Judy (back row, fourth from the left) with her mid­dle-school class. Judy’s best friend, Agi Loson­czi, is on Judy’s right, and her camp sis­ter” Edit Feig is sit­ting in the first row on the left. Debre­cen, cir­ca 1940Cour­tesy of The Azrieli Foun­da­tion.”

That year, 1944, every­body came: the believ­ers, the athe­ists, the Ortho­dox, the agnos­tics — women of all descrip­tions and of every back­ground. We were about sev­en hun­dred women, jammed into one long bar­racks. We were all there, remem­ber­ing our homes and fam­i­lies on this Yom Kip­pur, the one hol­i­day that had been observed in even the most assim­i­lat­ed homes. We had asked for and received one can­dle and one sid­dur from the kapos. Some­one lit the can­dle, and a hush fell over the bar­racks. I can still see the scene: the woman, sit­ting with the lit can­dle, start­ing to read Kol Nidre, the open­ing prayer of Yom Kip­pur.

The kapos gave us only ten min­utes while they guard­ed the two entrances to the bar­racks to watch out for SS guards who might come around unex­pect­ed­ly. Prac­tis­ing Judaism or cel­e­brat­ing any Jew­ish hol­i­day was for­bid­den in the Auschwitz-Birke­nau death camp. The Nazis knew it would give solace to the pris­on­ers. But this par­tic­u­lar year, some of the old­er women had asked two kapos for per­mis­sion to do some­thing for the eve of Yom Kippur.

Most of the kapos were bru­tal­ized and bru­tal peo­ple, but a few of them remained tru­ly kind. We knew these par­tic­u­lar two were ap­proachable. One of the kind kapos was a tall blonde Pol­ish woman, non-Jew­ish. The oth­er one was a petite red-head­ed young Jew­ish woman from Slovakia.

When they had heard that we want­ed to do some­thing for Kol Nidre, the red-head­ed kapo was sim­ply amazed that any­one still want­ed to pray in that hell­hole of Birkenau.

You crazy Hun­gar­i­an Jews,” she exclaimed. You still believe in this? You still want to do this, and here?”

Many decades lat­er, every time I go to Kol Nidre ser­vices, I can’t shake the mem­o­ry of that sound.

Well, incred­i­bly, we did — in this place where we felt that instead of ask­ing for for­give­ness from God, God should be ask­ing for forgive­ness from us. We all want­ed to gath­er around the woman with the lit can­dle and sid­dur. She began to recite the Kol Nidre very slow­ly so that we could repeat the words if we want­ed to. But we didn’t. In­stead, all the women burst out in a cry — in uni­son. Our prayer was the sound of this incred­i­ble cry of hun­dreds of women. I have nev­er heard, before or since then, such a heart-rend­ing sound. Some­thing was hap­pen­ing to us. It was as if our hearts were bursting.

Even though no one real­ly believed the prayer would change our sit­u­a­tion, that God would sud­den­ly inter­vene — we weren’t that na­ive — the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cry out and remem­ber togeth­er remind­ed us of our for­mer lives, alle­vi­at­ing our utter mis­ery even for the short­est while, in some inex­plic­a­ble way. It seemed to give us comfort.

Even today, many decades lat­er, every time I go to Kol Nidre ser­vices, I can’t shake the mem­o­ry of that sound. This is the Kol Nidre I always remember.

From left to right: Judy’s sis­ters Évi and Klári; Judy’s father, Sán­dor; and Judy. Debre­cen, cir­ca 1943Cour­tesy of The Azrieli Foun­da­tion.”

Judy Weis­senberg Cohen was born in Debre­cen, Hun­gary, in 1928. Judy has been a Holo­caust and human rights edu­ca­tor since the 1990s. In 2001, she found­ed the pio­neer­ing web­site Women and the Holo­caust, which col­lects tes­ti­mo­ny, lit­er­a­ture and schol­ar­ly mate­r­i­al explor­ing the spe­cif­ic gen­der-based expe­ri­ences of women in the Holo­caust. In Decem­ber 2020, Judy Cohen was fea­tured in Dolce Mag­a­zine.