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Observing Yom Kippur in the shadow of death

Nazi SS guards on the arrival ramp at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp in Poland, May 1944. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Courtesy of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.
Nazi SS guards on the arrival ramp at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp in Poland, May 1944. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Courtesy of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

Holocaust memoirs and eyewitness testimony record how Jews living under Nazi rule repeatedly took extraordinary risks to mark Yom Kippur in some way. Despite the grave dangers involved, and even though Jewish law permits eating or performing labor on the Day of Atonement in order to save one’s life, many Jews endured unimaginable suffering in order to commemorate the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

In his diary, Rabbi Shimon Huberband described his experiences in the Polish town of Piotrkow in the aftermath of the September 1939 German invasion. The occupation authorities imposed an astronomical fine on the local Jewish community, with Yom Kippur as the deadline. To demonstrate the punishment to be expected if the money was not paid, the Nazis seized a number of local Jews at random on the eve of Yom Kippur and took them to Gestapo headquarters, where they were “beaten, attacked by dogs, forced to crawl on their stomachs… forced to clean toilets with their bare hands … [and] ordered to collect shattered pieces of glass with their mouths.”

Rabbi Huberband’s diary (published in English under the title “Kiddush Hashem,” edited by Professors Jeffrey Gurock and Robert Hirt) noted that the local Judenrat, the German-appointed Jewish ruling council, “dispatched notices saying that everyone should contribute his designated amount toward the tribute by tomorrow, the last day.” At the same time, because all public observances of Yom Kippur had been outlawed, a debate broke out as to whether or not Jewish shopkeepers should open their stores, lest they be accused by the Germans of closing them in honor of the holiday.

Rabbi Huberband records the remarkable “honor system” scheme the Jewish shopkeepers devised to avoid doing business on the Day of Atonement while eluding the Nazis’ ire: “Jews’ shops were open. The ‘salesmen’ were all women. Actually, the women didn’t sell anything; people took merchandise, but without paying for it. The women didn’t take any money, but they did on the other hand give away money. They took their tribute payments over to the [Judenrat] office, Yom Kippur being the last day, the deadline for the tribute.”

Professor Yaffa Eliach’s book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust recounts the horrors endured by a Hungarian Jewish slave-labor battalion attached to a retreating German army unit in 1944. The prisoners were routinely beaten, starved, and used as human mine detectors. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the German commanding officer, aware of the approaching Jewish holy day, warned them that anyone who fasted “will be executed by a firing squad.”

On Yom Kippur, it rained heavily along the Polish-Slovakian border region where they were working, and the area was covered in deep mud. When the Germans distributed their meager 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 memorized 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.

Just then they were confronted by the German commander, who informed 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 from 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.

Isaiah Trunk’s classic Jewish Responses to Nazi Persecution cites a remarkable anecdote from an Auschwitz survivor about Yom Kippur in the women’s block there in 1944. Minutes before sundown, the Jewish barracks leader, or Blokowa, suddenly “put a white tablecloth over the barrack oven, lit some candles, and told all the Jewish women to walk up and pray… The barrack was filled with an unbearable wailing. The women again saw their annihilated homes.”

It happened that “Froh Rohtshtat, the famous violinist from Lodz, was also kept in our barracks,” and the barracks leader “brought in a fiddle and asked Froh Rohtshtat to play Kol Nidre. She refused, saying she couldn’t play because her heart was bursting. The Blokowa threatened to beat her… if she didn’t play. When Froh Rohtshtat began playing, the Jewish Blokowa suddenly lost control and started pushing us away and clubbing the Jewish women, yelling, ‘Enough! You’ve had enough pleasure!’”

“What was the reason for the Jewish Blokowa’s sudden change of mind?” Dr. Trunk wondered. “One can only guess that, fearing the inmates would see how she was overcome with emotion by the solemn tones of Kol Nidre, she would thus be seen in a state of weakness and would consequently lose the firm grip she had on them.”

To maintain her position as a barracks head, the Blokowa needed to forsake all Jewish connections and feeling—and for a few fleeting moments, the emotional power of Yom Kippur had threatened to touch even her iron heart.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”

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