“On Rosh Hashanah, it is written; on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval…” (U’Netane Tokef, Yom Kippur Machzor [High Holy Day prayerbook]).
Seldom has this prayer felt more relevant than during the Holocaust. Hiding in Dulka, Poland, two years to the day after the decree forcing the Jews of Poland into ghettos, scholar Yosef Guzik considered the U’Netane Tokef:
“Yesterday on Shabbat, we had Yom Kippur. …We prayed with a torn and boiling heart. And how could it be otherwise with unfortunate and marginalized people like us? Our souls were fasting …. We prayed silently, and from the depths of our hearts, we poured out our hearts. Our eyes shed tears for our fate and the fate of our people.
“In front of us is the big and valuable question: the question of ‘who will live and who will die’, ‘who will fall and who will rise.’ The question pierces our minds on Yom Kippur more than any other day. It touches us, our souls, our existence, our very being. … Will we get to stay alive? … Will it cost us what it did not cost thousands and thousands of our brothers, whose blood was shed like water? … Will our fervent prayers be heard?”
Through the years of persecution, murder, and torment, these questions haunted the hearts of Jews everywhere. Nonetheless, incredible accounts of observance of Yom Kippur come out of this time. They poured out their hearts in the camps and the ghettos, even waiting on the train platforms, sanctifying not just the Divine but also life itself.
Charlotte Hellman recounts the Kol Nidre prayers led by her husband Avraham on the eve of Yom Kippur 1944. He stood on the train station ramp waiting for the transport that was to take them to Auschwitz. She remembers,
“My husband said: ‘It’s time to pray.’ He placed two suitcases, one on top of the other, and covered them with a Tallit. He stood with Levin and his son from Komotau in Bohemia, and the three put their prayer shawls over their heads. When my husband began to pray out loud, a bitter cry rose from the throats of all the men and women. …. My husband chanted the “U’Netane Tokef,” and an old man, apparently a Rabbi from Slovakia, removed his shoes and recited the Vidui [confession] in a fearful cry.”
How to observe Yom Kippur was a difficult question, however. How can one fast when hunger is part of everyday life? The Torah tells us, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement. There shall be a holy convocation unto you, and you shall afflict your souls.” (Leviticus, 23:27) And yet the Torah also tells us, “Take you therefore good heed unto yourselves.” (Deuteronomy, 4:17) Rabbis in the Holocaust decided the latter commandment took precedence.
In the Kovno Ghetto, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry considered many questions such as these. He wrote the questions and his responses ─ Rabbinic “responsas” ─ on bits of paper torn from cement sacks he carried during forced labor. He hid the papers in tin cans and buried them outside the ghetto where he was able to find them after the war.
Addressing the issue of fasting on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Oshry states that while fasting on Yom Kippur is a religious obligation under normal circumstances, the preservation of life takes precedence in times of extreme danger and suffering. Rabbi Oshry ruled that it was therefore permissible to eat or drink on Yom Kippur in order to sustain oneself in such dire conditions.
After the war, new questions arose. How do we reclaim our shattered lives? How do we reclaim our traditions, recreate connections that may have been broken in the worst of times? In the Fährenwald Displaced Persons Camp in Germany in 1945, Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam, the rebbe of Sanz-Klausenberg, delivered a fiery Yom Kippur sermon:
“Ashamnu – Did we sin? Bagadnu – Were we unfaithful?… Were we, G-d forbid, unfaithful to G-d and fail to remain loyal to him? Gazalnu – did we steal? From whom did we steal in Auschwitz and Mühldorf? … Maradnu – We rebelled? Against whom? We rebelled against you, Master of the Universe?”
“This Vidui was not written for us,” he concluded, closing his machzor.
“But,” he thundered anew, “we are guilty of sins that are not written in the machzor… How many times did many of us pray, ‘Master of the Universe, I have no more strength, take my soul so I will not have to recite Modeh Ani anymore’?… We must ask the Almighty to restore our faith and trust in him. ‘Trust in G-d forever.’… Pour your hearts out to him.”
Since 1946, an additional verse has been added to the Yom Kippur morning Yizkor [mourning] prayer: a Yizkor for the millions of Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. This year as we say Yizkor, let us each remember one name from among the millions. In remembering one name, we will be doing our part atoning for them as well, allowing them peace, and allowing their memory to be kept with the everlasting flame of our people.