Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Echoes of Eternity

For almost eighty years, a shofar that Jewish prisoners blew at Auschwitz at the risk of their lives was sitting in an old faded paper bag in the home of Prof. Judith Tydor Schwartz, daughter of Holocaust survivor Chaskel Tydor who died in 1993.

The shofar with its spine-tingling story emerged from obscurity only recently, when it was given on loan to the NY Museum of Jewish Heritage as part of a Holocaust traveling exhibit called “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.”

Prof. Schwartz, who teaches Holocaust history at Bar Ilan University, said she had loaned the shofar as evidence of the extraordinary devotion Jews showed in keeping the mitzvos during the Holocaust, despite inhuman persecution.

In a written testimonial that accompanied the shofar, Prof. Schwartz repeated the story her father had told her when she was a young child.

“It was September 1944 in Nazi-occupied Poland. As the weather grew chillier, prisoners in the Auschwitz-Buna camp (Auschwitz III) began searching for rags to pad their uniforms or extra food to supplement their meager rations,” the saga began. “And some searched for another kind of nourishment—a shofar to blow on the upcoming festival of Rosh Hashanah.”

“Chaskel Tydor—my father—was one of the prisoners responsible for organizing the camp’s work details. He arranged for many of his fellow Orthodox Jews to be transferred to a work site over Rosh Hashanah that was quite a distance from center of the camp, so that they could daven. He himself could not attend the clandestine service as it would have aroused suspicion.”

“My father told me he heard something extraordinary when the prisoners came back.  One of them said to him, ‘Chaskel, you won’t believe it. Somebody had a shofar. Somebody blew shofar for us!’ But when my father approached the Jew who was supposed to have the shofar, he denied it. He was probably afraid if the news spread, he’d be killed.”

Show Them We Had A Shofar In Auschwitz

Four months later, in January 1945, Chaskel and thousands of other prisoners were forced by the Nazis to set out on the infamous Death March, his daughter related. Suddenly he was approached by an emaciated prisoner who pressed an object wrapped in a rag into his hands. “Take it,” the prisoner whispered. “This is the shofar. I’m dying. I won’t make it but maybe you will. If you survive, show them that we had a shofar in Auschwitz.”

Chaskel survived the agonizing 24-hour march through the snow to the town of Gleiwitz, the precious shofar hidden in his clothes. From there, it accompanied him to Buchenwald. Realizing that they were losing the war, the Nazi administration of the camp became more lax and it was possible for Chaskel to hide the shofar in the worn bag he carried with his tin cup and spoon. He kept it with him day and night until he was liberated on April 11, 1945 by the American army.

He had been imprisoned in slave labor and death camps for five years.

After liberation, Chaskel tried to rebuild his life in Germany but realized there was no future for him there. With his heart set on reaching the shores of Eretz Yisroel, he boarded a ship filled with survivors, knowing the ports to British-ruled Palestine were blockaded but determined to gain entry to the Promised Land nevertheless.

On Rosh Hashanah 1945, as the ship neared the coast of Haifa, Chaskel blew tekios for a group of young survivors—many, like him, from Auschwitz. The piercing cries of the shofar seemed to ricochet off the Carmel mountain range, imbuing hope for a new life while mourning what was forever lost.

“From the year he was liberated until his death in 1993, Chaskel blew the shofar every Rosh Hashanah,” Prof. Schwartz attests. “When he died, I inherited this wondrous shofar. It lay in the same worn paper bag in which my father had kept it since my childhood.

“Survivors who heard that shofar being sounded in the death camps said that it gave them incredible strength — moral, spiritual — the will to go on, to retain their humanity. To believe in the eternity of the Jewish people.”

The Shofar of Bergen Belsen

“Overnight, our fate changed. Our shul became a wistful memory as the suffocating darkness of Bergen-Belsen enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, as Rosh Hashanah of 1944 neared, we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were prepared to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled.”

