In Judaism, the ten days that stretch from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are known as the “Days of Awe”. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is celebrated as a major holiday. Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement” and is considered the holiest day of the year. The days in between are used for personal introspection. Three times between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Yitskhok Rudashevski wrote about his sadness as he reflected on his life in the Vilna Ghetto. Yitskhok was only fourteen years old at this time, but he had witnessed devastation that most people would never experience in an entire lifetime. It is not surprising that his mood at this time darkened.
At the beginning of the High Holy Days, Yitskhok allowed himself a little cheer. He wrote, “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 awhile the gray commonplaceness of life.” Still, he concluded at that time that there was still “… a strangely sad holiday mood.”
One week later, on September 19th, any semblance of holiday cheer was gone. Thinking about the passage of time, Yitskhok wrote, “When I used to go to my lessons, I knew how to divide the days, and the days would fly, and now they drag on for me grayly and sadly. Oh, how dreary and sad it is to sit locked up in a ghetto.” The next day, his mood had sunk even lower. “It is Yom Kippur eve. A sad mood suffuses the ghetto. People have such a sad High Holy Day feeling. I am as far from religion now as before the ghetto. Nevertheless, this holiday drenched in blood and sorrow, which is solemnized in the ghetto, now penetrates my heart. In the evening I felt so sad at heart. People sit at home and weep.”
One of the main reasons for the pervasive sadness that Yitskhok mentions is that Yom Kippur marked the anniversary of a killing “aktion” that the Nazis carried out in Vilna in 1941. The Nazis frequently timed such atrocities to coincide with Jewish holidays. In this case, over 1300 inhabitants of Jewish Vilna were killed at nearby Ponary on the previous Yom Kippur.
You may read entries from Yitskhok Rudashevski’s diary in by Alexandra Zapruder.
Learn more about the “Days of Awe” here.
You may also read more about the “Yom Kippur Aktion” of 1941 here.
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