Seventy years ago this Rosh Hashanah, in the heart of the Nazi inferno, a young Jew armed with just a pencil and some empty cement sacks — and a great deal of faith — succeeded in demonstrating just how high a person’s soul can soar.
The story of Naftali Stern, and his simple yet profound act of defiance, is one that should be related over and over again, taught in every school and held up as a modern-day example of Jewish heroism and fortitude.
Stern hailed from the city of Satu-Mare, or Satmar, in the Romanian region of northern Transylvania, which was transferred to Hungary on August 30, 1940, under pressure from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. According to a census taken in 1941, nearly a quarter of the city’s population – 12,960 people out of 50,011 – were Jews.
Stern’s mellifluous voice earned him the respected position of Chazzan in the city’s Kehilat Yearim synagogue, where he led the congregation in communal prayer.
In the initial years of the Holocaust, despite the calamity befalling Jews at the time elsewhere in Europe, those living in Hungary had not yet been subjected to the unmitigated mass murder that befell other communities.
But all that changed in 1944, when Adolf Hitler learned that the Hungarian leadership had been considering a possible armistice with the Allied forces, leading him to launch Operation Margarethe on April 12 of that year, in which the Germans occupied the country.
Just three weeks later, on May 3, Stern and his family were confined to the newly-established Satu-Mare ghetto, along with nearly 19,000 other Jews, including those from the surrounding areas.
Between May 19 and June 1, the Germans liquidated the ghetto, deporting 18,863 Jews to Auschwitz. Among them were Stern, aged 34, his wife Bluma, and their four children, Gittel, 14, Tzvi Hirsch, 10, Moshe, 9, and Azriel Yosef, 6.
Upon arrival, Stern’s wife and children were all dispatched by the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, to the gas chamber, while he was sent to the Wolfsburg labor camp, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen.
Like the other 2,000 Jews who were enslaved at Wolfsburg, Stern was compelled to perform back-breaking hard labor, which included digging roads, moving heavy stones and laying iron tracks, from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. Needless to say, the meager food rations provided to them by the Germans were below subsistence level.
Had Naftali Stern chosen at that point simply to give up, to relinquish all hope and submit to despair, no one could have blamed him. In the course of just a few months, he had lost his family, his congregation and his community, and he found himself far from home, at the mercy of the Nazi fiends who gleefully were working him to death.
But as Rosh Hashanah approached, Stern somehow managed to overcome the extraordinary horrors all around him, and instead he focused his thoughts on a simple goal: organizing a proper Minyan to mark the day upon which the Jewish people declare Hashem’s kingship over the world.
Some of his fellow prisoners must surely have thought he was mad. Amid the daily struggle for survival and the dreadful living conditions, the former Chazzan was worrying about a Minyan?
But Stern would not be deterred.
In an act of incredible sacrifice, he sold his daily bread ration in exchange for a pencil and some sacks. After tearing the sack into smaller pieces, he used it as paper, and proceeded to write out the text of the Rosh Hashanah prayers from memory, carefully and lovingly drawing the Hebrew letters with a clear, crisp script.
For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, the German taskmasters allowed the Jews to gather and hold a Rosh Hashanah service, the only time this was allowed to occur during the entire existence of the camp.
Before an overflowing crowd of exhausted, forlorn Jews, Naftali Stern the prisoner became Naftali Stern the Chazzan once again, using his treasured, hand-made Machzor to raise their spirits and storm the gates of Heaven with their tears.
Decades later, survivors who witnessed the scene would still recall the profound impression that Stern’s rendition of the tefillah had left on them.
After the holiday, Stern went to great lengths to preserve the pages of his Machzor, including hiding them on his body when necessary.
After he was liberated from the camps at the end of the war, he made Aliyah and settled in Bnei Brak, where he started a new family.
And it was there, each year on Rosh Hashanah, for more than thirty years, that he brought the pages to shul, and used them to daven.
Then, in 1978, when he noticed that his Machzor from the camp was beginning to disintegrate, Stern took it to Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, and donated it to the institution for safekeeping.
When he did so, according to the Yad Vashem website, “Naftali stressed that it was vital that future generations understand that in spite of the survivors’ harrowing experiences during the Holocaust, they maintained their spirit, embraced their Jewish identity, and never lost hope.”
And then, his voice trembling, Naftali said, “I pray that each subsequent generation will stay true to their Jewish identity and be a link in a long chain.”
At its core, Rosh Hashanah is about the art of spiritual heroism, of digging deep into ourselves and finding the inner strength to overcome life’s challenges and focus on accepting Hashem’s divine sovereignty over all of existence.
For several hours 70 years ago, a young Chazzan named Naftali Stern did just that, exemplifying the ability that each of us has to rise above our surroundings and become a spiritual hero.
I have no doubt that this Rosh Hashanah, Naftali Stern’s soul will stand before the Heavenly Throne and plead our people’s cause, just as he did seven decades ago under very different circumstances in a labor camp in Germany.
Let us add our voices to his, loudly and firmly, confident in the knowledge that our national spirit, like that of Naftali Stern, cannot and will not be crushed. Because any people that produces such spiritual heroes is impregnable to defeat. n
Michael Freund served as Deputy Communications Director in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Binyamin Netanyahu. He is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel which assists