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A milestone worth celebrating and collecting

A boy’s bar mitzvah and a girl’s bat mitzvah are rites of passage by Jewish law, and milestones in every young Jewish person’s life. Even in times of suffering during the Holocaust, when practicing religion was life-threatening, many took to conducting religious rituals, including bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and major holiday prayers, underground.

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Gottshall was born in 1914, growing up in Presov, Czechoslovakia where his father was Chief Cantor. After completing his rabbinic studies, Rabbi Gottshall was posted to Louny, Czechoslovakia in 1937. Despite receiving a visa for the United States in 1939, he made the decision to remain with his congregation, even though life was becoming increasingly difficult for Jews in Czechoslovakia. When Rabbi Gottshall and Louny’s entire Jewish community was transported to Theresienstadt, he began conducting religious services in secret.

Rabbi Gottshall with Bar Mitzvah boys orphaned during the war, 1945, courtesy Eva Wittenberg and Alex Gottshall

This photograph was taken in Prague, during Chanukah in 1945, after Rabbi Gottshall’s liberation from Auschwitz, and is of a group of orphaned Jewish boys whom he had gathered from all parts of Czechoslovakia.  He had trained them and officiated at their bar mitzvah, which had not been possible during the Shoah. Even in the darkest of times, he understood the importance of tradition and Jewish ritual in a young person’s life.

The Sydney Jewish Museum’s curators want to learn what the ritual milestone of a bar and bat mitzvah means to people in Australia today. If you have something sentimental from your own special occasion that you would like the Museum to keep, please contact the curators at curator@sjm.com.au or 9360 7999.


Image: Rabbi Gottshall with Bar Mitzvah boys orphaned during the war, 1945, courtesy Eva Wittenberg and Alex Gottshall.

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