Sounding the Shofar in Auschwitz

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From the memoirs of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels, ztz”l describing Rosh Hashanah 1944:

“The experience of one transport that left Auschwitz is seared in my memory. With the grace of HASHEM I was miraculously able to bring a shofar into the camp. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah I went from block to block, shofar in hand, to sound the tekiyot. This put my life in danger and I had to avoid the Nazis and malevolent Kapos. I thank HASHEM that due to His mercy and compassion I was privileged to sound the shofar that Rosh Hashanah some twenty times, coming to a hundred blasts en toto. This revived the spirits of the shattered camp inmates and gave them some peace of mind knowing that at least they could observe one mitzvah in Auschwitz – that of shofar on Rosh Hashanah.”

This begins the four chapters describing Rosh Hashanah in Auschwitz that I just translated into English from the preface to R. Meisels’ book, Mekadshey Hashem. The preface is included in the Hebrew CD-ROM Rabbinic Prefaces put out this year by the Michlalah-Jerusalem containing memoirs collected by the historian Esther Farbstein (who also authored Hidden in Thunder). She discovered over 100 prefaces by Holocaust-surviving rabbis. While the memoir is tragic, it is also moving and hopeful. Anything I could add is superfluous, so I will bring the entire description below, highlighting the paragraph in chapter 9 that made me cry.

Chapter 6 Blowing the Shofar in Auschwitz

The transport of about one thousand souls was sent from the camp on the first day of Rosh Hashanah towards evening. Because of the preparations for the trip and the confusion, they could not hear the shofar. The transport was at the edge of the camp near the gate, ready and waiting to leave the camp. When I reached them with Rabbi R. Mendele I told them I had a shofar with me, and they were brimming with joy and begged me to blow the one-hundred sounds quickly so they could fulfill the mitzvah before the gate opened and they would be on their way to who knows where….

I can still hear reverberating in my ears the sobs that burst forth from those thousand people during the tekiot. I especially remember the trembling voice of the well-known chassid who announced the sounds before I blew them. He was Rabbi Yehoshua Fleischman, may HASHEM avenge his death, from Debrecen, Hungary, who called out the notes in a piercing wail, tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah. I could barely concentrate properly and at that moment I understood the commentary written four centuries earlier by Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Hashla Hakadosh) of Prague on tekiah, shevarim, teruah. He explained that it is as if the sound is originally long and straight, a tekiah, but then the sound itself breaks down into shevarim and teruah, just as our holy Jewish congregations that had previously been so straight and upright, were now breaking asunder. But just as the series of sounds ends with a simple, straight tekiah, so too we beseech HASHEM that we shall return to wholeness and heal, and that the crooked be made a straight, simple tekiah and that we may be redeemed soon.

Chapter 7 Tekiat HaShofar for Youths before the Crematoria

The boys who were locked in the block and were about to be sent to the crematoria found out that I had a shofar. I heard shouts and entreaties emanating from their block imploring me to come to them and sound the one hundred blasts of the shofar so they could fulfill this precious mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah in their last moments of life, before they would be martyred for Kiddush HASHEM.

I was beside myself and completely confounded, because this involved a tremendous risk since it was nearing twilight, a dangerous hour, and the Nazis would be coming to take them. If the Nazis were to suddenly show up while I was in there with the youngsters, no doubt they would take me to the crematoria as well. The Kapos, so famous for their ruthlessness, would not let me escape. I stood there weighing the situation and trying to decide what to do. It was very doubtful that I should take the risk to blow the shofar for the boys in such a dangerous situation, and it was not clear that the risk would be justified even if there were some doubt about the danger. But the youths’ bitter supplications were heart-piercing. “Rebbe, rebbe! Please for the sake of HASHEM have pity on our souls. We beg you to enable us to observe this mitvah in our last moments.” I stood there immobile. I was all alone in my decision.

In addition to my doubts as to whether it was justified to take the risk, my dear son Zalman Leib stood next to me, and he too entreated me with bitter sobs. “Father, father! Don’t do this and endanger yourself because this may turn me into an orphan, and leave me stranded and alone. Father, father! Don’t go, don’t enter that block. You aren’t obligated to take the risk. You already blew the shofar so many times, and each time you risked your life. You have done more than enough.” He went on beseeching me not to accede to the boys request. When I gazed at my son, pity and compassion welled up in me and I saw that he was, in a certain sense, correct.

But on the other hand the bewailing of the boys gave me no peace and aroused in my heart tremendous compassion for them. Maybe this mitzvah will give them some protection during the difficulties that lie ahead. I was bewildered. A number of chassidim and other inmates awoke due to the boys’ urgent pleading and they added their voices to the pleas of the youths, saying that there was still much time left, and I would be able to go into their barracks and exit in time, and that someone who is going to do a mitzvah engenders some protective defense.

I reached a decision. Come what may, I cannot turn the boys down. I will ignore the pleas of my dear son. I immediately started negotiating with the vile Kapos who didn’t want to allow me to enter. I thought soon it will be too late, and I won’t have another chance to blow for the boys. So eventually, after some of the other men there interceded, and a sizeable bribe was collected and offered, the Kapos acquiesced to our request but warned me twice that if the bell at the gate sounded, meaning that the S.S. were coming to the camp, then my fate would be sealed along with the boys in the block, because by no means would the Kapos then allow me to leave.

I accepted their conditions and went into the youths. But beforehand I told my son Zalman Leib to stand in the street and watch the gate from a distance. If he sees the S.S. men coming he should run and alert me immediately and I will leave the block even if I am in the middle of the tekiot.

