4.51. Yechiel Granatstein, biographical chapter ‘Rosh haShanah in Skarżysko’ (1991)

Yitskhak Finkler (1892-1944) was a rabbi in the Polish city of Piotrków Trybunalski, 140 kilometers southwest of Warsaw. In the beginning of 1943 he was deported, in a group of 150 Jews, to the concentration camp Skarżysko-Kamienna and forced to work in the arms factory of the camp. In spite of the difficult circumstances, Rabbi Finkler succeeded in celebrating Rosh Ha-Shanah 5704 (1943), even with a shofar. This celebration is described in the biography One Jew’s Power/One Jew’s Glory: The Life of Rav Yitzchak Shmuel Eliyahu Finkler, the Rebbe of Radoschitz, in the Ghetto and Concentration Camps, written by his son-in-law Yechiel Granatstein, particularly in the two short chapters “The shofar” and “Rosh haShanah in Skarżysko.” In another chapter, Granatstein describes what happened to Rabbi Finkler’s shofar after the war. *Other accounts of these events can be found in Granatstein, A Tale of One City: Piotrków Trybunalski, and Eliach, “The Shofar of the Rabbi of Radorzytz.” Rabbi Finkler’s shofar blowing in Skarżysko-Kamienna inspired the philosopher Emil Fackenheim to create a pamphlet with the subtitle The Shofar of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler of Piotrków, that will also be discussed below.

The arrival of “Rebbe Yitskhakl” in the winter of 1943 turned one of the barracks of Skarżysko-Kamienna into a beth midrash for study, prayer, and (abridged) services. Non-Jewish prisoners also went to the rabbi for advice or comfort, and to everyone’s amazement, even the notorious German camp commander Paul Kuhnemann treated Rabbi Finkler with a certain respect. *Karay, Teaching the Holocaust 3.

The Rabbi was determined to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah 5704 and believed that the fulfillment of the miẓvah would protect the shofar blower and the Jewish community in that critical hour. The prisoners sold bread from their rations, thus raising money to buy a horn from a Polish Catholic who worked in the camp. The first horn brought by him was unfit, because “All shofarot are kosher, except for a cow’s.” *Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:2. In The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 164. The day after, however, he smuggled a complete ram’s head into the camp. Rabbi Finkler went to Moshe Weintretter, a young prisoner who was employed in the metal shop of the camp, and said: “Moshele, *a diminutive of “Moshe,” just as “Yitskhakl” used as a love marker I’ve known you since you were a child and I knew your father very well. I am entrusting you with this great mitzvah of making a shofar. The holy merit of making this shofar will protect you, and you will survive this war.” *Eliach, “The Shofar of the Rabbi of Radorzytz” 85. In his study on Jewish religiosity in the Nazi concentration camps, the historian Thomas Rahe states: “The [religious] texts and [ritual] objects which were smuggled into the camp . . . demonstrated by their mere existence in the camp, that the SS had not succeeded in smashing the personalities of the prisoners.” Rahe, ‘Höre Israel’ 81-2. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. Moshe had to carry the horn to the workshop over a path guarded by SS men, who checked every prisoner and two days earlier had shot a prisoner who smuggled a piece of leather.

Moshe managed to get the horn into the workshop, but that did not solve all his problems, because he had made ​​a shofar never before and fellow prisoners had given him contradictory advice. He eventually got help from a supervisor, a devout Polish Catholic, who provided him with the necessary tools. One hour before Rosh Ha-Shanah, Moshe could hand over the shofar to Rabbi Finkler, and before the prisoners went to their work the next morning, an abriged service was held. Rabbi Finkler recited Ps. 118 with the verses “6 The LORD is on my side, / I have no fear; / what can man do to me? / 7 With the LORD on my side as my helper, / I will see the downfall of my foes” and blew the shofar.

As he blew, the blasts went out distinctly—t’ki’ah, sh’varim, t’ru’ah—again and again, to sound in ritualized form the sobbing and groaning of human beings gathered in prayer—so that if their words of entreaty would not reach the Supreme Ruler, these calls out of a ram’s horn would pierce the Heavens; and as the olden Jewish tradition attests, they would make Him move (as it were) from the Throne of Stern Judgment to the Throne of Mercy. *Granatstein, One Jew’s Power 134.

These last words appear in the prayer for the tokeʿah, *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 492 the shofar blower, in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service as well as in stanza 3 of the Meḥayyeh, the prayer to God, Who revives the dead. *Ibid. 556. Stanza 2 of the Meḥayyeh with its reference to Gen. 9:8-17 about Noah and the flood is particularly appropriate to the situation of the prisoners: “May the distress You expressed before the Flood, that You would not contend with man, / not rise twice to bring destruction.” The next prayer, the Meshalesh, *Ibid. 558 is an acrostichon, which goes from aleph to tav, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and, at the same time, from tav to aleph, connecting Rosh Ha-Shanah on the one hand with Creation, and on the other hand, the end of days with the ingathering of exiles from all over the world. Another prisoner, Avraham Altman, connected the shofar blowing in the barrack with that of the theophany on Mount Sinai:

For me it was tantamount to the assembly at Mount Sinai, gathered for the revelation of the presence of the Almighty. Don’t laugh at me and don’t ridicule me. . . . Don’t forget that this took place in the year when all our close relations, the dearest members of our families, were put to death. We had some kind of feeling that they, our parents, our dear ones, were joined with us in this worship of ours. With our prayer we became cleansed, and we were heartened. This crystal-pure prayer, accompanied by the sounds that burst forth from the shofar, gave us the courage, the strength to withstand all the agonies and tribulations with which we were afflicted… *One Jew’s Power 194-5.

