BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
I recently was asked to read the Torah at a congregation that very few members attend on Shabbat.
I doubt that it’s a congregation, really more of a chavurah, an association of a few friends. Every so often I perform as a baal-korey, the Torah reader, and this time around I would be reading Chayei Sarah.
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As I turned to that portion in my chumash to re-read the tales of Abraham after Sarah’s death, I stumbled across “Vayera” and hesitated. It was a serendipitous pause.
Vayera is the Torah portion that contains the “akedah”, Abraham’s attempt to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to G-d.
The chapter also details the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham’s divorce from his concubine and their son Ishmael, who is considered to be the father of the Arab people.
It is also the chapter in which we are told of G-d’s covenant with Abraham’s future descendants – the Israelites. While these stories are significant elements in Jewish history, their impact on Jewish belief is enormous.
However, I didn’t hesitate just to read the chapter because of its importance. I stopped because suddenly I recalled that this was my Bar Mitzvah parsha. How long ago was it? Yes, this was the 75th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah.
It was a sad event that almost didn’t occur.
A Bar Mitzvah is supposed to be a “simcha”, a joyous event. Mine, in fact, wasn’t. My Bar-Mitzvah occurred the week when Hungarian forces occupied my home town, Mukacevo, and brought with them their anti-Semitic laws.
So great was the depression of everyone in the town that our mood changed from joy to sadness. November of 1938 was a month of sorrow, a period when it became clear that Jewish existence was in peril.
“Tuli”, my father said to me, “let’s cancel your Bar Mitzvah.”
“But Dad”, I begged him, “I worked so hard for this event. I studied and I even helped my rabbi develop my “drash”, reflections on the significance of the parsha.”
I was devastated.
What had happened? Why was my Bar-Mitzvah endangered?
First, Mukacevo, my hometown, ceased to belong to Czechoslovakia. It was, perhaps, the most liberal and democratic country that has ever existed in which Jews lived, prospered and freely exercised their faith.
The country was being destroyed.
The politicians – Chamberlain, Daladier, Mussolini and Hitler – handed my hometown over to Hungary, a German ally. We suddenly became subject to all the anti-Semitic laws that the Nazis had created and instituted in Germany and Austria.
My school, the Hebrew Gymnasium, was closed because most of my teachers – all ardent Zionists – fled and made their way to Palestine. Really, how could one have a meaningful Bar Mitzvah without one’s teachers and friends?
But because of my pleas, my father kept his promise and my Bar Mitzvah was still on, but in a scaled-down fashion. The Simcha was reduced to a small Kiddush that would be held in our home.
After all, I was the oldest grandson for both my grandparents and my paternal grandfather was waiting to give me his most treasured possession, a gold Elgin pocket watch. He had brought it back from America where he worked for a number of years before World War I.
Alas, my maternal grandparents, because of the partition, now lived in the newly created country of Russian Carpathia – a nation that lasted only four-and-a-half months. Sadly, they weren’t allowed to cross the border into Hungary and take part in my festive day.
The second reason my Bar Mitzvah was almost canceled was because it was scheduled for Shabbat Vayera, which in 1938 fell on November 16. That was one week after the infamous Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom in Germany that was instigated by the Nazis.
On November 9, the day after my birthday, the Nazis allowed – even encouraged – the creation of a night of horror. Jewish homes in Germany were broken into and ransacked, synagogues were desecrated and Torah scrolls burned.
The following week was a time of mourning for Jews across Eastern Europe. In Hungary, we feared that another pogrom might be repeated in our new country. After all, Hungary was now an ally with Germany.
The proverbial handwriting was on the wall, the destruction of European Jewry seemed imminent.
In my hometown, it seemed like we were sitting shivah. The mood was no different than what Jews had experienced two millennia earlier during the burning of the holy Temples in Israel.
It was a mood I was familiar with, one that was repeated every year on the ninth of Av when Jews would sit shoeless, reciting Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations. It was a somber and extremely sad mood as we annually remembered the destruction of Zion.
No wonder my father wished to cancel my Bar-Mitzvah.
But I insisted and, unhappily, he relented. It was an afternoon dominated by sadness, very little schnapps or eating of cakes. And it was an afternoon of goodbyes as my last teachers made ready to flee the devastation aimed at Europe for the relative safety of Palestine.
Instead of joy, my Bar Mitzvah was marked by deep sadness; everyone was anticipating the come of evil times.
A few years later the full force of the Holocaust, a plague worse than any to befall Egypt, visited us in Hungary and across Eastern Europe. It hit all my family, from the young to the old.
I knew then that it was the death knoll of my world.
I survived and became part of a new, modern world; but I can only wonder today if Jews will survive where we are now.
Will the Bar Mitzvahs of today mark a new and rejuvenated Jewish life? Or, to the contrary, will this period of greater freedom become the beginning of a new form of Judaism – a faith without its richness, once rooted in our ethnic-historical existence that, sadly, is being forgotten by most of us.
About the writer
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a survivor of the Holocaust.