Rabbi Dennis J. Eisner
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5777

The Shofar of Skarzysko-Kiemenna

As always it is wonderful to see our building filled to capacity; it is delightful to hear all of our voices as we join with the maginficent Elana Jagoda Kaye, Saul Kaye and this spectacular group of musicians; and it continues to be deeply moving as I traverse our liturgy with my colleagues and with all of you during these Yamim Noraim—these High Holy Days.

However, as we heard last night from Rabbi Sara, these are difficult times in our lives and in our world. And while we do not have the power to snap our fingers and make our problems vanish, we do have the power to make a difference.

Many of my colleagues have chosen to give sermons this High Holy Day season denouncing political figures and highlighting issues of social unrest, but I have chosen a different tactic this morning. I have decided to use a motivational story to stir our minds and our souls in order that we seize the power that we have rather than lament over the things we cannot change. So with that I would like to share a personal reflection.   

They say you always remember your first. Well I will let you know that I am no different than any of you. I, too, remember my first.

I was 12 years old and it began in the cantor’s office where I had been summoned due to some rowdy behavior during religious school. After a brief, and I might I add stern, talk from the cantor I turned to leave his office and that’s when it happened.

I noticed a shofar sitting on his shelf and in a very obnoxious way I asked, “Can I have this?”           

He said in his thick German accent, “If you can make a sound you can have my shofar.”

So I picked up the shofar, placed it to my lips, blew as hard as I could, made a loud sound, and walked off with Cantor Cohen’s shofar.

And to this day I will never forget my first time —my first time making the sound of teki’a.

Teki’a – Shevarim – Tru’a

Our rabbis have taught that with these three calls we are commanded to hear 100 blasts on Rosh Hashanah— blasts that contain both triumph and trembling; blasts that cause great anticipation, excitement, mystery and emotion; blasts that rouse our hearts, minds and souls.

The rabbis of old taught that the flat bass tone called teki'a is related to wholeness, to life force, to the coronation of kingship. Their literature also suggests that the three treble sobbing notes called shevarim signify brokenness in its many forms. And finally they compare the nine staccato notes of tru'a to the turbulence of a life lived in a complex world.    

Having already experienced the first set of blasts this morning, we sit waiting for the remaining calls of teki’ashevarimtru’a and it is in this state of anticipation where I want to share a story with you.

The story takes place in Poland, during World War II.

Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler, the Grand Rebbe of Radoszyce, was well known as a holy man. Multitudes came to see him from all over central Europe. Among his many followers was a little boy named Moshe Waintreter.

Moshe was deported in 1943 to the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp in southeastern Poland[1]

This camp had particularly brutal conditions and frequent "selections." (Perhaps Skarzysko-Kamienna is little known because so few survived.)

This was the nightmare into which Moshe found himself. But, almost as soon as he entered his assigned barracks—Barracks 14—he saw his Rebbe, the beloved Grand Rebbe Yitzhak Finkler! 

During their internment not only had the Rebbe continued to offer endless words of comfort and encouragement to the demoralized, he had also conducted regular Shabbat services and, whenever possible, taught Torah.           

Even in this dreadful labor camp he inspired his fellow prisoners to engage in Jewish observances. Every morning, under the cover of darkness, a pair of tefillin that had been smuggled into the camp was passed around so each man had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of putting on the tefillin each day.

As Passover 1943 drew near, the Rebbe decided a seder must be observed in some concrete way. He approached one of his Chassidim, Shloma, and asked him to undertake an important mission. Since Shloma worked in the camp's kitchen, the Rebbe asked him to acquire enough beets to make enough juice for the four cups of wine for the seder.

Shloma was petrified, but the Rebbe assured him that in the merit of performing this great mitzvah, he would give Shloma his personal blessing and promised him that he would survive and live to see many better years. On a daily basis the Rebbe put his life on the line for his fellow Jews, and now it was time for Shloma to put his life on the line for the Rebbe.           

Shloma performed the Rebbe's clandestine bidding which remarkably went undetected by the prison guards. That Pesach, the Jews in the camp fulfilled the commandment of drinking the four cups—with Shloma's beet juice.

Months later as life in the labor camp deteriorated, the Rebbe began to think about the High Holy Days. So the Rebbe decided a shofar (ram's horn) must be acquired to give the inmates a remembrance of those times when their spirits had soared.

