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What it meant to sound the shofar in Auschwitz

In the camps, every mitzvah was a miracle -- done hurriedly, under fear of discovery, as a one-shot deal. Every mitzvah was an act of resistance

The recent New York Times article “An Improbable Relic of Auschwitz: A Shofar That Defied the Nazis” has electrified all who have read that dramatic account of the production, hiding and sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah in the very depths of horror.

This shofar installed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan provides hope in its confirmation of the stories of spiritual resistance in the concentration camps. The idea that under impossible circumstances acts of faith could be expressed provides hope in the human spirit and strength for the faithful that God’s presence could be made manifest in the hell of His Absence.

Under the aegis of the Simon Wiesenthal Center some 40 years ago, I began a study of written accounts and of face-to-face interviews with survivors to understand what was the experience of performing these ritual acts. I discovered that three unique qualities emerge. They were, first of all, episodic. Religious observances were performed individually or in small groups. Done hurriedly, under fear of discovery, there was little expectation that they could be repeated. Acts of spirituality, therefore, had little continuity with each other. Observance did not serve as an ever-present “haven” from the harshness of the camp, unlike its role in the ghetto.

Spiritual acts were fragmentary. Observant Jews who in the pre-Holocaust years tried to fulfill the Law with complete attention to all details were unable to perform rites and rituals in full in the camps. The performance of religious duties, if discovered, could result in death or severe punishment. At best, inmates were able to observe a limited portion of mitzvah (commandment), usually in a very different form from the way it was normally performed. Thus male survivors testify that a pair of tefillin (phylacteries) worn during weekday morning prayer were at times – indeed if they had a full set – divided, with the head phylactery (shel rosh) going to one barracks and the hand phylactery (shel yad) going to another.

Finally, the episodic and fragmentary quality of religious acts in the camps determined that spirituality was usually disguised and not obvious in the camp. Observances were restricted in time and form, and often hurried. Exhausted and fearing discovery by camp guards, or kapos, inmates performed religious observances without any attendant drama, spectacle, or aesthetic care. The need to be inconspicuous was paramount. Indeed, they fortunately often went unnoticed by fellow inmates or guards.

Still, as with the paradox of observance itself in the camps, sometimes it could be public. My teacher in many things related to the Shoah, Henry Appel, was a Polish survivor of three years in Auschwitz. He told me, “Of course we did Kol Nidre (the dramatic introduction to the Yom Kippur liturgy recited the night it commenced).” I asked him where they had hidden. He responded, “Out in the open in front of the kapos and the S.S.” He proceeded to explain that he had been mopping floors in the infirmary with two others. It was several days close to Yom Kippur, and one of them began to hum its classic haunting tune. A Nazi guard encouraged the singing of the “Jewish tune”. Soon, the entire ward of orderlies and patients were caught up in the repeated liturgy. For the Nazis it was entertainment; for the Jews it was Yom Kippur, even if not the exact day. Henry explained, “Every day was for us Yom Kippur.”

The doing of these mitzvot allowed for a re-creation and sense of community. There were several reasons why these mitzvah-centered spontaneous communities came into existence. To begin with, people with religious concerns would either actively seek each other out or sense the other’s presence. A man, for example, who sorely missed putting on the ritual tefillin would notice a fellow inmate who quietly and secretly would rise early and move to a corner in the barracks with a small pouch concealed in his hands. The observer would sense that this was the man that he could approach in order to take part in the performance of that commandment.

A second factor in the creation of these communities was that the performance of certain religious practices necessitated the cooperation of several people. Thus, one woman might steal a potato into which she would scoop out two holes. Another woman would make wicks out of her prison uniform, while a third would offer a few drops of margarine. Together, they could kindle the Sabbath lights (candles). In a similar fashion, the procuring of matzah (unleavened bread eaten on Passover), which took place in many of the camps, involved the cooperation of a relatively large number of people, who would obtain flour, produce baking equipment, and see to the baking itself.

Finally, communities were created due to the compelling nature of the religious practices themselves. Even non-observant Jews were drawn to the kindling of the Hanukkah lights. High Holiday services were “conducted” predawn, in an abandoned shed to which people snuck away at great risk, or even on the march. In one camp, the normally hostile antireligious members of the Sonderkommando stood guard to insure the safety of their religious cohorts as they prayed. They, too, had a need for the prayers to be recited, even if they themselves could or would not participate. They formed a community with their brethren, centered around this religious event.

An apparent significance of this mitzvah community is its resistance against the design of the Nazis to dehumanize the inmates and render them a mere number prior to their final physical destruction. These spiritual responses, performed under adverse and hostile conditions, were an affirmation of both one’s personal autonomy and the significance of his community. One had to exhibit cooperation, cunning, psychic strength, and personal courage. The acceptance – even if episodic and fragmentary and disguised – of the yoke of Torah could mean the momentary casting off of the yoke of the camps.

All that I have written above is only an attempt to understand what cannot be fathomed intellectually. So this is true of the unarticulated voice of the shofar sounded in Auschwitz. The middle sounds of the set are genuchi gonaoh ayulai yalil – broken weeping and sobbing. The initial and final voice is the unbroken, straight mighty blast evoking hope. That shofar in Auschwitz was also sounded for us.

* * *

Much of this can be found in a longer version of this analysis in ‘Spiritual Responses in the Camps’ in Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust, edited by A. Grobman and D. Landes, Rossel Books, 1982.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of YASHRUT, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. YASHRUT includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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