It was December 1939 in Germany and Herman, was turning 13. Under normal circumstances, when a boy reaches the age of 13, the family would be busy planning a bar mitzvah, a major milestone in a young Jewish boy’s life. The bar mitzvah boy would recite that week’s Torah portion in front of the community, usually at a synagogue. In the past, parents would plan celebrations which were much more modest than the bar mitzvahs we know today. A family party or a festive meal was typical. But planning a bar mitzvah was challenging in 1939.
So many abnormal things were occurring. Herman’s father, Pop, had gotten a visa to go to London, so he was unable to be present for his first son’s bar mitzvah. The Jewish synagogue in Kassel was burned on November 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht. Herman’s mother Mutti requested permission from the Gestapo to hold a quorum of men at her house for the bar mitzvah. She was denied. Additionally, a new law required that all Jews must wear yellow stars on their clothing to signify they were Jewish.
Herman left his home early Friday morning, unaccompanied by any family members or friends. He removed his yellow star from his coat and, with a ticket in hand, boarded a train to the nearby town of Eschwege all by himself. Both traveling on the train and removing your yellow star were dangerous. If caught, you could be beaten up and possibly much worse.
Herman was not familiar with the town nor the people with whom he was to stay with until Sunday morning. When he arrived at the train station, he got off the train and looked around…how was he going to know who to meet? A man approached Herman and said in Yiddish: “Du bist a yid?” – “Are you a Jew?” Herman nodded. The stranger motioned for Herman to follow him.
On Saturday morning, in a room of the apartment where Herman was staying, nine men gathered. A small Torah was taken out of a closet and placed on a table. The portion of the Torah to be read that day was Vayechi meaning “And he lived.” Herman recited the blessings and read from the Torah. Perhaps there was some celebration. However, Herman was not among family and friends.
This was Herman’s bar mitzvah. Little did he know at the time, but he was going to live through the horrors of the Holocaust. Who would have thought that Herman’s first grandson would be reciting the exact same Torah portion 79 years later? The words were the same, but the circumstances were so different. Vayechi – and he lives on.