Long after the war, memories of traumas and joys still well up

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Selma Blick still recalls the festive High Holy Days of her childhood — the joyful ones before Hitler's troops ripped through Poland.

She can see herself as a little Polish girl in the 1930s surrounded by fresh flowers and presents, stewed fruits and cakes, family and friends.

She can picture herself climbing Bielsko's synagogue stairway to the women's section on Yom Kippur and offering her mother an apple spiked with cloves — not for eating, but for sniffing during the fast.

"Holidays were always a very happy time," said the 70-year-old Holocaust survivor and San Francisco resident.

That all changed in 1939, when World War II shattered Europe. She was 12.

For Blick and many other survivors, memories of what they had and of what they lost well up during the High Holy Days more than at any other time of year.

"I think that because the High Holy Days are the most important holidays of the year, they bring the most pain for people," said Lani Silver, who interviewed hundreds of survivors before stepping down last winter as longtime director of the Bay Area-based Holocaust Oral History Project.

Survivors focus on murdered family members who once filled chairs around the holiday dinner table or sat next to them during services.

They remember the unique tortures the Nazis arranged — scheduling roundups and massacres specifically for the holidays or offering the richest soups of the year on Yom Kippur in the concentration camps.

"The Germans were always careful to select the holidays or Saturdays…to do the mass killings or the mass deportations," said Dr. Michael Thaler, a 62-year-old survivor who lives in San Francisco.

"It was meant to show the world that the Jewish God was a useless, powerless god. And psychologically, it was extremely demoralizing."

Some survivors also recall the rare moments of defiance — fasting despite immense hunger or hearing the blast of a shofar smuggled into an Auschwitz subcamp.

Like Blick, other survivors now living in the Bay Area have distinct memories of their pre-war High Holy Days and the razor-sharp contrast between those and the holidays they experienced during the war.

Growing up as a Chassid in Poland, Fred Baum and his family would buy new clothes for the holidays and eat pieces of round challah dipped in honey for a "sweet year."

They would make a 15-mile pilgrimage from Slupianowa in a horse-drawn buggy to spend the holidays with the rebbe in Ostrowiec.

"Everybody was prepared to have a clean conscience and repent for the holiday and be together with family," said Baum, a 75-year-old San Franciscan whose original surname was Bojmelgrin.

Juxtaposed with these memories are others — of desperate attempts to observe the mitzvot during the war, which began when he was in his late teens.

Several incidents that today seem miraculous helped sustain Baum, who survived eight camps before his liberation from Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

In 1944, he was living in an Auschwitz subcamp called Buno. On that Rosh Hashanah, a fellow Orthodox Jew smuggled in a shofar retrieved by someone who sorted prisoners' possessions in Auschwitz.

Stripped of all other ritual items such as prayer shawls and Torahs, the prisoners viewed the shofar as intensely symbolic.

On Rosh Hashanah, Baum stood with fellow Jews, read prayers scribbled onto scraps of paper and listened to the blast of the shofar.

They could have been killed for their actions, Baum said, but they chose not to think about it.

"We were not afraid."

Baum also managed to fast every Yom Kippur during the war. But observance had its limits. It was too dangerous to refuse to work. He knew that from an earlier time when he and other Jews had refused to work on Shabbat and endured a vicious beating.

Still, he said, some Jews in Buno did refuse to work on Yom Kippur. They were sent to the crematorium the following day.

During Yom Kippur in Buno, Baum and other men were forced to spend the entire day unloading a wagon filled with gravel.

"I didn't feel any pain or tiredness," Baum said. "I take it as a miracle."

Despite his decision to fast while already starving, Baum refuses to judge harshly any Jews who ate on Yom Kippur during the Holocaust because food aided their survival.

"Even if somebody ate on Yom Kippur, it was considered a mitzvah, too."

Ann Weinstock, like Baum, was old enough when the war began to clearly recall the beauty of the holidays before the Holocaust overwhelmed her life.

The 77-year-old Petaluma resident grew up in the then-German town of Marienwerder. She recalls her family opening their home to visitors after services on the first and second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Her family would serve large meals of gefilte fish, chopped liver, chicken soup with kreplach and homemade, raisin-studded challah.

Her father wore a top hat to synagogue. And on Yom Kippur, she fondly remembers men delivering flowers to their wives during a break in the services.

Hitler came to power in 1933 when she was 13 years old. Weinstock was expelled from regular school and had to go live with relatives in Berlin, which had Jewish day schools.

She eventually became a nurse and worked in Berlin's Jewish hospital under a special permit.

