Reflections on Passover, the Holocaust, and History in a Series of Artifacts (3)

Seventy-three years ago, on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943, the Nazis began to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, which, to their astonishment, rose in revolt. The Passover Haggadah is the quintessential book about history and memory, commanding us to think of ourselves as having been liberated from slavery in Egypt and retell the story throughout the generations. Indeed, the more we do so, “the more praiseworthy” we are. As usual, I told it only twice, at the Seders, but teaching about history and memory in the twentieth century this semester prompted me to continue reflecting on the story. Yad Vashem’s exhibit of pictures, artifacts, and recollections of Passover before, during, and immediately after the Holocaust is appropriately entitled, “And You Shall Tell Your Children.”

I turned to some mundane relics of the World War II era in my own home. What stories could I coax out of them?

“Tonight will not be a good night.”

Testimony of Shoshana Baharir, recalling Passover Eve, 1943, in the Warsaw Ghetto

The great German émigré historian Felix Gilbert once recounted how, as a young scholar working in the Florentine State Archives, he first held a manuscript by Cesare Borgia in his hand. It seemed as if it was only then, he said, that he could bring himself to believe this legendary figure had actually existed. The intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra churlishly made fun of the venerable scholar, accusing him of fetishizing the archival object. He completely missed the point. Gilbert was of course deliberately exaggerating and gently poking fun at himself, but the point was a serious one.

Objects, as archaeologists and historians can affirm, are repositories of precious information about the past. And yet we must also acknowledge that those objects sometimes possess an emotional and evocative power beyond the narrowly rational and analytical. They can therefore be what innovative museum director and theorist Nina Simon calls “social objects”: capable of triggering memories and starting conversations.

* * *

Such, for me, is the power of this battered object from my collection. It is a portion of a handwritten Haggadah, said to have come from the Warsaw Ghetto. Did it really? I have sufficient reason to think so: I acquired it from a reputable specialist dealer, and the physical evidence does not seem inconsistent with the purported history.

It is a fragment, a stab-sewn gathering that retains twelve leaves of old, “laid” paper, thus either presumably written earlier or improvised using scarce available materials. It is slightly larger than a small paperback book, about 12.5 by 16.5 cm. Two leaves are separated, and all are worn and dirty, tattered around the edges. The Hebrew letters, fresh and black, are in a hand that is reasonably accomplished and readily legible but falls somewhat short of masterful. Someone—a child, one assumes—has scribbled on a few pages. (There are doodles even in the Sarajevo Haggadah; why not here?)

WarsawHaggadah doodles 1k

Because the Passover seder is arguably the most universally and steadfastly observed Jewish holiday ritual (even among the assimilated) and because the Nazi assault on the Ghetto coincided with the beginning of the festival, the two stories of slavery and the quest for freedom have become inextricably intertwined. We are told to imagine ourselves as having been slaves in Egypt, but that world is so distant and little known. It seems much easier for us to imagine ourselves in the Warsaw Ghetto, and to visualize Egyptian bondage through that lens.

Ironically, it is the material object that fires the imagination. Who last used my Haggadah during that fateful week in Poland? What went through the minds of those who held and read from it?

The connection between the two moments of liberation is there in the book of ritual and the book of history and yet the physical book suddenly concretizes it, makes it palpable. Ironically, it is the material object that fires the imagination. Who last used my Haggadah during that fateful week in Poland? What went through the minds of those who held and read from it? Were they focused on the ritual around the table or the threat beyond the walls?

The historical record provides suggestive evidence. Despite rumors of an impending attack, historian and participant in the Uprising Yisrael Gutman writes, “the Jews could not ignore the approach of the Passover holiday”:

With a determination that had characterized the Jews for centuries and a resourcefulness that had reached unprecedented proportions during the occupation, the surviving remnant of the Warsaw ghetto prepared to celebrate the Passover, taking care to acquire the ritual Passover foods (matzos and wine) and cleansing their eating and cooking utensils as prescribed by religious law.

Roma Frey recalled:

That was so sad, we tried to make some sort of acknowledge to ourself and to God that we still Jewish and that we want to keep the tradition but what we felt in our hearts, that’s, I doubt what I can describe it. That was so sad, so tragic, the circumstances: and we were, here we remember our prefathers and all this and this and hard times and slavery and out of slavery, and here we hardly have a hope to survive a day or night or anything at all.

… we tried to have the candles on the table and the white tablecloths . . . to be able to live on somehow.

Did the Ghetto fighters see the divergent views in their own community mirrored there? Did they see in the Ghetto Police the wicked son? And what of those who simply did not understand?

As chance would have it, my Haggadah fragment opens in the middle of the story of the Four Sons with the “wicked son” who does not identify with his people’s fate and is told: had he lived in Egyptian slavery, he therefore would not have been redeemed. The last of the four is the “simple son” who does not even know how to ask about the ritual and is told, in simple words: ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the land of bondage.’

Did the Ghetto fighters see the divergent views in their own community mirrored there? Did they see in the Ghetto Police the wicked son? And what of those who simply did not understand?

