Some of the best and most interesting books I’ve ever read were those I’ve randomly picked out while wandering through the stacks at university libraries. Occasionally you’ll find nuggets of information and forgotten stories you never would have gone looking for intentionally. One book, in particular, made a lasting impression on me. It was entitled, “With an Ambulance during the Franco-German War,” and was published in 1896 by Charles Edward Ryan. In those days an “ambulance” was a sort of mobile field hospital, occasionally, as in this case, manned by volunteers. Their neutrality was respected by both sides, and, occasionally, as the lines moved one way or the other with the fortunes of war, they would find themselves under a different flag than the day before. In fact, this happened to the author at the decisive Battle of Sedan, where Napoleon III and his entire army were surrounded and forced to surrender, and on several other occasions. War was a great deal less professional in those days. Instead of shooting the author as a spy, the Germans gave him a pass to travel through France and Germany at will, requisitioning billets and train passes as needed to tend the sick. So it was that on one occasion he found himself on a train in the same compartment with some German officers and a hapless Jew.
I have occasionally read and heard claims to the effect that the German officer corps was not tainted by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. See, for example, the memoirs of von Papen, a conservative who agreed to serve as Vice-Chancellor in Hitler’s first government in the fond hope that he could be “managed.” Based on Ryan’s account, however, that wasn’t entirely true. I will let him speak for himself.
I had seen Ferrieres, the palace of a Frankfort Jew, with admiration, all the more that it had been respected as a sanctuary by orders from the Prussians. Yet it was during this same journey that I witnessed an incident in which a Jew was the hero or the victim, that filled me with astonishment, as it may do my readers who happen not to be acquainted with the ways of the Fatherland. I had frequently heard the Jews spoken of by my German friends in language of supreme contempt; but never did I realize the depth of that feeling until now.
In the railway compartment in which I travelled, all were German officers except myself and one civilian. The latter had got in at a wayside station, and sat at the furthest corner opposite me. My companions began without delay to banter and tease him unmercifully, all the while addressing him as Lemann. He was a small stunted person, in make and features an Israelite, and not more than twenty-five. The behavior of his fellow-travelers seemed to give him no concern ; as they fired off at him their sneering jests, he scanned them with his sharp eyes, but did not move a muscle.
I inquired of the officer next me, who spoke English well, how it came to pass that they knew this stranger’s name. He explained that Lemann was the common term for a Jew in their language, going on to describe how much the sons of Jacob were detested throughout Germany ; and for his part he thought they were a vile horde, who laid hands on everything they could seize, in a way which we English were incapable of fancying. The officers, he added, were all getting down to have some beer at the next station, and by way of illustration he would show me what manner of men these Jews were; and as he said the words, he took off his hairy fur-lined gloves, and threw them across the carriage to our man in the corner, remarking, “There, Lemann! it is a cold day”. The Jew picked up the gloves eagerly, which he had missed on the catch, and pulled them on. When we were nearing the station, the officer who had thrown the gloves at him, took off his fur rug, and flung that also to the Jew. Once more he accepted the insulting present, and quickly rolled the rug about him. Finally, a third threw off his military cloak, and slung it on the Jew’s back as he was passing out. This, again, the wretched creature put on ; and their absence at the buffet left him for the next ten minutes in peace.
Presently the horn sounded, and our Germans came back. One seized his rug, another his cloak, and finally, my first acquaintance recovered his gloves by one unceremonious tug from Lemann’s meekly outstretched fingers. My own face, I think, must have flushed with indignation ; but the others only laughed at my superfluous display of feeling; and Lemann, shrugging his shoulders, — but only because of the sudden change of temperature when his wraps were pulled away,—took out of his pocket a little book with red print, which he began to read backwards, and, turning up the sleeve of his coat, began to unwind a long cord which was coiled round his wrist and forearm as far as the elbow. Every now and then he would stop the unwinding, and pray with a fervor quite remarkable, then unwind his cord again, and so on till the whole was undone. For a time the officers resumed their jeering ; but, seeing that it was like so much water on a stone, they turned the conversation, and allowed the unhappy Jew to continue his devotions unmolested till he got out at Strasburg. What would these officers have done, had they travelled in the same railway carriage with M. de Rothschild?
Evidently, anti-Semitism was alive and well in the German officer corps long before the rise of the Nazis. I had often thought of scanning Ryan’s book myself to preserve this and the many other interesting historical anecdotes it contains, such as his account of one Dr. Pratt, a former large slave owner who had served with the Confederate medical staff, and was now in exile along with one of his slaves, who had joined him to serve as cook for the ambulance. When I found the book in the stacks of the University of Maryland, I found its pages badly deteriorated because of the acid paper they were printed on. The initial printing had been very small, and I suspect very few copies remained by the time I discovered the book. However, as can be seen by the link above, Google has already preserved a digital copy. I don’t know how or why they undertook the massive effort of preserving so many valuable old books, but, regardless, I am grateful to them for it. In this day of Holocaust deniers, 911 truthers, and assorted other tribes of historical revisionists, the more source material we preserve, the better.
In answer to your question, by the way, no, I am not Jewish.