November 14, 2018
by Alfred Traum
The first day of Chanukah fell on December 23, just 42 days after the infamous “Night of Broken Glass” (Kristallnacht). That night most of Vienna’s synagogues were torched, Jewish stores were looted and decimated, many homes were broken into, and men were beaten and in some cases arrested and taken to concentration camps. That night was still fresh in memories when the decision was made, nevertheless, to go along with the Chanukah celebration and pageant for which so many of us had rehearsed.
Kristallnacht only made it clear that the secular world was denied to us and appeared to galvanize the Jewish community to look inward and, in some ways, enhance Jewish life.
I had sung in our synagogue’s choir, but after Kristallnacht 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, where there was a large Jewish population. Since I lived 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 matching sailor suits. We 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 a safe haven. For my sister and me, it would be 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 “glowing” a colored flame, stood on the stage with seven of my friends similarly clad. 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 recited, the choir began to sing “Rock of Ages” (Maoz tsur yeshuoti). My mother was sitting in the first row kvelling, she was so proud of 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.
The Nazis may have destroyed our synagogues, but not our spirits.
In retrospect, looking back to those days it just seems ironic that we were celebrating the successful Jewish revolt against the occupying forces of the Greek Empire, and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, while at the same time clouds were gathering to bring about the darkest period in Jewish history.
©2018, Alfred Traum. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.
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