BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
Each year as the High Holidays approach, I recall one of the last chats I had with my father.
The fatherly talk occurred during the dark days of our existence in the Munkacser Ghetto, a place surrounded by barbed wire. No one was allowed to enter or leave.
Life in the Ghetto was governed by uncertainty. There seemed to be no future.
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We were in limbo; it was a time without any expectations and, hence, depressing. What could my father tell me? What advice could he offer when our future was totally unpredictable?
No one knew what was going to happen to us. Still, I remembered an adage from my paternal grandmother who had passed away a few years earlier.
“Money lost nothing lost; hope lost all is lost.”
I was still the master of a hidden radio, a little device I didn’t turn in to the authorities. I kept it hidden in a nearby woodshed and every evening, exactly at six, I brought the radio into the house and turned to the BBC’s daily news in Hungarian.
It was the beginning of April of 1944 and the news was good.
The combined British and American armies were winning significant victories in Italy. I wondered if it might be possible for me and my family to hold on until the end of the war. We had hoped for rescue and yet, deep in our hearts, we were afraid, anticipating the worst.
I was 18, the oldest son and a graduate of the Hebrew Gymnasium. So my father took me aside to give me some advice. Anticipating that we would be taken away, all of us in the family – and that included my 13-year-old brother Benjamin and 10-year-old sister Esther – memorized our uncle’s address in St. Louis.
This was to be as a contact point if we became separated.
What else could my father tell me? Having been a successful merchant, would he give me advice on how to rebuild my life after the war? No, instead of practical advice, he chose to give me a little spiritual wisdom.
“Tuli,” he said to me “I do not know what the future holds for us. I do not know whether we will survive nor where we will end up. But this I know for sure. If you survive and no matter where you will end up, no matter in what country you will finally settle, this will always hold true: If you feel lost and lonely go to a shul and there you always will be at home.”
I did survive the Holocaust and I settled in St. Louis, Mo. with the remnant of my family. I attended Washington University. In those early years in the U.S., I never thought of my father’s advice, but tried to continue my life as a Jew – albeit a more modern one.
Without thinking of my father’s words, I simply gravitated to the Jewish community.
In the fall of 1976, now living in Atlanta, my wife and I traveled to Paris where I was to deliver a lecture at
the Sorbonne on the Jewish foundations of Durkheim’s sociological theories.
Rosh Hashanah began two days later and I chose to remain in Paris. However, I could not be alone, separated from my fellow Jews on the New Year. My inner self compelled me to go to services.
I chose to attend a traditional synagogue on Rue Victoire.
“What a wonderful experience this will be,” I thought to myself. “After all, this is the synagogue where my hero, the great sociologist Emile Durkheim, attended services almost a century earlier.”
Still, I was in a strange city with a strange language. But it was Rosh Hashanah and it was imperative for me to be with my people.
My wife and I arrived at the synagogue and, alas, instead of finding peace on the holiday, I was filled with melancholy when I saw that the place was filled with the symbols of the tragedies of Jewish existence.
Even after the Holocaust, the signs were all about, surrounding the synagogue.
Not long before our arrival in this City of Light it had turned dark – especially for Jews. Muslim youths had attacked the synagogue and a famous Jewish restaurant, putting a deep shadow on Jewish life.
The synagogue was I was attending that holiday was surrounded by police, the gendarmerie, all carrying automatic weapons. At the synagogue entrance, two young men were in charge of security. All Talit bags and women’s purses were opened and searched.
Finally it was our turn – no tickets in my hand, no talit batel, and of course no linguistic fluency. I stood before the two young men and I spoke to them in halting French.
“We are American Jews. May we join you for Rosh Hashanah services?
His answer was an unquestioned, “oui”.
We climbed the stairs into the shul and I told my wife to go upstairs to the women’s section as it was done in my hometown beth hamidrash (house of study). The synagogue inside was beautiful.
The ark where the Torah scrolls were kept was surrounded by marble pillars and wrought iron decorations. The chazzan, with the choir, was standing before the ark. It was clear, however, that this was a French synagogue because the “gabbaim” wore special hats. Reflecting their French heritage, they all sported Napoleon style hats, embossed with tricolor buntings.
Meanwhile, the sound inside was distinctly sweet. The chazan remained in front of the art and, just like it had been in my childhood shul in Munkacs, he and the choir were chanting the High Holiday prayers using the same melodies I knew so well.
I sat down in a pew, closed my eyes, and felt the spirit of the day enveloping me. Behind me sat an elderly person.
“Ihr ret Yissdish?”I asked, “Do you speak Yiddish?”
“Avadeh.” for sure, he replied.
I found out that he came to France from Poland before World War I. He and his family survived the Holocaust. Soon, someone else sat down next me.
“Again I asked, “Do you speak Yiddish?”
“Jah” he answered.
His Yiddish was more German than the Galician Yiddish that I was accustomed to speaking and hearing. But it was Yiddish, my language, my “mame looshen.”
Soon we were immersed in conversation. Shortly, I ceased to talk. I was just sitting and listening to the melodies that had been part of my childhood, reciting the familiar prayers and once in a while speaking the language of my youth.
I could not help but lift up my eyes heavenward, looking up at the beautiful ceiling that was richly decorated in gold. In my mind’s eye I remembered my father and his advice to me and now I was seeking his presence.
Soon I felt him; in fact, he was right next to me. I felt as though I was back at home like it was during my childhood. “Tate (father),” I said to him, “you were right, I am at home.”
About the writer
Eugen Schoenfeld, a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust, will be speaking at Shema Yisrael during the High Holidays.