Passover is not only an occasion to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but an opportunity to tell and retell more personal stories of liberation and redemption. This is one of those stories:
In the late 1930s, my grandmother’s sister Mirjam begged her family to support her in immigrating to Palestine. She had studied Hebrew in a Zionist secondary school, and felt ready to build a new life for herself and her husband Mendl in the Land of Israel.
After an agonizing debate, Mirjam and Mendl decided to put off emigration and remain with her family in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her father had fallen ill and would eventually die of pneumonia, leaving her mother to care for six children on her own. The family had to stay together. When Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania, they were trapped. In the Fall of 1941, Mirjam, Mendl, and their three-year-old daughter Feiga, were murdered in an orgy of killing that claimed 9,200 lives in a single day.
Away at a summer camp in the countryside during the Nazi invasion, my grandmother survived by fleeing on foot in the wake of the retreating Red Army. When World War Two ended, she met my grandfather in the clandestine movement to smuggle Jewish refugees to Palestine. After an abortive honeymoon cruise on the Exodus 1947, my grandparents arrived in the Land of Israel just in time for the War of Independence. My grandfather spent the war trading fire with a contingent of Iraqi troops near Tulkarm. My grandmother was busy giving birth and caring for a newborn. They spent the next sixty years arguing over who had the harder time of it during the war. In 1960, my grandparents left Israel with their three children after locating surviving relatives in the United States.
My grandmother, Bela, told this tale of her family’s oppression and her personal Exodus every Passover until she died in 2009. But the story did not end with her passing.
After graduating high school in 2010, my sister Miriam began a year of Torah Study at the Midreshet Moriah seminary in Jerusalem. Before long, Miriam was on the telephone, calmly informing my parents that she had decided to decline her college acceptances and scholarship offers. Instead, Miriam would be making Aliyah and enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.
My parents were predictably concerned by this sudden change in my sister’s educational and career plans. My mother’s attempts to bribe Miriam back into an American university are noteworthy for their creativity and persistence (I heard whisperings of cars, kittens, and computers). She might even have had a chance at success if my father hadn’t found out about the university tuition benefits for new immigrants. Ultimately, my parents embraced the fact that Miriam was living the values they had labored so intensely to instill in their children.
I cannot help but marvel at Miriam’s journey. Seventy years after my great-aunt Mirjam’s dream of immigrating to the Land of Israel was crushed by the Nazi invasion, Miriam made Aliyah on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight from New York. Seventy years after Mirjam’s family was murdered as they stood defenseless in front of a Nazi firing squad, Miriam was inducted into the Israel Defense Forces in front of our ninety-year-old grandfather and IDF combat veteran, Hillel Moshkovski.
Miriam is now happily serving in the Israeli Navy at the Haifa naval base, which happens to be the very same port where, in 1947, British sailors forcibly prevented our grandparents from entering the Land of Israel and deported them to Germany.
G-d certainly works in mysterious ways, but I can’t help but wonder if He has a Divine sense of humor.