Remembering Stanley Abramovitch This Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur – the holiest day on the Jewish calendar – it is customary to take time to remember friends and loved ones who passed away.

This year Stanley Abramovitch, a longtime JDC employee who died last May at 93, will be on our mind.

In a career that spanned seven decades and three continents, Abramovitch was involved in many of the organization’s major operations.

His first job with JDC was aiding Holocaust survivors at a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany – an experience he wrote about for CNN on the eve of Yom Kippur in 2010.

In his piece, Abramowitz recalled the Yom Kippur he spent at the camp in 1945 among survivors of Nazi persecution and their attempts to reconcile their religious beliefs with the trauma of the war.

"In October 1945, I spent Yom Kippur in the displaced persons camp in Landsberg in Bavaria, Germany, as the representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), working with displaced persons.

The liberated Jews who had been imprisoned in the nearby Dachau concentration camp, as well as those who had been forced to work in ammunition and other factories in Bavaria, were gathered into Landsberg and nearby Feldafing camps. Many Jews from other concentration camps had been forced-marched to this part of Germany, where the U.S. Army liberated them.

In Landsberg there was a spacious German Army barracks confiscated by the U.S. Army, in which some of the liberated Jews were housed. Basic food and medical care were provided by the Army, supplemented by assistance from JDC.

The Jews elected a committee which assumed responsibility for the internal administration of the camp. Synagogues were organized for the high holidays by different groups, often on the basis of the origin of the participants. There was a synagogue for Jews from Poland, another for Hungarian and Lithuanian Jews.

Smaller groups - Hasidic Jews or those from Marmarosh, an area on the border of Rumania spilling into Hungary and Slovakia - had their own places of prayer.

I attended morning services in the synagogue for Polish Jews. The prayers were charged with emotion, very moving, very painful. The tears shed came from the depths of their hearts, mourning those who were lost, murdered in the camps. It was rare to find among those present individuals whose siblings or more distant family members had survived.

The older generation was almost not there. They were the first victims, since they lacked the physical strength to withstand the horrors of the camps. Few children survived. They, too, succumbed quickly. The survivors prayed, remembered, wept and found a little comfort in those tears.

After morning prayers, I decided to visit other synagogues and spend some time with other groups. I left the synagogue and walked across the half empty streets. There were many people who remained in the street and refused to attend services. They were angry at G-d.

Among them were formerly religious Jews who could not accept the apparent indifference of G-d to the suffering; the torture, and the tragedy they had both witnessed and experienced in their homes and in the camps.

They could not reconcile their former beliefs and convictions of an All-Merciful, Almighty Divine Being, with the catastrophe that had struck their communities. They would not pray. When they heard the recitation of the Kaddish, the special prayer of mourners expressing praise of the Lord, they reacted angrily that G-d did not deserve the Kaddish.

They were broken in spirit. They could not reconcile recent events to which they were witnesses with the contents of the Hebrew prayers.

These Jews roamed the streets. They wanted to express their anger, to show G-d that they defied Him, as he seemed to have abandoned them. Some ate their food on the fast day publicly in the streets, as a gesture of defiance – of revolt.

In one of the streets, I saw a large group of people standing in a circle. I approached nearer to find out what was going on.

In the middle of the circle stood a seven-year-old girl, embarrassed, perplexed. She could not understand why all these people stood around her.

She, of course, could not know that they were surprised to find a Jewish child. So they stood, silently, and just looked at this miracle of a Jewish child in their midst. They could not tear themselves away from this one child who said nothing and to whom nothing was said. They just stood and gaped.

A special prayer is normally recited on Yom Kippur for the departed members of one's family. It's called Yizkor, the memorial prayer.

As those people looked at the little girl, they remembered their own children, or their younger brothers and sisters, the nephews and nieces who at one time were their pride and joy, and who were no more. Each one of them looked and remembered, recalled the beloved children who were cruelly exterminated.

As they remembered, they recited without any words the Yizkor for all those who once were part of their lives and now were gone forever. This was a silent, most moving Yizkor, without words, without prayer books, recited in that street in Landsberg, by a group of Jewish survivors, watching a bewildered little Jewish girl.

It was the most moving, most eloquent, most heartfelt, most silent Yizkor I have ever heard."

He later took assignments in Tehran, North Africa, Israel, and the former Soviet Union and continued working for JDC as a consultant until he was 92.

Abramowitz is fondly remembered for his kindness, intelligence, and the many good deeds he did unto others in the service of the Jewish people.

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