The speaker was Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Holocaust survivor, renowned speaker and dynamic founder of Hineni, an organization dedicated to bringing Jews closer to their heritage.

A child of seven when she was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen. Jungreis and 1683 other Jews had been deported from Hungary on the infamous “Kastner train” that was supposed to bring these Jews to safety in Switzerland.

The deportees on this train were a privileged few who would purportedly be sent to freedom in Switzerland, in a deal that Zionist leader Rudolph Kastner had brokered with Hitler’s top henchman, Adolf Eichmann. This was a time when the Nazis were deporting a half million Hungarian Jews to the death factories of Auschwitz.

The majority of the passengers on the Kastner train consisted of leading Zionists and members of Kastner’s family, as well as wealthy Jews who could afford to bribe their way. Also included were several prominent Hungarian rabbonim, including the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum and his rebbetzin, and Rabbi Avrohom Jungreis, the chief rabbi of Szeged, Hungary, and his family (including 7-year old Esther).

To pay for the release of the 1684 Jews, Eichmann and a few deputes had been presented with four suitcases stashed with gold, jewelry and hard currency. But as it later emerged, the key bargaining chip that closed the deal was Rudolph Kastner’s complicity with the Nazis in hiding from Hungarian Jewry the knowledge he had of their impending annihilation in the death factories.

The Zionist leader’s job was to help promote the Nazi ruse that the Jews were merely going to be resettled so that resistance would be minimized. Because he was known as a rescue activist, he had the people’s trust and was able to execute this task efficiently. [See Perfidy, by Ben Hecht and Kastner’s Crime, by Paul Bogdanor]

[In 1956, Rudolph Kastner, who had enjoyed hero status in Israel as a “rescuer of Jews,” was exposed in an explosive trial as a Nazi collaborator. Revelations that he had deceived Hungarian Jews into believing their expulsion was for the purposes of ‘resettlement,’ when all the while he knew they were headed for the gas chambers, enraged survivors who wanted him prosecuted for treason.

Israel had recently passed a Collaboration Law that called for severe reprisals — in extreme cases, capital punishment – for Nazi collaborators. Kastner faced a court case arising out of a previous legal defeat, in which he would have to defend himself against charges of collaboration and treason. Before he could stand trial, however, he was shot dead by an assassin.]

Instead of being sent to Switzerland as promised, the Kastner train was rerouted to Bergen-Belsen where the passengers were incarcerated for close to eight months, while efforts to extort additional sums of money from Jews abroad were ramped up. The terrified prisoners knew they had been tricked; if the money was not forthcoming, they would be sent to Auschwitz.

This is the backdrop to Rebbetzin Jungreis’s dramatic shofar odyssey, parts of which have appeared in her oral interview for the USC Shoah Institute, in her writings for the Jewish Press, and in other venues. The rebbetzin passed away in 2016.

“…There was a black market in Bergen Belsen; a shofar would cost the price of 300 cigarettes, which in camp currency was an astronomical amount. But my father and some other rabbonim were determined to make it happen.

“At great risk and sacrifice, we managed to collect the cigarettes which we bartered for a shofar,” Rebbetzin Jungreis recalled. “It came from the piles of Jewish belongings stripped from the prisoners and stashed in a huge storehouse in Auschwitz called ‘Canada.’

“Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashanah came and my father sounded the shofar, our brothers in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed-wire fence separating us so that they too might hear its piercing cry.

“The Nazis came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the clubs and whips fell on our heads and blood gushed forth, we all cried out the brocha of lishmo’ah kol shofar.”

The rebbetzin went on to relate how many years later, she was giving a speech in Israel in Neve Aliza, a village in Shomron. It was late summer, just before the yomim noraim, and she felt an urge to share the story of the shofar. As she finished, a woman in the audience stood up, fighting back tears.

“Rebbetzin, that shofar,” she began in a trembling voice, “I know about it! My father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. After your father blew it, it was smuggled into our camp at the bottom of a soup barrel, and my father blew it there!”

