Paula R. Stern – Passover Perspectives
Ever read a story and feel like the world has changed? That somehow all that you thought was hard in your life fades away when you imagine experiencing what those in the story lived throught?
I’m cleaning my house for Passover. My counters are full, my couch is full. I have empty shelves where Passover dishes will go, five empty shelves where the stuff on the couch has to be stored. I didn’t get to some drawers yet. Freezer done, fridge half. OMG, I still have to do the stove and in between I have to figure out about Shabbat. David will be home…I need to make him good food. That means I need the oven…but I need to clean it before the weekend so that I can start cooking.
Stop…breathe…think. These are your problems? Thank you, God. Thank you. I have SIX boxes of matzo on my couch…SIX. I went to the store and in an aisle FULL of matzo, I just took down two boxes, piled them in my FULL cart. Walked to the cashier. Paid. Drove home in my beautiful car…walked into my amazing home in Israel, in Maale Adumim, minutes from Jerusalem. I bought the food IN JERUSALEM. Stop…breathe…think…and now read this story…
It was written by Solly Ganor, who lives (may he live to 120, please God) in Herzilia, Israel…I’ll be passing through Herzilia in a few hours. It’s a true story. He experienced it…about a seder that took place on March 27, 1945. Mr. Ganor survived the Holocaust, as too few did.
The seder took place on March 27, 1945, in Dachau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp. He was a youngster at the time, a slave laboring in the death camp where hundreds of thousands perished.
This is how Solly recounted the story:
It is the story of a man who made a difference even while we dwelt in the Nazi hell. We did not know his name. We only knew him as the “Rebbe” and that he came to us from the Lodz Ghetto, through Auschwitz.
One evening, the “Rebbe” came to see us in our barracks. He was the same weird man from Lodz who staged the Purim party and almost got us killed by the German guards. We never found out if he was really a rabbi, but we all called him: ”Rebbe.” He knew all the prayers by heart and always urged us to keep the faith even in Dachau.
Burgin, the head Jewish Capo, gave him the job of burying the dead and he had plenty to do, as more and more of our prisoners died. It was a dreadful job, but it was better than carrying hundred pound cement sacks on your back. He called himself ”Chevra Kadishe” and was known to say Kaddish after every burial, which earned him our respect. Everyone considered him strange, but he was a kind man and always smiled, which was another reason why we thought he was crazy.
We were sitting around the small round iron stove trying to warm ourselves, when he came into our barracks. He smelled of the dead. We were well acquainted with that smell. “Yidden, peisach
kumt in tzvelf tug un men darf baken matze,” (“Jews, Passover is coming in twelve days and we have to bake matzos.”) He spoke Yiddish differently from our Lithuanian Yiddish and sometimes it was difficult to understand him. He also had the strange habit of calling us “Yidden” and never called us by our names. We just looked at him in astonishment.
In the last few weeks, our situation had deteriorated. The watery soup we got for lunch became even more watery, and the daily portion of bread became thin and quite often green with mold. The German overseers showed increasing nervousness as the Allies were closing in and were even crueler, beating us at every opportunity. We knew that the Allies were somewhere in Germany, but whether we could hold out till they reached our camp was doubtful.
After the incident we had with the ”Rebbe” on Purim, we weren’t too surprised that he would come up with another loony idea. Then he gave us a sly look and wagged his forefinger at us. ”Let me tell you, Yidden, we shall soon celebrate not only ‘Yetzias Mitzraim’ but also ‘Yeztias Deutschland.’” He said this and gave a short high pitched laugh. (“We shall soon celebrate not only the exodus from Egypt, but also the exodus from Germany.”)
We thought that his statement ”Exodus from Germany,” instead of liberation, was part of his strange behavior. ”From your mouth to G-d’s ears, but how on earth do you know that Pesach is in twelve days?” my father asked in surprise. “I know because it is four days before the end of March!” he said triumphantly. That didn’t any make more sense to us than his precise knowledge of Jewish holidays. We hardly knew what day it was, let alone the days of our holidays.
“And to where is this Exodus taking us from Germany? Shall we cross the Red Sea to the promised land?” Chaim asked with derision. “No, we shall cross the Mediterranean to the promised land, young man,” he answered quietly. We looked at each other. Perhaps his ideas were not so crazy. We all thought that if we would survive this purgatory, the only place left for us to go was the Land of Israel (known at the time as Palestine).
“So, how about some flour? I will bake the matzos and make the proper blessing to make it kosher,” he said, rubbing his hands. “For G-d’s sake, Rebbe, where do you expect us to get flour? We are all starving here and you come with your crazy ideas,“ one of the prisoners said in an irritated voice.
