October 2, 2003
Why I Fast
To me, the Yom Kippur fast always had a special meaning -- and the Yom Kippur of 1944 was particularly special. I fasted on that Yom Kippur, too. I was then prisoner No. 86619 in the slave labor camp of St. Valentin, far in the mountains of Austria.
On Yom Kippur eve I put the heavy, brick-like "bread" under my shirt and kept it there till the next evening. It was an act of defiance against the German persecutors. It was my way to proclaim that I was not yet reduced to a number. I was still a person; a person desperately trying to cling to the very last bit of control over my life. It was the ultimate test of willpower to carry that bit of bread on my body, a night and a full day, without so much as touching it. This, in spite of the perpetual hunger, which the camp's starvation diet never satisfied.
My maternal grandmother inspired that power of will when she and I spent a few months together. We were hiding from the Nazis in the small village of Wieliczka in Poland, about 20 kilometers (slightly more than 12 miles) south of Krakow. There were nine of us including my mother's sisters and my grandmother, all crammed into one small room. Any resemblance to normal life was long gone. Life in my hometown of Katowice became just a faint memory. Day by day, the Germans were coming up with new, oppressive restrictions. We have been already deported several times. All of our meager belongings were with us in that one small room.
During the day, all the adults were going out to do different chores. I was in my early teens and stayed with my grandmother; a small, frail woman in her late 70s always dressed in her black, ankle-long skirt and a sparkling, white blouse. Always in her ever-present sheitel, grandmother was devotedly religious. She constantly prayed and chanted verses in a language I did not understand. She lit Shabbat candles making each Friday a special day. She firmly believed that, in the end, God will save us from all evil. She never gave up hope.
Her advanced age did not stop her from cleaning, cooking and mending for all of us. Always busy doing something, she never sat down to rest. I specifically remember, how in those days of scarcity when there was no flour to bake bread, she made potato bread. It was sticky, it was heavy, but hunger made its taste heavenly.
From her, I learned how to convert things that didn't even look edible into wonderfully satisfying meals. Her ingenuity seemed limitless. I learned from her to mend socks and patch holes in my pants. While she cooked and cleaned I fetched buckets of water from the well outside or dug up potatoes in the nearby field. She also taught me to recite the "Shema." In the horror years yet to come it became my life-saving mantra. She taught me basic survival skills, which I am sure, in the end, saved my life.
My 13th birthday was coming up and, just like every Jewish boy, I looked forward to my bar mitzvah. Grandmother took upon herself to teach me our religion and told me about our ancient traditions. I recited after her and memorized the prayers. She prepared me for the passing from boyhood into adulthood which, among other things, meant fasting on Yom Kippur.
However, it was a bar mitzvah that never was. Soon after, we were expelled to the ghetto in Krakow, then herded into the infamous camp in Plaszow. One by one, the family perished. I ended up alone in the St. Valentin camp. The Nazis worked us in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, making tank parts. All day long I monotonously pushed a lever on a huge machine and kept reciting the "Shema."
Then came Yom Kippur of 1944. It was bitter cold. The family was gone. The already meager food rations deteriorated further into "soup" and "bread" twice a day. The long starvation and deprivation had taken their toll. I kept my mind from going numb and kept reciting the "Shema" that my grandmother taught me.
To fast on that Yom Kippur day was an act of defiance. It was to prove to myself that in spite of all the German atrocities, I still controlled at least one aspect of my life. They took away my family, they took away my freedom, but they could not take away the Yom Kippur fast. It was a desperate effort to cling to the last shred of esteem and preserve the last bit of personal dignity in an upside-down world that went berserk.
Of the nine people who lived in that small room in Wieliczka, I am the only survivor. The rest perished into the mass graves of Plaszow or in the chambers of Auschwitz. Today, well into my twilight years, I fast on Yom Kippur to remember those who perished, with a special place in my heart for my grandmother who taught me how to survive and how to recite the "Shema."
Nathan Gutman, who has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Conn., and has three children and 10 grandchildren.