World War I – the story of a Jewish soldier – Paul Schoenfeld

Soldier's ID:

Name: Paul Schoenfeld

Date and place of birth: 26.06.1892, Bleicherode

Activities before mobilization: Student of Philosophy in Göttingen, Germany

Active in war: WORLD WAR I

Corps: Reserves infantry regiment R.I.R 234

Rank: N/A

Type of service: reserve/volunteering

Decorations: N/A

Killed in action: 24.04.1915 Ypres    1995 Israel

From Paul Schoenfeld war diary

Excerpts from letters sent to his brother, family, girlfriend, and friends.

Göttingen, August 9, 1914

It was a fantastic Sunday, so beautiful, so blue and sunny, as that morning we spent in the Plesse Wood. In all, the summer weather is fantastic. August this year is beyond all expectations.

Oh, what a beautiful day!

I am not enthusiastic about joining this war to I volunteered. I do not hate neither the Russians nor the French, and the toil of war seems to me contemptible today as it did some weeks ago.

This war is craziness. "Top Craziness" as it I described by my friend Schitzer, who intends to become a priest, but the Good Lord cannot retire on a pension after six months of service.

However, one cannot complain to the Kaiser. We all wanted wholeheartedly to prevent this war, but here it is. Now we must defend ourselves, we may all lose everything, therefore we must fight, for us.

650,000 volunteered offered themselves […] "Darling, I am going to this war with no enthusiasm, however, I am full of expectations for a war that will herald a victory for civilization and progress. I see a need in it […] in a war, one must know how to shoot, therefore, they will train me for that. Shooting to death strange people seems disgusting to me […] but I will learn that."

(Following a short training period, Schoenfeld unit was deployed in the Western Front, in Belgium.)

October 26, 1914, the Western Front, Belgium

[…] the war! I was astonished at myself, calmly lying [in the trenches] amid all the shooting… You have no idea how much the conduct of this war is infinitely meaningless, so brutal…"

November 1, 1914, 11:00, the Western Front, Belgium

"The iron crosses are distributed in the following way: each platoon are allocated 20 iron crosses. Than people are found who deserve to be decorated. If no great deeds were identified, small deeds are also suitable."

"We had no more losses. Only yesterday, while cleaning our weapons, a student from Göttingen was mistakenly shot in his back his friend. The loses of our corps are variably estimated. Some say 10,000 [killed]. The reasonable number is 4,000…"

November 9, 1914, in the trenches, Western Front, Belgium

Dear Greta Katz

"I deduce, from my personal experience only, that the assertion that war endow combatants with new, meaningful, values (to a large measure) is incorrect. On the contrary, human egotism only becomes more pronounced. What motivated most volunteers was the force of habit, the need to be accepted in society, the hope of not being seriously used, and especially the ignorance about what awaits them. As of today, if it was only possible, two thirds of them would have given up, and one sixth would have remained from the power of habit. The last sixth includes all the true enthusiasts (making no sense to me), the real patriots, devotedly sacrificing their lives for an ideal fatherland, and finally, the few honest (including myself), who believe it is their sad and hard duty not to run away…"

November 11, 1914, in the trenches, Western Front, Belgium

Dear fritz

"This is the exact situation: we lie about 200 meters from the enemy. The French are using their artillery magnificently and their infantry is attacking too.  Whoever shows his head above the parapet gets one in the head… a few days ago, divisional commander 237 ordered an attack although the artillery barrage was not successful.

A regiment succeeding in occupying the front trenches would be hit hard from the French in the following trenches and would hardly survive. Therefore, any person in his right mind sees that success is impossible. In addition division 237 lacks officers: the units went out at night with almost no commanders, advanced 100 meters, and were nearly destroyed. Supposedly they are demoralized. The divisional commander ordered to attack. The attacking platoons were destroyed. Our battalion commander, Fratch, said that attacking with no preparatory bombardment is crazy. Later the 51st shot (the volunteers and Landwehr veterans). A few times they hit our trenches, our Jägers lost 12 men, and the enemy suffered light damages only. Fratch said that the attack was delusional, so said Hatendorf too.

