Reflections on Passover, the Holocaust, and History in a Series of Artifacts (2)
Seventy 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 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 honestly can’t quite recall what made me go back to the black-and-white family photos in my mother’s living room after the Passover Seder. I had been familiar with the old album since childhood: the gold-tooled green leather soft to the touch and inviting, even as the bulge of the worn covers hinted at a life they could not fully contain. The back had begun to come loose. When it swung away, it revealed a hard steel spine: old and gray, a hint of rust here, a glint of reflected light there. I flip through the pages of my father’s life.
The picture is labeled “Easter”—my father’s word, my mother’s hand
The picture is labeled “Easter”—my father’s word, my mother’s hand—the white ink on a stiff black leaf of a quality no longer common signaling its distance from the present.
It is a conventional banquet photo: rows of faces in a nondescript institutional setting notable only for the blackout shades over the windows. I had seen it often and therefore thought nothing of it: just one more group photo of life in the Polish Army in Scotland during World War II, akin to the Christmas scenes. (One showed my father with Isaac Deutscher and other soldiers, posing with pint glasses in front of a decorated tree and a giant Polish eagle embellished with an image of the Black Virgin of Częstochowa.)
Then I somehow suddenly recall that my father, who almost always said “Pesach” rather than “Passover” in English, nonetheless occasionally also referred to it as “Easter,” a carryover from his native German and adoptive Czech and Polish, which sometimes spoke of “the Jewish Easter holiday.” Straining to look more closely, I finally reach for a magnifying glass. Although the people nearly fill the frame, there, in the interstices of white tablecloth, along with the salt and pepper shakers and bottles and glasses, are some sort of brochure and serving plates. On the plates is: matzah. It is a Passover Seder.
I turn the photograph over (no one has looked at the back for sixty years). The confirmation, stamped in bright purple ink: “H. Melcer[,] Major[.] Senior Jewish Chaplain[,] Polish Forces[.]” Because the mundane photo did not show officiants or dignitaries, it was presumably a souvenir made for participants.
Participants? Looking at the photo again, I am startled to discover: my father is present, in the shadowy left background but noticeable for being half a head or more taller than those around him.
But when and where?
But when and where?
The position of the photo in the album suggested that it had been taken after he was transferred from the 1st Independent Rifle Brigade to the 24th Lancers, part of the new 1st Polish Armoured Division, formed in preparation for the invasion of Europe. That would put it in 1943. The scene also closely resembles a photo of a 1943 Seder in Dundee in the memoir of another soldier. Seeking further evidence, I later rummaged through the box of my father’s old papers. His terse wartime diary noted that he had celebrated Passover 1942 in Dundee. For 1943, it mentioned only Easter by name, but immediately before that, noted, under “19/21.4”: “Glasgow – holidays,” which corresponded to the start of Passover.
Seventy years ago, in April 1943, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported, with evident pride, that Jewish soldiers in the Polish forces had been given time off to celebrate the Seder: “The largest service was held in Glasgow with representatives of the Polish High Command and Jewish leaders present.”
I had found the only surviving photograph with Jewish content from my father’s youth and wartime years—and it just might have been taken on the day that the Nazis began the assault on the Warsaw Ghetto.
I took a moment to absorb the implications. I had found the only surviving photograph with Jewish content from my father’s youth and wartime years—and it just might have been taken on the day that the Nazis began the assault on the Warsaw Ghetto. The faces are frozen in time, the soldiers at once enmeshed in historical tragedy and innocent, oblivious. Almost all turn toward the camera. Some mug for the photographer, a few are caught unawares. Some are serious, some are jocular, some raise glasses in a toast.
They could not have known of the onslaught that had just begun. Still, they knew enough, or were by now accustomed to worrying about the unknown. Reports of Nazi massacres of Jews were commonplace in the press by summer-autumn 1942. In December, the Polish Government-in-Exile issued a report on The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland. British Jewry declared a day of fasting and demanded creation of a Jewish fighting force and greater efforts on behalf of refugees, including opening of immigration to Palestine. A British declaration condemned “in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of coldblooded extermination” and promised “that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution.”
