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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Rosh Hashanah Without Shul: 1939 and 2020

I was sitting in my home office, working on a book about my grandmother’s Holocaust experience as a pandemic prowls outside my door, when a date I have always known jumped out at me anew.

The Germans invaded Poland Sept. 1, 1939. Nazis ripped into Sosnowiec on motorcycles on Sept. 4, megaphones blaring, Mausers blazing. On Sept. 9, they torched all three main synagogues in my grandmother’s hometown and dozens of other shtibls, pouring tar on the ruins of the Grand Synagogue on Policyjna Street so that the burn lasted for weeks.

Rosh Hashanah in 1939 was on Sept. 14, and smoke was still rising from the embers as the sun set on the first of Tishrei.

By the time the Nazis got to the synagogues of Sosnowiec, they were well into their murderous and humiliating rampage. But now I wonder if the thought of not going to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was gut wrenching in its own way for the 30,000 Jews in Sosnowiec. Sevek, my grandmother’s younger brother, said in a taped interview that Jews ran to Policyjna Street to pick up and kiss the fallen bricks of the Grand Synagogue.

In my own world, the reality that life was shutting down hit with full force back in March when I received an email saying shul was canceled. Not being able to go to shul on Shabbat — and I don’t think I could have imagined then that I would be sitting in a parking lot minyan for Rosh Hashanah — was the first of many jolts that would upend my very identity.

Because I am in the middle of writing a book about my grandmother’s Holocaust story, I am seeing this Rosh Hashanah — and much of my pandemic experience — through the prism of my family’s Holocaust narrative. As this new year dawns on our broken world, I find myself thinking about some of the less-visible suffering inflicted by the Nazis, particularly in the tumultuous early days of the war, before the number “6 million” meant anything.

I know that my traumatized but fortified DNA can get through this, and much worse.

The sense of connection especially is palpable because my grandmother’s family was at the same life stage my family is in at this moment. When the war started, my grandmother was 23 and her youngest sibling was 14. My kids are around the same age range, and my husband and I are just a little older than my great-grandparents, Noach and Leah Nortman, were.

Although the danger they faced even as early as Rosh Hashanah 1939 obviously was more immediate and terrifying than our pandemic, I am realizing that living through the first few months of what eventually became the Holocaust  probably carried a much-amplified version of what my family and others are dealing with — plans smashed, everything familiar shuttered, futures uncertain. Like them, we are at the beginning of a new chapter in history, with the ending not yet written.

In 1939, my grandmother, Helen Nortman Gruenbaum, recently had moved back to her parents’ house in Sosnowiec with her baby boy after wrenching herself from a disastrous marriage. She was working with her brother in a furrier shop in nearby Katowice, hoping to reopen her tailoring business.

I think about the conversations my great-grandparents must have had when the Nazis invaded, about how to best protect their young-adult children; maybe even, at first, how to salvage the fragile cusps their children were on. Within weeks of the Nazi invasion, Sevek, who was starting a business as a furrier and studying to be a cantor, ran east, escaping through the sewers. A few weeks later, Leah and Noach sent Shmulik, a passionate Zionist who was apprenticing as a tailor, toward the Russian border in the middle of the night. My grandmother and her baby followed her brothers east weeks later. 

My great-grandparents having to figure out how to save their family from Hitler is nothing like my husband and me creating a much-mocked color-coded chore chart or setting social distancing rules when our college-aged kids returned home. A wartime decision to send children away to save their lives bears no resemblance to our agreeing, after a few months, that it was time for our kids to go back to their lives, to reclaim their independence.

However, I now have a deeper understanding of the torment of uncertainty, when everything you thought would happen is turned on its head; when you have to make life-or-death decisions based on conflicting or incomplete information. I don’t know if sending my kids from the hearth will have saved their futures, or endangered their lives or the lives of others. 

When my grandmother left home in 1939, she begged her parents to come to the Soviet Union with her. Her father refused to leave Sosnowiec, saying he would stay in his home to welcome his children back when the war was over. 

My grandmother pleaded with her father to let her take Rushka, her little sister. Her father’s answer is etched into family lore: “Do you see that chandelier hanging there? If you take my youngest child from me, you will find me hanging in its place.”

Noach was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. Leah and my grandmother’s little boy (she was separated from him during her escape) were killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Rushka survived horrific Nazi labor camps. Sevek rode the war out in the Soviet Union, and Shmulik got himself to Palestine in 1942; he was killed in June 1948, fighting Israel’s War of Independence. My grandmother met my grandfather on the transport to a Siberian labor camp, where they got married.

I think, too, about how my grandparents (all four were survivors) — and, for a few years, my great-grandparents — kept going when everything around them crumbled. Sometimes, when I leave the bubble of my house — where I am blessed to live with people I love and have enough of everything we need — the horror of today’s world sucks at my insides, and I fold into the emptiness. I leave the supermarket and burst into tears. I lose sleep over a Zoom meeting because this isn’t how humans are supposed to connect. I play out paralyzing scenarios about myself or someone I love getting sick and dying.

Then I think about my grandparents and great-grandparents, who did whatever they could to make it to the next day, despite living in ghettos or camps, despite facing an enemy infinitely more bent on killing them than the microbial lurker I now face down from the comfort of my own home.

I know that my traumatized but fortified DNA can get through this, and much worse.

I never asked my grandmother what Rosh Hashanah 1939 was like. But I can imagine she, her siblings and her parents, unable to go to shul, buried their faces in the pages of their machzors at home, and cried into the words: 

Who shall live and who shall die.

Who in good time, and who before their time. 

Who by sword. Who by plague. For we are all but flesh and blood.


Julie Gruenbaum Fax is a journalist and personal biographer living in Los Angeles.

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