Happy New Year from Dr. Renate G. Justin
An excerpt from What I have to Tell: A Memoir
On each of the three beds in our room, my mother had laid out a gray suit jacket and skirt with a matching, wide-brimmed hat.
It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, 1934. My ten- and seven-year-old sisters and I were going to go to temple in Nordhausen, dressed in our finest. We had to have an early supper to get to Nordhausen before sundown, the start of the holiday. Supper included apple slices dipped in honey to make sure the coming year would be sweet.
Our town, Ellrich, had a very old place of worship that had not been used for many decades. It was no bigger than a living room and was attached to a small clothing store owned by the only other two Jewish men, besides my father, who lived in our village. According to tradition, the presence of ten men, a minyan, is required to conduct some Jewish services. Therefore, we had to go to Nordhausen to attend High Holiday celebrations. To get there, we had to drive forty minutes—longer if we had to hand-pump gasoline along the road. Neither our congregation nor my family were orthodox, but driving to temple on a Sabbath or a holiday was not considered acceptable. When we arrived, my mother parked the car some distance from the synagogue to avoid drawing the ire of the congregants. We would then walk through the fall leaves, crunching them underfoot as we went, to attend services.
On entering the shul, my father joined the men on the first floor. My mother, my sisters, and I went upstairs where we sat behind a wooden fence with the other women. We could see through the fence. The rabbi and the male worshippers below us wore white robes called kittles, tallit shawls, and white yarmulkes.
I remember my younger sister asking my mother, “Why does Vati wear his white nightgown to temple?”
My mother, with her finger on her mouth, whispered, “The white gown is to remind us that in death we all are the same. No one is rich or poor any longer.” The men were dressed like they would be dressed on the day of their burial because, during this festival, God decides who will be inscribed in the Book of Life and who will not. The women wore everyday clothes. A few wore a sheitel, a wig, to make them unattractive to all but their husbands, but most just had a head covering of some kind.
Rosh Hashanah started one evening after sun- down and then extended to sundown two days later. We spent that time in prayer in temple. As a child, I believed in God, prayed fervently, and had faith that my words would be heard. Because of our weekly Hebrew lessons, we could follow the rabbi if he did not read too fast. We joined in the reciting of the communal prayers and chants, some of which we knew by heart. It was an honor to read a section of the Torah, and when our father was called up to the bimah, we became attentive, listened, and smiled when we heard him mention our Hebrew names for a special blessing.
Usually, sometime during the afternoon, my father would clear his throat, catch my mother’s eye, and point to the door. This was our longed- for signal. It was time for a family break, a short walk. My father would take off his gown and tallit and meet us outside the door. This particular year we walked to the little park next to where our boxy, gray Adler was parked. My parents gave each of us a book and asked us to sit in the warm fall sun on the park benches and read. They were going to rest in the car and maybe take a short nap.
We had been reading ten minutes or so when Eva elbowed me and whispered, “Look!” Two policemen had approached our car and knocked forcefully on the window.
When my startled parents opened the door, the uniformed men yelled, “Verboten!” They told my parents to get out: napping in the car was not allowed. To emphasize their new rule, they slapped both my mother and father in the face.
The five of us returned to the temple, silent and scared. We had seen the police around the temple looking for trouble on the eve of Rosh Hashanah but had not seen them the day of the New Year.
Toward the end of the service, we waited impatiently for the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It is difficult to blow a shofar, and if it is done well, the men call out words of approval. The haunting sounds of the horn echo ancient times, reminding us of traditions and the long history of the Jews.
Usually when the sun set and the prayers ended, the congregation spilled onto the sidewalk. Friends hugged, shook hands, and wished each other, “Le’ shana Tova Tikoteiv Vetichoteim—A good New Year, may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” This evening, there was none of that. A pall had descended upon the worshippers. Quietly and apprehensively, all of us returned to our homes, wondering what the new year might bring.
None of us had any idea of the reality that was to come. Nordhausen would become famous for the manufacture of V2 rockets, the temple would be burned to the ground, and the members of the congregation would be scattered around the globe or killed. Looking back, it all started with one word: Verboten. All nightmares have a beginning, and this was the beginning of ours.
Memoir available at