“Blessed be the Holy One who appointed the time when the days of slavery should end…
It is hard to believe that a chill did not run down the spines of the soldiers as they read the Haggadah in 1943:
Blessed be the Holy One who appointed the time when the days of slavery should end…
in every generation there have risen up against us those who sought to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, delivered us from their hands.
We cannot know their individual thoughts, but on D-Day, Major Heszel Klepfisz, Senior Jewish Chaplain of the Polish Army, did call to mind the divine retribution and signs and wonders of the Passover story when he exhorted Jewish troops to find strength in the philosophy of the just war. And he no doubt spoke for many when he said:
We experienced apprehension not because we feared for our lives, but rather because of the uncertainty . . . . Would we still find our families, our dear ones – brothers, sisters and parents – in the lands of horror and cruelty?
That my father looks distracted at the Seder is probably coincidental, but such thoughts occupied and tormented him throughout the war.
When he escaped from Poland, he could communicate with his family only surreptitiously and irregularly via a feigned Portuguese address. His father hid with peasants, and his sister moved between hiding places on the “Aryan side” of Kraków and then Lwów, but he had heard nothing from her since December. Saving his sixpence daily pay, he managed to send a few packages through the Polish Red Cross. By the time that he saved enough to send a winter coat to his father in 1944, he did not know that the intended recipient was long dead.
Diary entries from 30 April and 12 May summarize the fate of European Jewry:
“news of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto”
“suicide of Sz[mul]. Zygielbojm” (the Jewish member of the Polish Government-in-Exile who thereby sought to awaken the “conscience of the world” to “the destruction of the Jewish people”)
“Bermuda Fiasco” (referring to the failed international conference on refugees)
He had filled in his name and military identification number—but indicated that he had no “Next of Kin” and “Home Address.”
The only chill of recognition comparable to my discovery of the Seder photo had occurred at the time of my father’s funeral, when I paged through his British Army Prayer Book. He had filled in his name and military identification number—but indicated that he had no “Next of Kin” and “Home Address.” In my loneliness at that moment, I suddenly understood his.
Although we can only speculate as to his state of mind at that Seder in 1943, there can be no doubt concerning 1944. The Haggadah famously concludes with the wish, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” He spent the next Passover in jail.
His diary laconically recorded:
letter from sister – Pesach holiday
rabbis mindful concerning us
dampness – cold – prison psychosis
Still, as its readers knew or would soon learn, all was not sweetness and light in the Polish Army. On the contrary, Jewish soldiers increasingly complained of endemic antisemitism in the form of daily harassment in the ranks, often abetted or even initiated by superiors. Antisemitic literature circulated. The situation worsened in summer 1943 following an influx of ethnic Poles captured fighting under Rommel, some of whom boasted of having murdered Jews in Europe. My father later testified,
Among such people, who did I-don’t-know-what things, who served in the German army, who had been in Warsaw, who told about Auschwitz—in such an atmosphere . . . it was impossible to go on.
Polish soldiers openly rejoiced at news of the extermination, saying “Hitler will solve our Jewish problem for us.” Worst of all, numerous Jewish soldiers reported having been told, in one variant or another, that their erstwhile compatriots would kill them at the first opportunity: When we get to France, “every Pole has two bullets—the first for a Jew and the second for a German.” Or: “When we get back to Poland, we will place machine guns at the border and kill ‘our’ Jews.” Had they escaped from the slavery of Egypt only to perish in the wilderness?
Among such people . . . in such an atmosphere . . . it was impossible to go on.
Unable to endure the persecution any longer, Jewish soldiers took the desperate step of fleeing the Polish Army and demanding to serve in British units. Two large groups numbering some 200 (out of circa 725 in the entire army) deserted in early 1944 and managed to secure transfer, in part because both the British and the Polish authorities were eager to get the matter out of the way. My father had the misfortune of bad timing. In March 1943, he had in vain requested a transfer to the Polish Air Force. By March 1944, when he became the leader of a third, much smaller group of “deserters,” circumstances had changed. The Foreign Office decided “the rot must be stopped,” and the Polish Army decided to make an example of the these Jewish soldiers. British and Polish police swooped down and arrested them.
