Shofar, improbable relic of Auschwitz, is a symbol of strength
For years there have been fragmentary reports of almost unbelievable acts of faith at the Nazi death camps during World War II: the sounding of shofars, the ram’s horn trumpets traditionally blown by Jews to welcome the High Holy Days.
These stories of the persistence of hope even in mankind’s darkest moments have been passed down despite limited evidence and eyewitness detail.
But could camp prisoners have found ways to sound these horns, piercing the heavens with soblike wails and staccato blasts, without putting themselves in immediate mortal danger?
Now a new account that addresses that question, and is embraced by several historians as reliable, has emerged from the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, along with one of the secreted shofars itself.
Judith Tydor BaumelSchwartz, an expert on the Holocaust, said her father, Chaskel Tydor, a longtime prisoner entrusted as work dispatcher at one of the more than 40 Auschwitz subcamps, contrived on Rosh Hashana 1944 to send fellow prisoners on a distant detail where they might safely, and privately, pray.
He did not know that they carried something with them. But when they returned, she said, one confided to her father that a shofar had been produced and blown.
What is more, according to the account of BaumelSchwartz, who directs Holocaust research at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, her father was given the shofar for safekeeping in 1945 by a fellow prisoner as the Nazis emptied the camp and fled advancing Russians.
On Monday, a week before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year 5780 and 75 Rosh Hashanas since that clandestine act of faith, that ceremonial ram’s horn, about 10 inches long with a right-angled curve like a smoking pipe, will be installed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park in Manhattan, New York. It is part of “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away,” a traveling exhibition from Poland.
While it may never be possible to fully corroborate the story of the museum’s shofar, Holocaust historians said it is credible, and resembles other witness accounts of concentration camp shofars and is more detailed.
Baumel-Schwartz said she was loaning the shofar as additional evidence of the lengths to which imprisoned Jews went to practice their religion in the face of their German tormentors.
Their efforts included the mouthing of blessings during beatings and the trading away of bread rations during Passover when leavened products are forbidden. Abandoned oil drums at Auschwitz, the complex of extermination and forced labor camps in German-occupied Poland where about 1.1 million victims perished, were used in place of traditional huts for contemplation during the harvest festival of Sukkot. Rabbis in the camp decreed that even one minute spent inside was a sufficient mitzvah, or good deed.
And then there were shofars whose bleats are meant to variously evoke Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son Isaac, the summoning of the Israelites to Sinai for Moses’ giving of the law, and the most fervent expression of Jewish hope – “next year in Jerusalem.”
An installation opened last summer, “Through the Lens of Faith,” at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, Poland, cites a 14-year-old prisoner, Wolf Greenbaum, who saw a rabbi visiting a doomed barrack at Birkenau on Rosh Hashana 1944 and blowing a smuggled shofar there.
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem displays a shofar fabricated in 1943 in the Nazi labor camp of Skarzysko-Kamienna. In Auschwitz, said Robert Jan van Pelt, a Holocaust scholar and chief curator of the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s exhibition, “We know from a number of eyewitness testimonies that shofars were blown.”
Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz holds her father’s shofar, or ceremonial ram’s horn.