The High Holidays had a particular significance for Holocaust prisoners, a lesson made clear by young Diarist Janina Heschele. She was only twelve years old when she began keeping her diary, starting it on the day the Germans invaded her hometown of Lvov. She and her mother tried to hide from the Germans under assumed names, but were eventually caught.and imprisoned in the Janowska concentration camp.
While in Janowska, Janina saw that the Nazis often used the occasion of Jewish holidays to torment their prisoners. On the day before Rosh Hashanah, for example, all of the sick prisoners were sent to be killed. That meant that many other prisoners were forced to enter the New Year without their loved ones.
The High Holidays also brought distress of a different sort. Fasting is part of the observance of Yom Kippur, but this practice was difficult under the conditions of starvation prevalent in the camps. Also, observant prisoners had to hide their religious practice from guards to avoid additional abuse. In spite of the hardships and dangers, many of the prisoners worshipped anyway. Janina wrote, “I looked closely at the candles, at the halos ringing the burning wicks, and suddenly I felt a deep intuition that, despite it all, God is still with us.” This does not mean, however, that she did not struggle with faith. She also wrote, “I lay down on my bunk and asked myself, ‘Shall I fast?’ I was uncertain. Fasting was a Jewish religious ritual, and I am a Jewess. I did not want to ponder long and deep, because I felt that if I did so, I would reaffirm my disbelief in God. I was persuaded that faith in God bears with it the hope to live. I decided to fast…”
Janina’s diary illustrates how religious life during the Holocaust was a double-edged sword for observant Jews, bringing both comfort and often additional danger. The struggle of prisoners to hang on to faith in the face of persecution and death was a testament to their dignity and humanity.
You may read excerpts from Janina’s diary in Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries by Laurel Holliday.
You may learn more about Janowska concentration camp at this website.
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