Blowing shofar in a striped prisoner uniform

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Blowing shofar – in striped prison uniform

A controversy in cross-currents.com two years ago led to a remarkable interview I was privileged to record recently. Erev Rosh Hashana, Sept.10,2007 I posted my translation of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels’ description of his blowing shofar in Auschwitz. Others have also translated the Hebrew description given by R. Meisels in his Mekadshei Hashem, among them R.Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer “Rosh Hashanah in Gehinnom, Auschwitz 1944,” in Artscroll’s revised A Path Through the Ashes). You can read my translation in cross-currents
“Sounding the shofar in Auschwitz”

Quite a bit of controversy and skepticism ensued, raising questions about the shofar blowing in Auschwitz. A dozen comments appeared on Sept.18,2007 – “Spiritual or physical hunger?”

Because of the doubts I decided I would try to find and record some kli rishon testimony.
Recently, I succeeded finding an eye-witness: Rav Yeshaya Glick. I persuaded him to let us video his first-person testimony. R. Glick writes about the shofar blowing in his recently published book Mamchishkim Hoshianu (available so far only in Hebrew from the author, 49 Sorotzkin St,Jer). I went to interview him and recorded him retelling the episode. He was fourteen years old. He had been taken to the camps from his home on Shavuos 1944. Rosh Hashanah found him at slave labor in Auschwitz, in different parts of the camp (therefore he knew the entire layout of camps A,B,C, D,etc.) R. Meisels came to do “shofar bluzen” (Yiddish for shofar blowing) in several places, among them in the barracks near Yeshaya Glick which held the boys who had been deemed too short and therefore not a good labor source. R. Meisels was beseeched by them to blow before they were taken to the gas chambers. Yeshaya Glick stood a meter (about a yard) from R. Meisels. The Rav’s son called out the tekiyos and not all the preliminary passages were said. In retelling this to me R. Glick stood up and demonstrated how Rav Meisels said the brachah with intensity and concentration, swaying, and shuckling. What struck young Yeshaya Glick the most was the incongruity between the outward appearance of this great Rav and the spiritual intensity with which he said the few passages he felt he had time to say. Here was a great scholar, dressed in the striped prisoner uniform, with a camp cap on his head, no beard, and no payos. And out of his mouth came the most emotionally laden prayers and blessings, not to mention the shofar bluzen.
I specifically asked the questions the skeptics legitimately raised: How did he get away with it vis-v-vis the guards? How could one obtain/conceal a shofar in Auschwitz? R. Glick said that in his immediate area there were not many guards at that moment. There was an armed guard in a distant watch tower. But he stood still, perhaps not knowing how to categorize what was taking place. R. Glick was not privy to how the shofar was obtained, but he said many contraband items were to be had. He fetched from his desk a siddur he had “bought” for two days’ bread rations. Tashmishei kedushah were often found by Jews assigned to sort out the clothes and baggage of new arrivals and they either kept and hid the finds or bartered them to others. Also, veteran prisons sometimes stood by the fence when new arrivals came and shouted to them to give them valuables for safe keeping before all their possessions were confiscated.
In Rav Meisels’ book he writes that he blew “meah kolos” [literally 100 blasts] in many places that Rosh Hashanah. I asked R. Glick whether the full one-hundred were blown. He said the minimum thirty were blown, and blown exactly (repetitions if necessary until precisely sounded). He said the phrase “meah kolos” is not to be understood literally but as an idiom referring to “shofar bluzen”.
I hope to transcribe my digital recording of my interview with R. Glick (which took place in English). Subsequently, we asked him to give a talk about this in Yiddish (with a Hebrew translator) at a Beis Yaakov seminar organized by Rabbanit Esther Farbstein this summer, and we videotaped this very moving retelling. Perhaps someone will want to bring out Rav Glick’s book in English.

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. Mark says:

    Thank you Mrs. Schmidt,

    I have a special appreciation for your willingness to go beyond the superficial level that many journalists settle for. You always provide an interesting angle and solid sources and it is very greatly appreciated.

  2. another Nathan says:

    I suggest to L. Oberstein that if has not yet read “Faith After the Holocaust” by R. Eliezer Berkovitz, ZTL, that he do so. He deals at length with the ‘holy disbelief’ of survivors.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    I was once listening to a sermon in Shul when the Rabbi told a story about Holocaust spiritual heroism in Kelm (probably from the account told to and written by Rav Dessler ZT”L).

    A Holocaust survivor in the congregation became very agitated and indignant. I think the gist of it was that the survivor had not experienced or heard of a similar event himself, so he felt the story to be unrealistic and untrue. He even appeared to believe the story was a mockery of survivors like himself.

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    One question that bothers me is why some Holocaust survivors reacted by becoming very observant and others with similar experiences went in the opposite direction. There are even some survivors who did not want their children to be part of the Jewish community to spare them. In my hometown there was a survivor who never entered the shul but knew a lot. Of course there were a few here and there who tried to blow the shofar ,put on tefilln,etc. In most situations, the terror and the oversight was such that this was beyond imagination. Those who doubt this story are simply generalizing from their experiences,which is normal. I wonder what will become of the Holocust Museums once the survivor generation passes on.Most American assimliated Jews aren’t that involved or historically conscious to care,once this generation is not there to push for rememberance. The orthodox remember but in another way,by living Judaism.