Just as in Abel Herzberg’s story, *Chapter 4.39 the Past of shofar tradition was altered by the Present of life in a concentration camp. A great difference with Herzberg’s story is that Herzberg observed the ritual shofar blowing with interest, but with the distance of a non-believer. Whereas Herzberg’s shofar was destroyed, when the Canadian liberators burned the camp for hygienic reasons, the shofar of Rabbi Finkler was saved. Moshe Weintretter could take it with him to the camp of Częstochowa, but had to leave it in Buchenwald. At the liberation of this camp, the shofar was given to the surviving members of the Jewish community of Częstochowa. Via the United States, the shofar reached Israel, where Moshe Weintretter had settled under the name of Moshe Ben-Dov, and he donated it to Yad Vashem in 1977. *“The shofar comes home.” One Jew’s Power 198-204. Yad Vashem: Shofar (Ram’s Horn) made under perilous conditions in the forced labor camp Skarzysko-Kamienna in Poland in 1943.

In 1974, the philosopher Emil Fackenheim delivered a lecture under the title “Israel and the Diaspora: Political Contingencies and Moral Necessities; or: The Shofar of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler of Piotrkov,” *Fackenheim’s source of information about Rabbi Finkler was Yaʿakov Malts and Naftali Lau, Piotrkov Trybunalski ve-ha-Sevivah: Sefer Zikaron (“Piotrków Trybunalski and Its Environment: A Memorbuch,” Tel Aviv, 1965), a precursor of Giladi, A Tale of One City: Piotrkow Trybunalski (Poland) which he included in his book The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem in 1978. “Sometimes it is used to arouse men;” states Fackenheim about the shofar; “at other times, to arouse God. Only one thing is always the same: the shofar always arouses.*Fackenheim, “Israel and the Diaspora” 189. All italics in Fackenheim’s lecture are original. The shofar in the Bible is, indeed, only used to arouse people; the blasts are blown either by God Himself or by men in His name; a shofar blower who addresses God does so to praise Him, as in Ps. 150:3: “Praise Him with blasts of the horn.” In the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book, however, the shofar blasts and prayers often address God as pleas for mercy, for example in the Meḥayyeh: “O Lofty One, lend a listening ear; / turn to the sound of the shofar as it rises from inhabited land. . . . Turn to the sound of their shofar blasts from on high, / and exchange the seat of stern judgment for the throne of compassion.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 556. Cf. the first quotation from Granatstein in this chapter. Fackenheim goes back to Gen. 22:13 with the story of the ram as a substitute sacrifice for Isaac, and to Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 31. There, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa declares that the left horn of the ram of Abraham’s sacrifice was blown on Mount Sinai, where it heralded Jewish history, as written in Exod. 19:16 and 19, whereas the somewhat larger right horn will announce the end of times, as written in Isa. 27:13. *According to the same passage in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, no part of the ram was wasted: its tendons became the strings of David’s harp; its skin became Elijah’s belt, and its ashes the foundation of the altar in the Temple. Cf. also Chapter 4.53.

Fackenheim then introduces a new vision on Jewish history, in which the shofar of Skarżysko-Kamienna appears as the “third shofar” between the two other “termini of Jewish history,” that is, the Sinai as the chronotope of the theophany and the Sinai as the chronotope of the end of times. According to Fackenheim, for “the Jew of today” and even for any Gentile it is impossible to hear the first or the second shofar without the third shofar of Rabbi Finkler. “Whatever the political contingencies of history between Sinai and the End, there exists now a new moral necessity, for the Jewish people and indeed for the world.” *“Israel and the Diaspora” 189. Fackenheim substantiates this idea with a reference to the U-Netanneh Tokef prayer from the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, *Chapter 3.2 and The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 564-8 connecting God’s great shofar and His judgment of men and referring to the possibility of a change: “But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil decree.” In Skarżysko-Kamienna, Fackenheim argues, “the evil decree was not torn up—and this is why the shofar of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler still resounds on earth and in heaven, and will never be silenced until the End of Days.” *“Israel and the Diaspora” 192. If the evil decree was not annulled for these righteous and holy men, then for whom will it be annulled? Fackenheim asks. For all those who hear the shofar, Jews and Gentiles, Jews from the diaspora and from Israel, there exists “a new moral necessity amidst all the contingencies of human existence, that the course of history, or in any case the course of Jewish history, must be so altered that such as Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler will never again be the helpless victims of the great hatred.” *Ibid. 192-3.

