I remember being at my Upa's for the holiday of Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year. The Shul where he prayed was full of old timers from the old country. The average age was 60 plus. Most of the congregants spoke a mixture of Yiddish and Hungarian. Almost nobody spoke English. Some had their numbers tattooed on their arms.
Many of the people were World War II survivors. Each had a tale to tell of how they lived through the Hitler years. Many were broken, humble people who had lost all their wealth, family and health. But, in almost every case they had not lost their faith.
There was one old man, tall and noble looking, who did speak a little English. During the long holiday he told me the following story:
In late 1944 he and the town Jews were rounded up and taken to a 'Juden Lager'. This camp had a sign, 'Julag', a shortened version for 'Jewish Labor Camp'. The Germans constructed many death camps. In these camps there were a crematorium, gas chambers, gallows and torture chambers. When entering such a camp, one would feel the death. Rarely did one ever leave.
However, this 'Julag' was built as a model work camp to show the outside world that the Germans and Nazi storm troopers were civilized. All the Jews needed to do was to work and earn their rations.
In truth, the 12-16 hour slave labor without stop equaled a death camp without the luxury of gas chambers. The camp was flooded with Jews. Every few days they were starved to death and a new group replenished the camp while the dead were buried in large pits.
Very few old timers of the original group that came to the camp remained alive. Those that did held a coveted secret. They had a tiny Sefer Torah in their possession. This scroll of rare, thin parchment, written in the smallest letters was saved by an old holy man, from an aristocratic family. It was in their possession for 500 years. The scroll was written during the time of another cruel period of persecution of Jews, the Inquisition. The Rabbi carried the tiny scroll with him into the death camp and soon perished.
One month Moshe, a sexton at one of the oldest synagogues, was brought to the camp. He was a sick and emaciated person, 'a stack of walking bones'. However, he was a singer and always kept a happy tune on his lips. Being a Sexton for many years he was able to keep track of all the holidays and remind everyone to observe the holidays that came and went.
One day he approached his fellow suffering companions and said, "Jews, Rosh Hashannah is this week. We must make a quorum of men and hold a service. We can take the old holy Torah and read from it. Imagine, our bodies are in this living Hell but our souls and spirit can be free. Yes, free."
He began to sing. The people shook their head thinking that the poor man had lost his mind.
"You know we need a Shofar, a ram's horn. There can't be a New Year's service without the Shofar being heard."
"Well," said the Sexton, "I have a Shofar."
Incredibly, he took out a six inch Shofar that he miraculously brought into the camp with him.
The people stared in utter disbelief. Many started to cry. They hadn't seen a Shofar for three years. Now the problem was how, when and where would they blow the Shofar?
Here Moshe came up with an answer. During the late afternoon the Nazi guards would go to the kitchen to stuff themselves with food and strong drink. At that time Moshe would blow the Shofar.
The day around the work shifts came and went. Slowly but surely a rumor ran through the camp. There was a Shofar in the camp. A secret service was held. The holy scroll was read and quickly hidden. Then came the time for blowing the Shofar. The entire camp turned quiet. Not a man moved. Even the breathing was hushed. All the people strained their ears. They wanted, no, they needed, to hear the call of the Shofar.
Moshe picked up the Shofar and, taking a deep breath, he blew the Shofar. Tikiah, too-oo-oo-ooo and a nine second blast were heard. Shevorium, tu-tu-tu. Again a blast was heard. Teruah and a nine second blast were heard.
The Shofar blasted through the camp. Never before had the men prayed so. Each blast of the Shofar brought renewed hope in the men. Many tears poured out of their saddened faces. The dike of tears broke and soon all the men were crying and praying.
Suddenly the camp commander stormed furiously into the area where Moshe was blowing the Shofar. "Halt. Stop blowing this strange alarm," he shouted. "You dirty Jews. I know you are signaling our Russian enemies with this secret instrument. This is why our beloved country is being hurt from the air raids. The situation on the front is very grave! The enemy bombs hit our most vital roads with deadly accuracy. It's the fault of you Jews with your secret instruments!"
One brave man called out, "Herr commandant, we are praying. It's our New Year, Rosh Hashannah. The sound you heard is our Shofar, something we use during the service."
This only increased the anger of the commandant and proceeded to wave his gun at the man. "Prayer at my camp! You want a new Jewish year?! I'll show you!"
Moshe now jumped up and said, "Yes, yes commander. With this Shofar we signal for help, but not from the Russian soldiers or from the airplane bombers. We signal our G‑d who created heaven and earth. We ask the heavenly Father to forgive us for our sins and to punish you. We are busy blowing the Shofar alerting our merciful but vengeful G‑d. The bombing of your Fatherland is only the beginning of the suffering you German monsters will receive."
Immediately the commandant attacked the emaciated Moshe. He beat him until he ran out of strength. Moshe did not beg for mercy nor did he say he was sorry. On the contrary, he began to recite the prayer of the day, chanting in the ancient Hebrew, "The righteous shall see and rejoice and wickedness will vanish like the smoke for you will have removed the evil kingdom from earth."
Moshe was shot and the Shofar just disappeared. Ten months later we were freed. I lived in a displaced persons camp for almost five years. My family all perished in the Holocaust.
When I come to Shul and hear the rabbi read the service I feel very moved. But when they blow the Shofar I run out of the Shul. The memory of what happened that day is just too intense for me. I listen outside the Shul windows and break out in tears.
He then asked me, "Do you think I am a good man though I listen to the Shofar out of the Shul?"
Rav Eli Hecht is Director and Founder of Chabad of South Bay, Lomita California, former President Rabbinical Council of California, and Vice President of the Rabbinical Alliance of America.