.
The lecture was given at the Kobe Society for Jewish Culture Studies. This study group was formed about 20 years ago by Japanese interested in Jewish culture and history. It holds regular lectures on Jewish studies and publishes an annual magazine called Namal (“port” in Hebrew).
During the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, many Russian soldiers were imprisoned in POW camps across japan. More than 1,700 of these Russian soldiers were of Jewish origin, and they were separated from other prisoners by the camp administrators. Thus, they were able to form homogeneous communities and practice their religion and culture in relatively comfortable conditions (more then they were able to in the Russian army). They celebrated Jewish holidays, held theological debates, argued about Zionism and even wrote articles in publications that were printed and distributed among the prisoners.
The most famous of these POWs was Joseph Trumpeldor, a Zionist activist and Russian war hero, who lost his left arm in the siege of Port Arthur (a Russian naval base in Manchuria). Despite his injury, he insisted on returning to service, proclaiming that he still has another arm to give to the motherland. He was active in the POW camp’s newspaper, organized lectures and was the driving spirit among the Zionist group in the camp. After the war Trumpeldor eventually found his way to Palestine, where he founded the Zion Mule Corps that participated in the fighting at Gallipoli during World War I. He died in 1920 while defending Tel Hai in northern Israel and became a symbol of Jewish defense and heroism. The last words attributed to him – “it is good to die for our country” (טוב למות בעד ארצנו) – have become a common idiom, indeed a rallying motivating cry, among Israel’s founding generation.
After the lecture we raised a toast over dinner with Prof. Kotlerman and members of the study group: