Shofar Blowing in Siberia
It was the end of the short Siberian summer in the early 1940s. Rabbi Meir Halberstam, a young boy of 13, was imprisoned in a work camp with his grandfather, the Rebbe of Zmigrad, Rabbi Sinai Halberstam.
Before the war, in 1936, young Meir had moved to Yerushalayim with his family. In honor of his upcoming bar mitzvah, his father sent him back to Poland to celebrate the auspicious day in the Chassidus of his heilige grandfather. Unfortunately, he arrived in Poland just as the rumble of imminent war was making itself heard. Chassidim, family, and community members scrambled to save their lives. Young Meir, unable to return to Yerushalayim, escaped with his grandfather and immediate family to Russia. At last, they were safe, or so they thought.
The Russian government seized the opportunity to put the many Polish refugees that now flooded the country to work. Instead, Meir, his grandfather, and their entire entourage were charged as state enemies and sentenced to heavy labor in the unforgiving Siberian region.
Rosh Hashanah approached as the fleeting summer ended, replaced with howling, bone-chilling winds. Young Meir noticed that his grandfather grew more depressed with each passing day. “How will we blow the shofar?” cried the Rebbe. Although he had the holy shofar passed down from his ancestors, the thought of being caught by the evil Russian guards filled him with dread.
Two nights before Rosh Hashanah, young Meir devised a daring plan. He awoke in the middle of the night and wrapped cloth around his hands and feet to muffle any sounds he might make. From the window, Meir watched the guards drinking raucously and dancing late into the night. He waited until they were slumped over in a drunken stupor before quietly trudging through the wind and cold to the front of the camp where a giant bell stood. He looked in every direction and climbed up a tall post until he reached the top of the bell. Mustering all his strength, he unraveled the rope holding the bell up and watched it crash to the ground, where it shattered into thousands of tiny pieces. Then, just as quickly and quietly, he slid back down to the ground and returned to his barracks.
The following day there was an uproar. The guards saw the broken bell and realized they had now faced a massive hurdle. How would they wake the prisoners each morning? It would take weeks, if not months until they could procure a new one! By the time the prisoners were up, the guards were angrily looking for someone to blame.
Meir quietly told his grandfather of the daring mission he had carried out the previous night and explained his plan.
His uncle stepped forward and offered to help the head commander solve the problem. He explained that he had an old shepherd’s horn that his father would gladly blow each morning to wake the prisoners until they received a new bell. The commander demanded he brings the horn at once. The Rebbe arrived, shofar in hand, and began to blow clear blasts that carried clearly through the camp.
“Let me blow it,” the commander yelled, grabbing the shofar from the Rebbe’s hands. He brought it to his mouth, but no sound emerged, no matter how hard he blew. At this moment of frustration, young Meir’s uncle advised the commander that his father was a “professional horn-blower,” and perhaps he should be the one to sound the horn each morning. The commander consented and appointed the Rebbe the position of “official waker.” Until a new bell was mounted, it would be his responsibility to wake the prisoners each morning.
Word spread quickly throughout the camp, and soon all the Jewish prisoners knew that the Rebbe of Zmigrad would blow his holy shofar the following morning, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. As the sun snuck over the horizon ushering in the frosty morning, the Jewish prisoners were up and ready, eagerly awaiting the familiar sounds. The Rebbe wept as he blew, the prisoners cried and davened, and young Meir proudly watched the piercing notes of the shofar break through the darkness and flood the camp with hope and strength. It was a shofar blowing he knew he would never forget.