Weekly Chasidic Story #772 (s5772-51 / 23 Elul 5772)

The Prayerbook of Screams

Written on cigarette paper in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp

Connection: Seasonal: Rosh Hashana 5773

The Prayerbook of Screams

The Machzor, the prayerbook for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, has been soaked with tears down through the generations. Even so, one glance at the unique Machzor in the possession of Ze'ev Glick in Jerusalem is enough to guarantee that your heart will begin to pound in reaction to this Machzor that so strongly emanates tears and Jewish suffering.

The prayerbook is small, the pages delicate and thin, and the letters are tiny. The binding is wood. The opening page is inscribed with the title "[Machzor] Za'akat Hashevi" : "The Captive's Screams [High Holiday Prayer book]". The bottom section of the page bears the words, "Written in a prison camp in Russia, 1944, the fifth year of the fearsome World War, because there was not in our possession a single Machzor with which to pray on the holy days of Divine Favor, to scream out to G-d Al-mighty, all of us together, that He should redeem us immediately and gather our oppressed" [signed] "Mordechai ben R. Chaim-Zvi HaKohen Glick."

Ze'ev Glick holds the precious heirloom in his hands with great care and tells its story.

Before the war his father Benzion together with his uncle R. Mordechai Glick, were living in the town of Oyhal in Hungary. With the outbreak of the war, the two were arrested and dispatched to a labor camp in the Ukraine. In 1942 they were driven by Russian soldiers to Siberia, in what turned out to be a long death march.

Only a small minority survived the rigors and oppression of the journey. Mordechai carried his sick brother, Benzion, on his back most of the way. Benzion by then had shrunk to a mere 36 kilogram (80 lb) skeleton of bones!

When they finally reached the prison camp in Siberia, conditions did not improve much. From the total of 3000 Jews who managed to arrive there, after three months only around 300 were still alive. All the rest had perished from the combination of hard work, illnesses, starvation and the freezing cold.

Mordechai took upon himself the seemingly hopeless task of encouraging his fellow prisoners. One of his "methods" was to compile a four-year calendar, so they could always know when would be Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov.

As Rosh HaShana 5705 (Sept. 18 1944) approached, there were zero prayerbooks available. The one request on the tongues of all the captives was to have a Machzor, for how else would they be able to recite the prayers for the Days of Awe. That is when Mordechai resolved to try to write the entire Machzor in longhand by heart!

Immediately arose the problem of how to acquire paper? Mordechai began to withhold part of his already inadequate food rations, and traded the portions daily with the guards in exchange for cigarettes. Then he stripped the papers from around the tobacco and stocked-piled them. When he felt he had enough papers, he began to inscribe on them, in tiny but clear block letters, fully voweled the text of the Machzor. Just before Rosh HaShana he completed it, including even all the lengthy piyutim that are said only once a year.

After finishing the writing, he managed, to persuade a few soldiers also in exchange for food, to prepare for him two slabs of wood of precise size. These he used to bind the pages, front and back. He carved into them a depiction of the Ten Commandment tablets, and under that a Magen David ("Jewish Star"). He also engraved two hands with fingers spread, so it would be known that the writer was a Kohen.

[Can this not be considered one of the most incredible accomplishments in modern Jewish history? To write out every single Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayer by heart, by hand, on the small, thin papers used for rolling cigarettes, in a brief time period, and then to create and engrave wood bindings- - - and all under starvation, sleep-deprived tortuous conditions! What's more, in a later year, after they reached freedom, the Machzor was checked, whereupon it was discovered that he had remembered correctly every single word and letter, and even every vowel!]

On Rosh HaShana and on Yom Kippur he led the prayers, using his unique Machzor, surrounded by the wailing of his fellow captives. The other Jewish prisoners answered responsively whenever they could, including all the "Amen"s**. Still the myriads of tears greatly outnumbered their words.

Mordechai and Benzion managed to survive the Siberian ordeal. Mordechai, who lost his wife and all of his children in the war, immediately left for Israel, where he remarried. Sadly, he never had more children and passed away relatively young on 21 Sivan 5720 (1960). The Machzor next passed into the possession of his brother, who by then was already living in Israel, where he married and fathered two children. Benzion lived to a ripe old age, passing away on 26 Nissan 5766 (2006). The precious Machzor is now being lovingly preserved by one of his son, Ze'ev, as you, dear reader, can see in the photo.


**Editor's note: Interestingly, the Rambam rules that this is the way the High Holiday prayers should be done. Since they are so complex, it is preferable, he says, that the congregation should rely on the prayer leader. And so it was done in Yemen for many centuries.

Source: Translated and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from Sichat Hashavua #1135

Connection: Seasonal: Rosh Hashana 5773


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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