Understanding my great-uncle through his WWI diaries

With access to the thoughts of Dr. Isaak Aron Barasch – raw, uncensored – written by the light of a kerosene lamp in between bombardments, I have gotten to know him intimately.

 Dr. Barasch before the war (photo credit: SHULA KOPF)
Dr. Barasch before the war
(photo credit: SHULA KOPF)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Even though my great-uncle died 104 years ago, I know him better than I do most of my living relatives.

With access to the thoughts of Dr. Isaak Aron Barasch – raw, uncensored – written by the light of a kerosene lamp in between bombardments, I have gotten to know him intimately, my respect for him growing with each page.

Many historical documents crumble to dust, which could easily have been the fate of the diary Barasch wrote during World War I while serving on the Italian front as a doctor in the Austro-Hungarian army.

He didn’t survive the Great War, one of the victims of the Spanish Flu just months before war’s end. It took another global epidemic to rescue his eloquent words from oblivion, to preserve them in the human archive.

His words, written more than a century ago, resonate today.

 Dr. Barasch, his orderly, and a wounded ensign in front of the medical center in Makuci, December 1916 (credit: SHULA KOPF) Dr. Barasch, his orderly, and a wounded ensign in front of the medical center in Makuci, December 1916 (credit: SHULA KOPF)

“Poor humanity for putting up with this! How cowardly you are! Where are your high ideals? Where is your love of liberty? Where are your freedom fighters?... You allow yourselves to be enslaved and led astray so easily.”

The longest siege in Europe during the First World War, 133 days, took place in the Polish city of Przemysl, where the Austro-Hungarian forces were defeated by the Russians.

Twenty-five years later, in the fall of 1939, my mother and grandmother (Dr. Barasch’s sister) escaped from Krakow to Przemysl hoping to cross the San River to the Russian side. They found someone to row them across at night, and arrived in Lviv to reunite with my grandfather and uncle. From there they were transported to a labor camp deep into Russia.

Fast forward to 2022, and Ukrainian refugees are streaming into Przemysl from the opposite direction, escaping Russian bombardments.

“I have only one great wish,” my great-uncle wrote. “For all this to be over once and for all, by whatever means it takes. It doesn’t matter how, as long as a suffering stops. Because it can’t go on like this.”

Even as a young adult I knew of the diary’s existence. After Barasch died on September 12, 1918, his sister, Helen Mehlman, claimed them and took them with her when she left Poland for New York City. That is what saved them. Had one of his other siblings in Poland taken charge of them, my grandmother, for example, they might have gone up in smoke in the next world war.

Aunt Helen’s daughter in New York rebuffed my every request to copy a few pages. I was curious to know what my great-uncle wrote. She was already in her 80s when she realized I was the only member of the family interested in the diary and the next time I called, she said I could have it. A few hours later, a knock on her door announced Fedex, prepaid, coming to collect them.

I had them translated from German into English and realized the diary was a historic document of major significance, or, as the translator said at the time, “your great-uncle deserves to be bequeathed to posterity.”

I’m ashamed to say the translated diary languished for almost a decade in a drawer. It’s a big project to get them published, and who has the time?

That’s exactly what the first corona lockdown provided.

I sent the diary to one of the world’s foremost WWI historians, Sir Hew Strachan of Oxford University. He was smitten by Barasch’s prose, and got the diary published by Pen & Sword Books in the UK including an introduction he wrote providing rich historical background to the events and places where Barasch served.

The diary, he writes, “is an introspective document, whose emotional and reflective power derives precisely from its author’s own sense of isolation... his disillusionment with European culture and its values, as revealed by the war, is almost complete, as is his frustration at the loss of personal control over his own life which the war has imposed. And therein lies its power; this is a book about one man’s engagement with overwhelming events and his struggle to maintain his agency within them.”

Throughout the war, Barasch never lost his humanity – his empathy for the suffering of the soldiers and the beleaguered civilian population, his wry sense of humor, and his scathing gaze set on officers who care more for medals than for the lives under their command.

Often my great-uncle was reprimanded for being too lenient with the wounded, too assiduous with morning visits, for sending too many men to the hospital.

One of my favorite lines in the diary is when my great-uncle is castigated by the senior officer who barks at him that he must at once acquire military callousness:

“…without suspecting that my biggest worry all the time was how to stay untouched by it, and the latter objective I have attained to my utmost satisfaction.”

How can I not love him for that?

“He was an important witness of the time,” says Austrian military historian Erwin Schmidl, who is editing a German edition of the diary. “He was just one of many military doctors, a first lieutenant, more or less a nobody, but by making his diary accessible, he has become a very important source for a better understanding of this conflict.”

Barasch was acutely aware of the lunacy of it all. On the second anniversary of the war, he wrote:

“How much longer must this inconclusive struggle between nations go on? There have already been enough victims for mankind to bear, going on for seven million dead just in Europe these last two years. And then there are the imponderable phalanxes of the crippled and sick. Immeasurable treasures gone up in smoke.”

