Yom Kippur: back then. there.

On the eve of Yom Kippur I wish to share with you two compelling Yom Kippur memories posted by two survivors in the All Generations newsletter.

Kol Nidre is the iconic prayer recited on the eve of Yom Kippur.


Kol Nidrei in Dachau

By Jack Fuchs

70 years have gone by since the time I was a shadow of my former self in the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany.

And while everything is forgotten nothing loses its present importance. There are smells. There are dates that make me remember and live again those very traumatic, tragic moments. And as Yom Kippur, the most important date of the Jewish calendar, approaches, I come back to that night, when after a journey of labor, dead tired, starving and desperate, somebody remembered that Yom Kippur had just started, and that it begins with the Kol Nidrei prayer.

I admit that even though I didn’t understand the words, I recognized the imploring melody of the prayer. It moved me like it always did, and even more under those circumstances when they sounded deeply sorrowful.

Today like yesterday, I come back to my childhood and my hometown in Poland, when beside my father at the synagogue people asked to be forgiven for “all their sins”. And they pleaded to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Years went by and I still don’t understand what type of forgiveness we had to ask for, when we were stripped of everything: families, homes, and even our names were changed into numbers, but still there was the ritual of asking for absolution. It seemed that faith or tradition, or maybe both, couldn’t be obliterated. There was, in spite of everything, something that was our own: a prayer as stirring as it was sorrowful.

Years went by. And I still don’t understand what was the purpose of that young man (most of us were young), to risk his life and pass a little book of prayers, hiding it. I still don’t understand how he did it, because the only things we were allowed to keep were our shoes.

Years went by. And I still don’t understand what was the reason of that prayer and today after 70 years I wonder about the meaning of the words I’m writing right now. I’m thinking it could be the same impulse and feeling, as it probably was of that man that didn’t survive.

Years went by and even though I’m a rational man, I don’t find any meaning except religiousness without religion.

Perhaps these words are only useful to repeat once again, that there is nobody, among many families, that remember their names. There is only left one number: 6 million.


A Most Memorable Kol Nidre

By Judy (Weissenberg) Cohen

Practicing Judaism or celebrating any Jewish Holiday was totally forbidden by the Nazis at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

The Nazis knew it would give solace to the prisoners. So we weren’t allowed to mark any Jewish occasion. But this particular year, in 1944, when I was there, one day, some of the older women – and by older I mean they could have been 35 or 40 years old (to a 15 year old anyone who is over 30, looks old) – asked these two specific Kapos (high-ranking prisoners) for permission to do something for Kol Nidre (the Eve of Yom Kippur.)

Most of the Kapos (prisoners with authority)were really brutalized and brutal people but a few of them remained truly kind. We knew these particular two were approachable. One of the kind Kapos, I remember, was a tall, blonde Polish woman, non-Jewish. The other one was a little red-headed, young woman, a Jewish girl from Slovakia.

The women told them that we wanted to do something for Kol Nidre. The little red-headed girl, Cirka (or Cila) I believe was her name, but I am not sure, was simply amazed that anyone still wanted to pray in that hell-hole called, Birkenau.

“You crazy Hungarian Jews” she exclaimed. “You still believe in this? You still want to do this and here?”

Well, we did.

So, we asked for and received, one candle and one siddur (prayer book). We were about 700 women jam-packed in one barrack. Everybody came: the believers, the atheists, the Orthodox women, the agnostics, women of all descriptions and of every background. We were all there.

The two Kapos gave us only ten minutes and they were guarding the two entrances to the barrack to watch out for any SS guard who might happen to come around – unexpectedly.

Then, someone lit this lone candle – and a hush fell over the barrack. I can still see this scene: the woman, sitting with the lit candle, started to read the Kol Nidre passage in the siddur. Incredibly, all of this happened in a place where, we felt, it was appropriate that instead of we asking forgiveness from God, God should be asking for forgiveness from us. And yet, we all wanted to gather around the woman with the lit candle and siddur.

She recited the Kol Nidre very slowly, so that we could repeat the words if we so desired. But we didn’t.

Instead, the women burst out in a cry – in unison. Our prayer was the sound of this incredible cry of hundreds of women. It seemed to give us solace. Remembering Yom Kippur was somehow a reminder of our homes, and families because this was one Holy Day that was observed even in the most assimilated homes.

Something happened to these women. It was almost as if our hearts burst. I never heard either before or since then such a heart rendering sound. Even though no one really believed the prayer would change our situation, that God would suddenly intervene – we weren’t that naïve – but the opportunity to cry and remember together helped us feel better. It reminded us of our former, normal lives; alleviated our utter misery, even for a littlest while, in some inexplicable way.

Even today, many decades later, every time I go to Kol Nidre services, I can’t shake it.

That is the Kol Nidre I always remember.

From Judith (Judy) Weissenberg Cohen, a Survivor in Toronto, Canada.