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Yom Kippur in Naziland

September 18, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It was the end of a life. For the last time, I traveled to the small town in eastern Germany. I wanted to grade the changes Hitler’s minions had brought to its narrow streets and rows of well-worn houses.

I had spent a great part of my youth in the confines of this wall of stones. It was my world and nothing else did matter. It was my realm and history had not touched it.

But now, in 1937, everything had changed. Where there had been peace, the columns of goosestepping brownshirts brought the outside world to the cobblestones of the wide square in the center of town. Where there was once a restful quiet, the shouting and demonstrating would not abate. It was a telling prelude to Yom Kippur.

We went to synagogue, my father and I. As custom demands, before we left home, he had blessed me with the blessings of old. I still feel his trembling hands resting on my head. I was so close to him.

We went through some quiet side streets to reach the synagogue. My father did not wear his top hat as he usually did. It would have drawn too much attention to us. We could do without it.

A few men sat in their seats. They were the remnants of a flourishing congregation. They were old men, old in years and old in their expectations of what life had in store for them. In the desolate climate of the day, their presence was a reminder of days long gone.

There was once a rabbi and a cantor in this place. A shrinking membership could not afford them. My companions of earlier years had left long ago. They had chosen a new life somewhere in the world, where they had a chance to escape the noose tightening around us. They were the lucky ones. I knew the void they left would never be filled.

A few men took the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and formed a circle around the old man chanting the Kol Nidrei. Some had tears in their eyes. Desolation and decimation had taken their toll. Where there were once row after row of men who had their place in life and stature in this congregation, there was emptiness, a ghostly presence of ghostly men.

Why do we have to build stone on stone, I asked myself, to see how it is all torn down by the hatemongers, by the liars, by those who want to get rid of their inferiority complexes? When will it all end? When will we no longer be the whipping boys of history? My heart was longing for the day when we could pay it back to them, all of it to all of them.

We turned page after page filled with pleas of submission and self-denial. “Do not bring over us the calamities we dread,” we pleaded. “We are your children and you our father.” “You are the truth and you are just,” we said.

It was a lifeless confession of our inability to cope. It was all far removed from the realities of the day. It was a matter of doubt, but, at the same time, an anchor for self-preservation, something to cling to and something to make life bearable.

All of a sudden, the sound of breaking glass, the thump of a stone falling on one of the pews pierced the prayerful murmurs in our midst. The men’s faces changed in an instant. They became white. There was fright in their eyes, that helpless quivering look of anticipation of things to come. A deadening silence descended on us. My heart beat faster. It is not easy to be a victim.

Minutes passed. They seemed to stretch into hours. We were waiting for the next blow to fall. But nothing happened.

We did not hear a sound from the street outside. Finally, somebody dared to go out to look. The crowds we were afraid of were not around. It was as if we had received a raincheck on a disaster.

We continued our prayers. We opened the Ark and we closed the Ark. I looked at the Torah scrolls, contemplating their past and their fate. There was an empty feeling in my heart. The load of uncertainty was heavy.

With a sad conviction the old men cited the words which gave away their fears: “Do not abandon us when we are old and frail; do not leave us.” It was the plea of doomed men.

They are all dead now. They all were murdered, one after one, after one, my father among them. I still feel his hand reaching out for me on that Kol Nidrei night. I feel his touch and the loving firmness of his grip. It stayed with me all my life.

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