He would have seen Europeans led astray again a few decades later had he survived and set up his practice in Vienna, which is where he earned his medical degree four months before Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Indeed, in 1942 they would have knocked on his door, arrested him, and sent him on a freight train to ghettos in eastern Europe. Eventually, they would have gassed my great-uncle there and burned his body, just as they did to his younger sister, Dr. Yanka Steinbruch, and other members of his family.

“But I fought for the Fatherland, for Austria” he might have protested when they came to take him. “Look, here is my medal from the battle of Doberdò.”

So much for his sacrifice.

About war he wrote:

“Happy is the man who has been spared it. He doesn’t even know the actual meaning of that one word: War. He cannot even begin to imagine the terrors it contains. Neither does he know the tragedies being played out here a thousandfold on a daily basis. Nor can he understand the great shame, the immeasurable disgrace this war is for the whole of Europe, for so-called European culture. (How can one still speak of culture? It’s just an empty, meaningless word now.)

Such a man has never had the opportunity to look into the real essence of human life, to see man before him naked and unadorned, without the superfluous pretty phrases and the conventional claptrap about culture...”

Even in the hellscape, Barasch took every opportunity to appreciate beauty:

“How beautifully the little birds are singing in the wood today. As if they didn’t have a care in the world. They are twittering and trilling all around, and do not allow themselves to be disturbed by the ugliness that has been enacted in this vicinity for months now.”

He doesn’t write a single word of hatred for the enemy. He takes time to visit a bedridden elderly Italian civilian, sad to leave him when he gets his marching orders: “The sick gentleman was terribly upset when he learnt that I would no longer be able to visit him. He asked for my address and promised to write often. His wife and daughter are in Milan, and he is lying here all by himself in a small, cold room and cannot leave his bed because of his paralysis. He is a most sympathetic, intelligent, and sensible gentleman. I shall miss him a lot.”

I admire his initiative and tenacity in building field hospitals, delousing stations, bathhouses, scrapping for equipment, picking up a saw himself when the army, that “clumsy war machine,” did not provide materials or workers.

He looked with a jaundiced eye at the politicians, bureaucrats, the shirkers, the profiteers, “the great horde of rogues and swindlers.” In his fantasy, he transported the generals to the front lines.

“If they had to share in it just once, they would certainly make sure the war was over as quickly as possible... It is a misfortune for humanity that these murderers escape scot-free.”

Barasch felt like an outsider. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but being Jewish probably contributed to his feelings of alienation. He mentions antisemitism just once, towards the end when he is broken, his nerves shattered.

He made efforts to join the men for card playing (he lost) and drinking, but his heart wasn’t in it. One gets the feeling he preferred to read a book or write in his diary.

After more than two and a half years on the front, he ends up in a psychiatric hospital with what today is known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

I shudder to think of him in that “narrow, dirty single cell on the psychiatric ward.” He asked to be allowed to wear his own clothes and to go out to the enclosed garden for some fresh air. His request was denied.

“I am curious to know when they will take their dirty paws off me. I have already delivered enough victims to the god of war. My whole nervous system has been undermined and shaken to the core.”

Even in this dire situation, he shows empathy for an Italian prisoner of war in one of the last entries:

“I was together with Senior Doctor Pietro di Laura from Piacenza, a most likable, sympathetic man... A state of depression had manifested itself following his monastic existence in captivity and the strong yearning to be reunited with his wife and children. Certainly, no doctor could ever hope to cure him. Only going back to his family would heal his innermost soul.”

Barasch fell in love with a small village in the Dolomites, St. Vigil, where he was stationed for a month in a makeshift hospital. He left reluctantly writing a poetic adieu to the green meadows, the rushing streams, the enchanting splendor of bloom, “the little villages up there that gaze trustfully down into the valley.”

“Today I must separate from all of you,” he wrote on June 5, 1916. “I must go on to the mountains, obedient to the call of the hour. And when the war is over and fate in the meantime has not snuffed me out, if the bloodletting stops and I am still among the living, you’ll see me again, fair St. Vigil, and then I want to enjoy all your splendour unmolested.”

He was unable to keep his promise.

I have decided that I will travel to fair St. Vigil and stay in the same hotel he mentioned, the Monte Sela. I checked, it’s still there, the original 1903 Jugendstil structure intact, still owned by the same family.

I’ll take with me a copy of the book to give to them. I’ll time my visit for May-June, and I’ll hike in the hills, lie down on the grass among the flowers that dot the meadows, like he did, and I’ll think of him.

My great-uncle had a camera with him and mentioned several times in the diary taking photos. I often wondered what happened to them.

The mystery was resolved recently.

I had asked Aunt Helen’s granddaughter not to throw out old documents, letters, and photos when she cleans out her parents’ apartment. She said she found an old, moldy suitcase and will send me the contents.

The package arrived and I was thrilled to find in it my great-uncle’s photographs, including a photo of St. Vigil, dated May 10, 1916, almost a month before he left never to return.

A tourist Internet site for the Dolomite region boasts of many World War I museums and cemeteries. My great uncle was there when the graves, row upon row, were freshly dug, he must have known some of the dead – comrades, patients.

He wrote something that should be inscribed on all the grand marble and bronze war memorials, not only in the Dolomites but the world over, including the ones yet to be erected in Ukraine:

“The guns should be silent for once. Mankind needs a rest.”  ■