The Last Yom Kippur

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Last Yom Kippur


It was the last Yom Kippur. War had come to Europe as the Nazi hordes had invaded Poland and the British had bombed Hamburg several times. Before 1933 there had been 25,000 Jews in Hamburg but now all who could had fled if they had not been murdered. Whoever had relatives or friends in America or elsewhere had gotten out. But those who had no such contacts were not allowed into any country in the world. For surely, no one wanted additional Jews within their borders and few wanted any financial burdens. In fact, even the American Jewish community rejected the frantic cries for help from their German Jewish brethren. Was it not well known that all German Jews were arrogant and ungrateful? Had not the German Jews insulted the Russian Jews of the nineteenth century? American Jews wanted no part of these bossy, overbearing and pushy German Jews who probably exaggerated the persecutions they had to endure.

So now war had come and the Nazi bosses and the German people blamed the Jews. The Jews started the war, said Hitler, and the Jews will find that "this time it will be the end of the Jewish race in Europe."

Ten thousand Jews remained in Hamburg when the war started.

And so, on this Yom Kippur there was only one "shul", one synagogue left in Hamburg. Before the Kristallnacht, the night of the shattered glass, there had been twelve synagogues there. Of these, one had been seized and converted to a radio station, ten had been burned to the ground and one remained. The remaining "shul" was old and large. It had been built one hundred years earlier in the rear of a row of high apartment houses so that it would not be visible from the street. A narrow alley led from the street to the entrance of the "shul." Burning it would have endangered the apartment houses and so it was left intact.

Now the "shul" was packed. Whoever could come in did so. In Europe there were no tickets to enter a "shul" even on Yom Kippur. All were welcome. It was a terrible time. Many Jews had already been murdered in camps, on the street, in their homes. Everywhere signs proclaimed that "The Jews are our Misfortune." Jews were not allowed to work, to use public transportation or to enter a public building such as a library or a government office, to go to school  or to sit on a park bench other than those painted yellow and marked "for Jews only." Labor battalions had been organized for Jewish men many of  whom had been murdered. Day and night, radio broadcasts told the German people that the Jews were traitors in their midst and were spying for Germany's enemies. An atmosphere of doom hung over the congregation as Rabbi Joseph Carlebach began his last sermon to his people.

Then it happened. Suddenly, without warning the rabbi stopped speaking. Two uniformed Nazi troopers appeared at the front of the "shul" and in stentorian voices announced that all Jews were to go home, get their radios and their silverware and deliver them promptly at the nearest police precinct. Jews, said the Nazi terrorists, were using their radios to contact the English air force and were directing the bombing of Hamburg. Furthermore Jews had stolen so much money from true Germans that they all had silverware illegitimately.

We went home, picked up our radio and our silverware and the whole family walked to the nearest precinct house as we had been ordered. A large crowd of Jews was already there. As each Jew lined up to enter the police station his name was checked off on a list prepared there. "It stinks from garlic here," shouted a policeman while others enjoyed a number of offensive "jokes" at the expense of the Jews.

It was the last Yom Kippur for the Jews of Hamburg. Deported, murdered and scattered to "the four corners of the earth," only a few survived.

I survived and now Yom Kippur had come again and this time I was in America. Here was a large, open, publicly visible Jewish community. Hebrew signs appeared in butcher shops announcing kosher meat. Synagogues were built in visible, public places and on the High Holy Days politicians congratulated the Jewish voters.

So Yom Kippur had come again and my wife and I got up early. We had taken the day off and headed for the nearest "shul." It was a great day for us. We were alive, we were free and we were grateful to God that we were still here. It was 8:30 a.m.  We walked quickly into the street to the West Side Synagogue. We saw the stairs of the building from a distance as other Jews were entering already. We came with joy and great anticipation. We knew that no one could stop us here. No one wanted to prevent us from praying here. In this land of freedom a Jew had the right to be a Jew and to go to "shul" on Yom Kippur and to even read about it in the daily newspaper.

We approached the "shul" and walked up the stairs to the door. We entered, or we tried to enter, but we couldn't get past a large table placed squarely across the entrance. Behind it sat a large and ominous woman. "You need a ticket to come in here!" she announced. We didn't understand her, not because we  knew no English but because we had never heard of an admission ticket to a synagogue. I said in accented English: "Ticket, what ticket?" "If you want to go to a theater," said the lady, "you need a ticket and you need one here.  If you don't have one, get out !"

We spent Yom Kippur on a park bench. The bench was not painted yellow nor did it say "For Jews only."


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