On a recent trip to visit family, I caught up with some of my grandparents’ belongings, including this haggadah, the short guide Jews have used to prepare for the festive meal, the Seder, and for recounting the story of the Passover holiday.
In accordance with tradition, our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt and were brought out of Egypt to freedom through divine intervention. The story is relayed from parent to child on the Seder night to fulfill the biblical command, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:8). “
Regardless of the level of personal observance during the rest of the year, the one book a Jewish family is likeliest to own is a haggadah. Its history dates to ancient times, and there are beautiful examples of manuscripts with magnificent illuminations to be found in museum collections, such as in this 1997 exhibition from Yale University. Published haggadot date from the fifteenth century, the earliest known of which is the Guadalajara Haggadah from around 1482, ten years before the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps the earliest illustrated published example is the Prague Haggadah from 1526.
Returning to my family haggadah, by the time it reached my hands, it was missing some pages and the back cover, but the remaining yellowed and brittle pages of this haggadah told more than one story of redemption. It was published in 1932 in Vienna, as the title page states. Nothing fancy and with simple illustrations, it was probably the standard haggadah available in its day. At the time, my grandparents were living in Wiener-Neustadt, Austria, (near Mattersdorf, where my grandfather was born, one of the “Seven Communities” where Jews had been permitted to live) young parents of a 9-year old boy and a 6-year old boy, my father. Only a year later, Hitler’s Nazi party won in the 1933 elections and came to power in Germany. Life would never be the same again.
By the Anschluss, when the Nazis occupied Austria and united the two countries in 1938, everything was different. Besides the anti-Semitic laws enacted to persecute the Jews and the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Judaism could no longer be openly practiced – neither daily prayers, Sabbath services, nor Passover Seders. My grandfather, like most Jewish men, was taken for “work detail” to Dachau – and only to be released when my grandmother took it upon herself to march into local military headquarters and play upon the Austrian patriotism of the officials, waving the Iron Cross my grandfather had been awarded in the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I, and banging on the desk. And maybe a few tears. It worked.
By this time, my grandfather harbored no illusions as to Nazi intentions and was clear that they must leave Austria, so he set about convincing his extended family to flee and by the combined efforts of relatives abroad on two continents to get the papers and funds necessary, they made their own plans to escape Nazism. They packed up their few belongings, Nazi-issued passports identifying them as Jews in hand and departed in January, 1940, on the last train to leave Vienna before the borders closed.
This haggadah was among the possessions to leave with them. With many a wine-stained page inside, it bears witness to its continued use in their new country. So well-used it eventually loosened from its bindings, only to be set aside in favor of the ubiquitous give-away Maxwell House haggadah. In the new haggadah these refugees could put to practice their new language, English, along-side the Hebrew; a marked improvement on the German –Hebrew version that crossed the ocean with them, a reminder of harsher days.
For decades, after the passing of my grandparents and, eventually, my father, this haggadah was amongst my uncle’s possessions and was dutifully stored and moved at least three times, till its most recent stop where I came across it in Florida a few weeks ago. My uncle, at 89, under the care of cousins and in an Alzhiemer’s facility, is, sadly, beyond celebrating holidays (truth be told, he didn’t much like celebrating them when he could). Tucked into my suitcase, the haggadah came back home with me. It was only a few days ago that I realized the long journey this 80-year old haggadah had made was an echo of the original Passover story.
Every year at the conclusion of the re-telling of the travails of the Jewish people in Egypt we say “Next year in Jerusalem,” a vocalization of Jewish yearning for Zion and the centrality of Jerusalem to Jews, repeated for millennia. This particular haggadah, in addition, had an illustration on its cover underscoring this message. It is a gold-embossed drawing of a domed synagogue, with the words “The Synagogue in Jerusalem” written underneath. Since I live two blocks from the recently–reconstructed Hurva synagogue with its newly rebuilt dome, I was satisfied that this haggadah had arrived where it was meant to be. It was used to inspire a family to freedom until it fell apart; it was brought back to the city which inspired those aspirations. This year in Jerusalem.