Observing Yom Kippur in the Valley of Death: Auschwitz/Birkenau 1944

The key to understanding how Jewish slave laborers were able to observe Yom Kippur is essentially explained in one versatile word… Dafka.  Originally Aramaic, this word found its way into Yiddish expressions and is currently also used in the Hebrew language.  “Dafka” means “in spite of,” or in “actuality,” i.e., what really happened, despite what you might have thought would have happened.  However, it can also be used to emphasize “because of.”  Dafka, we fasted and prayed on Yom Kippur because it was dangerous and forbidden to do so. “We needed to show G-d that we’re locked in hell, but we were capable of singing his praises,” recounts Elie Wiesel in Night.

This word is used over and over, in the testimonies of Jewish concentration camp survivors. That many of our people, both observant and not, were able to do Teshuva — returning to a purer state — within the barbed wire, electrified gates surrounding the valley of the shadow of death, is nothing short of incredible.  That, despite the most appalling conditions in the camps, where each day brought Jewish prisoners closer to dying of starvation,  and despite the exhausting back-breaking labor that the Nazi guards forced Jews to do every day and doubly hard on the High Holy Days, so many still sought to get closer to G-d by fasting on Yom Kippur.

Teshuva as a Last Worldly Action

As survivors give over their reasons, we can sense an almost innate Jewish desire to return to a pure state, even if it be a last worldly action. Seemingly ironic, the hell that concentration and death camp inmates were living under, strengthened, rather than weakened, their resolve to show Hashem their desire to “return.”  Jewish prisoners took extraordinary risks and defied their overseers, both covertly and if necessary, overtly.  They understood full well that the Nazi guards would likely retaliate with beatings, torture and possibly immediate execution to any violations of their orders, especially regarding religious observation. And the S.S. guards, along with their Ukrainian and Polish helpers, exercised particular vigilance on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

Concentration camp Jews knew full well that Jewish law permits  performing labor on the Day of Atonement in order to save one’s life.  Therefore, those who chose not to fast, and to go to work as commanded by the Nazis, can never be blamed or judged unfavorably for their actions.  However, the accounts that we will examine, albeit briefly, highlight those who were willing and able to exercise spiritual resistance under even extreme circumstances.  Because the Nazis took particular delight when Jews violated Yom Kippur, in some camps, guards offered delicious smelling soups, extra bread rations and even cigarettes to Jewish inmates throughout that Holy Day.

For me, hearing and reading dozens of written and taped stories, mainly testimonies from the Shoah Foundation, has been an awe-inspiring experience. It is one I shall not forget when my stomach starts to grumble a bit around noon on October 9th, after having had a festive meal before Kol Nidre the night before and anticipating a tasty “schmorg” at the end of prayer.

The prisoners understood and knew full well the enormous consequences for observing Yom Kippur by praying and fasting. To quote one, “even if beaten, tortured, and put to death, my eternal life would be greatly strengthened for having ‘returned’ to a pure state.”  Make no mistake, like us, they prayed to be put in the book of life, that “the hand of G-d would take them to the day of liberation.”  Yet, they faced the probability of imminent death with courage and the strong conviction that “even if it was their last day on earth” they could not do otherwise. Observance of Yom Kippur would bring them closer to Hashem.

Prisoner Testimony

Who better than Elie Wiesel can express this?  In Night, he talks about the debate among the inmates in Auschwitz of whether or not to fast. “Should we fast?  The question was hotly debated. In this place, we were always fasting. It was Yom Kippur year-round.  But there were those who said we should fast, precisely because it was dangerous to do so. We need to show G-d that we’re here, locked in hell, but we were capable of singing his praises.”

Ruth Brand, a young girl of 17, tells of how she observed Yom Kippur in Auschwitz, also in 1944. “That day in Auschwitz/Birkenau, I was working with my cousin Chaya in the crematoria digging up ashes. It was Yom  Kippur and my cousin and I decided that we were going to fast. It was a simple decision, that we were not going to drink the so-called coffee in the morning for breakfast and the soup that we got at lunch.  We would somehow carry it back to the camp. The S.S. decided to give us all a present when they found out we were fasting. ‘Get up, lay down push up and run.’ They barked at the whole lot of us. If anyone dared fall down, the dogs would bite them. This went on I don’t know how long, and then we were ordered to sit down and eat. I’m sitting down without eating along with Chaya. The other girls said, ‘What’s happening, why aren’t you eating?’  My cousin said ‘she is much younger than me and if she doesn’t want to eat, I can’t either.’ So, they turned to me and asked what’s with you.  I said I am fasting. They replied ‘Don’t you see G-d doesn’t want us to fast? If he wanted us to fast he would have given us better conditions.’ I replied that maybe he wants to see that Dafka, in spite of this, we are still fasting. In the evening, when we took the food back to camp it was sour, spoiled, because it was a very, very hot day that Yom Kippur in Auschwitz, 1944. One that I will always remember.”

Mordecai Stern, a young boy in Galanta, Slovakia, passed the first years of the war in relative peace. This changed with the renewal of deportations in 1944.  With the help of the brutally anti-Semitic Hlinka (Slovak Guard), the Germans were able to deport 13,500 Jews in the final stage of deportations from September 1944  to March 1945. Only 3,500 survived. Most went to Auschwitz, like Mordecai, who tells of his Yom Kippur in Auschwitz.

His story is recounted in Witness to History, “On Yom Kippur, SS officers arrived and gave a speech in German. ‘In honor of your holiday, we will serve you special food.’ They distributed a soup thick with vegetables and handed out marmalade and lekvar with our meager bread rations, all in the hope of enticing Jews to dishonor the Yom Kipper fast. They also gave us cigarettes. ‘Eat what we serve you or you will be beaten,’ they shouted. That day, I worked very hard, near a pile of cement bags so I hid my soup among the bags. After dark, I returned to fetch my food but by its odor I knew it had spoiled. I was so hungry that I quickly ate it anyway. Thank G-d, I did not become sick. I saw the hand of G-d keep me alive until liberation.”

The process of prayer and fasting not only brought the Jewish inmates closer to G-d but closer to their inner selves, and to each other. So, unlike the hungry pitiful people they had been reduced to in the external physical world of the camps, Yom Kippur gave them another chance. They were able to reconnect with their vibrant inner souls and identify with whom they once were and what their lives were like before the Nazis.

The stories of Holocaust survivors serve as a source of inspiration and hope for all of us as we face our difficulties and challenges in today’s post-Holocaust world. They understood and realized that G-d gives you the strength you need to do the things you need to do and Teshuva can be done even in the depths of despair. Their message is part of our mission to “never forget.”

About the Author
Dr. Karen Sutton is associate professor of history at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College, in New York City.
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