Recollection from the Shoah


Reflections from the Holocaust


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Opinion & Society

Breaking Silence

By Michael W. Klein,
Professor of Physics, Emeritus

Silence had descended on the middle-class synagogue at Brookline, a suburban Community of Boston. The three hundred or so members had waited for the start of the Yom Kippur evening "Kol Nidre" services praying to be released of all vows made during the last year. The congregants faces were solemn as they were about to start the year's most important prayers.

Men and women sat separately in the Orthodox tradition. Most woman were dressed in white and most men wore a Kittel - a thin white robe - over their suits and were enwrapped in a white tallit, or prayer shawl. Dressing in white was to remind one of shrouds, of the finiteness of human life, of the insignificance of man compared to his creator towards whom his prayer is directed. This day is dedicated for man to do "Tsuva", to "repent" and to abandon their transgressions and return to the ways described in the Torah.

Yom Kippur was the last of the ten days of repentance. It was a day of prayer, of contemplation, and of fasting from an hour before sunset till the next day after sunset. It was a day when the fate of not only of each individual but also mankind was judged and determined for the coming year.

* * *

I concentrated on the prayers and forced myself to think of the meaning of each Hebrew word. To unite with my Creator without interference, I isolated myself from my surroundings by placing the tallit over my head, practically covering my whole face. I struggled to keep my mind only on the prayers, forcing myself to exclude the painful memories which wanted to come to the fore. But as I continued my prayers this became more and more difficult, and no matter how hard I tried to avoid it, my mind recalled a Yom-Kippur evening of many years ago.

* * *

I was back in Golleschau, a satellite camp of Auschwitz, where I was imprisoned forty years earlier during the war. About twenty-five prisoners and I were marching down the slippery mountains to return to Camp, with the Kapo leading in front and two SS-guards with machine guns in the back. The walk downhill was tiring and difficult after a long day's work in the quarry on the mountains. By the time we got to camp it was completely dark and Yom Kippur had already commenced. Entering the Camp yard, an area enclosed by barbed wires, I saw an unusually large number of SS guards waiting for us with machine guns directed toward the prisoners. Fear penetrated my heart. Could they have possibly decided to murder us all on this Kol Nidre evening?

It was dark on the camp ground. Only a few lights illuminated the large area surrounded by barbed wires. My eyes searched to find my father who worked in a different group than I, and returned from work in the mountains somewhat earlier. We found each other. Soon all the prisoners were made to line up for muster, to be counted to ascertain that no prisoner was missing. My father and I were standing near each other, tensely awaiting for what the SS had prepared for us on this holy Yom Kippur evening. Our thin, striped summery prisoners' clothing gave little protection against the cold northern wind. Soon we were all freezing as we stood motionless at attention for another long time for "Zaehlappell", or muster, in the cold.

While we stood at attention, a semi-hidden door to the lowest floor of the three story building opened.

My friend Salamon Abshalom was let out. He was barely able to walk; his hands were tied behind his back. An SS guard took him to the back of the camp yard. In the semi-darkness I barely discerned the gallows at the other end of the barbed wire, about thirty feet from where I stood. The SS Commander of the camp read a proclamation that Salamon Abshalom would be punished for trying to escape. He was led to the gallows and made to climb onto what looked like a stepladder. The noose was tied around his neck.

We stood paralyzed, in bewildered despair. How could the Heavens allow this to happen on this holy Yom Kippur evening? Did the Germans set up the execution specifically for Yom Kippur to humiliate the God of Israel and His people? The silence of the Heavens screamed out in our hearts and in our souls. The desecration of the God of Israel, of the people of Israel, of Yom Kippur, and the humiliation of man created in the image of God proceeded in silence as the German hangman, the Camp's SS commander, stood over Salamon Abshalom.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a powerful, high pitched voice rang out over the camp yard. It sent chills down our spines, as we heard the cry of "Sh'ma Yisrael...", Hear O Israel", as Salamon Abshalom declaimed the eternal proclamation of the Jewish people's belief in one God. The flow of time seemed to have had suddenly slowed, and those two words seemed to stretch on and on, penetrating our hearts. It seemed to take a long time from the beginning of the two words to the end. The SS hangman, hearing the words, cut off Salamon Abshalom's affirmation of "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One" by extinguishing his last breath.

