This photograph shows items used by religious Jews in prayer on display in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Physical resistance was not a realistic option for most people during the Holocaust. Nonetheless, many Jews found ways of asserting basic human dignity. One survivor, Yoysef Vaynberg, recalled what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in 1944. Kol Nidre is a ceremony performed as part of the Yom Kippur service.

After the evening roll call, we go to Kol Nidre.

For a long time already we have been promising each other to observe the Kol Nidre service this year. A Jewish block elder has allowed us to pray in his block. Someone has brought a tallis [prayer shawl] from the clothing warehouse. The seriousness of the moment is felt in the camp. It seems that the entire world is preparing for Kol Nidre.

In the morning the entire sky was clouded over. At midday the cloud rose and it rained. The sun hid somewhere behind the clouds. Heaven wept for an entire afternoon. Now, before Kol Nidre, it calmed itself a bit: the rain stopped. The world around lies desolate. The sun feels guilty and doesn’t dare to show its face.

From every block, people assembled at the barrack of the Jewish block elder. People stretch out on the pallets, stand pressed next to one another. Everyone who feels a Jewish heart beating inside has come, even the block elders and kapos [prisoners who were chosen by the SS to oversee other prisoners]. They are always the grand aristocrats. Now they are standing among the ordinary ‘prisoners’. They are possessed by dread. Even the German block elders and kapos, those terrible murderers are silent. They avoid the barrack, moving in a large semicircle around it. Today, they have somehow grown afraid of the Jews.

The rabbi prays.

Some have seen this preservation of religious practices in the most unimaginable of circumstances as a form of what has been termed ‘spiritual resistance’, a defiant defence of the Jewish traditions which the Nazis were seeking to destroy.

Photo: Jewish religious objects taken from victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau; Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu

Testimony: Jack Kugelmass & Jonathan Boyarin (eds.), From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry (Indiana University Press, 1999)