By Nathan Grubman
Yom Kippur is over. We all are ready to start with the challenges of the new year. Gone are the flickering Yahrzeit candles. The long fast is just an unpleasant memory. Most Jews fast on Yom Kippur. Some fast because the Good Book says so, others because everybody else does so.
To me the Yom Kippur fast always had a special meaning and the Yom Kippur of 1944 was particularly special. I fasted on that Yom Kippur too. I was then prisoner number 86619 in the slave labor camp of St. Valentin, far in the mountains of Austria. On Yom Kippur eve I put the heavy brick like “bread” under my shirt and kept it there until next evening. It was an act of defiance against the German persecutors. Although I was only seventeen years old, it was my way to proclaim that I was not yet reduced to a number. I was still a person. A person desperately trying to cling to the very last bit of control over my life. It was the ultimate test of will power to carry that bit of bread on my body, a whole night and a full day, without as much as touching it. This, in spite of the perpetual hunger, which the camp’s starvation diet never satisfied.
My maternal grandmother inspired that power of will when she and I spent a few months together. We were hiding from the Nazis in the small village of Wieliczka in Poland, about twenty kilometers south of Krakow. There were nine of us including my mother’s sisters and my grandmother. All crammed into one small room. Any resemblance to normal life was long gone. Life in my hometown of Katowice became just a faint memory. Day by day, the Germans were coming up with new oppressive restrictions. We have been already deported several times. All of our meager belongings were with us in that one small room.
During the day all the adults were going out to do different chores. I, then in my early teens, stayed with my grandmother. Grandmother was in her late seventies. A small, frail woman always dressed in her, ankle long, black skirt and a sparkling, white blouse. Always with the ever present shitel. Grandmother was devotedly religious. She constantly prayed and chanted verses in a language I did not understand. She lit Shabbat candles making each Friday a special day. She firmly believed that in the end God would save us from all evil. She never gave up hope.
Her advanced age did not stop her from cleaning, cooking and mending for all of us. Always busy doing something; she never sat down to rest. I specifically remember, how in those days of scarcity, when there was no flour to bake bread she made potato bread. It was sticky, it was heavy, but hunger made its taste heavenly.
From her I learned how to convert things that did not even look edible into wonderfully satisfying meals. Her ingenuity seemed limitless. I learned from her to mend socks and patch holes in my pants. While she cooked and cleaned, I fetched buckets of water from the well outside or was digging up potatoes in the nearby field. She also taught me to recite the Shmah. In the horror years yet to come the Shmah became my life-saving mantra. She taught me basic survival skills, which I am sure, in the end saved my life.
My thirteenth birthday was coming up and just like every Jewish boy I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. Grandmother took upon herself to teach me our religion and told me about our ancient traditions. I recited after her and memorized the prayers. She prepared me for the passing from boyhood into adulthood, which among other things meant fasting on Yom Kippur.
But, it was a Bar Mitzvah that never was. Soon after, we were expelled to the ghetto in Krakow and then herded into the infamous camp in Plaszow. One by one the family perished. I ended up alone in the St. Valentin slave labor camp in Austria. The Nazis worked us in twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, making tank parts. All day long I monotonously pushed a lever on a huge machine and kept reciting the Shmah.
Then came Yom Kippur of 1944. It was bitter cold. The family was gone. The already meager food rations deteriorated further into “soup” and “bread” twice a day. The long starvation and deprivation have taken their toll. I kept my mind from going numb and kept reciting the Shmah Israel that my grandmother taught me.
And, on Yom Kippur I fasted. I saved the brick like “bread” from the last evening meal. I kept it all day close to my body, safely tucked in behind my striped prisoner’s jacket. To fast on that Yom Kippur day was an act of defiance. It was to prove to myself that in spite of all the German atrocities I still controlled at least one aspect of my life. They took away my family, they took away my freedom, but they could not take away the Yom Kippur fast. It was a desperate effort to cling to the last shred of self-esteem and preserve the last bit of personal dignity in an upside down world, which went berserk.
Of the nine people who lived in that small room in Wieliczka I am the only survivor. The rest perished into the mass graves of Plaszow or in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. So today, well into my twilight years, I fast on Yom Kippur to remember those who perished, with a special place in my heart for my grandmother who taught me how to survive and how to recite the Shmah.
Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.
Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).