by Esther Jungreis
From early childhood, I remember standing beside my mother in synagogue as the shofar was blown. A sense of awe and trepidation descended on the congregation as the call of the shofar reverberated within its walls. Time stood still, nobody moved. Though I was young, I was struck by the sanctity of it all.
Overnight, our fate changed. Our synagogue became a wistful memory as the suffocating darkness of the Nazi concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, as Rosh Hashana of 1944 drew near, we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were ready to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled.
Through heroic efforts and at great risk and sacrifice, we managed to collect 200 cigarettes, which we bartered for a shofar.
Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp, and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashana came and we sounded the shofar, our brethren in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed-wire fence separating us so that they too might hear its piercing cry. The Nazis came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the truncheons fell on our heads, we cried out, “Baruch atoh Hashem Elokeynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvosov vitsivanu l’shmoa kol shofar.” “Blessed art Thou L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.”
Many years later, I was lecturing in Israel in Nevel Aliza, a village in Samaria. It was late summer, just before the High Holy Days, and I related the story of the shofar of Bergen-Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience stood up. She had a strong, handsome face and appeared to be a bit older than I was.
“That shofar that you spoke of,” she said, “I know exactly what you are talking about because, you see, my father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. You may not know this, but the shofar was smuggled into our camp, and my father blew it there.”
I looked at her, dumbfounded. My eyes filled with tears. There were no words to express the awe that filled my heart.
“I have that shofar in my home,” she went on to say, and then dashed off to her house and returned with it moments later. We wept, hugged, reminisced, all the time clutching the shofar in our hands.
The miracle of that shofar left us breathless. The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler’s “Final Solution” had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar triumphed over the flames. And as if in vindication of that triumph, G-d granted me the privilege of rediscovering it in Eretz Yisrael, in the ancient hills of Samaria. Who would ever have believed it? The shofar from Bergen-Belsen was now in our Holy Land held by two women who were young children in the camps, and who, by every law of logic should have perished in the gas chambers. After almost 2000 years of wandering, oppression, torture and Holocaust, we returned to our land and the shofar accompanied us. Indeed, who would have believed it?
What is it about the shofar that makes it so special? Why is it incumbent upon every Jew to hear its call? What is the shofar meaning behind those hauntingly primitive sounds? What gives them the power to enter our innermost souls? And why does the Torah designate these sacred days as Yom Teruah, the “Day of Blowing,” rather than Rosh Hashana, the New Year?
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