Prayer and Survival
I attended Orthodox day school. My secular studies teachers were all American born. Many, if not most, of my religious studies teachers were European born. None of my elementary school teachers talked about their experiences during the war.
My high school teachers used to sometimes share their stories of survival.
My first Talmud teacher was Rabbi Isiah Wohlgemuth. His 7th and 8th class was a pretty good introduction to the vocabulary, the structure and the world of the Talmud. Where rabbi Wohlgemuth really shone was as a teacher of liturgy. Starting in eight grade and continuing through graduating from high school all students in our school took the once a week class, Biur HaT'filla , Explanation of the Prayers known as B"H. The title doesn't really do justice to the curriculum. The class covered the structure of the prayer book and of each service and how our current prayer book evolved historically over time going from spontaneous expression at set times of the day to the more or less set texts we recite today.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth taught us how during times of oppression certain essential prayers were banned. We learned how Jews maintained the practice of reciting those texts despite the presence of government spies in synagogues by hiding the forbidden texts inside of other prayers at unexpected parts of the service.
B"H and it's lessons have stayed with me. I have used it's lessons in crafting out of thje box non traditional services, in teaching kids and adults and it my own work creating Jewish ritual objects.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth was arrested right after Kristallnacht and was sent to Dachau as an incredibly young communal rabbi. He was in his early 20's. He was teaching us the history of the prayer book but also how to be Jewish during difficult times.
My school sent me a video of this interview with Rabbi Wohlgemuth that was done in 1991.
It's long. Watching it was was struck by several things. Rabbi Wohlgemuth's education was an interesting mix of the Lithuanian and the German approaches to Jewish texts. These two strains were the foundation of my Jewish education. The spiritual, Kabbala focused Judaism so popular today, was completely foreign to me. This was a rational text based Judaism where the spiritual is internal and not out for show.
I was also struck by his no nonsense approach to eating food while in Dachau. In such difficult conditions, one is obligated to eat, even the sausage.
This morning my cousin sent me a video, I think mostly to make me laugh. The staging is to put it mildly, stilted. The singing style is old fashioned, over the top. But interestingly the Malevsky family looks at their daughters' religious singing as a matter of pride. There are lots of recordings out there of this family performing together. It's the sound of the old world, preserved for you in terrible video.