The First Word: Survivors' Yom Kippur: September 1945

Orphans in turmoil were not the only ones to knock on the door of the Klausenberger Rebbe in the DP camp. So did Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

By SHIRA LEIBOWITZ SCHMIDT
September 28, 2006 12:38
The First Word: Survivors' Yom Kippur: September 1945

2909irst. (photo credit: )

 
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How is the Yom Kippur fast of Holocaust survivors different from everyone else's? Edith Cohen recalls her hunger pangs in a sealed cattle car on the way to Auschwitz from her home in Hungary. When her food ran out she chewed on one piece of chicken skin for four days just to keep something in her mouth. She was liberated by the Russians in spring 1945, so that by the time Yom Kippur came she had regained some strength and added a little weight to her 20 kilograms. Having "fasted" often during the Holocaust, she was unperturbed by the prospect of a 25-hour fast. For her it was "a piece of cake." Frank Ross, 80, is a tall, slender bowling champion. He remembers munching on coal to suck out the oil while doing forced labor, and days without food or water in the concentration camps. Now in Israel, he too has no trouble fasting. Yom Kippur in the air-conditioned Young Israel synagogue of North Netanya is as easy as, well… pie, with a rich feast consumed before the fast, and a pleasant dinner afterwards. But while the first postwar Yom Kippur was not difficult gastronomically for survivors, it was painful emotionally. Holidays mean family, and most survivors, generally adolescents and twenty- and thirtysomethings who could withstand the tortures that felled the very young and the very old, were on their own. Several of my neighbors in Kiryat Sanz have described that 1945 Yom Kippur in the first, US Army-run, Displaced Persons camp earmarked for Jewish survivors in Feldafing, in the American zone of southern Germany. The adolescent Edith Cohen was undaunted by the looming fast, having become an old hand at living with a growling stomach. But she was in turmoil because her parents and four siblings had been murdered in the camps, and she had no one to give her the traditional holiday blessing. IN THE Yom Kippur prayer book, before Kol Nidre, is the blessing of children by their parents: "May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe…" for boys, and "May God make you like Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel and Leah…" for girls. While many parents bless their children every Sabbath, it has special import on Yom Kippur eve. In the Feldafing DP camp, 40-year-old Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, the Klausenberg Rebbe from the Sanz dynasty, had already emerged as a leader. With no time to mourn the deaths of his wife and 11 children, he had thrown himself into rehabilitating the other survivors. On the eve of his first post-Holocaust Yom Kippur in 1945, his preparations were slow and deliberate, including study and meditation in isolation. Edith Cohen remembers knocking at his door and entering, pleading: "My father died in the camps. I have no one to bless me." He graciously complied, put a handkerchief over her head and blessed her. Soon there was another knock, and a second orphaned girl was ushered in. "Please bless me, Rebbe." Again, he obliged sympathetically. Then another knock, and another. Soon a line of several dozen girls had formed, each one receiving individual attention until it was time for Kol Nidre. The Klausenberger missed out on his contemplative pre-Yom Kippur meditation, but he served as surrogate father for dozens of orphans. HOLOCAUST scholar Esther Farbstein has documented in her best-selling book B'seter Ra'am - soon to be publshed in English as Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith and Leadership During the Holocaust - the role that the Klausenburger Rebbe played in the struggle for girls' rehabilitation and education after the Holocaust. "Hundreds of girls enrolled in the network of schools that [he] set up in the first year after liberation. The Rebbe developed a personal relationship with the girls (which hassidic rebbes ordinarily do not do), kept track of each girl's spiritual condition, listened to the girls' troubles, and gave them moral support and encouragement… "One special project was the "Letter to Girls": a page on Jewish doctrine and the weekly Torah portion which he wrote for them every week. On Shabbat he taught them himself, sitting in the beit midrash behind a curtain. "In particular, he assumed responsibility for finding them suitable husbands. His attitude toward them was so fatherly and personal that some people regarded his educational work with the girls as the pinnacle of his activity." Those girls' gentle knocking in the DP camp was not the only knock on the door of the Klausenberger Rebbe that day. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was touring DP camps, and on September 17, 1945 - Yom Kippur - he chose to visit Feldafing. It takes a leader to know a leader, and Eisenhower sensed, through information he had received, that the key to overseeing the camp was to cultivate the natural leadership. So the general also knocked at the Rebbe's door. THE US Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that Eisenhower's visit to Feldafing was prompted by a strongly worded cable he had received from President Truman directing him to institute reforms to improve the living conditions of displaced Jews in the American zone of occupation. At Feldafing Eisenhower toured the grounds with Gen. Patton, as well as the makeshift services at various camp minyans, where he delivered a brief address to the assembled survivors. "In his speech Eisenhower pledged the assistance of the American army and counseled patience until the Jewish DPs could leave Germany. While Eisenhower was genuinely dismayed by the poor living conditions he saw in the camp, Patton showed no sympathy toward the survivors. "The general knocked, but the Rebbe would not speak with him until he had finished his prayers. Afterwards he explained: 'I was praying before the General of Generals, the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He. The earthly general had to wait.'" Impressed by the Rebbe's leadership and frankness, Eisenhower asked how he could help him in his efforts. Rabbi Halberstam asked for a small sample of the Four Species so the survivors could celebrate Succot. He also asked for a jeep to help further his educational and rehabilitation projects in the DP camps. The Klausenberger went on to make good on a "fox-hole" vow: to establish a hospital in Israel. Today the Laniado-Sanz medical center in Netanya serves communities all over the country. And the orphans he blessed on that Yom Kippur in 1945 are now silver-haired matrons who will bless their own daughters, granddaughters and great-grandaughters on Sunday night. The author is affiliated with the Haredi College in Jerusalem and is translating the memoir of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau into English.

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