Rosh Hashanah of 1939: A holiday in the middle of the Holocaust

How did Jews celebrate the Jewish New Year in the midst of the most horrendous period in Jewish history?

Brno boasted a large and imprewssive synagogue, the "large temple" later destroyed by Nazis (photo credit: JEWISH MUSEUM ARCHIVE)
Brno boasted a large and imprewssive synagogue, the "large temple" later destroyed by Nazis
It was late afternoon on Wednesday, September 13, 1939. As I had done so often before during the last three years, I took the number five streetcar from my home at 5 Dolni Street in Brno, my birthplace – which was now in the “German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” (once half of Czechoslovakia) – to the Divadelni stop on Koliste Street. There, as usual, I jumped off the streetcar before it came to a full stop.
In those days, the Brno streetcars had open doors, and it was a matter of pride for a 12-year old like me not to wait for something as mundane as the streetcar coming to a complete halt before jumping off. Besides, I had to walk back about three houses, so each meter earlier I jumped off meant that much less I had to walk.
I made my way back to a large apartment house behind which our “small temple” was located. It wasn’t really a small synagogue. It seated perhaps 500 worshipers. But Brno used to have a “large temple” that the Nazis burned down after they invaded our country on March 15, 1939. I walked through the central hallway of the building to a courtyard in the rear and arrived at our synagogue and its three entrance ways into the sanctuary. The center door was for men and led to the ground floor. The side doors were for women and led to the balcony that ringed the ground floor on three sides.
I did not enter any of these doors, and instead turned right and then left and went along the side of the building to an entrance at the rear. There I entered and reached the choir room to join my fellow choir members, four men and five or six other boys who were putting on robes, tallitot and kippot in preparation for the evening’s services. When I was nine years old I auditioned for the choir and had been accepted. For the past three years I sang soprano, and by 1939 had become the principle soprano who sang all the solo parts.
This wasn’t the usual Friday night or Shabbat morning service, weekly events when the choir participated in the ceremonies. This evening we were getting ready to assist the cantor and the congregation in celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the launch of the first day of a New Year in the Jewish calendar. We assumed that Cantor Ast and the rabbi were already in a small room on the opposite side of the building, also getting ready for the services.
Cantor Ast was a small, kind and gentle man with a pleasant voice who had rehearsed us during the week for this important evening. He and I were already making plans for my bar mitzvah the following April. Alas, that event never took place.
I’ve been told, Jewish lore teaches that, from age 70, you start counting your years anew. So, I waited 70 years, till I was 83 when, with my dear wife by my side, surrounded by our children, grandchildren, many friends and even visitors from Israel, I rose on the bimah of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, to read from the Torah, recite my Haftarah and have a true heart-warming and meaningful bar mitzvah.
BUT I DIGRESS. Back to 1939.
I knew that soon, people would start arriving and fill the pews of the synagogue. In the past there would have been no question about the size of the congregation. All the pews would be filled and people would be standing in the rear as well as on the balcony. However, on this evening we weren’t sure who could or who would attend.
This was, by no means, just a usual Rosh Hashanah. There were many things unique even about this already very special holy day. It has been six months since the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and many changes had taken place. For the moment, Jewish services were still permitted in two of our three synagogues.
We did not know it at the time, but a few months later the doors to our “small temple” would be closed and locked, never ever again to hear the prayers of devoted Jews. After the war it became a furniture warehouse and then it was torn down and a medical clinic replaced it. Today, only a small sign on a wall testifies where this grand synagogue once stood.
Other things made this evening unique. For the first time in my 12 years, my parents were not with me on this holiday. My father had been arrested by the Nazis and was being held in the Spielberg Prison in Brno. He would soon be sent to the Dachau concentration camp.
My mother had departed for the United States about a year earlier in order to renew her American citizenship. On her return trip she reached as far as Zurich, Switzerland, where she remained. My older brother, Harold, was also no longer with us. He was now living in Chicago. My little brother and I were watched over by two elderly Uncles, Jacob and David.
One day in the future, in August 1940, little eight-year old Steven and I would travel alone, through war-torn Europe to Switzerland and meet our mother after a two-year separation. On this holiday, though, our uncles decided that they weren‘t feeling well enough to come. They and their wives remained home.
Frankly speaking, I was so occupied with what was happening that evening that I did not see whether any of our family members were there. At one time we would easily fill a whole row of seats. But this day there might have been none – except me.
There was so much tension all around. Things were so different from previous years, and throughout the services I became aware that this might just be my last Rosh Hashanah service in Brno. Regrettably, I was right.
There was another matter that made this Rosh Hashanah so special. The Jewish calendar had reached the year 5700. We were celebrating not just the start of a New Year, but the start of a new century! We had reached a significant milestone in Jewish history. For me, the fact that I was alive at this point, when we were starting a new century in the Jewish calendar, made a great impression.
We were at the eve of the most horrendous period in Jewish history – the Holocaust – yet to me, reaching the year 5700 was proof that we had been around for a long time and a sign that we would survive for many more centuries to come. As a 12-year-old, it was also a great source of pride. Just look, I thought, the Christians have reached only the year 1939, but we have them beat by more than 3,700 years!
No matter what the world had thrown against us, despite the pogroms, the Crusades, the antisemitism, the envy and the jealousy of our neighbors, we had survived – we had persisted – we were here and 5,700 years into our history.
Little did I realize at that time,what horrendous challenges we would have to survive during the next five years. But survive we did.