Reflections on Passover, the Holocaust, and History in a Series of Artifacts (1)

Seventy years ago, on the eve of Passover, April19, 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 twentieth-century history this semester prompted me to continue reflecting on the story. In our age, Passover precedes a new holiday cycle tracing a latter-day narrative arc from captivity to liberation: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel Memorial Day, and Israel Independence Day. 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.”

In their attempt to weave a picture of lost Jewish Central Europe from the scattered threads of history and memory, Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer argue that such “individual anecdotes, images, and objects” can be “more than evidentiary sources”: “‘points of memory’ opening small windows to the past” while reminding us “how fragmentary, tenuous, and deceptive our access to the past can be.”

The sources can be stubborn and laconic—the mirror image of the archetypal Fourth Son at the seder: not unable to ask, but unable to answer without our firm but gentle prompting. I turned to some mundane relics of the World War II era in my own home. What stories could I, cautiously treading the boundary between overly cautious interpretation and rampant speculation, coax out of them?

* * *

I am not quite sure what I have here but it looks interesting

The dealer explained, “Up front I must say that I am not quite sure what I have here but it looks interesting.” Four small, childish sketches in blue and black ink, one titled in German (with a brief letter on the back) and one in Hebrew, and an accompanying label in an adult (apparently European) hand.

Chanoch. Palestine 1944.

They came from a scrapbook kept by a World War II supply officer who had attained the rank of brigadier general by 1944. At first the dealer said the general had served in the Middle East. Later he was not certain. It was the least of the uncertainties. Who was the boy and what was his story? We can only speculate, but perhaps we can gain some insight into his world and the way he saw it.

To begin with, there is the German connection.

On the back of the largest sketch (about 12.5 cm square) is a little letter. Chanoch’s words are typewritten, in completely intelligible but sometimes awkward and misspelled German; it is not clear whether the young author is still learning the language or has partly forgotten it.

“the portion of our land [called] ‘the Mediterranean Plain’” and some new stamps

my dearest ones.

1. we have now studied the portion of our land [called] “the Mediterranean Plain”

2.   I thank you for collecting stamps for me and I believe that when you send me a stamp, the censor will have no problem with that

3.   as a present for “tu bichwat,” an excursion, but the damned rain interfered, so we aren’t going until Wednesday, with other classes.

[Then, added in ink, in an adult hand, presumably the mother’s:]

4.   Please set aside the 20d [for 20 mils??] stamp for Chanoch or enclose it in a letter. He doesn’t have it yet.

The mixture of the formulaic, analytical, and grumpy hints at a personality behind the words. Presumably the boy and his family were among the 53,000 emigrants from the Greater German Reich to the Yishuv, writing to friends or relatives who found safe harbor in the UK or the US, which took in 50,000 and 57,000, respectively.

And what of the art itself?

Three of the four sketches are of Chanoch’s own environment. The fourth, captioned, “our fathers in Egypt,” depicts, in stick figures, whip-wielding taskmasters and Israelite slaves building pyramids. Although a part of popular iconography, the scene is pure fiction. The Torah speaks of “store-cities,” not pyramids, which were built by healthy paid labor—not slaves, Hebrew or other. Although the historicity of the overall Exodus narrative is problematic, even skeptical archaeologists find in it a resonance of powerful memories spanning centuries: “neither historical truth nor literary fiction. . . . not a single event but a continuing experience of national resistance against the powers that be.”

our fathers in Egypt

But historical or not, is this sketch of the ancient past really the outlier it seems to be?

We don’t know where Chanoch lived, but he does not depict the dynamic Yishuv of his day: neither the rural kibbutzim and Stockade-and-Watchtower (Homah UMigdal) settlements nor the modern urban architecture of the “White City” of Tel Aviv (now a UNESCO world heritage site.

On the contrary, the scenes could be anywhere or anytime in the land: two small sketches of indigenous architecture (one, a simplistic frontal view, the other perspectivally more ambitious), and the large one of a “peasant girl” exuberantly running down a path that looks like the trunk protruding (against all rules of geometry) from a bizarre elephant’s head of a building.

Buildings and “Bauern Mädchen”: whose indigeneity?

building, 1

building, 2

Bauern Mädchen: Peasant Girl

Jewish immigration between 1933 and 1939 more than doubled the population of the Yishuv, and as Chanoch’s letter shows, learning about the history, landscape, and nature of Eretz Israel was a key component of Zionist education under the Mandate. But his sketches reflect another characteristic tendency. Jewish artists, whether native-born or immigrants, Modernist or Orientalizing, gravitated toward ancient subjects and a timeless present rather than the noticeably contemporary. As Dalia Manor puts it, “They portrayed Palestine as a kind of memory, a place to long for and to love from a distance.”

Back in Germany, ironically, the Nazis regarded contemporary European and traditional Middle Eastern architecture as two foreign peas in a pod. John Willett recalled seeing a postcard of the famed modernist Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart defaced with stickers of “lions and camels” in order to mock its “flat-roofed, mainly white buildings” as “an ‘Arab village’ alien to the architecture of the master race.”

“The youth of the homeland must now assume these pioneering tasks.”

Late in 1944, in a speech on “The Imperatives of the Jewish Revolution,” David Ben-Gurion offered a grim assessment of the tasks required for “the complete ingathering of the exiles into a socialist Jewish state.” Because “the great reserves” of the European Jewish population “have been done to death,” “The youth of the homeland must now assume these pioneering tasks.”

So, we are entitled to ask, how did young Chanoch feel about his new surroundings? If he was a typical German Jew, it was unlikely that he had felt himself to be living in “exile” prior to 1933. Perhaps, like Heine’s German fir tree, he nonetheless occasionally dreamt of palms and sand. Upon arrival in Eretz Israel, did he, then, feel more “distance” or “love”? The unsuitability, or at least awkwardness, of German immigrants to Palestine became the stuff of jokes. They were not, however, a monolithic group. The attitudes of the characters in Nathan Shaham’s evocative Rosendorf Quartet range from ideological enthusiasm to resignation to resentment.

Did Chanoch answer Ben-Gurion’s call?

Did he dance in the streets when Partition was announced and Independence was declared? How did he feel about his Arab neighbors, both within and around the State of Israel: the “peasant girl” of his sketch and the five invading armies? And when the new nation, barely two weeks old, staved off extinction by turning back the Egyptian advance along the coastal road a mere 16 miles from Tel Aviv, did he think of the Haggadah and the deliverance from Pharaoh’s chariots? Presumably too young to fight in that war, did he have to take up arms in 1956 and 1967?

We cannot say.

Still, it is perhaps significant that Chanoch twice uses the first person plural possessive, our: “our fathers in Egypt” and “our land.” The first is of course a biblical phrase, and the second may be simply descriptive. But taken together and in context, they suggest that he had come to identify with both his history and his new home and to see his presence there as part of a continuum. It was of such immigrants—voluntary or other—that the new state was forged.

For Chanoch, who escaped the jaws of the Shoah, the closing phrase of the Haggadah—“Next year in Jerusalem”—had become a reality, and perhaps acquired a certain poignancy.