After the Nazi occupation of Poland on September 1, 1939, Rabbi Hirschprung’s peaceful shtetl of Dukla, in the eastern Polish region of Galicia, almost immediately changed into a town marked by fear, insecurity and uncertainty.
The regligiously devout Jews of Dukla would have to carry out the rituals of Rosh Hashana that year under the ominous and menacing watch of the Nazis.
They feared the blowing of the shofar would be met with ignorant violence when heard by the Nazis but they defiantly carried the ritual anyway. And as the Nazis harassed, documented and photographed the Jews performing their sacred customs, the community carried on, determined to maintain their connection to their faith and culture.
This was the sinister beginning of the Nazis' plan to destroy Jewish faith and generations of Jewish observance and knowledge.
Rabbi Hirschprung’s writing in The Vale of Tears stands in defiance of this attempt; replete with biblical psalms and verses, Rabbi Hirschprung’s words consistently express his depth of faith and the strength Judaism gives him to withstand the chaos surrounding him.
This Rosh Hashannah marked the beginning of a new year, but also foreshadowed the end of an entire way of life.
Witness the anxiety and fear that pervaded the Rosh Hashannah of 1939:
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, with prayer books in their hands, fear in their hearts and reverence for God on their faces, men, women and children poured into the synagogue.
Never before in Dukla had it felt so much like the Days of Awe were upon us as it did that evening. The holiness of the Day of Judgment had placed its seal on the town. Heads lowered, with measured steps, the Jews quietly and calmly shuffled by while Nazi soldiers with cameras photographed “the Jewish procession.”
Among the huge crowd was Avigdor the town lunatic, a man in his thirties who had gone mad from too much Torah study. His craziness consisted of walking the streets while talking to himself. He went around unkempt, unwashed, his clothes in tatters, while reciting parts of the Zohar off by heart with a melody that could move a stone. He, too, was disturbed by the matter of the blowing of the shofar. He walked around, making himself heard in a voice that frightened everyone, “May it be Your will that we should merit hearing the sound of the shofar and not ‘the sound of an echo.’ And the sound of the shofar should be powerful, as it is written, ‘Lo, He utters with His voice, a mighty voice,’ and it should cause fear, awe, dread, trepidation, trembling, and shame for the shameless of our generation. And the sound of the shofar should vanquish and nullify every kind of shamelessness deriving from the sitra achra, the ‘other side’…” and so on and so forth.
Suddenly he started running, a Nazi soldier in hot pursuit shouting, “Damn it! A spy!” It turned out that the Nazi soldier had wanted to check Avigdor’s identity, but Avigdor had taken fright and run away. When good Christians explained to the Nazi that this man was mentally deranged, the Nazi left him alone.
In the prayer of Avigdor the madman, in his wish to save himself from the “shameless of our generation,” there was pathos and symbolism that resonated in every heart. It brought tears to our eyes, and each and every Jew entered the synagogue crying. We prayed with absolute devotion, with tears and weeping, with simplicity and purity. We prayed from the heart and from the very depths of our being. After the prayers, one by one we went home.
Unofficial rumours were circulating that Warsaw had already fallen. Of course this piece of news heightened the significance of the Day of Judgment. Our fear kept growing and growing and growing.
In the morning, the synagogue was again full of people with “instill Your awe” clearly visible in everyone’s face. We had completed the morning service and had begun preparing for the blowing of the shofar. First, we sent out a “reconnaissance party” whose task it was to ascertain whether the “voice of the shofar” could reach the ears of the enemy. After that we sealed the synagogue gates and then we sounded all one hundred blasts at the same time, furtively and hurriedly, “in a single breath.” Although the sounds were quiet, they nevertheless produced a strange apprehension, and the stillness in the synagogue resembled that of a cemetery.
Having carried out our covert operation, we threw open the gates before beginning the additional prayer service. The cantor recited the Shemoneh Esreiwith passionate fervour and profound sensitivity. The words of the prayer that the cantor sang so sweetly gave such pleasure to those praying that everyone felt refreshed and renewed. Feelings of degradation and dejection dissipated, and the congregation was infused with feelings of exaltation and spiritual elevation.
These feelings, however, did not last long. Nazi soldiers arrived to destroy the fragile calm and delicate tranquility that had so tenderly soothed us.
The cantor, transported into the “higher realms” of prayer, had not a clue as to what was happening behind his back. He continued praying with the same passion, but the congregation had become distraught and alarmed. Our first thought was that this visit from the Nazi “guests” was due to the blowing of the shofar. But this suspicion vanished after the Nazi visitors ordered us to carry on quietly with our “ceremony.” They were evidently curious to observe the service. For a few minutes they remained seated in the seats that some members of the congregation had offered them. Then a few of the Nazis got up from their places, set up their photographic equipment and photographed the congregation. When they were finished photographing those praying, they photographed the cantor, who was completely indifferent and carried on with his prayers as though the whole matter had nothing to do with him.
Afterward they went over to the Holy Ark and gave one member of the congregation the “honour” of opening the Ark so that they could photograph the Torah scrolls housed inside. Having completed their work, they left and everyone took a deep breath. After the service we went to perform the rite of tashlich, the symbolic casting off of sins. There, too, Nazis appeared with their cameras and photographed this rite as well.