The rebbetzin was stunned. “My eyes welled with tears, I couldn’t speak,” she recalled.

“I have that shofar in my home,” the woman continued breathlessly. She hurried from the room and returned a short time later, holding up the shofar for all to see.

“We embraced, weeping in each other’s arms. Afterwards, when we found our voices, we reminisced about those terrible days, clutching the shofar in our hands,” Rebbetzin Jungreis shared. “The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler’s ‘final solution’ had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar had triumphed over the flames.

“Here we were, two little girls from Bergen-Belsen who by all logic should have perished in the gas chambers,” she went on. “But we were alive and well so many years later in our holy land! And that little shofar from Bergen-Belsen had also made it to freedom—resting in the hands of those who Hitler sought to exterminate. What more eloquent testimony could there be to the eternity of the Jewish People?”

The Last Tekiah

In his memoir, “The Life of Moishele der Zinger: How Singing Saved My Life,” renowned Chazzan Moshe Kraus recounts how he cheated death in Bergen Belsen during the eleven months he was incarcerated there by singing German songs for Josef Kramer, the Camp Commandant. Kramer was a barbaric monster, dubbed the Beast of Belsen by the inmates.

“For him, killing a person was a sport, like killing a fly,” recalled Kraus in an interview. “If he was going for a walk in the camp and saw a Jew, he would shoot him. He’d walk over to check if the bullet hit in the middle of the forehead. If it wasn’t right in the middle, he’d curse.”

Kramer took an unexpected liking to Kraus for his cantorial prowess, allowing him a certain degree of freedom of movement in the camp. He also granted Kraus permission to visit other barracks where the world-famous chazzan would lift the spirits of his fellow Jews with his beautiful tenor voice, singing poignant Yiddish and Hebrew songs.

In an excerpt from his memoir, Chazzan Kraus shares a gripping narrative about how the privilege of being able to move about freely enabled him to assist a rabbi in blowing shofar for hundreds of young boys in the camp on Rosh Hashanah, 1944.

“On erev Rosh Hashanah, in the Holland barracks at Bergen Belsen, Rabbi Davidi came to me,” Kraus relates in his memoir. ‘Moshele, you must help me,” he said ‘They brought in last night 1,400 Hungarian boys, nine to thirteen years old. They are all very religious. Many are chassidim. Tomorrow they will be sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. Their last request is to hear tekias shofar.’

A Nazi guard told me that I can go and blow shofar for the boys,’ the rabbi continued. ‘But I’m afraid to walk there alone. I want you to come with me and be with me when I do this mitzvah. With you I hopefully will not have problems.”

“A few hours later he hid a shofar behind his shirt, and we started out. We soon arrived at their barracks. It had no beds. The boys were sitting on the floor. They approached us tearfully when we came in. The rabbi gave a quiet but very moving speech. I sang for them Unesaneh Tokef and also Kol Nidrei. Then the rabbi blew the shofar. We left the barrack with very heavy hearts.

“But when we were about 200 yards away we suddenly heard singing; to our amazement, the boys were singing tzavei tzavai yeshuos yakov.  We were drawn back to their barrack and when we entered, they started to dance in a huge circle around us. We danced and danced with these precious children.

“Suddenly the door flew open.  It was the camp commandant Kramer, incensed. “Why are you singing and dancing?” he screamed. “Tomorrow you’ll all be dead!”

“A young boy, maybe 12 years old responded in perfect German, “We’re happy because tomorrow we will meet our Father in Heaven and you’ll no longer be able to torture us.” The commandant glared at the boy, turned around, punched the door hard with his fist and left.

“The next day, Rosh Hashanah, we heard those hundreds of young boys walking to the train singing at the top of their lungs. Rabbi Davidi later spoke about these pure children to the suffering Jews to encourage them.”We believe what the Gemara says, that Moshiach will arrive when there is much tzoros, amid great pain,” he said. He reminded us that it was important for every Jew to believe that, even one second before death, Moshiach can come and redeem us.