The Rebbe took a diamond he had hidden—one that could have easily bought him more food and less privation—and gave it to a local Polish peasant who worked in the camp. "I give you this diamond in exchange for a ram's horn," he bribed the peasant. Much to the Rebbe’s delight and to the Rebbe’s amazement, the peasant returned bearing a ram’s horn in his pocket.

The only problem was, the Rebbe thought to himself, the ram's horn still had to be cleaned out and a hole made in its tip for it to become a shofar that could be used for the holy day.

The Rebbe approached Moshe Waintreter, who worked in the metal shop and had access to tools. The Rebbe asked Moshe if he would make the shofar for their holy observance? Anguish and fear flickered in Moshe's eyes as he appealed to his beloved master.

"Rebbe," he said faintly, "You know I would do anything for you, but just yesterday a Jew from my workplace smuggled in a tiny piece of leather that he hid in his belt. A guard inspected his clothing and, when he found the leather, shot him dead. We are checked every day as we go in and out of the factory, Rebbe. If a man was killed for a scrap of leather, surely I will be killed, too.”

Moshe,” the Rebbe replied gently, using the exact same words with which he had countered Shloma’s fears just six months before, when he had asked him to make the beet juice. “I understand your fear. But in the merit of this great mitzvah, I will give you my blessing and promise that you will survive and live to see many better years.”

Unable to refuse his Rebbe's request, Moshe reluctantly set out to fulfill it. He successfully sneaked the horn into the shop, picked up a tool and began drilling. Within a few minutes, the factory foreman was at his side, alerted to Moshe's "subversive" activity by the very public buzzing sound of the drill.

"What are you doing?" the foreman demanded. Moshe's father had once told him that the best way to disarm an interrogator was to surprise him with the truth.

So Moshe looked the foreman square in the eyes and said: "I'm making a shofar, so that we can blow it on the High Holy Days."

"Are you crazy?" the foreman shouted, pushing Moshe into a storage room nearby. 

It's over now. I'm dead.           

The Rebbe's blessing didn't protect me after all, Moshe thought, bracing himself for the gunshot.

But none came.

In the privacy of the empty storage room, the foreman addressed him in an entirely different way: "Listen," he told Moshe, "I am a religious Catholic, and I believe in the Bible. I respect your religion, and I respect the sacrifices you religious Jews make to follow your faith. I will allow you to make your shofar. I'll lock you in here with the tools you need, so no one else will see what you're doing and you'll be safe."

A few days later, Moshe slipped the crude but completely kosher shofar into the Rebbe's outstretched hands.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, before they were called to work, the congregants of Barracks 14—whose bodies had long ago been broken but whose souls remained miraculously intact—rose early to hear the last tekiot—the last blasts of the shofar from the Grand Rebbe.

And although the shofar was makeshift and crude, its notes were pure and true, piercing the prisoners' hearts, penetrating heaven, and breaking down its inner gates.

The months passed and in late May 1944, the Nazis started to liquidate the camp in mass killings. Moshe was among the few survivors who were deported to a smaller forced labor camp nearby. Sadly, the Rebbe was not.

Moshe managed to take the shofar with him and successfully smuggle it into this new camp. He clung to the shofar as tenaciously as he clung to life itself. Each evening, Moshe would return from his labors and frantically search his secret hiding place to make sure the shofar was still there. And, miraculously, it was.

However, one day, while he was at work, Moshe, was suddenly thrown onto a train bound for Buchenwald. Unable to get to his special hiding place, the shofar was left behind. He could not stop lamenting its loss.

When Moshe was liberated from Buchenwald in April 1945, he attributed his survival—his life—to the bracha (the blessing) he had received from the Rebbe of Radoszyce.

Moshe yearned to find the shofar, but life intervened. He married another survivor, helped organize the illegal immigration of Jews into Israel, and eventually moved to Israel to live.   But Moshe never forgot the shofar. The shofar was Moshe’s sole physical link to the Rebbe. Finding it—and bringing it to Israel—was the only tangible way he could honor the Rebbe’s memory and inspire people with his story. So Moshe set out to find the shofar, combing the world for anyone who might possibly know its fate. He placed ads in Yiddish newspapers, wrote to Holocaust-survivor organizations, and contacted friends of friends.

