A man of my age – I will be 93 in a month – spends a lot of time reminiscing. So please allow me a few minutes to reminisce a bit and tell you a little about one of my experiences.
Back in the 1930s, my father would take me to the Small Temple of Brno, Czechoslovakia, where we sat in a pew that was almost completely occupied by family members – male family members, of course. My mother, aunts and sundry female cousins were all up in the balcony. My father was one of 13 siblings, so there was no shortage of uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws to occupy a considerable portion of the shul.
For an eight-year-old boy, the services were pure agony. My father would hand me a heavy prayer book and I was invited to follow along during the services. Because I was going to the grammar school run by the Jewish community in Brno, I had started learning Hebrew in kindergarten. But, even when I was eight years old and in the third grade, I could not read fast enough to keep up with the cantor. Also, the prayer book, because it was designed to be used for all occasions and holidays, had constant instructions to “add this for Sukkot” or “delete this on Shabbat” or “proceed to a particular prayer at this point,” and to make these instructions more challenging, they were not in German or Czech, languages that I spoke – they were printed using Hebrew letters but were actually in Yiddish.
Each member of the congregation was obliged to bring his own prayer book. So, once I was lost in the Hebrew text, I had to confess that fact to my father who would gently guide me to the right place in my book. I always felt terribly guilty when I had to do this, as if I had offended God by not paying attention. By the time I was 10 years old, perhaps in order to make my visits to the synagogue pleasanter, I volunteered to sing in the choir and was happily accepted. Now, I sat – along with my fellow choir members – on a bench directly behind the cantor and only had to read the music pages. Now, I always knew where we were during the service. Alas, that lasted only three years – until right after the High Holy Day services in 1939, when the Nazis closed our beautiful and familiar shul – never, ever to be opened again for Jewish services .
At this point followed some 15 years of chaos, turmoil and instability as our family engineered its escape from Europe and the Holocaust, arrived in the United States and moved several times while trying to establish a foothold. Also, during these years, I served in the United States Navy, went to college and started a career. Not surprisingly, I found myself each year in a different synagogue, marking the High Holidays in new surroundings, led by a great variety of rabbis and cantors. It wasn’t until I was married and settled in New Jersey that I, once again, began to enjoy the warm familiar environment of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley year after year from 1960 to this date. In the year 2010, this temple also became the place for my bar mitzvah.
DOES THAT sound strange? Let me explain.
You see, when April 21, 1940, my 13th birthday, was approaching, it had been two years since my older brother suddenly departed for Switzerland and from there to the United States. It’s been almost one and a half years since my mother went to the United States in order to renew her American citizenship and was now stuck in Switzerland, reluctant to return to Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia. And it was now 13 months since my father was arrested by the Gestapo and was sent to the Dachau Concentration camp. My nine-year old brother and I were now alone and living with relatives.
It was also the time when preparations were supposed to start for my bar mitzvah. The Nazis had burned down the large synagogue. The small synagogue, where our family worshiped and where I had sung in the choir, was closed. We learned that services were still held in the new Polish synagogue and preparations were made for me to have my bar mitzvah there. Uncle Isidor undertook the task of preparing me for the reading of the blessings and the Haftorah. The bar mitzvah was scheduled for Saturday, April 22, 1940. The Torah reading for that Saturday was Mishpatim. After school, I’d take my Chumash and kippah and headed for Uncle David’s apartment and my lesson with Uncle Isidor.
Uncle Isidor had always been a very imposing figure for me. I saw him occasionally when I was a small boy, since I would sleep in his apartment on my frequent visits to Vienna. Still, I did not really have a chance to get to know him well. He was perhaps six feet tall, had a short beard, and always wore a hat, which made him look even taller. He was, apparently, a great humanitarian, besides being a very good doctor. He believed that a doctor’s task, first and foremost, was to alleviate suffering, even if the patient could not afford his fee. Further, he considered circumcising a Jewish baby an honor, a mitzvah, and did not charge for this ceremony and his services. It was no big surprise, therefore, that he was kept very busy and that people often took advantage of him. As a result, his large family of eight children was often short of money. The family was always quietly helped.
Now in 1940 in Brno, after being forced out of Vienna, he was no longer allowed to practice medicine. Now a new chapter in my relationship with this unusual man began. During the many weeks of my lessons, he and I became very close. Uncle Isidor was a great storyteller and raconteur, and we spent many hours together while he told me of his experiences and background. Uncle Isidor was in his 70s, but to a 12-year-old boy like me, he seemed much older. I really looked forward to each meeting even though Uncle Isidor was very strict and would get very upset if I had not done my homework. The lessons went on and I was doing pretty well.