If truth be told, my decision was probably at variance with the strict halachah which rules that you do not endanger yourself, or even put yourself slightly at risk, to perform the mitzvah of shofar. But my underlying reasoning was that either way – whether I sounded the shofar or not – I did not have much of a chance to survive. Who knew in Auschwitz how much more time he had to live? Day in, day out, we saw before our eyes thousands of our fellow Jews murdered and burned, or collapsing in the fields from slave labor. Our lives were not worth a penny. This was the main reason I put myself at risk, even though I knew that there was no strictly halachic justification.

Chapter 8 Sermon before Blowing the Shofar

Where is the pen, and where is the writer who could possibly put on paper my inner feelings when I entered the block. It is a miracle that my heart was not splintered into pieces when I saw the dozens of youthful eyes and heard their terrible sobbing. With tears burning and voices beseeching to the heavens, they pushed to reach me, to kiss my hand, to touch my clothes. All the time bewailing, “Rebbe, rebbe! Have mercy, have mercy” and similar pleas that your ears cannot suffer to hear. Some of them were my students, and others were from my town. When I began to recite the prayer preceding the shofar blowing, Min Hameitzar, “From the depths do I cry out to HASHEM,” they exploded into a cry and demanded that I give them a derashah. They insisted on a sermon and would not even let me continue the prayer. I was so stunned and moved that I was mute, my tongue clung to my palate, and I could not open my mouth. I was also afraid that if there were any further delay this window of opportunity would be closed. Dusk would soon settle and the ensuing danger would be great.

But I acquiesced to their pleading and began a sermon on the verse from Psalm 81, “Blow the shofar at the moon’s removal, at the time appointed for our festive day” emphasizing how much has been removed from our lives and taken away. The despicable oppressors took away our families. What will be our end? Who will come out of here whole? HASHEM is to a great extent now hidden from us. I reminded them that the Talmud teaches (Brachot 10a) that “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.”

Chapter 9 Last Words Before the Crematoria

I must continue relating what happened, so that future generations will know the great devotion, mesirut nefesh and holy words I heard that day from those teenagers in the moments before they were taken to their deaths. After I sounded the tekiot I tried to go outside. One boy stood in my way and uttered a mournful cry, “Friends, the Rebbe gave us encouragement; even when a sword dangles at your throat…..” The others responded amidst their tears with a resounding Shema Yisrael…

When I left a few boys followed me. With tears streaming down their faces they asked whether I had some morsels of bread, k’zayit (the minimum amount considered in Jewish law to constitute a meal) in order to fulfill in their last moments another mitzvah – that of the festive meal of Rosh Hashanah. In the twenty-four hours since they had been locked in their block they had not eaten or drunk anything. According to halachah it is forbidden to fast on Rosh Hashanah. I was crestfallen that I had nothing to give them and I would not be able to come to their block again. This was a bitter day for them, all the more so because in addition to everything else, they were forced to fast on a festival as they were being taken to the pyre. May HASHEM soon avenge their deaths.

What happened that terrible Rosh Hashanah flashes through my mind’s eye and reverberates in my ears: young boys with strength of character and bravery who sanctified HASHEM’s name in public with great clarity of mind. I understand why the “binding of Isaac” is read on Rosh Hashanah and why the midrash says it took place on this day. For generations this day has been dedicated for kiddush Hashem in public with the mesirut nefesh and dedication that characterized the binding of Isaac on the altar. These youths sanctified themselves, and sanctified HASHEM in the most dignified way. That is an example for us all.

Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels.

My above translation is from Rabbinic Memoirs of the Holocaust, a Hebrew CD-ROM entitled “Korot HaShoah b’Mevuot L’sifrut Harabanit.” If the project can find funding, my co-translator Jessica Setbon and I will be able to translate the remaining 100 memoirs into English.

I (Shira) would like to conclude with my thoughts on this episode. The sounding of the shofar was not only a mitzvah; it was also an act of defiance declaring that traditional Judaism is still alive, and will survive; that the oppressor will not be able to extinguish the spirit of the people of Israel and their devotion to HASHEM. These tekiot constituted a rebellion and spiritual uprising!

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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4 Responses

  1. Barry says:

    Actually, this was already translated and printed in a volume by Rabbi Aaron Levine in 1990.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    I wrote the following during the Three Weeks in 2001:

    Just this past week, Baltimore lost a humble hero — Menashe Yosef ben Avraham Yaakov zt”l, Menashe Schamroth. Those who knew this outgoing, witty, scholarly man, or who heard him blow the Shofar each Rosh HaShanah in Congregation Beth Abraham, “Hertzberg’s Shul,” may not have known how he got that job.

    After the war, a survivor told Rav Hertzberg an incredible story. In Auschwitz, he said, he saw a young man blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah — something which could surely have cost him his life.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Rabbi Hertzberg saw Menashe smiling. “Do you find this funny?” the Rabbi asked.

    “Well, Rebbe,” said Menashe, “that was me.”

    Menashe went on to blow shofar, daven and give Torah classes in Beth Abraham for decades. How many of our children will ever meet someone who risked his life, as Menashe did, in order to live as a Jew?

    On an Internet discussion list not long ago, a Jewish participant denied that there had been acts of spiritual heroism in the camps. These stories, he claimed, were merely invented afterwards. When Menashe was with us, it was simple to say, “you’re mistaken.” But now he is no longer here, and preserving his memory is now our responsibility.

  3. Sarah Shapiro says:

    An inspiring and touching article.

  4. Shira Schmidt says:

    After spending the better part of a day abridging, editing and translating the Hebrew, I just discovered that Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer published similar excerpts in the Jewish Observer Sept. 1999 Vol.32:7 !