Even after Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazis burned down synagogues and Jewish businesses, Weinstock was able to attend services at the hospital's still-open synagogue.

On Yom Kippur, she would fast, although the short-staffed hospital could only allow workers to take off a half-day to pray.

Weinstock's special protection ended in early 1943 when she was ordered to transfer to Bergen-Belsen. Instead, she went into hiding in Berlin.

Even while constantly on the move in Berlin, Weinstock managed to contact the hospital to find out when the holidays fell.

"I made it my point to fast. I was starving the whole year long but I fasted. I had a need to do that," she said.

In December 1944, she was caught and sent to a political prisoners' camp called Kleine Festung, about an hour away from the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is today the Czech Republic. By the next High Holy Days, the war was over.

While Weinstock was able to mark the High Holy Days in some way throughout the war, Blick and her mother could not.

Blick, who was only 12 when the war began, ended up in the Vilna ghetto and a Latvian labor camp in Riga. Once they were confined to the camp, she and her mother lost track of when the holidays fell.

"We didn't know the dates. You lived like an animal."

Even if they had known, she said, Blick doesn't believe she would have been able to mark them.

"The hunger obliterated every other desire."

Despite the fear and death that overpowered the holidays during the war, Blick recalls the very worst year for the High Holy Days as 1945 — when the war was over.

Jews, including Blick and her mother, had amassed in Warsaw.

"We all came to look for family. We all had lists. We realized we were all alone," said Blick, who lost nearly 100 relatives to the Holocaust.

Jews flocked to synagogue during the High Holy Days to let out their anguish.

"The yelling and the screaming and the crying — I have never heard before or since."

Unlike the other survivors, Thaler's early childhood memories of the High Holy Days in Poland aren't so sweet. He was just 11 when the war ended.

Thaler survived first as a hidden child, then in Drzezany's ghetto near Lvov and finally in Polish forests. In the ghetto, Jews would stay at home during the holidays because the synagogues were closed.

"It was kind of sad, pitiful. Members of the family were missing. It was like a time to sit home during a shiva. It reminded you of who you lost or what your condition was," said Thaler, former president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

He does remember fasting, even though he was very young. Still, Thaler said, food was so scarce after the latter part of 1943 that fasting wouldn't have meant anything.

"We were so starved, so ravenous and hungry. It was sort of irrelevant. Fasting is eating a large meal one day and then [eating another one] the next day. We used to say, `God fixed us good. Now we have Yom Kippur every day.'"

As the decades passed following Hitler's defeat, the holidays have continued to evoke varied emotions for these survivors.

Thaler, like the others, always attends services on the holidays.

And like the others, he always fasts on the Day of Atonement.

"It's not Yom Kippur unless I fast," said Thaler, a member of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

Baum, who still considers himself a Chassid, belongs to San Francisco's Orthodox Adath Israel. He looks to a mystical Jewish text for the strength and guidance he needs.

"This expression in the Zohar says the person has to think of both sides of the story, the good part and the bad part."

So, during the holidays, Baum thanks God for his liberation and for his brother's survival. He thanks God for the blessing of his wife, children and now grandchildren.

But his losses always weigh heavily.

"We didn't have the pleasure to taste what parents mean and what brothers and sisters mean and what uncles and aunts mean and what grandparents mean."

Blick, who considers herself a positive person, said she has a lot to be thankful for. For her, this holiday cycle brings a special blessing. Her first grandchild, Danielle Sarah Hamer, was born in May.

But she also remembers nearly 100 murdered relatives, especially during the prayers for the dead.

"On the holidays, you always think of the pain."

The Holocaust has left another legacy for her. It happens when her whole family is together at the holidays in her synagogue, Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco.

"I sit there and every little commotion, I think they are going to shoot" — "they," she said, being Arab terrorists, the modern-day enemies of the Jews.

"It's probably from the whole war, because I don't want the whole family to be obliterated," she said.

Fortunately, she said, such thoughts pass quickly.

For Weinstock, a member of Conservative Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma, the worst High Holy Days came when she first arrived in the town in 1949.

She was married to a fellow survivor and already had a daughter. But when the High Holy Days came, she would make a nice dinner and then just weep.

Another couple, who were also Holocaust survivors, came over and decided they would try to ease the pain.

"We adopted ourselves as families, so we would have families," she said. "It made it bearable."

As Weinstock raised her two children and created a community around her, the hurt has eased.

"The memories of my family, they dim a little bit. It's not as painful as it used to be," she said. "I have my own family now."