As we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and recall the start of the Second World War 75 years ago, our reflections this Rosh Ha-Shanah, turn not only to the past year, but also to those momentous times. We are aware of the correspondence between World War I and Tishah B’Av, the annual commemoration of destruction that has been part of the Jewish calendar since Jerusalem was laid waste by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The proximity between the beginning of World War II and Rosh Ha-Shanah also gives us pause for thought: Britain declared war on Germany on September 3 1939; the Jewish New Year began on the evening of September 13. And it wasn’t just a New Year, but the turn of a century: 5700.
How did the Jewish community here and in Europe feel that Rosh Ha-Shanah? Hitler had already been in power since 1933. In the six years that culminated in another ‘Great War’, the Jews of Germany had been marginalised and excluded, and thousands fled as refugees. In the last weeks before war broke out, the tempo of flight became urgent. Subjected to the Anschluss – Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 – my father’s family fled from Vienna to London on domestic permits in the summer of 1939, before going on to the United States. But they did not escape unscathed: my grandfather had been among those Jewish men rounded up and sent to Dachau on November 13 1938 – and when he was released on January 19 1939, he was a broken man.
We can imagine the anguish and torment of the Jewish community at those High Holydays. So many rabbis had already taken flight. Germany’s leading Rabbi, Leo Baeck, stayed with his community, and accompanied them to Terezin, which is where the first woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas, was also dispatched in November of 1942. Rabbi Dr Baeck survived and came to London after the war, where he died in 1956. Rabbi Jonas was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
One of the last articles published in the German Jewish magazine Der Morgen, before the Second World War began captures the mood as Rosh Ha-Shanah approached. The last paragraph reads:
We stand naked before our fate, but thereby we are not only without the many things which formerly assisted us, but we are freed also of the ballast of prejudice, of the habits and conventions which narrowed our field of vision. We want to face reality, but we also do not want to give ourselves over to a fatalism which releases us from all obligations. We want to love our life because of, not despite, the fact that it has revealed itself to us in all its elemental power. With such sentiments we prepare ourselves for the High Holydays of our year.
May these ‘sentiments’ inspire us, as we prepare for the High Holydays of our year. Shanah Tovah!