What It Meant to Sound the Shofar at Auschwitz

Stand for Israel  |  September 26, 2019

Thousands at the March of the Living in Auschwitz
A man blows the shofar during the annual March of the Living. Jewish people from Israel and around the world marched the 3km route from Auschwitz to Birkenau, between two formers German Nazi Death Camps, as a silent tribute to all victims of the Holocaust. On Monday, April 24, 2017, in Oswiecim, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Even for those of us who exhibit our faith on a daily basis, it is still impossible to imagine how faith was shown in that darkest era of persecution — the Holocaust. As the Jewish people prepare to celebrate the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s important to remember how such worship was done in the death camps, in secret and under tremendous oppression. This piece from The Times of Israel says that each act of faith, whether done in secret or in the open, was an act of resistance…and a miracle:

My teacher in many things related to the Shoah, Henry Appel, was a Polish survivor of three years in Auschwitz. He told me, “Of course we did Kol Nidre (the dramatic introduction to the Yom Kippur liturgy recited the night it commenced).” I asked him where they had hidden. He responded, “Out in the open in front of the kapos and the S.S.” He proceeded to explain that he had been mopping floors in the infirmary with two others. It was several days close to Yom Kippur, and one of them began to hum its classic haunting tune. A Nazi guard encouraged the singing of the “Jewish tune”. Soon, the entire ward of orderlies and patients were caught up in the repeated liturgy. For the Nazis it was entertainment; for the Jews it was Yom Kippur, even if not the exact day. Henry explained, “Every day was for us Yom Kippur.”

The doing of these mitzvot allowed for a re-creation and sense of community. There were several reasons why these mitzvah-centered spontaneous communities came into existence. To begin with, people with religious concerns would either actively seek each other out or sense the other’s presence. A man, for example, who sorely missed putting on the ritual tefillin would notice a fellow inmate who quietly and secretly would rise early and move to a corner in the barracks with a small pouch concealed in his hands. The observer would sense that this was the man that he could approach in order to take part in the performance of that commandment.

A second factor in the creation of these communities was that the performance of certain religious practices necessitated the cooperation of several people. Thus, one woman might steal a potato into which she would scoop out two holes. Another woman would make wicks out of her prison uniform, while a third would offer a few drops of margarine. Together, they could kindle the Sabbath lights (candles). In a similar fashion, the procuring of matzah (unleavened bread eaten on Passover), which took place in many of the camps, involved the cooperation of a relatively large number of people, who would obtain flour, produce baking equipment, and see to the baking itself.

Finally, communities were created due to the compelling nature of the religious practices themselves. Even non-observant Jews were drawn to the kindling of the Hanukkah lights. High Holiday services were “conducted” predawn, in an abandoned shed to which people snuck away at great risk, or even on the march. In one camp, the normally hostile antireligious members of the Sonderkommando stood guard to insure the safety of their religious cohorts as they prayed. They, too, had a need for the prayers to be recited, even if they themselves could or would not participate. They formed a community with their brethren, centered around this religious event.

An apparent significance of this mitzvah community is its resistance against the design of the Nazis to dehumanize the inmates and render them a mere number prior to their final physical destruction. These spiritual responses, performed under adverse and hostile conditions, were an affirmation of both one’s personal autonomy and the significance of his community. One had to exhibit cooperation, cunning, psychic strength, and personal courage. The acceptance – even if episodic and fragmentary and disguised – of the yoke of Torah could mean the momentary casting off of the yoke of the camps.

All that I have written above is only an attempt to understand what cannot be fathomed intellectually. So this is true of the unarticulated voice of the shofar sounded in Auschwitz. The middle sounds of the set are genuchi gonaoh ayulai yalil – broken weeping and sobbing. The initial and final voice is the unbroken, straight mighty blast evoking hope. That shofar in Auschwitz was also sounded for us.

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