“Many Jews did cling to this belief and many went to the gas chambers singing “Ani ma’amin be’emunah shleimah,” Kraus attested. The sonderkommandos—those who had the ghastly job of burning the bodies after they were gassed—heard it and testified to this.”

“Liberation came April 15, 1945, but I was too weak to react,” the memoir continued. “An English soldier came into the barracks and picked me up; I weighed only 35 kilos.”

After the war, Chazzan Kraus, who had lost his parents and five siblings in the war, married his wife Rivka and took cantorial positions all over the world, in Bucharest, Germany, Israel, Belgium, Johannesburg and finally Ottowa, where he spent the last 50 years of his life. He passed away in May of this year at the age of 100.

  • • •

[Bergen Belsen’s Camp commandant Josef Kramer and other Nazi officers were put on trial after the war by a British war tribunal in Luneberg, Germany. Upon liberating the camp, British troops had found 13,000 unburied corpses strewn across the camp, thousands of tortured and dying prisoners, and evidence of mass atrocities that shocked them to the core. Kramer and several other officers were sentenced to death for crimes against humanity and hanged. Most of their subordinates received lenient sentences and were released in the early 1950s.]

 

 

*****

Kol Nidrei on the Train to Belzec

Holocaust survivor Dr. Truda Rosenberg, a prominent Ottawa psychologist and the author of a memoir Unmasked, addressed an audience at Carleton University in Ottowa, Canada when she was approaching 90. She had been asked specifically to describe how she escaped a death train to Belzec in 1941 when she was 18. Excerpts from her remarks follow below.

“I was on the cattle train after being snatched from the streets for no other reason than they wanted to have a full train of people whom they were bringing to death,” she began. “It was a long process because first they had to gather as many Jews as they could. The people with me were elderly people and youngsters between 10 and 15. No water or food. Nothing. No space to sit. Not enough air.  I remember the terror. We barely talked.

“I was squeezed tightly against my two beloved aunts, and at one point, two young boys perhaps 14 or 15 years old approached us, saying “Would you like to jump out?”

No one answered.

“Because we are going to death, don’t you know?” they said. “No, you don’t know. So we are telling you.”

“I turned to my two aunts and one of them looked into my eyes and said, “Go child, you may live.” The two boys opened the windows and forcefully pushed me through. They changed my position so that I could hold on to the window ledge while crouching on the outside of the train. A few kilometers passed while I waited with a pounding heart for them to tell me to jump.

I suddenly heard one of my aunts chanting a prayer we Jews say on the evening of Yom Kippur, the prayer of Kol Nidrei. It sent chills down my spine. Even as I sit here now recalling this, I shiver. I’ve thought about it so many times. Why did she have to chant it out loud? It wasn’t like her. She must have desperately wanted me to hear the words and remember them.

“I think she was praying to the Almighty to forgive me for any sins and to keep me alive… And I think she must have wanted everybody in the horrible death train to join in that prayer. I have no idea if they did because suddenly the two boys together yelled, “Jump!”

“I jumped, hit the ground and rolled down the embankment. It was a moving train and I could have broken my bones. But I didn’t even get a scratch. I made my way back toward the city. For the next four years I moved around under a fake name disguised as a Polish Christian, working as a maid and at other jobs. I had many close calls but miraculously survived. I found out much later the train went to a place called Belzec, a death camp. Nobody came out alive.

“Last November, I was invited to Poland by some officials,” Truda continued. “My first steps were to Belzec, and I just stood there with some others, saying a prayer for all the Jews whose ashes were buried underground. Sheets of paper were handed out to all of us, if we wanted to put down the names of the people that we knew were killed there.

Half a million Jews were murdered at Belzec, including my entire family. But there are no names or signs at this dreadful place that anything unusual happened here. There was no one who offered an explanation for why this “camp” existed.

“But they dished out sheets of paper for us to write down names. How thoughtful.”

 

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