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Spiritual resistance during the Holocaust on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, are fast approaching. As these are significant days for the Jewish community here in Adelaide and around the world, AHMSEC will be closed on these holy days. 

We will be closed for Rosh Hashanah on Tuesday 7 September and Wednesday 8 September and for Yom Kippur Thursday 16 September.

During the Holocaust, with depravations and constant fear of Nazi terror, it was dangerous but not completely impossible to resist. In addition to armed resistance, there were a number of ways Jews were able to engage in unarmed defiance. One of these ways was through spiritual resistance; maintaining humanity and dignity in the face of Nazi attempts to dehumanise and degrade them. 

Religious activities and services were forbidden in the majority of ghettos and camps, yet many Jews prayed and held ceremonies in secret. 

On Rosh Hashanah in 1944, Rabbi Naftali Stern, a Hungarian Jewish inmate of the Wolfsberg camp wrote out the entire Rosh Hashanah service from memory with just a pencil stub on scraps torn from bags of cement.

Image: Prayers written by Rabbi Naftali Stern on the eve of the Jewish New Year, courtesy of Yad Vashem.

After the war, Rabbi Stern recalled: ‘We prayed on Rosh Hashanah and the service was lovely, the service was good – to the extent that one can say that. But on Yom Kippur we were unable to pray; the Germans evidently were ready for it. On Rosh Hashanah they tolerated it; and I received a larger portion of soup in the afternoon, which was worth something, and I prayed.’

Jews marking Yom Kippur in the Lodz Ghetto, Yad Vashem Photo Archives 33C09.

Even in Auschwitz, Jews found a way to mark Yom Kippur, keeping their tradition alive. 

On Yom Kippur in 1944, Livia Koralek, a Hungarian Jew fasted together with her friends. According to Yad Vashem, ‘on the eve of Yom Kippur, Livia addressed a speech to the women in the camp. She spoke of their capacity to give each other love, despite the terrible conditions.

She prayed that ‘this Yom Kippur be a day of pardon, forgiveness and atonement, and may God forgive us for all our iniquities. We believe that all our families, relatives and loved ones feel as we do here in this cold, depressing and miserable camp. We promise to be righteous and good. True, this is not easy as we are all sad, hungry and cold, but here in this camp, we must try and be tolerant.’

The Adelaide Holocaust Museum and Andrew Steiner Education Centre acknowledges and pays respect to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and future, and the continuation of cultural, spiritual, and educational practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. AHMSEC stands on Kaurna land.

© 2024 Adelaide Holocaust Museum and Andrew Steiner Education Centre