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Song for a Nazi, Song for Heaven

Aharon Granevich-Granot

Huddled in a narrow bunk, surrounded by his fellow prisoners in the Nazi death camp, Chazzan Herschel Fink of Antwerp began intoning the awe-inspiring words of Kol Nidrei. Even when the door burst open and he found himself facing the malevolent gaze of a senior Nazi officer, he continued singing. Over half a century later, he tells the story of his personal rescue on that fateful night.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Dressed in identical striped prison uniforms, trembling like leaves in the freezing cold of the European night, hundreds of Jewish prisoners return for yet another night of death in Auschwitz. Their cheeks are sunken, their stomachs bloated from hunger and thirst, the spark in their eyes dimmed. Hope has long since stopped beating in their hearts.

One Jewish prisoner, Herschel Fink, cannot forget the date.

“It’s Erev Yom Kippur today,” he reflects, as he recalls that only one year earlier he’d sat amidst his beloved family, bedecked in pristine white garments, preparing for the awe-inspiring day. “We can’t allow Yom Kippur to pass without experiencing some of its holiness, something that will restore the tzelem Elokim to our bodies and souls, something to remind us that we are not like them.”

Young Herschel spends the entire day developing a plan. It was unlikely that most would fast, since every morsel of food that the Jewish inmates certainly fell into the category of pikuach nefesh. Indeed, the intimidating message of Unesaneh Tokef “Who in hunger and who in thirst … who in strangling and who in stoning” — was being fulfilled each day. But at least they could recall the special day.

Thus, after the inmates return from another day of backbreaking toil, hardly able to drag their feet to their wooden bunks, Herschel Fink waits impatiently until the last of the accursed German soldiers leaves the barrack. Then he takes a bold step into the center of the room.

“My Jewish brothers!” he cries. “Tonight is Yom Kippur! Come, gather round, and we will all recite Kol Nidrei together!”

Ah ha… Aaah…. Ahhhaaah… KOL NIDREI! His magnificent voice — since early childhood he had been a member and soloist in his shul choir in Antwerp and, later, a chazzan — resounds in the barrack. It soars higher and higher, ascending directly to the lofty place where the heavenly angels — to which Yidden are compared on this holy day — stand. His fellow Jews hum along softly.

V’esarei, vacharamei, v’konemei ai ai yai, v’kinusei …

Suddenly, the door bursts open. The inmates freeze in fear. It is a senior SS officer, notorious for his beastliness and malice. The decree of death has surely been signed and stamped for young Herschel Fink. The young man barely has a moment to whisper a silent Vidui before the coarse voice of the officer calls out to him, “Continue, continue.” As if in a daze, young Herschel, the tears rolling down his cheeks, continues to sing, intoning the poignant words until their very end.

“You know, lad,” says the Nazi officer, a note of humanity creeping into his voice, “I once had a son. He was young, just like you. His voice was like a nightingale’s, with a sweetness reminiscent of your own. You remind me of him — my son, who was killed in a car accident. I miss him terribly, and I like your voice. I’m hosting an affair in my home tonight, and I would like you to sing for us.”

The Nazi then turns to the others and says, “You’re all lucky. Because of this young man, I won’t punish any of you.” The officer spins on his polished heel and leaves. The Jewish prisoners heave a collective sigh of relief; they have been judged for another day of life.

 

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