Yom Kippur in Karelia

Yom Kippur in Karelia

September 26, 2009 11:15
3 minute read.

Zalman, an orthodox Jew, had worked out somehow the date of Yom Kippur 1940. Without a calendar, book, newspaper, or even a watch, it was no mean achievement. He himself did not elaborate on the matter; religion was not the safest subject even in a gulag and Zalman was a very cautious and private man. He also had much to lose. His job, of a barracks caretaker, was relatively easy and presented quite a few opportunities unavailable to other prisoners. Jobs of this kind were usually given to elderly and sickly people and Zalman qualified on both counts. His duties mainly consisted of maintaining the barrack clean and keeping it warm in winter, when enough wood was provided. His most important function, however, was to ensure each inmate receives the correct quantity of bread, according to the work-target achieved the day before. Bread being the main sustenance of the prisoners, this task was crucial. Zalman also could arrange, discreetly, barter between prisoners and others, known to him only. Inmates still having things of tradeable value, usually items of civilian clothing, would receive in exchange sausages, melted butter, cheese, sugar and other essential food never given to the prisoners. Only N.K.V.D. officers, or people handling it, would have access to such food. Most of the latter would simply steal such articles for food and trade. But Zalman was a Jew first and would not let Yom Kippur pass as any other day, even in that God forsaken place in Karelia, near the Soviet border with Finland. The place, officially named Corrective Work Camp No.48 of the Baltic-White Sea Complex, was practically a slave-labour camp where the prisoners' main task was to fell trees for shipbuilding and export. The conditions were inhumane; long working hours, hunger, mosquitos by the million and accommodation in rat-infested barracks. When we returned from work on the eve of Yom Kppur, Zalman whispered into my ear and the ears of a few other Jews he trusted, that there would be a minyan in our barrack. About twenty of us came to the "service". We did not have talesim or machzorim and Zalman recited the prayers from memory in a low voice. We whispered the prayers after him. Away from our families, dressed in camp gear we prayed with tears in our eyes for a better year for all of us here and for our dearest left under German occupation, Somehow we felt hopeful by the knowledge that millions of Jews the world over also celebrate Yom Kippur. We joined them, if only spiritually. Not wanting to involve Zalman, we passed on quietly a message that some of us would not go out to work on Yom Kippur. The next morning our group, which had almost doubled overnight, assembled in front of the barrack and told the guards that we were forbidden by our religion to work on that day, because it was the most important Jewish Holy Day. We would instead work on our next free day, given to us once in four weeks. The soldiers were taken aback. It was unheard of to refuse work in such a place, it smacked of rebellion, the wost crime under Soviet rule. An officer came, started yelling at us "counter revolutionaries" and threatened with severe punishment. When that did not help he ordered the guards to use force. It was becoming very serious and a few of our group decided to work but most did not move. The camp commandant was informed of the extraordinary situation and not knowing himself what to do contacted higher instances by phone. Another officer came over and tried persuasion. It was war-time and everyone must work regardless of beliefs. I took the courage and spoke, pointing out that under Citizen Stalins ' Constitution people in the Soviet Union enjoyed freedom of religion. It was indeed in the Constitution although not in practice. To our surprise he became speechless, went away for some time and on his return agreed to leave us in the barrack, on condition that we make up the lost time on the forthcoming day of rest. Encouraged by our success we decided to fast and pray all day in the barrack. Towards the evening tired, hungry but in high spirits we concluded with "Next Year In Jerusalem", hoping it would become a reality in 1941. It did not; but we managed to have a kind of Seder; again thanks to Zalman who even had organised a few matzot. Each of us got a piece the size of a post-stamp. But this is another story.

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