Our spirits were electrified. In defiance of the Germans, Salamon Abshalom spoke for all us who stood muster on that holy Yom Kippur evening. He became our spokesman and appointed representative. His outcry of "Sh'ma Yisrael" broke the silence of the Heavens, decried God's failure to interfere, and demonstrated the Godliness of the Jewish People.

With his prayer of Sh'ma Yisrael arising from his last breath, he raised all of us standing Zaehlappell to the highest spiritual level. Even as his life was extinguished by the brutal murderer to whom nothing was holy, he still proclaimed the eternity of the Jewish People, in defiance of evil, in defiance of the Germans, in defiance of the silence of humanity, and in defiance of the silence of the Heavens. Salamon Abshalom proclaimed the Godliness of the Jewish People even at a time when God seemed to be totally absent.

After the hanging we were dismissed from roll-call and sent to our quarters. We saved the evening portion of bread in our shirts, next to our bodies, for the next evening, until the end of the Yom Kippur fast.

* * *

It was the thirty-ninth Yom Kippur since that cold and bitter evening when Salamon Abshalom gave his life for Kiddush Hashem, for martyrdom. It was the thirty-ninth Yom Kippur eve that I recited the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, for Salamon Abshalom. For each of the last thirty-nine years during the Yom Kippur prayers I have relived the bitter experiences of that Yom-Kippur evening thirty nine years ago, but –until that time - never spoke about the Shoah (holocaust) or about Salamon Abshalom.

* * *

Even though I was now surrounded by people who understood the meaning of Yom Kippur, still I felt totally isolated from them. When I closed my eyes, I was still back in Golleschau. None around me could understand my pain. My loneliness and isolation was overwhelming and almost unbearable. I felt like a stranger among these people, many of whom were my friends, who never knew Auschwitz, never knew what I went through in Auschwitz, what I was going through that evening.

I slowly calmed my emotions and tried to analyze my thoughts. The Germans murdered Salamon Abshalom, but I was guilty having been silent in spite of the promise we made to each other in the camps that we will tell the world of what happened. I had kept Salamon Abshalom's memory a secret for all these years.

* * *

I was among the very few who survived Golleschau and therefore it was my duty to let the people know of Salamon Abshalom's sacrifice. By choosing to be silent all these years I had betrayed Salamon Abshalom and all those that perished by withholding the information even from those who could identify with his actions and cherish his martyrdom. By being silent I had contributed to forgetting their memory.

Thirty-nine years after the event even the few other Golleschau survivors must have passed on. It was therefore, I felt, my duty let the world know, and that my self-imposed silence must end. This Yom Kippur evening, when we ask to be released of all vows, I vowed that I will from now on speak and write about the Holocaust and about Salamon Abshalom.

The prayers were nearly finished and I recited the last Kaddish for Salamon Abshalom as I had done on each of the preceding thirty-eight Yom Kippur evenings. But this time I recited Kaddish more fervently than ever before. The realization that it was my duty to let others know of Salamon Abshalom and the Shoah, induced fear and trepidation in me. Fear of tearing open my wounds in public, fear of exposing myself as an odd man outside of society, fear of exposing my family to isolation, fear of opening a Pandora's box which I will never be able to close again.


Michael Klein was born into the family of a Chassidic rabbi in a small town in southern Hungary. His secular education ended at sixth grade, but he continued to study at the Yeshiva till age fourteen, when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944. He had just turned fifteen when he was deported with his parents and ten brothers and sisters to the Ghetto, and then to Auschwitz. Only the author and two older sisters survived.

By the time the war ended the author was seriously ill with tuberculosis. He spent the next six years in tuberculosis hospitals, during which time he struggled not only to stay alive, but also to educate himself, studying English, German, mathematics and physics on his own. Finally, in 1952, he entered the University of Colorado, majored in engineering-physics, and graduated first in his class. He earned his PhD in theoretical physics at Cornell University in 1962, He became a professor of physics, and has published scores of scientific articles.




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