However, as the bar mitzvah date neared, my Uncle Jacob and Uncle David decided that, with my father in the Dachau concentration camp, my mother trapped in Switzerland, and with the current serious and dangerous conditions, it wasn’t a good idea to draw attention to the Ticho family by my bar mitzvah. The bar mitzvah was scrapped and, on the Saturday when I should have been reciting my Haftorah, I wasn’t even in a synagogue. I was bitterly disappointed.
A few days later, before dawn, there was a knock on our apartment door. This was cause for immediate panic. Early morning was the dreaded Gestapo’s favorite time to come calling. We prepared for the worst as we opened the door and breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that it was Uncle Isidor.
“Get dressed quickly,” he said to me. A few minutes later, with his hand firmly holding mine, we left the apartment and started walking through the early morning deserted streets of our town. We did not speak and I had no idea where we were going. I knew, however, that we were violating German rules by breaking the curfew that prohibited Jews to be outside before sunrise. I was frightened.
The sun was just starting to rise when we arrived at a small building on the Krenova Street. We went to the rear of the house and down a few steps and entered a small room. Inside the dimly lit room I could discern a dozen or so men, wrapped in their tallit, wearing their tefillin, and already deeply engrossed in the morning prayer. Uncle Isidor opened a brown paper bag and brought out two sets of tefillin and two tallitot and we joined in this ancient ritual.
The large synagogue in Brno had an organ that was played during services. Some members of the Jewish community were not pleased. They felt that you should not play an instrument on a Sabbath – not even in the service of God. The smaller synagogue in Brno, as I mentioned earlier, had a choir instead. The cantor of the synagogue, Cantor Ast, rehearsed us twice a week and conducted the services on Friday evening, Saturday morning, and of course, on all holidays. Cantor Leo Ast was a little man with a great tenor voice and a very pleasant personality. He treated the boys in the choir with great respect and dignity, always calling us by our last names.
Our synagogue was called the small synagogue only because it was somewhat smaller than the large synagogue. Actually, our synagogue was quite large and probably accommodated over 500 people. At one end of the synagogue was a raised platform surrounded by a brass railing. The choir sat on a long bench in front of this railing. In the center was the reading table where Cantor Ast conducted the services. In the back of this platform was the aron kodesh covered by a beautifully embroidered drape where the Torah scrolls were kept. Above the aron kodesh hung a silver lantern on a long chain that reached all the way to the ceiling. The eternal flame always flickered inside this lantern. I often wondered how this was possible since I never saw anyone refilling it with oil. And all this splendor was presided over by little Cantor Ast, bedecked in his black robe, dome-shaped black hat, and beautiful silver-embroidered tallit.
I had been away from a synagogue for almost a year since the day ours was closed by the Nazis. Now, in this small prayer room in the basement of a house, I was surprised to discern the familiar voice of Cantor Ast, intoning the liturgy from somewhere in the front of the small dimly lit room that was serving a few dedicated Jews as their house of worship. For just a while I imagined that I was back at our own synagogue singing with the choir. From the back of the room, hidden from Cantor Ast by the men in front of me, I sang my part as in the old days.
When the Torah reading started, I was prodded to the front where, for the first time, my eyes met Cantor Ast’s. He smiled at me briefly and then proceeded to sing the regular bar mitzvah liturgy – the same one I had heard him sing so often in our glorious synagogue for so many other boys. I was deeply moved by this gesture.
By 7:30, the morning services were finished and Uncle Isidor and I were heading home. Uncle David gave me a wristwatch as a bar mitzvah present, and Uncle Jacob gave me a fountain pen. Uncle Isidor wrote out a blessing on a small piece of paper in his tiny and very precise script and read it to me very solemnly before he handed it to me. Aunt Emma gave me a kiss and had somehow managed to find a piece of chocolate to give me.
I DID not have a bar mitzvah, I did not get to read my Haftarah or my portion of the Torah, and I did not have my family and friends surrounding me, but in that small room, with Cantor Ast next to me and surrounded by a few Jews who were willing to risk their lives to attend morning services, I promised myself that some day, if I survive the war and the Holocaust, and reach my 83rd birthday, I will have a real bar mitzvah, shared by my family, friends and a congregation. On April 17, 2010 I rose to the bimah of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey and fulfilled that promise that I made 70 years earlier and had the bar mitzva that almost wasn’t.
To the people reading this – young and old – I hope this is a good example that you should never give up, never lose hope and never doubt the power and strength of our Jewish heritage. From now on, as you enter a synagogue, please stop for a few seconds before the ark of the Torah scrolls and remember the Jews of Prerov who loved and honored their scroll and were prepared to pay with their lives for this devotion.