Steven Wittenberg Gordon
Ostrowizc, Poland, 1940
The war had not yet touched the tiny settlement in the middle of the middle of nowhere a half-day’s train ride from Vilna. I remember how my father used to close his eyes and tell me of the honey cakes his father the baker used to make for the Jewish community, of the apples dipped in honey, and of the special round challah that they would rip apart, filled with raisins and still warm from the oven. The shofar sang, reverberating throughout the town, filling everyone’s heart with the promise of a good new year.
Ostrowizc Ghetto, 1941
After the Nazis overran Ostrowizc, the Jews were pushed into smaller and smaller areas of the little town, and this became a ghetto. My father recalled that several families were forcibly moved into his father’s home, which had the bakery in front and living quarters in back. That year they cut a single apple into eighteen pieces, a precious apple that had been smuggled into the town at considerable risk to the smuggler. There would be no honey and no honey cakes. A meager stash of ordinary challah that the women had scrimped and saved and held back from their clandestine Sabbath celebrations had to serve for the festive meal. Blowing the shofar was out of the question.
Vilna Ghetto, September 1943
Benyamin and Eliyahu Wittenberg led the remnant of their clan, my father among them, all they could save, through the tunnel whose construction they had overseen and out into the countryside just before the Nazis liquidated the ghetto. My father remembers Ben giving him a letter from his parents, Shmuel Gordon and Aita Feaga Wittenberg, containing good wishes for the New Year and promising to reunite with him. The letter said that they were well and in good health and would be there soon, for sure by the next Rosh Hashanah, and they would celebrate just like old times. The letter was a fake. His parents had already been murdered at Ponar. But Ben knew that little Moshe needed hope to stay alive--even if that hope was false hope.
Displaced Persons Camp, Occupied Berlin, American Sector, 1946
My father would be the first Jew to celebrate his bar mitzvah in post-war Berlin. That year, Rosh Hashanah would have special meaning. There was food, such as it was, and the sound of the shofar resounded around the camp--proof to the Nazis and the entire world that the Jews had survived. It was a sound of hope and of defiance.
Minot, North Dakota, September 2003
In upstate New York, although he did not know it, my father marked what would be his final Rosh Hashannah. Meanwhile, his son, temporarily assigned as Chief of Flight Medicine at Minot Air Force Base, would go into town with the other Jew on base and gather with eight other Jews who had come from as far away as Bismark to attend services at the little Jewish temple that miraculously still stood, though it was hardly ever used for anything. The ten barely constituted a minion. There was no rabbi, but the other Jew from the base was a chaplain’s assistant, so he knew enough to lead the service. Then, a true miracle--the choir from the Christian church a few doors down joined us. Unbeknownst to us, they had spent several months learning our liturgy and all of our beautiful holiday songs. What a difference between this coming together of the populace and what my father had experienced in Poland!
Overland Park, Kansas, Present Day
I blow the final note of the shofar. As its mighty sound fades, I think of my father and realize that I am in some way the fulfillment of the hope of that scrappy little boy who survived the Holocaust. I look at my son and my daughter and realize that they hold the same hope for me. Will peace last? It is good for the Jews now, particularly in America, but will a time come again when we have to hide, when we will be persecuted and hunted? Is there enough of my gentile American mother in my children’s features to allow them to pass?
“Who by fire, who by water...” I murmur in my melancholy reverie.
“Dad, what’s the matter?” my son asks.
“Nothing. Everything is good for us now.”
I do not say “for now” but I am thinking it. I dip slices of apple into honey imported from Israel and hand them around. I try to smile as I watch my sweet children enjoy the sweetness of the New Year.
Shana tova, my friends! May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life!