Left-wing MPs and activists began a campaign on behalf of the prisoners and brought the issue before Parliament, though this of course only confirmed the view of many in the London Polish government—already locked in struggle with a competing Government-in-Exile in Moscow—that the affair was a Soviet plot. The hitherto vaguely supportive but characteristically timid Jewish community finally swung into action.
A court martial that, by a bitter irony, coincided with the first anniversary of the assault on the Warsaw Ghetto, handed down twenty-one prison terms. Chaim Weizmann would cite the incident as proof that there was no future for the Jews in postwar Europe. Nonetheless, the groundswell of protest, which found echoes even in the United States and Palestine, had its effect, ultimately provoking a crisis in the Polish Government-in-Exile and armed forces.
Sixty-nine years ago, on May 12, 1944—ironically, the anniversary of Zygielbojm’s suicide—Polish President Raczkiewicz declared an amnesty. The ordeal of the “Absentees for Freedom” was not over, but that is a story in itself.
When my father visited Israel for the first time, it was for the Passover holiday following the Yom Kippur War: exactly thirty years after his imprisonment and court-martial. Thumbing through the Tel Aviv phone book, he managed to locate one of his fellow “deserters,” and there followed an evening of reminiscences. Only several years later did he discover that some of his cousins had survived the Holocaust and likewise settled there—though all that, again, is part of another story.
* * *
Upon reflection, it thus seems that Passover marked many turning points or characteristic episodes in my father’s life. In Hungary in 1940, having made his own Exodus from Poland, and preparing to join the coming battle for France, he spent Passover with relatives of his sister’s future husband. They would eventually go through more harrowing experiences than his, in Auschwitz and elsewhere. One of his earliest childhood memories—at the age of three or four—was of exchanging Passover matzah for mămăligă with a Ukrainian cowherd: not exactly kosher, but a charming image of cultural symbiosis under the Habsburgs. Before the family moved to Galicia (hence his eventual Polish citizenship), he grew up in the Bukovina, (then likewise part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), that uniquely fertile patch of cultural soil where every modern Jewish movement flourished, and which seemed to produce great writers as readily as timber.
my grandmother begged me not to forget . . . to observe Passover
Typical of the acculturated middling Jewish bourgeoisie in that multiethnic and tolerant province, the family thoroughly identified with German language and culture as well as Judaism and saw no contradiction therein. Although my father described his home as “not religious,” such things were relative in that place and time. The family observed the Sabbath and holidays, his father donned his tallit to say the morning prayers every day, and although his mother “did not keep a strictly kosher home,” she always used a separate set of dishes for Passover. My father recalled, “Toward the end of her life, as she was dying, my grandmother begged me not to forget to observe the High Holy Days, to fast on Yom Kippur, and to observe Passover. I promised her that I would do as she asked, and have faithfully kept this promise.” I can attest that he did so.
Passover is arguably the family holiday par excellence, because it requires not an isolated ritual, and rather, a complete transformation of the household and daily meals. After our daughter was born, my parents, by now retired, made it a habit to visit us every year for Passover. The holiday thus acquired a special family significance for her, and fit perfectly with what we soon discovered was her innate interest in stories and symbols as well as a very strong sense of personal “tradition.”
This year, our daughter, away at college, was invited to the family of a friend, reflecting the obligation of hospitality at that season. We celebrated Passover at the home of my mother, which was what, by a circuitous route, prompted me to write this piece. And in Israel, one of those surviving relatives from the Bukovina welcomed her son’s family for the Seder. One grandson was home on leave from the army, and the other had just that day returned from a school trip to Poland, including a visit to Auschwitz. She reported with pride: “we read the Haggadah from beginning to end.”
The above is an exploration of a historical episode. To extrapolate from it to the present would be mistaken, for a great deal has changed in Poland in the meantime. On that subject: more in future posts.