Last Seder in Trochenbrod

Eighty-two years ago, in the spring of 1942, the Jews of Trochenbrod celebrated their last seder.  I use the word “celebrated” carefully because they chose to celebrate it as if it were their last. For many it was.

Once a thriving Jewish town in Ukraine, Trochenbrod, along with its adjacent town Lozisht, was a small but vibrant Jewish community.  Some 3,000 Jews lived there in relative harmony. Then in June 1941, Hitler’s Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazi regime set up a ghetto in Trochenbrod, bringing in Jews not only from Trochenbrod/Lozisht, but also Jews from neighboring towns and villages. Now there were 5,000 plus Jews, living in a cramped ghetto.

My late father grew up in Lozisht, and remembered the townspeople there – a mix of misnagdim (religious non-hassidim) and hassidim, mostly affiliated with the Karliner/Stoliner movement.  That spring they put every ounce of effort into making that Pesah memorable, chipping in together to prepare. They did this despite – or perhaps because of – the Nazi threat, as if to show that nothing the Nazis could do would stop them.

My father told me how that night there was a growing feeling of joy throughout the ghetto. A multitude of songs from various homes blended together, louder than ever before. And when it came time for Nirtzah, the family next door sang the closing song “חֲסַל סִדּוּר פֶּסַח…”

“The Pesaḥ service is finished, as it was meant to be performed, in accordance with all its rules and laws.

Just as we have been privileged to lay out its order, so may we be privileged to perform it [in the Temple].”*

The family rose to sing and dance around the table. Circling the table, they sang ever louder, danced ever faster. They danced as if no one was watching, but they knew Someone was. And if that was to be their last seder ever, they could take pride in knowing they did it right.

That was enough.

This year, we know our seder tables will be incomplete. Instead of engaging God and retelling with gratitude the tale of our redemption and salvation, we wrestle with how we can celebrate our freedom from slavery when so many of us have been held captive for over half a year. Tomorrow night we will begin to count the days from Pesah until Shavuot when we saw God in His greatest glory, while we continue to count the days since ‘Black Shabbat’ when we saw man at his worst. We can choose despair. But I will choose hope. I will perform the seder as it was meant to be performed, but with an empty chair for the hostages in Gaza.  I will spill a drop of wine for each of the 10 plagues as I have in seders past because my joy is not complete when my enemies suffer. But this year I will also spill a drop from each of the four cups I drink because my joy is even more diminished by the missing hostages and the ongoing war. I will open the door for Eliyahu to show I am proud of my Judaism in the face of rising Jew hatred. And when I reach Nirtzah I, too, will sing “The Pesaḥ service is finished, as it was meant to be performed” in a loud voice like my late father’s neighbors in the Trochenbrod ghetto.

I won’t let the Nazis get the final word, then or now.

*Translation from Sefaria

About the Author
Rabbi Sid Slivko is a rabbi and educator who moved to Israel in 1997, where he taught at the Fuchsberg Center, Hebrew Union College, B’nei Akiva and ran educational programs for the Jewish Agency. He currently works in marketing and social media and is an artist and writer and Community Relations Coordinator for Olim Paveway. Rabbi Sid was ordained at RIETS (Yeshiva University), and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and family.
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