Alan Rosen Lectures about Jewish Calendars During the Holocaust

Mon, 05/31/2021 - 1:00pm

“How the Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars Bear Witness”

Alan Rosen (Recipient of the 2020 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research)

April 21, 2021

For the last lecture in its exciting series of spring events, the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research hosted Dr. Alan Rosen, the esteemed scholar of the Holocaust. Dr. Rosen’s lecture, which was cosponsored by the USC Casden Institute, was entitled “How the Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars Bear Witness" and was grounded in his most recent book The Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars: Keeping Time Sacred, Making Time Holy (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2019), which was awarded the 2020 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. 

Dr. Rosen began his presentation by elaborating on the image of a Jewish calendar composed by Sophie Solberg, one of the two Jewish calendars she authored while she was interned at Auschwitz I. The first calendar that she authored for the year 1943 was lost, but the second one, for the year 1944-45, she kept with her even when she was sent on the death march in January of 1945. Dr. Rosen noted that Sophie Solberg virtually collaborated with him on his book. More importantly, he pointed out that it was her spirit and the fact that she managed to compose these calendars in such grave conditions that prompted him to open the lecture with her story. Since composing a Jewish calendar is a complex and demanding task, Dr. Rosen said that the creation of such calendars during the Holocaust provokes the question about how Jewish individuals like Sophie Solberg were able to do it. Before moving to the next part of his lecture, Dr. Rosen pointed out that he benefited significantly from the testimonies housed in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. For this research, he consulted several dozens of testimonies of Jewish survivors who discussed calendars. In addition, testimonies were very instructive when it comes to the concept of time during the Holocaust. 

Next, Dr. Rosen turned to describing the content of the Jewish calendar, which is a solar lunar calendar that has some overlaps with Gregorian or Julian calendar. The calendar is divided into 12 months, but contains 13 months in a leap year, and numbers 354 days. The days of the week are not known by names, but by their order, and the day always starts with the onset of night. Dr. Rosen emphasized that according to the Jewish calendar, we are still in the century of the Holocaust. Dr. Rosen said that Holocaust-era Jewish calendars can be observed as a special form of testimony. 

In his book, Dr. Rosen focused on 40 Jewish calendars that he was able to obtain from public archives and personal holdings. These calendars were produced by individuals or, in some cases, by ghetto authorities. They were produced in hiding and some were circulated, like those produced in France. Most of them were produced in 1944 or 1945. The calendars Dr. Rosen focused on vary in character, from very ornate to very simple ones. Most calendars are very small, and only a few are large calendars. Regardless of the size, character, scope, duration, or the material used, Dr. Rosen pointed out that these calendars were individual efforts at preserving time's sacred dimension. Most of the calendars complement the dating of the Jewish year with that of the Gregorian or Julian calendar, which was an established practice before the war. According to Dr. Rosen, this points to the conservative nature of wartime timekeeping, but he also interpreted it as the refusal of Jews, who were cut off from the world, to cut off the world from them. 

In the next part of his lecture, Dr. Rosen provided a short overview of several Jewish calendars that he analyzes in his book. After elaborating more on the calendar composed by Sophie Solberg, Dr. Rosen showed a calendar produced in the Lodz ghetto, which was generally very active in producing calendars. From 1940 through 1944, approximately 6,000 calendars were published in this ghetto. Next, he showed an anonymous typewritten Jewish calendar in German from Theresienstadt, which also contains an illustration on its front page of the burial place of Rachel, the matriarch, whom the Jewish tradition considers to be a petitioner for the consolation and comfort of the Jewish people. Dr. Rosen showed another calendar produced in Theresienstadt, a painting of twin columns of Jewish months in Hebrew made by a Czech Jewish female artist. Behind the Hebrew letters, this artist painted scenes of Jewish commemoration celebration. For Dr. Rosen, this way of camouflaging of Jewish events by Jewish months seemed to represent the way in which Theresienstadt was presented as a model camp, but in reality was a transit camp that deported tens of thousands of Jews. According to Dr. Rosen, this calendar painting represents a disjunction between what one sees and what one truly experiences. Next, Dr. Rosen elaborated on the calendar composed by Rabbi Berlinger, a detailed and complex calendar that included many observances, and also the calendar made by a 16-year old boy Menachem Neuman during his time in Bergen Belsen. Finally, Dr. Rosen showed the calendar produced by Rabbi Shlomo Shiner while he was in hiding at the house of his former Christian employee. Dr. Rosen argued that the calendar served as a witness and a memorial tomb to those Jews Rabbi Shlomo heard of being killed mostly by Polish militias. Rabbi Shlomo’s is the only calendar Dr. Rosen encountered that is color-coded. 

In the final part of his lecture, Dr. Rosen turned to eight main points that he was able to draw from the survey of the Holocaust-era Jewish calendars. First, Dr. Rosen pointed out that Jewish time matters the most when it is jointed with the Jewish calendar – there is no abstract dimension of time. Second, the fact that these calendars were written down testifies that knowing was not enough and that these needed to be recorded and publicized to the wider community. Third, Dr. Rosen argued that the calendars express the need and desire to live Jewishly even during those times, often recording Jewish holidays even when the Jews who made or held them may not have been able to exercise their faith on those holy days. So the calendar and the time it embodies represent the Jewish tradition. Fourth, the calendars demonstrate Jewish refusal to be cut off from the world. Fifth, Dr. Rosen argued that calendars themselves became a refuge to Jews. Sixth, he pointed out that these calendars demonstrate that regular days were also meaningful to Jews. Seventh, Dr. Rosen asserted that the very creation of each calendar is a proclamation, a statement in itself. Finally, Dr. Rosen noted that the calendar was a way to witness to a future that will be and that tragically, many Jews did not live to see. 

Dr. Rosen’s lecture was followed by a discussion that included questions about whether making Jewish calendars during the Holocaust was a way for Jews to take away the definition of time from the perpetrators; about where the Nazis and the SS got their Jewish calendars, because it is known that they deliberately used Jewish holidays to mount raids or start deportations; about what survivors have to say about Jewish calendars in their testimonies; about where Dr. Rosen discovered the calendars he focused on in his book and, considering the makeshift nature of many calendars, what counted as a calendar at all.

Summary by Badema Pitic

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How the Holocaust’s Jewish Calendars Bear Witness
A Lecture by Alan Rosen

In this April 21, 2021, lecture, Alan Rosen considers the special manner of witness found in Holocaust-era calendars composed in ghettos, in camps, and in hiding. The event was organized by USC Shoah Foundation and cosponsored by the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life.

Badema Pitic