World War I, Yom Kippur and a Tale of Jewish Unity
During the First World War, Jewish soldiers from Germany and Eastern Europe found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. But on Yom Kippur in 1917 — in a German prisoner-of-war camp — German and Eastern European Jews prayed together, and bridged the cultural differences that separated them.
On this day, Dr. Yaakov Wygodski, a Russian-Jewish prisoner of war, visited the synagogue of a German POW camp for Kol Nidre prayers. He later wrote, “Dozens of German Jewish civilians and some Jewish German soldiers occupied the first benches in the upper eastern sections. All [of the] remaining benches were occupied by Jewish Russian POW soldiers in their much overused army clothes, with gray-striped trousers, and stripes on the left sleeve indicating the status of ‘prisoner of war.’”
In the early 1900s, German synagogues were different from those in Eastern Europe. The Germans prayed in an orderly fashion, usually led by a cantor. The Eastern European Jews prayed in a less organized manner and in a more passionate tone, more freely expressing their emotions. In Wygodski’s words, “The prayers of German Jews have a collective character, while Polish-Lithuanian Jews’ prayers have a more individual character.”
On Kol Nidrei in 1917, a very large and strong Jewish artillery officer from a Polish shtetl told Wygodski that he was distressed by the German prayer customs. “Is this our holy Yom Kippur,” he asked. “Their prayers, God forgive me … have no real emotion. You and I, when we pray, we tremble during Kol Nidre. When someone comes into our synagogue, he immediately feels a sense of terror, of fear.” But the Germans, he said, did not possess this spirit or passion for Judaism.
Other soldiers nearby agreed with him, and the Eastern European soldiers began to pray in their own manner. As the service went on, these soldiers cried out tearful words and deep sighs, while the German gabbaim (sextons) tried to silence them.
Suddenly, near the end of Kol Nidre, a tearful, passionate cry emerged from a single Jewish soldier: “Almighty God! Have mercy upon your poor people!”
His words had a powerful impact on all the members of the congregation — German and Russian alike. They had all been affected by the horrors of the war. This time, the gabbaim forgot to silence people; instead, everyone present bowed their heads and began to cry.
At that moment, no one could bear the heavy burden of the war in silence; together, they cried out to their Creator to end their suffering — and came together as representatives of the Jewish people.