Fackenheim wonders who were the addressees of Rabbi Finkler’s shofar in 1943. Of course, the Nazis did not listen, he argues, but because man has been created according to God’s image, and because even SS men belong to the human species, the question is to be asked why they did not listen. Though Fackenheim cannot answer this question, he concludes that we know what they would have done if they had heard Rabbi Finkler blowing the shofar. Fackenheim mentions a speech of Chaim Weizmann—the later president of the State of Israel—in New York in 1943, in which Weizmann argued that two million Jews had already been killed, a fact to which the world could not remain deaf, and finally, Fackenheim turns his speech into a provocative political pamphlet by connecting the Shoah to the State of Israel. In The Jewish Return into History, it is therefore not included in Part Two, “The Commanding Voice of Auschwitz,” but in Part Three, “The Centrality of Israel.”

[T]his is not the time for the Diaspora to back away from what continues to be the spearhead of the Jewish people and a spearhead of all mankind—the embattled state of Israel. Are there today, once again, good Jews, devoted Jews, who try to hear the shofar, either of Sinai or of the End of Days, but at the same time wish to reassert the view that nothing decisive has happened or can happen between these two termini of Jewish history? Are there Jews, too, who no longer hear the shofar of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler of Piotrkov, or even seek to silence it? If so, the attempt must fail. *Ibid. 205.

After his urgent call to listen, Fackenheim discusses the blowing; he returns to the first of his three chronotopes, the revelation on Mount Sinai, and asks the question who blew the shofar there. Exod. 19:16 reads: “On the third day, there was . . . a very loud blast of the horn” and Exod. 19:19: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder.” According to Fackenheim, we don’t know who blew. Was it God to arouse men, or men to arouse God? Or, as non-believers say, was it a man who blew, to arouse himself and all others?

Fackenheim’s last question arises from the above-quoted verse Exod. 19:19: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder” and the midrash from Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael 4. *Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael 309. According to this midrash, a sound normally decreases; in Exod. 19:19, however, it increases. By beginning softly, the sound allows for the ear, which needs time to prepare for it. This midrash is the bridge to the central, rhetorical question in Fackenheim’s pamphlet:

Is the shofar of Rabbi Yitzhak Finkler of Piotrkov wholly unlike the shofar of Sinai? Does its sound grow ever dimmer with the passage of time so that even now it has perhaps ceased to be audible? Or is it, on the contrary, wholly like the shofar of Sinai? Is its sound waxing louder and louder, so that its sound mingles with the sound of Sinai, and no effort to silence it can ultimately prevail? All kinds of men try to silence that shofar which sounded a generation ago. *“Israel and the Diaspora” 207.

By the end of his pamphlet, Fackenheim divides mankind in two categories: those who hear the shofar of Rabbi Finkler versus those who are deaf to it. By doing so, he overlooks the categories of the “inattentive” and the “hearing-impaired,” which might well be the largest categories by far, just as large as the category of people between the heroes and the collaborators in any war. The following statement of the historians Alexander Laban Hinton and Kevin Lewis O’Neill acknowledges these nuances and is representative of the opinions of many contemporary Shoah researchers: “[T]his volume wants to sidestep ‘black-and-white’ conversations to explore how the idea and felt-reality of truth and falsity are never simply black and white but involve shades of gray. Genocidal and postgenocidal spaces provide haunting examples of this.” *Hinton and O’Neill, Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation 13.

In Granatstein’s biography, the shofar blowing by Rabbi Finkler in Skarżysko-Kamienna is an internally persuasive discourse. The Rabbi continued the traditional shofar blowing on Rosh Ha-Shanah and turned both the preparations—the persuading of Moshe Weintretter, the smuggling of the horn into the camp, the preparing of the shofar—and the service itself into a manifestation from which the prisoners drew comfort, self-respect and a sense of continuity, a manifestation which turned the traditional shofar prayers and blasts into something inspiringly new. Fackenheim did something completely different: he tried to transform Rabbi Finkler’s internally persuasive discourse into an authoritative discourse, by proclaiming the historical event of the shofar blowing in the concentration camp to be a historic event, a new “terminus of Jewish history.”

As the philosopher Gershon Greenberg stated, Jewish metahistory, “[t]he divine presence in history, the covenantal tie between God and his people,” *Greenberg, “Metahistory, Redemption, and the Shofar of Emil Fackenheim” 220 was upset during World War II. According to him, Fackenheim identified the shofar blowing by Rabbi Finkler as one of the points of divine presence in the concentration camp. Fackenheim “found new historical ground for the transcendent voice at Auschwitz and for the Shofar at Hasag-Skarysko [sic]—and thereby a place for metahistory. Now the covenant could begin again, and the hope for the Messiah could be reborn.” *Ibid. 220. In this way, Fackenheim’s article “echoed” the shofar blasts of Rabbi Finkler.


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