“Look, if you want to have an exodus from Germany, we must have matzos,” he said, stubbornly. “Or there won’t be an exodus from Germany,” he said, sticking up his chin. Then he suddenly pointed his finger at me and said, ”You work in the German OT kitchen, you bring us the flour!”
I looked at him in astonishment. My father got really mad at him. “You want my son to risk his life to steal flour from the Germans for your Matzos?” Father practically shouted at him.
“For our Matzahs,” the ‘Rebbe’ said calmly. “He is the only one who can get the flour.” I thought about the cellar in the German kitchen, where they kept the foodstuffs. It was not only under lock and key, but the cook was always hanging around. There was no way I could get into the cellar, and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t bother with flour, but would steal food to help us survive.
The “Rebbe,” as if sensing my thoughts, held up his hand. “I have something that may help you get the flour,” he said, and took out from under his armpit a small rag tied with a string. He carefully untied it and took out two objects. He put it on his left palm and stuck it under my nose. I recoiled in disgust. They were two foul smelling teeth with some gold attached to them.
We were all stunned. We all knew that he buried the dead. When he saw our looks he smiled. “It’s not what you think. I didn’t pull any teeth from the dead. It was Zundel who gave it to me before he died. I promised him that I would barter the teeth for flour to make matzos for the Passover Seder. You wouldn’t want me to go back on the promise I made to a dying Jew?” he said looking at us accusingly.
“Don’t you understand? 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.”
Obtaining the Flour
To this day, I don’t know how I agreed to the Rebbe’s crazy idea. Religion was the last thing on our minds under the circumstances. To some extent, we blamed G-d for what happened to the Jewish people in Europe. There was one sentence in the Haggadah that especially angered us: “In every generation our enemies rise to destroy us, but the Almighty always saves us from their hands.” He certainly was not saving all of us…
The next day, I took the gold teeth with me to the German kitchen where I was working. The cook was a mean old German man who always cursed us and would strike us with his iron soup ladle. But he never really hurt us. How should I approach him? What should I tell him? “Here are two gold teeth extracted from a dead Jew. Can you please give me some flour to bake some matzos for Passover?” He would probably deliver me to the SS guards to be shot.
The more I thought about it, the crazier it sounded. Finally, I decided to abandon the idea. When the cook saw me he called me over. “You can start cleaning the mess hall and then the wash room.” His tone of voice was much milder than before. I felt a difference in his voice. While he spoke to me, he kept looking at the sky. Sure enough, a squadron of American fighter planes came roaring over the roofs. I saw them wheeling down towards the railroad tracks and heard their cannons rattling, followed by loud explosions. They must have been attacking some nearby target. It was an incredible sight and made my heart leap with joy.
The cook almost fainted with fright and ran down to the cellar where the food was stored. I ran after him, but he began shouting, “Get out! Get out! Get out! I saw you gloating when the planes came over.” He screamed at me. I quickly got out of the cellar hoping he would calm down after a while. I had made a huge mistake by making him angry. I called out to him and begged his forgiveness. “I was just frightened of the attacking planes, please forgive me,” I said. We looked at each other. I could see in his eyes that he was thinking the same thing as I, “Soon the Americans will be here.”
It was then that I suddenly blurted out the story of the Passover holiday and that we needed flour to bake matzos. It was as if the “Rebbe” had taken control of my tongue and made me say these things. Then I slowly opened the rag the “Rebbe” had given me and extended the two gold teeth to him.
For a while he looked at me as if I had gone mad. Then I saw some recognition in his eyes. “Is that the holiday Passover when our savior Yashke (the founder of Christianity) sat with his disciples and ate the unleavened bread at the last supper? Is the unleavened bread what you Jews call matzos?“
It was my turn to be surprised. I knew that he was an observant Catholic by the cross he wore around his neck, and I saw him cross himself several times when the American planes came over. This was an entirely unexpected turn of events.
As children we were taught that Yashke was always connected with trouble for the Jewish people. But if Yashske can help us get the flour, nu nu, we will take it… I was beginning to be hopeful. He looked at the gold teeth for a while but didn’t take them. He didn’t say anything more, and told me to clean up the mess hall and the wash room.
Before we went back to the camp, he came out of the kitchen and gave me a small paper bag full of white flour. “I think our lord would want you to have matzos for your holiday. After all he was one of your people. Sometimes we forget that.” I don’t know why he gave me the flour, perhaps be thought that I would say a good word for him when the Americans came, or perhaps he did it out of religious convictions. The fact was that he didn’t take the gold teeth. Whatever the reasons, the “Rebbe” had his flour and, on the small iron stove, he baked us little white wafers that reminded us vaguely of matzos. They had small holes in them and were slightly burned.
