Section: Life before the Holocaust

Jewish beliefs

Jews follow the religion of Judaism. During the Holocaust and Nazi persecution of Jews, people’s ability to practice Judaism was disrupted or even prevented.

Central to Judaism is monotheism : God created the world and everything in it.

In Judaism, God values justice and mercy, and cares about all humanity. Jews recognise that Christians and Muslims are also monotheistic , although their beliefs are different.

The synagogue

The synagogue is one of the most important institutions in Judaism. It is viewed as the centre of the community.

The synagogue houses the Torah scrolls, which are kept in an Ark . The Ark always faces towards Jerusalem, so that Jews will have their minds turned in that direction when praying.  A curtain covers the front of the Ark. In front of the Ark or hanging by the side of it is an eternal light. All these artefacts represent features in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem .

In the synagogue there is usually a Bimah from which the services are led and the Torah is read.

However, this is often not the case in a Reform synagogue, where religious practices differ from those in an Orthodox community.

During the course of the Second World War, many of the synagogues in Europe were destroyed by the Nazis, or converted into buildings with other purposes.

The Torah

The Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible and is the most important book in Judaism. Jews regard the books of the Torah as the word of God Himself.

The five books of the Torah contain the early history of the Jews and rules for how Jews should live a moral life. These five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Torah scrolls are stored in the synagogues. During the Holocaust many were destroyed or stolen by the Nazis.

The Ten Commandments

The Torah identifies six hundred and thirteen rules: ten of these are known as the Ten Commandments.

These outline rules that Jews should follow, such as ‘You shall not steal’ and ‘You shall not commit murder’. The Ten Commandments are also crucial to Christianity.

Rites of passage

Judaism has rites of passage for different events in a Jewish person’s life.

For example, a baby girl is named publicly in the synagogue on the first Shabbat after she is born. A baby boy is named at his circumcision. All Jewish boys are traditionally circumcised on the eighth day after birth.

Jewish rites of passage also dictate that a girl becomes responsible for her own religious and moral behavior at the age of 12. This is called a Bat Mitzvah. A boy reaches this age of responsibility at 13. This is called a Bar Mitzvah.

Other rites of passage cover marriage, divorce and death.


The Neumann family celebrating Shabbat in the 1930s.
The Neumann family celebrating Shabbat in the 1930s.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Shabbat is the weekly day of rest. It starts on Friday at sunset and finishes on Saturday at nightfall. It is a day of worship, celebration and family. Shabbat starts with the lighting of two candles. This is followed by a blessing over a cup of wine, and the sharing of bread together.

Shabbat is a regular reminder that God created the world and rested on the seventh day.



Judaism celebrates many festivals throughout the year such as Yom Kippur , Chanukah , Purim and Passover .

These are celebrated in accordance with the Jewish calendar. The Jewish day begins at sunset, so all Jewish holidays begin the evening before their actual date.

As festivals are a time for celebration, reflection, or family, sometimes work is forbidden, such as on the days of Rosh Hashanah .

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Rites of passage

Rites of passage

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