One day in 1977, he received a call. His thirty-year search was over and in an emotional ceremony, Moshe Waintreter was reunited with the shofar he had shaped and molded in the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp. He formally presented it to Israel's foremost Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, in memory of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler, the Grand Rebbe of Radoszyce, who defied the Nazis over and over again. (And when you visit Israel and you visit Yad Vashem you can visit Moshe’s shofar).

After making sure the shofar was safe Moshe thought to himself “my work is finally done.” But the story doesn’t end here.

Moshe had a son. When the time came for that son to marry, a shiddach (a match) was proposed with the daughter of a Holocaust survivor in Canada. The young man flew to Canada to meet the young lady. From the very beginning they knew they were each other’s basheirt (destined one) and they decided to get engaged.

Moshe came to Canada for the engagement party. As his son started to introduce the two machatunim (fathers-in-law), the two men began to sob and ran into each other's arms.

The future father-in-law turned out to be none other than Shloma, the Chassid who had made the beet juice for the Radoszyce Rebbe's four cups for Pesach in 1943!

These two men were the only Radoszyce Chassidim who survived the Skarzysko-Kamienna labor camp. They survived exactly as the Rebbe had promised.

This is an extraordinary story. A story that rips at our heart and stimulates our minds. But you must also know that this is not just any story but rather a a sacred story. A true story. A story about a shofar, a story of inspiration, a story of blessings and curses and a story of hope.[2]          

This is a story that has the ability to inspire us in the coming year. This true story of death defying commitment to our tradition certainly has inspired me. And I am hoping that this story will inspire you too.           

I hope we have been inspired by the blasts of the shofar we have already heard this morning, and now we will continue to be inspired when we hear the sounds of teki’a, shevarim, and tru’a in a way we have never heard them before.

I hope we are inspired to recognize that these are the blasts of power—of our power to make our often complicated and scary world better and kinder.

Inspired to vote—to vote our conscience—not our party.

I hope the sounds of teki’a – shevarim – t’rua inspire us to thank and be grateful for our local law enforcement as they do an amazing job of protecting PTBE and our community.

But we must also be inspired to stand up and speak out when we see injustice rear it’s ugly head.

I hope we are inspired by the blasts of the shofar to make t’shuvah and return to our traditions that have been lost or forgotten. Inspired to embrace our community and relationships in ways we have never embraced them before.

I hope we are inspired to deepen our relationship with Israel—and inspired to fight for an Israel that is safe, but also fight for an Israel that values our progressive voice.

I hope these blasts inspire us to follow in the footsteps of those who came before us, those who put their lives on the line, and those who gave their lives in order that we could hear teki’a, shevarim and tru’a!

I hope the sound of our shofar reminds us that our Judaism, our community, our congregation, our Peninsula Temple Beth El has the uncomprehending ability to save lives including our own.

 


[1] German occupation of Skarżysko-Kamienna (1939-1945): Following the September 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany, Skarżysko-Kamienna was under German occupation until liberated by the Soviet army in January of 1945. The Germans took over the ammunition factory to support their own war effort, and from 1940 it was controlled by the company Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft (HASAG), which ran it as a subcontractor for the Wehrmacht. In 1940, the Germans carried out mass executions of Poles (360 people executed in February and 760 in June).

The Germans established the ghetto, for the town’s Jewish population, in April or May of 1941. Between August 1942 and summer of 1943 Jews from all over the Radom district were brought to three camps surrounding the munitions factory and forced to work there. According to German records, of the total 17,210 brought in with 58 transports, 6,408 managed to survive long enough to be evacuated to other camps when the Germans closed the factory in 1944. The ghetto was liquidated in October 1942, with some inhabitants judged fit for work moved to the factory labor camps (about 500 out of 3000), and the rest were transported to Treblinka and murdered there.  In the major monograph on the subject, Death Comes in Yellow by Felicja Karay, it is estimated that, given the incompleteness of German records which likely underestimate the number of inmates, about 25,000 Jewish inmates were brought into the camp and 7,000 were evacuated from it, giving about 18,000 as the total number who died there.

[2] The story comes from Daniel Wisse and others who recounted it to Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal, who you may know from their series of Small Miracle books.