Gerald M. Steinberg

Celebrating Life over Death: Purim 1940 and 2024

Henry Steinberg and HAIFA group_ Gwrych Castle_Purim 1940
Henry Steinberg and HAIFA group, Gwrych Castle- Purim 1940 (image courtesy of author)

In 1940, my father celebrated Purim in a cold dilapidated castle on the north coast of Wales. A few months earlier, he and the other 200 or so Jewish teenagers and a small group of counselors living temporarily at Gwrych castle had been suddenly separated from their families and sent to safety in Britain. Under the Kindertransport program, which was created immediately after the November 9 1938 pogrom (Kristallnacht) 10,000 Jewish children were able to escape Nazi Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, in order to survive the war, which began on September 1, 1939.

Although they were far from home in a foreign environment, cut-off from their parents, siblings and extended families, and facing a very uncertain and menacing future, it was important for my father and the Jewish “noar” (youth) to celebrate Purim in its full meaning (see Dr. Hanna Seligmann-Prokocimer, The Castle that Saved Lives Jerusalem, 2020). They made themselves costumes – my father’s group made use of a generous but largely unwearable donation of “flimsy dresses and high-heeled shoes” from the well-meaning Women’s Zionist and Welfare Society — read the megillah, performed satirical skits, and made do with whatever food was available (not much) for the obligatory “festive meal”. (Andrew Hesketh, Escape to Gwrych Castle: a Jewish Refugee Story, Blackwell, UK; 2023

I thought about my father’s experience in the context of the intense debate over celebrating Purim this year, 6 months after the most terrible attack on the Jewish people since the Shoah. There are some who feel very strongly that Purim events should be kept to a minimum in solidarity with the families in mourning from the October 7 atrocity and the over 250 soldiers killed in the war against the Hamas army, as well many suffering from injuries, and, of course, while 134 brutally tortured hostages are still held in Gaza. The contrast between this horrible reality and merry-making that is central to the retelling of the Purim Megillah and festival of Purim is very stark.

On the other hand, for at least two millennia, celebrating Purim despite the horrors and oppression injects a brief moment of optimism and defiance, giving the Jewish people hope in the midst of despair. The celebration marks the heroism, particularly of Esther, and deliverance from the plan to exterminate the Jews of Persia and its 127 provinces from India to Africa (Kush), as organized and meticulously planned by Haman – encouraged by his wife Zeresh, according to the Megillah.

But the Jews, led by Mordechai, struck first, killing a total of 800 in the capital city of Shushan, and 75,000 throughout the Persian empire (what today would be condemned as a disproportionate response, and a war crime.) Haman was hung from the gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai, and the Jews were saved, their enemies defeated and deterred “for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples… The officials of the provinces—the satraps, the governors, and the king’s stewards—showed deference to the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them.” (Esther 9:3, h/t Sefaria)

By celebrating Purim, we are reminding ourselves and the rest of the world that the Jewish people will survive and continue to value life over death; and of good over evil. This is what motivated my father and the Hachshara group of teenage refugees in 1940, and even the Jews in the ghettos and Nazi death camps in marking the holidayThe same is true for the survivors, who, immediately after their liberation, turned Haman into Hitler.  

I understand that the incomprehensible evils that were unleashed on October 7 make celebrating Purim extremely difficult. Like many communities, our Purim this year is muted, but with the hope that the hostages will be freed soon, and that next year, and for many future Purims, the Jewish people will recover and move again from strength to strength.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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