When Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, known as the Veitzener Rav, was a prisoner in Auschwitz, where his wife and several relatives perished, he managed somehow to get a shofar and blow it on Rosh Hashanah.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1944, a group of 1,400 teenage boys scheduled to be sent to the crematorium the next day heard that Rabbi Meisels had a shofar and was a skilled baal tokei’ah (shofar blower). They begged him to come into their block and sound the shofar for them. At the risk of being discovered and being killed with the boys the next day, he bribed the guards and entered the block, shofar in hand.
“The boys who were locked in the block and were about to be sent to the crematoria found out that I had a shofar,” Rabbi Meisels recounted in his memoirs. “I heard shouts and entreaties emanating from their block, imploring me to come to them and sound the 100 blasts of the shofar so they could fulfill this precious mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah in their last moments of life, before they would be martyred for Kiddush Hashem.
“I was beside myself and completely confounded, because this involved a tremendous risk; it was nearing twilight, a dangerous hour, and the Nazis would be coming to take them. If the Nazis were to suddenly show up while I was in there with the youngsters, no doubt they would take me to the crematoria as well. The Kapos, so famous for their ruthlessness, would not let me escape.
“I stood there weighing the situation and trying to decide what to do. It was very doubtful that I should take the risk to blow the shofar for the boys in such a dangerous situation, and it was not clear that the risk would be justified even if there were some doubt about the danger. But the youths bitter supplications were heart-piercing. ‘Rebbe, rebbe! Please, for the sake of God, have pity on our souls. We beg you to enable us to observe this mitvah in our last moments.’ I stood there frozen. I was all alone in my decision.
“In addition to my doubts as to whether it was justified to take the risk, my dear son Zalman Leib stood next to me, and he too entreated me with bitter sobs. Father, father! Don’t do this and endanger yourself because this may turn me into an orphan, and leave me stranded and alone. Father, father! Don’t go, don’t enter that block. You aren’t obligated to take the risk. You already blew the shofar so many times, and each time you risked your life. You have done more than enough. He went on beseeching me not to accede to the boys’ request.
“As I gazed at my son, pity and compassion welled up in me, and I saw that in a certain respect he was correct.
“But on the other hand the boys wailing gave me no peace and aroused in my heart tremendous compassion for them. Maybe this mitzvah would give them some protection during the difficulties that lie ahead. I was bewildered. A number of chassidim and other inmates awoke due to the boys urgent pleading and they added their voices to the youths’ pleas, saying that there was still much time left, and I would be able to enter their barracks and exit in time, and that someone who is going to do a mitzvah engenders some protective defense.
“I reached a decision. Come what may, I could not turn the boys down. I would ignore the pleas of my dear son. I immediately started negotiating with the vile Kapos, who didn’t want to let me in. I thought it would soon be too late, and I wouldn’t have another chance to blow for the boys. So eventually, after some of the other men there interceded and a sizable bribe was collected and offered, the Kapos agreed to our request, but warned me twice that if the bell at the gate sounded, meaning that the S.S. were coming to the camp, then my fate would be sealed along with the boys in the block, because by no means would the Kapos then allow me to leave.
“I accepted their terms and went into the youths. But first I told my son Zalman Leib to stand in the street and watch the gate from a distance. If he saw the S.S. men coming he should run and alert me immediately and I would leave the block, even if I was in the middle of the teki’ot.
“Truth be told, my decision was probably at variance with the strict halachah, which rules that you do not endanger yourself, or even put yourself slightly at risk, to perform the mitzvah of shofar. But my underlying reasoning was that either way whether I sounded the shofar or not I did not have much of a chance of survival. Who knew in Auschwitz how much more time he had to live? Day in, day out, we saw before our eyes thousands of our fellow Jews murdered and burned, or collapsing in the fields from slave labor. Our lives were not worth a penny. This was the main reason I put myself at risk, even though I knew that strictly speaking there was no halachic justification.
“Where is the pen, and where is the writer who could possibly put on paper my inner feelings when I entered that block? It is a miracle that my heart was not splintered into pieces when I saw the dozens of youthful eyes and heard their terrible sobbing. With tears burning and voices beseeching to the heavens, they pressed toward me, to kiss my hand, to touch my clothes, wailing, ‘Rebbe, rebbe! Have mercy, have mercy,’ and similar pleas that your ears cannot bear to hear.
“Some of them were my students and others were from my town. When I began to recite the verses preceding the shofar blowing, Min Hameitzar, From the depths do I cry out to Hashem, they burst into a cry and demanded that I deliver a drashah. They insisted on a sermon and would not even let me continue the prayer. I was so stunned and moved that I was mute, my tongue clung to my palate, and I could not open my mouth. I was also afraid that if there were any further delay this window of opportunity would be shut. Dusk would soon settle and the ensuing danger would be great.
“But I acquiesced to their pleading and began a sermon on the verse from Psalm 81, Blow the shofar at the moons removal, at the time appointed for our festive day, emphasizing how much has been removed from our lives and taken away. The despicable oppressors took away our families. What would be our end? Who would come out of here whole? Hashem is to a great extent now hidden from us. I reminded them that the Talmud teaches (Brachot 10a) that even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.
“I must continue relating what happened, so that future generations will know the great devotion, mesirut nefesh and holy words I heard that day from those teenagers in the moments before they were taken to their deaths. After I sounded the teki’ot I tried to go outside. One boy stood in my way and uttered a mournful cry. ‘Friends, the Rebbe gave us encouragement; even when a sword dangles at your throat.’ The others responded amidst their tears with a reverberating Shema Yisrael.
“As I left, a few boys followed me. With tears streaming down their faces they asked whether I had some morsels of bread, a kzayit [the minimum amount halachically considered to constitute a meal] in order to fulfill in their last moments another mitzvah that of the festive meal of Rosh Hashanah. In the 24 hours since they had been locked in their block they had not eaten or drunk a thing. According to halachah it is forbidden to fast on Rosh Hashanah. I was crestfallen that I had nothing to give them and I would not be able to come to their block again. This was a bitter day for them, all the more so because in addition to everything else, they were forced to fast on a festival as they were being taken to the pyre. May Hashem soon avenge their deaths.
“What happened that terrible Rosh Hashanah flashes through my minds eye and reverberates in my ears: young boys with strength of character and bravery who sanctified Hashem’s name in public with great clarity of mind. I understand why the Binding of Isaac is read on Rosh Hashanah and why the Midrash says it took place on this day. For generations this day has been marked for kiddush Hashem in public with the mesirut nefesh and dedication that characterized the Binding of Isaac on the altar. These youths sanctified themselves, and sanctified Hashem in the most dignified way. That serves as an example for us all.”
Translation of Rabbi Meisel’s memoirs courtesy of Cross-Currents.