The Seder Begins
It was on March 27, 1945, when he brought the matzos and declared that the Passover Seder would now begin.
“Out of the seven ingredients needed to conduct the Seder, we now only have two. Matzos and Marror, but the Almighty will understand,” this weird man said.
“’Rebbe’, where is the Marror (bitter herb) that you mentioned?” We asked him. He looked at us. “Our lives in this camp are the Marror; all of our lives are bitter enough.” He then divided the matzah, gave each of us a piece and made us say the blessings.
“Since you are the youngest of the group, you will ask the four questions ’mah nishtana.’” To my surprise, I remembered most of them and sing-songed the questions with the help of the others. We did not hide the ‘Afikomen’ because there were no children in our camp. The children had all been sent to Auschwitz to be gassed.
We had to go to work the next day and we were hungry and dead tired, but that night of Passover, we joined the “Rebbe” in holding some kind of a Seder. He remembered most of the Haggadah by heart; so did my father who had studied in a yeshiva when he was a boy. Some of the other participants also knew parts of the Haggadah. Some of us joined in saying the blessings, but we were all asleep before the “Rebbe” finished chanting the Haggadah. I vaguely remembered him singing Chad Gadya.
At the end, he made a short prayer in Yiddish: “Please, forgive us, Oh Master of the Universe, for conducting such a poor Passover Seder service. But it was the best we could do, and please deliver us, Oh Lord, from the hands of our enemies who rose up, once again, in this generation to destroy us.”
What should I tell you? We all felt as if we were there at “yetzias Mitzraim” (the Egyptian Exodus) and we believed the “Rebbe” that we would also be at “yetzias Deutschland” (the German Exodus).
He woke me before he left and told me, “You deserve a special blessing for bringing the flour for the Matzos. You will be among those who will soon celebrate the exodus from Germany to the Holy Land.”
About a month later, the war was over and we were rescued by the US army. It was May 2, 1945.
We live today in very different times. Yet we still tell the same story as the “Rebbe” and the Jews in Dachau. Their story, our collective story, still inspires us.
Each year, when Pesach comes around, I ask myself the question: How can I turn my Seder into the meaningful and transformative experience it was meant to be?
The holiday of Pesach, commemorating the exodus of the Jewish people from the land of Egypt some 3,300 years ago (in the year 1313 B.C.E.) reflects the liberation of the soul from the psychological and emotional constraints represented by Egypt.
What is Egypt? The Hebrew term for Egypt (Mitzrayim) may be translated as “inhibitions,” or “restrictions.” All of us struggle with various inner and outer inhibitions that stifle our growth and prevent us from maximizing our potentials. We may be paralyzed by fear, shame, guilt, resentment, codependency and addictions. We may be lacking the ability to love, to dream, to cry and to let go of our defenses, or we may be enslaved by unhealthy urges and feelings of envy, animosity and bitterness.
Often, our inner Jewishness—that intimate, wholesome and absolute relationship with the Master of the universe—is enslaved. It is there, but we know not how to access it.
In this sense, we are all in one or another type of “Egypt,” and the Seder experience presents each of us with an opportunity to leave our personal Egypt and embark on the road toward redemption.
During the Seder, you and I owe it to ourselves to open our hearts and welcome into our lives the divine energy of liberation vibrating through the cosmos on the eve of Passover. To become fully you, fully human, fully Jewish.
Reclaiming Your Parents
The Talmud says, and it’s quoted in the Haggadah, that “A second cup is poured and now the child asks ‘Mah Nishtanah.'”
The Talmudic words “now the child asks” (“V’kan Haben Shoel”) may also be translated as, “now the child may borrow.”
Not all of us have been privileged to grow up with parents in our lives. Some were orphaned at a very young age; others may have had physical parents but never had emotional parents. Some of us were privileged to have nurturing parents who have since passed on to the next world.
In all of the above cases the children are left behind, a void in their hearts. Here is the time during the Seder where “the child may borrow” a father and a mother.
At this point in time, our father in heaven opens the chamber of unconditional love and boundless nurture, through which we may reclaim the confidence and security we so desperately needed from our fathers and mothers. Now the child is given permission to ask all the questions he could never ask. He may declare: “Father, I want to ask you four questions.”
Because slaves don’t ask questions. Free men and women ask questions. Not only because they feel they have a right to ask, but also because they fear not answers that may challenge them and perhaps even transform them.
Rabbi YY Jacobson
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