Elul in the War Years
On Friday, September 1, 1939—the 17th Elul, 5699—Germany invaded Poland, an act widely seen as the start of World War II. While Jews across Europe prepared for Shabbos and the upcoming High Holidays, their world turned into a Gehinnom.
As Tishrei and the Yomim Noraim approach, many of us concern ourselves more with whom we will invite for the yom tov meals and when we will start shopping than how we will do teshuvah so that Hashem Yisbarach will, G-d willing, inscribe us in the Book of Life. But, not so long ago, the feared alternative loomed all too close to our people.
Young Mietek Weintraub of Lodz looked forward to his bar mitzvah in November. Instead, two weeks before the simchah, the Nazis, yemach shemam, burned down his synagogue. “We were watching the synagogue go up in flames,” Weintraub, now known as Mitchell Winthrop, remembers. “They (the Nazis) didn’t even call the fire department.” The Germans sent Mietek and his family to the Lodz Ghetto, and then to Auschwitz in 1944.
Rabbi Shaya Berkowitz recounts an amazing story about his father during the war, whom the Nazis forced into the front line of the Hungarian army, “ready to blow up if the Russians exploded the railroad,” he says. “To keep, then, a record of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur was a very difficult thing to do.” But, he explains, his father knew that erev Yom Kippur lay just ahead, and wanted to go to the mikvah. “They were on a mountain top. Under the eyes of the Nazis, they were digging out sand from the mountain, and the clouds were dripping into it. By the time erev Yom Kippur came, they [could toivel in it.] If they (the Nazis) would have noticed, if they would have realized what they were doing, they would have killed them.”
But, not all survivors had the privilege of serving Hashem during this horrible time. “You couldn’t practice anything in hiding,” remembers Marie Kaufman, who, as a young girl, hid with her family in southern France.
“There were no apples and honey to be had,” recalls Masha Schweitzer, who spent the war years in the Soviet Union with her family after moving from her German-controlled hometown in Poland to Russian-controlled Brest (Brisk). “It was a very repressive society of expression of any kind. Keeping the symbols of the holidays alive was a big deal.”
“You think of (Jews) doing the religious practices in secret,” said Henry Slucki, who hid in southern France as a child, and later escaped to Spain, before emigrating to the United States via Portugal. “But it was not that widespread. And, after a while, especially with the Occupation, people just didn’t want to risk it at all.”
“One miracle after another, just to survive the day,” Winthrop says of his experience. “I didn’t even know what day it was. We were just counting the time from when we would get the next meal. That was our only concern in life.”
World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945—the 24 of Elul, 5705.