by Rabbi Moshe Kempinsky, September 23, 2004
In 1944 the German army overwhelmed Hungary and immediately began their satanic job of eliminating the Jewish people.  Adolph Eichman entered Budapest and began his mission of murder in the efficient and calculating manner that was so much a part of him. The Nazis entered the Hungarian city of Satmar and gathered all the Jews into the designated ghetto.  Within a short period of time these Jews were sent by cattle car to the death camps of Auschwitz.

Naftali Stern was a young 34 year old cantor in the Kehilat Yearim synagogue in Satmar.  On that fateful month of May his wife Bluma and his four children, Gittel 14, Tzvi Hirsch 10, Moshe 9 and Azriel Yosef 6 were taken to the death camp of Birkenau.

They never came back.

He was standing on the same line with them at the entrance to the camp.  They shuffled forward until they stood before an elegantly dressed Nazi officer.  The man, Dr. Mengele, with his Nazi cap tipped arrogantly to the side whistled the Blue Danube Waltz as he chose which wretched souls would be sent to their deaths and which into the slave labor camps.  Naftali's wife and children were sent to the ovens and he was sent to the Wolfsburg labor camp.

It was in that camp that thousands of prisoners were forced to dig tunnels and trenches to serve as a defensible bunker for the retreating German army and high command.  So began endless days and nights filled with difficult work and starvation regimens.

As Rosh Hashanah approached, Naftali Stern decided to bring the other inmates together for Rosh Hashanah sevices.  He sold his daily ration of bread in order to obtain concrete sacks and some pencils.  He cut the burlap sacks into small squares and began to write the whole Rosh Hashanah service in a scrawl.  For some reason the German guards allowed the service to continue.

The service that followed was described in an article by Dr. David Halivni in the summer of 2001.

I, too, was an inmate in Wolfsburg, and I remember the prayer service.  The service was held in an overcrowded hall, and-still a young man of sixteen- I could not push my way in and remained outside.  But what went on inside left a deep impression.  This was the only time that we were premitted to gather together in the camp and pray out loud.  The prayers that were uttered on that day were the traditional ones, composed in a different age and under very different conditions.  Nevertheless, among the traditional prayers, one was uttered as a prayer of the heart with a unique kavanah, unique to the incomparable conditions of the prayers." This event would not recur, and by Yom Kippur the Nazis took the inmates on a grueling seven kilometer march to a work area.  Naftali was overwrought over the Yom Kippur that would pass unobserved.  The thought of not being able to fast was very difficult for him.  In an article in the newspaper "Arba Kanfot" his memories of that day are recalled.

He remembered that the words of his pained prayer,

"Master of the world, You wrote in Your Holy Torah regarding Yom Kippur 'And you shall afflict your souls (Leviticus 23:27) and further You wrote "Take therefore good care of yourselves (Deuteronomy 4:15).  My Creator and my Holy One, which of the two must I keep.  If I continue the fast I will die and will not be able to complete the second Divine request.  I want to fast but you are not letting me.  You don't let me but I will nevertheless fast ... I may be rebelling against Your will but I pray that You will give me the strength to fight Your will."

In later years Naftali remembered that this prayer came from a deep place within him as a pained sigh.  He also remembered that he felt the Divine response immediately and was given the strength to continue reciting the Yom Kippur service by memory.

It was this same strength of faith and vision that he kept hidden the torn burlap pages of his Rosh Hashanah Machzor (prayer book).  Naftali Stern survived the camps, reestablished a family and moved to Israel.  In his final years he gave his precious machzor to the Yad Vashem museum.  This people is made up of countless heroes and heroines like Naftali Stern. 
The yellow Star of David that the Jews were forced to wear on their chest in the Ghettos was intended to be a badge of shame.  On the other hand their human hearts beating in their chests filled with faith and determination was their badge of courage. 

As we stand here, in the Old City of Jerusalem, sixty years to the week after Naftali Stern finished creating his machzor, we turn to Hashem in fervent prayers;

Master of the World, Your people are about to enter Your throne room on this Yom Kippur.  Ignore all those things that some may wear as a badge of shame.  They have been forced, coerced and enticed to wear those things by the power of their Exile.  Look to their hearts.  There You will find the courage that befits Your people.

Gmar Chatima Tova
May all be inscribed for long life and blessings in Your Good Book.

Moshe Kempinski
JERUSALEM INSIGHTS  is a journal of insights, stories and torah thoughts from Jerusalem's Old City
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