Thursday, October 09, 2008

Breaking Fasts

Al Filreis points to a 2006 article in the Jerusalem Post on the first Yom Kippur after the end of World War II.

The paper interviewed Holocaust survivors in Kiryat Sanz who had spent the holiday in the American-run camps for liberated prisoners in Feldafing, Germany.

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.

There are also stories of the German camps:
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.

What Cohen describes isn't a fast, but almost an anti-fast: instead of forgoing food knowing that the fast will come to a conclusion at sundown, she never stops eating, since otherwise the fast would have no end.

Despite the initial question posed by the article ("How is the Yom Kippur fast of Holocaust survivors different from everyone else's?"), there is no real discussion of how survivors think about the Holy Days differently now, or in the time since the Holocaust. For Israeli holocaust survivors, who may have experienced not only the 1945 Yom Kippur in Germany, but the 1973 Yom Kippur War, what does it mean to recite on Erev Yom Kippur, "“May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault”?

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