Fragments of Memories
A Most Memorable Kol Nidre
by Judy (Weissenberg) Cohen 

Practicing Judaism or celebrating any Jewish Holiday was totally forbidden by the Nazis at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The Nazis knew it would give solace to the prisoners. So we weren't allowed to mark any Jewish occasion. 

But this particular year, in 1944, when I was there, one day, some of the older women - and by older I mean they could have been 35 or 40 years old (to a 15 year old anyone who is over 30, looks old) - asked these two specific Kapos (high-ranking prisoners) for permission to do something for Kol Nidre (the Eve of Yom Kippur.)

Most of the Kapos (prisoners with authority)were really brutalized and brutal people but a few of them remained truly kind. We knew these particular two were approachable. One of the kind Kapos, I remember, was a tall, blonde Polish woman, non-Jewish. The other one was a little red-headed, young woman, a Jewish girl from Slovakia.

The women told them that we wanted to do something for Kol Nidre. The little red-headed girl, Cirka (or Cila) I believe was her name, but I am not sure, was simply amazed that anyone still wanted to pray in that hell-hole called, Birkenau. "You crazy Hungarian Jews" she exclaimed. "You still believe in this? You still want to do this and here?"

Well, we did.

So, we asked for and received, one candle and one siddur (prayer book). We were about 700 women jam-packed in one barrack. Everybody came: the believers, the atheists, the Orthodox women, the agnostics, women of all descriptions and of every background. We were all there.

The two Kapos gave us only ten minutes and they were guarding the two entrances to the barrack to watch out for any SS guard who might happen to come around - unexpectedly.

Then, someone lit this lone candle - and a hush fell over the barrack. I can still see this scene: the woman, sitting with the lit candle, started to read the Kold Nidre passage in the siddur. Incredibly, all of this happened in a place where, we felt, it was appropriate that instead of we asking forgiveness from God, God should be asking for forgiveness from us.

And yet, we all wanted to gather around the woman with the lit candle and siddur.

She recited the Kol Nidre very slowly, so that we could repeat the words if we so desired.

But we didn't. Instead, the women burst out in a cry - in unison. Our prayer was the sound of this incredible cry of hundreds of women. It seemed to give us solace. Remembering Yom Kippur was somehow a reminder of our homes, and families because this was one Holy Day that was observed even in the most assimilated homes.

Something happened to these women. It was almost as if our hearts burst. I never heard either before or since then such a heart rendering sound.

Even though no one really believed the prayer would change our situation, that God would suddenly intervene - we weren't that naïve - but the opportunity to cry and remember together helped us feel better. It reminded us of our former, normal lives; alleviated our utter misery, even for a littlest while, in some inexplicable way.

Even today, many decades later, every time I go to Kol Nidre services, I can't shake it.

That is the Kol Nidre I always remember.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Judy Cohen, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the web site.  For other permission, please contact 

This work is reprinted here with the permission of Judy Cohen.