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< Echoes of Memory

Vienna, Chanukah 1938



The first day of Chanukah fell on December 23, just 42 days after the infamous Kristallnacht. That night, most of Vienna’s synagogues were torched, Jewish stores looted and decimated, many homes broken into and men beaten, and in some cases men arrested and taken to concentration camps. That night was still fresh in our memories when the decision was made, nevertheless, to go ahead with the Chanukah celebration and pageant for which so many of us had rehearsed.

Kristallnacht only made it clear that the secular world would be denied to us. It appeared to galvanize the Jewish community to look inward, and in some ways to enhance Jewish life.

I used to sing in our synagogue’s choir but that was no longer possible. However, a new and much larger choir was organized, for which I auditioned and was accepted. It was the Jewish answer to the well-known Vienna Boys’ Choir. We were called the Yudishe singer knaben (Jewish boys’ choir). We rehearsed twice a week at a place in Vienna’s second district with a large Jewish population.

Because I lived quite a long way from there, I was given travel vouchers for my commute. It made me feel quite important. The choir organizers had us all measured for sailor suits. We even gave several concerts and made two recordings. The choirmaster had big plans. Although life went along as normally as could be expected, in each family separate and desperate plans were being made with the hope of leaving Vienna for some safe haven. For my sister and me, it was the Kindertransport for safety in England. 

Meanwhile, the Chanukah celebration, conducted in a large hall, went on as planned. My sister and some of her friends were dressed as Maccabee soldiers and performed a dance. I, dressed all in white and wearing a bandana on my forehead with a large paper candle and a glowing, colored flame, stood on the stage with seven of my similarly clad friends. I still remember the first of my lines—Ich bin das erste licht (I am the first light), followed by more words that I do not remember. As each of us said our lines, an adult standing at the foot of the stage lit the appropriate candle on a large Chanukah menorah. When all eight candles had been lit and the blessing made, the choir began to sing the Hebrew melody Maoz tsur yeshuati (Rock of ages). My mother was sitting in the first row, kvelling over our performance. All those present joined in the song, and we forgot about the harsh world outside. Naturally, as on all such occasions, this was followed with festive food and drink. We all went home with hope in our hearts.

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Tags:   alfred traumechoes of memory, volume 9


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