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Celebrating high holy days at risk of life and limb

  • DifficultTimes
Even during times of persecution, oppression, expulsion, and hardship, Jews found ways to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – often at great risk.
by TALI FEINBERG | Sep 26, 2019

After the Spanish Inquisition, when it was illegal for Jews to practice their religion, some would still continue to do so in secret. “Each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the secret Jews of Barcelona and elsewhere would gather to pray. On Rosh Hashanah, they would eat a furtive festive meal together. On Yom Kippur, they would go about their business in public, never letting on that they were fasting. But blowing a shofar out loud, let alone for the 100 blasts prescribed for each day of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was impossible. Doing so would lead to immediate arrest, torture, and death,” writes Dr Yvette Miller for Aish.com.

Five years after the Inquisition, a prominent Barcelona Jew and conductor of the prestigious royal orchestra in that city, Don Fernando Aguilar, said that on Sunday, 5 September 1497, he would personally lead the Royal Orchestra of Barcelona in a brand-new concert of his own composition. Every instrument ever invented around the world, no matter how far away, would be represented.

“There were bells and horns, stringed instruments, and an array of different drums. Then, in the middle of the concert, a musician with the orchestra who was rumoured by many to be a secret Jew took the stage. He was holding an unusual instrument: a ram’s horn.

The musician put it to his lips, and began to blow. Tekiah, shevarim, teruah. Each note of the Rosh Hashanah shofar service rang out throughout the hall, one hundred notes in all. Most of the audience appreciated it as a virtuoso performance of an unfamiliar instrument. But to the secret Jews in the audience, Don Aguilar’s ‘music’ gave them their first chance in years to fulfil the mitzvah [good deed] of hearing the shofar.”

There are many testimonies of Jews marking the high holy days during the Holocaust. According to Yad Vashem, in one such story, Rabbi Naftali Stern, a Hungarian Jewish inmate of the Wolfsberg forced-labour camp, finished writing out the Rosh Hashanah service on 15 September 1944. He wrote it from memory, writing with a pencil stub on scraps torn from bags of cement he had purchased with bread rations.

Stern had been a cantor in the city of Szatmar, and wanted to lead a service in the camp, which he did. After the war, he recalled, “We prayed on Rosh Hashanah and the service was lovely, the service was good – to the extent that one can say that. But on Yom Kippur, we were unable to pray. The Germans evidently were ready for it. On Rosh Hashanah, they tolerated it, and I received a larger portion of soup in the afternoon, which was worth something, and I prayed. The entire service lasted less time than today.”

After liberation, the rabbi kept the handwritten pages in his home, stored inside the family machzor. Every year he would spread out the pages and pray from them. After 43 years, the pages began to crumble, and Stern decided to give them to Yad Vashem for safekeeping and preservation.

Rabbi Stern passed away in 1989, and in 2002, Yad Vashem published The Wolfsberg Machzor. It’s not a prayer book, but is made up of five articles about faith and prayer in the Holocaust, and includes five pages showing a scanned copy of Stern's handwritten machzor.

Many Holocaust memoirs and testimony record how Jews living under Nazi rule took extraordinary risks to mark Yom Kippur in some way. Yaffa Eliach’s book, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, recounts the horrors endured by a Hungarian Jewish slave-labour battalion in 1944.

The prisoners were routinely beaten, starved, and used as human mine detectors. On erev (the night before) Yom Kippur, they were warned that anyone who fasted “will be executed by a firing squad”.

On Yom Kippur, it rained heavily, and the area was covered in deep mud. When the Germans distributed their meagre food rations, the Jewish prisoners pretended to consume them but instead “spilled the coffee into the running muddy gullies and tucked the stale bread into their soaked jackets”. Those who had memorised portions of the Yom Kippur prayer service recited them by heart until finally, as night fell, their work ended and they prepared to break the fast.

They were then confronted by the German commander, who told them he was aware that they had fasted, and instead of simply executing them, they would have to climb a nearby mountain and slide down it on their stomachs. “Tired, soaked, starved, and emaciated,” the Jews did as they were told, 10 times “climbing and sliding down an unknown Polish mountain which on that soggy Yom Kippur night became a symbol of Jewish courage and human dignity”.

Eventually, the Germans tired of this sport, and the defiant Jewish prisoners were permitted to break their fast and live – at least for another day.

The stories of Rosh Hashanah during the Holocaust are not only of hardship but also of miracles. As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13-year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi round-up.

“Finally, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, we saw our signal offshore,” Goldberger later recalled. His family “strode straight into the ocean, and waded through three or four feet of icy water until we were hauled aboard a fishing boat” and covered themselves “with smelly canvases”. Shivering and frightened, but grateful, the Goldberger family soon found itself in the safety and freedom of neighbouring Sweden,” writes Rafael Medoff for JNS.org.

Lily Rotman writes in Time magazine that it all started when Copenhagen’s Jews gathered to mark Rosh Hashanah on the same date as it will be celebrated this year – 29 September. The chief rabbi, Marcus Melchior cancelled the religious services. He had been tipped off by a diplomat that a Nazi round-up was planned to take place during the holiday when the Jewish population would be at home or at their synagogues. He urged the people to hide or flee,” she writes.

Numerous Danish Christian families hid Jews from Holocaust persecution in their homes or farms, and then smuggled them to the seashore late at night. From there, fishermen took them across the Kattegat Straits to neighbouring Sweden. More than 7 000 Danish Jews reached Sweden, and were sheltered there until the end of the war. “This was one of World War II’s most notable moments of heroism,” she writes.

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