The were no successes anywhere

All platoon commanders objected to the attack. Over 1,000 young men fell because the senior officers cannot foresee the proper situation for an attack. Our platoon came out relatively lightly (30% casualties)…

I am extraordinarily calm, trusting my luck. The French seem to me like friends, I would gladly shake their hands.  

January 4, 1915, in the trenches, Western Front, Belgium

Dear Fritz

One may assume that you heard much about life in the trenches, but I do not know if you spoke with someone who has experienced it first hand with a clear mind, like me. Therefore I would like to present to you some scenes which describes reality here as is.

There are eight days of reserves [rest in the back lines], out of which the first two days pass in relative quiet. There is a desperate need of sleep (Daniel sleeps day and nights if not disturbed by the officers); I write much, read a little, speak with Thiemer and sleep. Later we have interminable lineups, with all the cleaning and polishing: shoes, coats, arms, supporting arms, etc. And when the shoes and uniforms are in order, we start digging. We leave at five o'clock in the morning, march for two hours, and work outside, sometimes in a pouring rain, until nightfall. The day after we have to clean again whatever got dirty. Thus, there is hardly any quiet time left to write a letter. Then there are eight days at the front, four of which in the front lines. Here one is stuck day and night in wet and cold mud; apart from cleaning our weapons, we draw water from the trenches, and mainly stand guard. At 5 o'clock the night begins. Two hours on guard and two for sleeping, alternately, until 5 in the morning. However, two hours are lost in delivering the food which we prepare ourselves, or one may stand guard for another shift instead. So, we sleep a little bit more than four hours, and from 5 o'clock, the whole platoon is awake until 9 o'clock next morning.

What one does most of the time? Facing a 15 square centimeter opening and looking at the darkness. Half of the time it's raining, pitch dark, and you see nothing. However, one stares at the darkness, because the junior officers are checking the guards. Every half hour an illuminating bomb explodes, lighting the exhausted French and German armies, both dug in and separated by barbed wire fences and concertinas on both sides.

In times of rain, it is really horrible. But when the weather is clear and cold, the moon, with many other small stars, serve as a natural lighting, keeping us awake while on guard. Add to this German lighting bombs, a flight of British parachutes, airplane searchlights […] and all merges into a huge summer celebration with fireworks. Only the bullets are flying above our heads, from left and right, forward and backwards.

Matters developed roughly thus: the French saw something and opened fire. Nothing was seen. Ours returned fire. Ahah, the enemy thinks, something is happening. It too returns fire and a real battle develops… immediately, a whole platoon is posted: "Everybody to your posts. Platoon to your fighting positions. Careful! The French are preparing an attack." Someone telephones the rear and artillery support starts immediately. "Boom, Boom," the shells explode in the French trenches, dirt rises high up […] ten to twenty salvos at the French forward positions, ten to twenty at the rear. Then the fire stops, because when the artillery is on we cannot attack. This is a habit the French know too! The fire weakens and weakens, and after thirty minutes one hears a few shots only, calming both sides. In another half hour, the order: "half platoon, rest." Thus we lost an hour and a half of sleep, and as always, nothing happened.

And occasionally it is the other way around. The French think that we are about to attack and shells are flying into our trenches, the rear trenches leading to the supply routes. If the French attack finally, the shells are coming one after the other, sometimes ten every minute; black smoke fills the air, the roads are shaking… it seems like the end of the world.

The whole platoon is posted to the shooting openings, the reserve platoon is immediately posted too, and more platoons are called in all rear villages, prepared for battle. When the French jump out of their trenched they are welcomed by our machine gun fire, and our artillery from the rear bombards the French reserves. 200 – 300 French are killed, and a part of Joffre's big offensive "breaks by the fire of our forces…"

Now you are better familiar with our lives. Mostly we watch carefully, then sleep, and recently I began reading.

Most of my friends are badly influenced by the war…

The officers here have no influence; the NCO's are disappointing. Hardly none is friendly with his subordinates… each one takes care of himself, later on to his subordinates.

The best are not promoted…


I am trying to prepare for a long war, namely, do some reading, begin writing a journal, and arrange my thoughts. However, I do not aspire to advance… there is no use being wounded, because after convalescing, the wounded are back in the war, and the shock is even graver.