WarsawHaggadah.1.500
At the Eichmann trial, Zivia Lubtekin noted that her socialist-Zionist resistance organization “had not always had an easy time” with the rest of the Jewish population in the Ghetto:

There were those who thought that we were bringing harm to their lives, . . . collective responsibility, the fear of the Germans. But this time when I entered the bunker, this Jew, Rabbi Meisel, interrupted the Seder, placed his hand on my head, and said: ‘May you be blessed. Now it is good for me to die. Would that we had done this earlier.

A comrade, Tuvia Borzykowski, recalled:

Amidst this destruction, the table in the center of the room looked incongruous with glasses filled with wine, with the family seated around, the rabbi [Meisel] reading the Haggadah. His reading was punctuated by explosions and the rattling of machine-guns; the faces of the family around the table were lit by the red light from the burning buildings nearby.

And what thoughts must have occupied the participants as they raised but set down the second cup of wine untasted:

Blessed be He who keeps his promise to Israel . . . For the Holy One, blessed be he, premeditated the end of the bondage . . . . For . . . in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be he, saves us from their hand.

WarsawHaggadah002
Could they without irony or bitterness have recited the litany, “Dayenu” (enough), in which one recounts fifteen beneficent acts of God, from the Exodus to the building of the Temple, and after each one exclaims, it would have been “enough”: we would have been content?

Warsaw Haggadah Dayenu
It seems more likely that they found resonance in the compilation of biblical passages known as “Pour Out Thy Wrath,” read in the course of opening the door for the prophet Elijah, messenger of messianic redemption:

Pour Out Thy Wrath upon the nations that know thee not, / And upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name. /For they have devoured Jacob, / and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Thine indignation upon them. Thou wilt pursue them in anger and destroy them / From under the heavens of the Lord.

Warsaw Haggadah Pour
This call for divine retribution causes many discomfort today, for which reason it is replaced with a more “positive” supplication in some liberal versions, but its inclusion was a response to the massacres of the Middle Ages, a reflection of the fear of persecution and a hope for ultimate justice.

Did the words turn to ash in their mouths? They must have known that, unlike the Israelites, they could look forward to no deliverance

What did the repeated verses from Psalm CXVIII, leading up to the Great Hallel, mean to men and women awaiting the inevitable Nazi onslaught?

We beseech Thee, O Lord, save [us] now!
We beseech Thee, O Lord, save [us] now!
We beseech Thee, O Lord, make us now to prosper!
We beseech Thee, O Lord, make us now to prosper!

Warsaw Haggadah Great Hallel

O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good,
For his mercy endureth for ever. . . .
Who remembered us in our low estate,
For his mercy endureth for ever,
And hath delivered us from our adversaries . . . .

Did the words turn to ash in their mouths? They must have known that, unlike the Israelites, they could look forward to no deliverance, that their only destination was death in the ruins or in Treblinka or Majdanek.

Never must the words, “Next year in Jerusalem” have seemed more futile, especially to the Zionist fighting forces.

Or perhaps not.

For them, redemption lay in resistance. Although they would never live to enter the Promised Land, that became their Jerusalem, their Zion.

On the right, Leon (Arieh) Rodal of the Revisionist Ż.Z.W. said:

During that far-off period of slavery, when the Roman legions trampled almost the entire ancient world, and the whole world kneeled before them, only one small Roman province, Judea, took up arms, rose up to fight for freedom and in defense of the honour of man, against a world of injustice. And this is the reason why Judea is inscribed in the history of man as a symbol of the fight for the spirit of man… Maybe, some day, after many years, when the history of the struggle against the Nazi conquerors is written, we also will be remembered, and who knows, we will become – like small Judea in its day, which fought mighty Rome – the symbol of man’s spirit that cannot be suppressed, whose essence is the fight for freedom, for the right to live, and the right to exist.

And on the left, Mordechai Anielewicz of the socialist Ż.O.B. wrote, in his last letter:

It is impossible to put into words what we have been through. One thing is clear, what happened exceeded our boldest dreams. The Germans ran twice from the ghetto. . . . The fact that we are remembered beyond the ghetto walls encourages us in our struggle. . . . The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defense in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.

The Nazis completed their conquest of the Ghetto with the demolition of the Great Synagogue on May 16.

Warsaw Ghetto Ruins AK trimruins of the Ghetto, early postwar postcard


The fighters did not expect to live, but they hoped to be remembered. In our age, Passover precedes a new holiday cycle tracing a latter-day narrative arc of memory from captivity to liberation: Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), Israel Memorial Day, and Israel Independence Day. The law establishing Yom HaShoah in 1959 declared:


The 27th Nisan shall be Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, devoted, year after year, to the commemoration of the disaster which the Nazis and their collaborators brought upon the Jewish people and of the acts of heroism and revolt performed in those days.

 

Previous pieces in the series:

  1. “Chanoch. Palestine 1944”: A Young German Immigrant Looks at His New Land
  2.  My Father’s Passover Days, 1943-1944. A Forgotten Episode of World War II