Darkness and Light

Darkness and Light

Oct 02, 2019

The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's sermon from First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5780:

It was on Rosh Hashanah, 75 years ago today, 1944, that a small group of Jews, prisoners at Auschwitz, were sent on a work detail to a remote area in the woods on the edge of the camp.  The details of that day are lost in the mists of time, but somehow they had arranged, whether by trickery or bribery, to conduct a short Rosh Hashanah service.  By memory they chanted the Shema and other passages from the Mahzor.  At one point a prisoner produced a small object wrapped in dirty rags.  It was a shofar that had somehow made its way into the camp, and had been successfully hidden from the guards.  A member of the group called out the ancient calls – tekia, shevarim, teruah –  and there, 75 years ago, on the edges of Auschwitz, the shofar was sounded.

The story of that shofar has resurfaced in recent days. Within a year of that Rosh Hashanah the war had ended and the camps had been liberated. One of the prisoners, Chaskel Tydor, secretly kept the shofar and took it with him when he was freed.  It was preserved by his family, even used over the years on the holidays. A week ago that shofar was installed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, as part of an exhibit entitled “Auschwitz, Not Long Ago, Not Far Away.” Today that shofar is being taken to a number of different synagogues in New York City where it will be sounded again, as Jews gather, 75 years after the events of the Holocaust, to welcome in a new year, in the Jewish calendar 5780.

In terms of time’s passage it is astonishing to me that this is the 26th time I am conducting High Holy Day services, 22 years here at Beth El, and four years when I was a rabbinical student. Many of those holidays were wonderful, but the most memorable of them all was the first, and I’ve been thinking about it even more lately because of the story of the shofar. Becky and I were living in LA at the time, and I was hired by an old world European Cantor to fill the rabbi role at the Yom Tov services he ran.  My job was to give the sermons, call the pages, to make a few remarks about the Torah readings, and to read Torah.

I did not know it when he hired me, but most of the people who came to that service were either survivors of the Holocaust, or family members of survivors.  As I got to know the old Cantor better I learned that he himself had been a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I don’t think he was part of that group that sounded the shofar at Auschwitz 75 years ago, at least he never told me about it.  But he did tell me that on Yom Kippur eve that year –  again, 1944 – he had, from memory, chanted the Kol Nidre prayer in the concentration camp barracks.  A watchman was set at the door, and the Jews gathered around the young Cantor at one end of the long wooden room. 

When the Cantor told me that story it moved me deeply, but I confess I didn’t understand it.  I wondered how could those Jews, in that place, with its horrors, surrounded by evil and the Malech HaMavet, the Angel of Death, how could those Jews have had the spiritual strength and courage to acknowledge Yom Kippur, let alone to come together in prayer. That Kol Nidre was 75 years ago. The Cantor told me that story 26 years ago. And now, 26 years later, I think I am beginning to understand.

Many of you know that a large Beth El group of close to 60 people traveled to Eastern Europe this past summer.  In the span of 10 days we visited Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and finally Berlin.   The trip was powerful, moving, and emotional.  Each day we wrestled with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  We were faced with questions that were often unanswerable.  And day after day we traveled to places that had once been thriving centers of Jewish life, and were now entirely bereft of Jews.  

Just one example: Before the war Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived in Warsaw, close to 30% of the city’s population. Today there are fewer than 2,000 Jews there.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.   Town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany.  And our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

But it was not all darkness, and there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Poland.  He told us the story of a young woman who went to see her dying grandmother.  She entered the grandmother’s bedroom, and her grandmother told her to close the door and come to the bedside.  She then took out a small box from a bedside table and handed it to the young woman, not saying a word.  The young woman opened the box and inside it was a Star of David on a silver necklace.  For the first time in her life she realized her grandmother was Jewish, her mother was Jewish, and so was she.  The next day she showed up at that JCC to begin to explore what it will mean to her to live a Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, many of them also having discovered that they have Jewish roots and Jewish family members, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.   

But it was at Birkenau, standing by that barbed wire fence and praying with our group, that I began to understand the story the Cantor told me 26 years ago about chanting KN in those barracks.  After we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  That is what Jews have learned to do over the long years, even in the darkest times.  Even standing by a barbed wire fence at Birkenau there is hope, even 75 years ago in a dark barracks in Auschwitz there was hope, even in a forest at the edge of the camps, the shofar can be sounded and hope can grow in the human heart. Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live! 

One last vignette. Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew: "As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem."

That hope existed 75 years ago at Aushwitz, on that Rosh Hashanah day when the shofar was sounded and on that Kol Nidre eve when a group of Jews huddled together to hear the ancient words of our tradition.  That hope exists today in the JCC in Krakow.  It exists in Israel, where Jewish life is thriving.  It exists here in the United States, wherever Jews gather, it exists here at Beth El, as we welcome in this new year in community and fellowship, with gratitude for the blessings in our lives, hearing once again the clarion call of the shofar.