By Jackie Shimshoni
This Friday evening begins the Jewish holiday of Passover (or Pesach, as it’s called in Hebrew). This holiday has been one of the most important in the Jewish religion for thousands of years. This week’s blog post discusses how the holiday was observed during the Holocaust and how it has been affected since.
A Brief Introduction to Passover
On Passover, Jews celebrate the exodus of their ancestors out of Egypt, where they had been enslaved by Pharaoh. As the story goes, the Jews had been enslaved for over 200 years. With Moses as His representative, God brought 10 plagues (all of which “passed over” the Jews) upon the Egyptians until they finally agreed to free the slaves. The Jews, knowing that Pharoah would change his mind, left in such a hurry that their bread did not have time to rise. Pharoah did indeed change his mind and then pursued them, and this is when Moses parted the Red Sea with the help of God.
To celebrate these miracles, which eventually led to the reception of the 10 Commandments, Jews are commanded to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year. They do this by removing all leaven (hametz) from their possession for seven days, eating matzah (unleavened bread), and telling the story of their redemption to their children during a seder (which means “order”), a ceremonial meal that usually takes place at home. As the original events in Egypt were thought to take place in approximately 1300 BCE, Jews have been celebrating Passover for over 3000 years.
Passover Before the Holocaust
Yad Vashem created a video compiling survivors’ recollections of their Passover traditions before the Holocaust:
These recollections, as many others do, remind us of the rich cultural heritage that the Nazis almost managed to destroy.
Passover During the Holocaust
It may seem difficult to imagine Jews observing religious holidays–indeed, continuing to believe in God at all–given the magnitude of the horrors surrounding them. Yet there are many stories of how Passover continued to be observed throughout the Holocaust. Haggadahs (special prayer books used during the Passover service) have been discovered at the site of death camps, and there are photographs of Passover seders in the Ghetto. In fact, it was on the eve of Passover that the Germans invaded the Warsaw Ghetto to liquidate it, prompting the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. There are tales of Jews celebrating their final seder in the Ghetto right before this took place.
In the depths of the Holocaust, how did they even know when to celebrate? As this story of the 1945 Passover in Dachau states, many in the camps did not even know what day it was, let alone the Jewish holidays. But there were certain religious individuals who continued to track the Hebrew calendar and urge the others to uphold their traditions. Even for those who were not deeply religious, many saw celebrating the day as a form of spiritual resistance, and did not fail to note the resonance of the story of enslavement- as one man in the Dachau story stated, “Pesach is the holiday of our freedom from slavery, aren’t we slaves here for the Nazis? You know very well that this may be our salvation and the gate for our exodus from Germany.”
Most during the Holocaust were not able to observe the holiday fully. In large part, this was due to the lack of resources available to them for holding the traditional seder. In addition, because of the extremely small amount of calories prisoners were receiving in the camps (and those outside of the camps, facing the hardships of war), abstaining from bread would mean certain death–and according to Jewish law, the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious consideration. So in the story of the 1943 Passover in Theresienstadt, one of the prisoners wrote in his diary:
“Here in the ghetto, they celebrated the Seder and ate bread rolls, a strange thing to do. A strange act. A strange ghetto – strange Jews, a strange world. A celebration of Passover, and for the Seder they eat [leavened] bread.”
The rabbis in Bergen Belsen even wrote a dispensation in 1944 permitting the consumption of leavened bread during Passover, writing the following in Hebrew:
“Before eating hametz, the following should be said with heartfelt intent: Heavenly Father, here, openly and knowingly before you, is our desire to do your will and to celebrate Passover by eating matza and by observing the prohibition of eating leaven, but it pains our hearts that slavery prevents us and we are in mortal danger…we are prepared and ready to observe your commandments and live by them and, if not, die by them and be warned by the warning, ‘beware and guard you soul carefully.’ For this reason, we pray that You will keep us in life, and preserve us and redeem us quickly so that we can observe Your laws and do Your will and worship You with a full heart – Amen.”
Toward the end of the war, there are stories of Jews in the camps obtaining flour to make matzah, due to some small kindness of their overseers–or, more likely, because they knew defeat was inevitable and hoped to receive mercy when the liberators came.
After the war
Most Holocaust survivors’ ordeals did not end when the war did. Many found themselves in displaced persons camps after losing their homes and families. This silent film shows rare footage of Passover being prepared for and celebrated in a displaced person’s camp in Vienna.
Yad Vashem also has several pictures of seders in displaced persons camps. One such celebration included a special Haggadah that intertwined the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust with the suffering of their ancestors in Egypt. This is now called the Survivor’s Haggadah. This short video by USHMM discusses the creation of the Survivor’s Haggadah.
One of the extraordinary things about Passover is how it can be adapted by more progressive observers to reflect our hopes for the present day. For example, during the Cold War, some seders included sections dedicated to those Jews facing oppression in the USSR. To that end, there are multiple resources online for incorporating supplements into one’s seder, including this one for remembering the Holocaust and this one which not only offers a section for remembering the six million, but others praying for the hungry, the refugees, the slaves, and the oppressed in our modern world.
I will end this blog post with a beautiful quote from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Press, April 1, 1942, the eve of Passover:
“We are still having the festival of freedom at a time of inhuman slavery. And even though freedom is being trampled underfoot every day by the boots of the most terrible monster in all generations, it continues to flourish in our souls, and we believe and hope.
Passover, the most beautiful festival in our history, returns and revives the eternal idea of freedom in our memory. For [our] tortured [people] these days, it is a recollection of redemption. We understand today [more] than before the meaning of the words, ‘In every generation, every person must see himself as if he himself came out of Egypt.’ It is the command of history.“