If you were here, as headquarters doctor you could do much good (not as a doctor assistant). Our doctor is very nervous. He hardly examines, and nearly does not heal… each heart case, sick with neck pains or headaches, is presented as imposter… visiting the doctor, if one is not wounded or half dead, requires more courage than going to battle.


For the time being, I have no hopes for peace. Everything indicates a long war… meanwhile, units of both armies became friendly. The stories which you must have read, about exchanging cigarettes, meat cans, etc. are real and happened in our company as well. There is a sense of commiseration with the French, occasionally sympathy demonstrations. Only the English are hated here – and justly so […]

For the meantime

Cordial greeting from your brother


February 16, 1915, in the trenches, Western Front, Belgium

My dear,

My hands are still shaking a little, as you may probably feel…. The Landwehr man, a little or totally drunk, attacked me with very vulgar anti-Semitic words. I listened for a moment, saw that he was drunk, and he began harassing me. I asked him to remove himself. He refused so I tried to push him out of the door. He resisted, and the others separated us.

This is all. As I describe the incidence here, he is in the next room, threating to do me much harm next time. I was here on order, this is another unit. So actually I have nothing to do with my "anti-Semitic enemy" (although now he threatens that "we shall meet again"). I am sorry for my Jewish friend who serves here in the unit, and may exposed to troubles because of the incidence. […]

April 28, Near Ypern

Dear Mrs. Schoenfeld,

On Thursday, 24, at noon, Paul fell while assaulting the English trenches. He was hit by two bullets in his head and chest, and no doubt died immediately. I only found his in the evening but was forced to continue advancing. I think that the medics buried him. Where he is buried I cannot verify now, most probably near St. Julien. Please let me know what else you wish to know, I shall be glad to write you everything when time permits. We are in the midst of hard battles.

There is no need to say how shocked were Paul's friend on hearing of his death.


Walter Daniel.

May 15, 1915

Dear Fritz Schoenfeld

I received your letter, but regretfully I can only answer shortly. I am not yet myself. On April 22 we occupied Langmark; on April 23, after short battles we occupied some trenches, and stayed in them until morning. From there we began advancing in the direction of St. Julienne. 1,000 meters from that settlement was an English fortified position. Toward noon we were 200 meters from the enemy, and charged forward. Paul fell in that charge, with many others.

I found Paul at night. He was lying 20 meters from the enemy trenches with his face down. His weapon was beside him, as it fell from his hand. From the whole situation, it was clear that he did not move after falling. He certainly died immediately. On his back, I saw the exit hole of the bullet which hit his chest. Paul was also hit in the head, but I could not turn him around at the moment. It was also impossible later, because we continued advancing and fighting. All things of value found on the dead are collected by the medics and sent to the relatives. About Paul place of burial I don't know; as soon as I know I will write.

You know Paul's opinions about the war from his letters. No one here at the front thinks anymore that one might get shot at any moment. Paul too did not think about it lately, although the situation became extremely dangerous. He was afraid only of a grave injury. Sometimes he told me that he preferred being killed in an attack, to be shot to death. Our new weapon – poisonous gases – he abhorred especially; he told me once that if he will die the next moment, he will depart life in protest.

What I can tell you as a consolation is that Paul's mood, up to the last moment, was calm, and that he died instantly without suffering for a long time.

The battles here are very bloody, and the end is not in sight. Our regiment lost 1,100 men, out of which 36 were officers. Thimmer [Paul Schoenfeld's friend] suffered a light head injury and is in Germany.

With cordial greeting, yours

Walter Daniel

The German army in WORLD WAR I: statistical data

Total German Population at the outbreak of the war: 68,000,000

Number of Jews: 550,000 (0.8%)

Scope of mobilized forces: 12,500,000

The number of Jews mobilized to the German army: 100,000 (18.2% of all German Jews)

Total Germans killed and missing in action: 1,686,000

The number of Jews killed and missing in action: 12,000

Paul Schoenfeld was one of them

Sources: The Jewish Combatant Collection, in the world armies and undergrounds


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