By Chaim Steinmetz
Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
In synagogues around the country, Jews will gather on Monday for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year holiday. A central element during prayer services will be a few simple notes blown on a shofar, a musical instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn and used since ancient times.
This year, a shofar will be blown in our synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun in New York, that bears a remarkable story of faith and hope. The shofar was recently lent to the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York to be put on display in “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.,” a traveling exhibition of more than 700 objects and 400 photographs that tell the story of the complex of German death camps and forced-labor camps in World War II.
The shofar’s lender is Judith Tydor Schwartz, the director of Holocaust research at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Chaskel Tydor, who died in 1993 at age 89. The shofar, Schwartz says, had been used clandestinely at Auschwitz. It had remained with the family since the war and is being displayed publicly for the first time.
How the shofar — a curved, tapering horn about 10 inches long — got to Auschwitz is unknown. Holocaust historians think it was probably smuggled there in the spring of 1944 by Jews deported from Hungary. Possession of a religious object was punishable by death.
Schwartz says her father, tasked with organizing work details of fellow prisoners, helped a group of pious men to celebrate Rosh Hashanah that year. Tydor dispatched them to perform less-supervised tasks that day, enabling them to say the High Holiday prayers undetected. When they returned, they told Tydor that the covert service had even included the blowing of a shofar that had been kept hidden for that purpose.In January 1945, as the Russian army began to advance, the German guards moved Auschwitz inmates westward from occupied Poland into Germany. Tens of thousands were sent on these death marches, including Tydor. At the beginning of the journey, according to Schwartz’s account, a prisoner handed the rag-wrapped shofar to Tydor, saying he was certain to die on the trip but wanted the world to know that the shofar had been blown at Auschwitz.
One should never underestimate the power of faith and hope. Some public intellectuals dismiss religion as an emotional crutch, a coping mechanism for the weak-minded. Certain in their disbelief in God, they can only explain the staying power of religion as the result of a mental flaw. These theories are not new; they have their roots in the views of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, who saw religion as an infantile diversion. The shofar from Auschwitz asserts otherwise.
It would have taken enormous courage for those men to risk their lives by blowing the shofar. Such an act of faith during the war was hardly an isolated episode. A multitude of testimonies describe Jews making steep sacrifices to retain their religious and spiritual identity in the concentration camps. They fashioned makeshift ritual items. They recited prayers in private, using secreted pages from prayer books and smuggled prayer shawls.
The men and women who performed these acts of religious observance were living examples of the biblical words “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.” They were inspired by their faith to exceptional bravery, to spiritually resist the Nazis.
The Auschwitz shofar is not just a historical artifact; it carries a profound message, even for times of peace and prosperity. People have painful struggles even in the best of times, and many must make the difficult journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes, hopelessness seems to be the only rational response. But those prisoners with the shofar at Auschwitz had a different perspective. They showed that at the doorstep of hell, hope and faith are possible.
On Rosh Hashanah, our congregation will hear the story of this small group of spiritual heroes, whose example offers a timeless lesson of belief and determination — a particularly inspiring way to greet a new year.