As It Happens

'Tell the world': Shofar smuggled out of Auschwitz to sound in NYC for Yom Kippur

For decades, a shofar that was believed to have been blown at Auschwitz was sitting in a paper bag in Judith Tydor Schwartz's house.

Auschwitz survivor Chaskel Tydor told his daughter prisoners sounded the horn in defiance of Nazis

Chaskel Tydor, left, told his daughter Judy Tydor Schwartz how prisoners at Auschwitz defied their Nazi captors to sound the ceremonial ram's horn during the Jewish New Year while in the concentration camp. (Submitted by Judith Tydor Schwartz)

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For decades, a shofar that was believed to have been blown at Auschwitz was sitting in a paper bag in Judith Tydor Schwartz's house. 

Now, the horn that her father helped smuggle out of the death camps is part of an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City called: Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.

It is also being used at two New York City synagogues during the holidays, including Yom Kippur.

Schwartz spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how her father, Chaskel Tydor, and other Jewish prisoners defied the odds, and risked death, to practice their faith while in Auschwitz.

Here is part of their conversation.

Can you take us back to Rosh Hashanah in 1944, when your father was in Auschwitz? How did he first hear about this shofar? 

My father was a work dispatcher in Auschwitz III, which was also called Auschwitz Buna.

Prayer and gatherings of any kind were, of course, impossible to do in such a camp. If you were caught, you were killed. But he knew that if he would send religious or orthodox prisoners who wanted to pray far, far away from the centre of the main camp, there was a good chance there would be fewer guards watching them.

So he sent as many people as he could to such a faraway commando and when they came …  one of his friends who he had sent came to him and said, "Chaskel, you won't believe it. Somebody had a shofar. Somebody blew a shofar on Rosh Hashanah." 

Chaskel Tydor, an Aushwitz survivor, told his daughter how this shofar was blown at the concentration camp despite the risk of death. (John Halpern/Museum of Jewish Heritage)

Wow. And what would be the consequences had that shofar sounding been heard by the guards? 

They would've been killed on the spot. They just would have been shot.

Can you just tell us a bit about a shofar? 

A shofar is a ram's horn which is used as part of the Jewish ritual on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. 

It sounds like a horn, but it sounds like a horn that is very unique. It's a combination of, like, a battle cry on the one hand, but what you're supposed to be battling is metaphoric. In other words, the purpose of hearing the shofar is to make somebody repent from their bad deeds. 

And to make that sound, to blast that horn, in the most dangerous of all places … what would it have meant for those who were there?

People who heard that shofar being sounded ... said that it gave them incredible strength — moral, spiritual — not only in the religious sense. In the sense that "I'm a human being." After all, what did the Nazis want to do with their prisoners? They wanted to wipe out their humanity.

Hearing a shofar under such circumstances reminded them that they were human beings. 

Chaskel Tydor, pictured in the late 1940s after he was liberated by the American army. (Submitted by Judith Tydor Schwartz)

How did your father come to be in possession of it? 

So my father knew of the shofar, but he'd never seen it. 

Three months [after he heard about it], all the prisoners in Auschwitz were marched out of the camp onto what was called the death march.

As they were setting out for this march, when they were still in the camp, my father said that a prisoner came over to him and put something into his hands.

It was the shofar that was wrapped with rags and this prisoner said, "I'm not going to survive. I'm dying. I won't be able to go out and walk. You're stronger than I am. Maybe you'll survive. Take this. This is the shofar. Take it. Take it to freedom. And if you make it out, tell the world we had a shofar here in Auschwitz Buna." 

It's been with your family for all these years. Why now? Why are you going to have this in the Museum of Jewish Heritage? 

From the time my father was liberated he ... blew this shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Year after year until his death. 

After that I inherited it. It came into my house. And it basically was in the same paper bag that my father had had it in since my childhood many, many, many decades ago.

However, this past year, an incredible exhibition called Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. opened at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

The entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau with the lettering 'Arbeit macht frei' ('Work makes you free') in Oswiecim, Poland. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

And before the actual opening, the chief curator and historian behind this exhibition, Prof. Robert Jan van Pelt, did me the tremendous honour of taking me around the exhibition and showing it to me and toward the end there is a beautiful room ... called spiritual resistance.

And there was only basically one artifact there. And Robert Jan said to me, "You know, there's very little that we have of religious artifacts from the Holocaust. Nobody really has things like that from Auschwitz."

Without thinking, I said, "Oh yeah, I do." And he just looked at me and he said, "You what?" I said, "I have a shofar from Auschwitz at home."

And he just looked at me in total astonishment and he said, "Please, please can you maybe lend it to us?"

And without thinking, I said, "Yes, of course, of course, because it's really important that its story be told and together with it, my father's story be told. He's the man who brought it to freedom."

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.