By Professor Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz
September 1944. South-Eastern German-occupied Poland. As the days grew shorter and the weather chillier, prisoners in the Auschwitz-Buna camp (Auschwitz III) began searching for rags to pad their uniforms or for food to supplement their meager rations. And some searched for another kind of nourishment—a shofar, a ram’s horn, to blow on the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days.
Sounded on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a shofar is an integral part of Jewish New Year services. It was ostensibly unavailable in any Nazi concentration camp. That, however, did not deter a group of Orthodox Jews in Buna, including Chaskel Tydor (1903-1993), from trying to obtain one to use during prayer services.
Tydor—my father—was one of the prisoners responsible for organizing the camp’s work details. He arranged for many of his comrades to be transferred to a work detail over Rosh Hashanah that was far removed from the center of the camp. He himself could not attend the clandestine service they were planning, as he had to remain at his position or arouse suspicion. “I heard that there was a shofar in the camp that year but didn’t hear it myself,” he later told me. “When I approached the Jewish prisoner who was supposed to have it, he denied it, was probably afraid to tell anyone, as having it in his possession meant death.”
My father saw what was probably the same shofar four months later. In January 1945, he and thousands of other prisoners were forced by the Nazi guards to set out on the infamous “Death March”. He was approached by an emaciated prisoner, who handed him an object wrapped in a rag. “Take it,” the prisoner told him. “I’m too sick to survive. Maybe you will make it. Take the shofar. Show them that we had a shofar in Auschwitz.”
Tydor survived the 24-hour march through the snow to the town of Gleiwitz. From there, the shofar accompanied him to Buchenwald. Realizing that they were losing the war, the Nazi administration of the camp became more lax, leaving much of the inner organization to the prisoners. Consequently, it was possible for my father to hide the shofar in the small rag bag he carried, with his tin cup and spoon. It remained with him day and night until he was liberated on April 11, 1945 by the American army.
After liberation, Tydor was able to forge a new life as a kibbutz leader in liberated Germany. On Rosh Hashanah 1945, while on the boat to Mandate-era Palestine, he blew the shofar for a group of young survivors—many, like him, from Auschwitz—in view of the Carmel mountain range. They were about to reach the Promised Land.
Editor’s Note: The shofar given to Chaskel Tydor is now on view in the Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. exhibition.
Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz is the Director of the Arnold and Leona Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research and professor at the Israel and Golda Koschitsky Jewish History Department at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. Among her books are Unfulfilled Promise (Denali 1990), Kibbutz Buchenwald: Survivors and Pioneers (Rutgers 1997), Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust (Vallentine Mitchell 1998), and Perfect Heroes: The World War II Parachutists and the Making of Collective Israeli Memory (University of Wisconsin Press 2010). She is associate editor, with Walter Laqueur, of The Holocaust Encyclopedia (Yale University Press 2001).