Yitskhok Rudashevski was thirteen years old when the armed forces of Germany entered his hometown of Vilna. The occupation came as the Nazis broke their treaty with the Soviet Union, attacking eastward along a broad front, beginning on June 22, 1941. A ghetto was established for the Jews of Vilna in September of the same year. One year later, Yitskhok began keeping his diary, which became one of the most important documents to survive the Vilna Ghetto.
September 12, 1942 was a very important day for Yitskhok and his neighbors in the ghetto. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yitskhok reflected on the occasion in his diary.
“Today is a holiday. […] A holiday spirit that is anything but cheerful is diffused over the few little ghetto streets. Something somehow is missing. I am reminded of the past. From somewhere a sound of loud, quick praying is heard. Here and there Jewish women walk past with festive kerchiefs on their heads, with prayer books under their arms. I recalled my grandmother, how she used to go to synagogue this way once a year. […] The streets are lively. People are walking around dressed up. Today is a holiday. This is evident in every house you enter; the poverty has been scrubbed away. Formerly this would not have made an impression on me. However, now I felt strangely good because the everyday gray day is so much in need of a little holiday spirit, which should drive away for a while the gray commonplaces of life. […] A strangely sad holiday mood.”
Yitskhok’s description of his mood reflected the desire of the ghetto inhabitants to try to keep some semblance of normal life alive, even under the horrible circumstances of the Nazi occupation and the deprivations of ghetto life. People tried to celebrate holidays and observe religious traditions. They did the same things as they had done before, and to an outside observer it may have even seemed normal. Yitskhok was not deceived by outward appearances, though. He could feel the underlying sadness that infused every action, due to the tremendous losses that the people had suffered and would continue to suffer in the weeks and months ahead. No celebration could mask that reality.
You may read entries from Yitskhok’s dairy in the book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust by Alexandra Zapruder.
You may read about another Rosh Hashanah observance during the Holocaust here.
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