When I met my grandfather’s cousin Leiba Schlossberg-Herskowitz at my Bar Mitzvahs and other family Simchas, I will confess, she did not seem all that fierce. A short, smiling elderly woman who had humbly and modestly come to wish me a Mazal Tov with a smile on her face. Also, I was a very cool 7th grader, while she seemed like the less interesting one in all of our encounters. Little did I know she was a partisan who lived out more than two years in the frozen forests of Poland, next to her hometown of Radin (or as some call it Radun), striking terror in the hearts of Poles who collaborated with the Nazis. One of the six to survive the original group of thirty that decided they would be the ones to live.
It was not until later, when I read her book and heard her son speak about what she had been through, that I understood the enormity of character I was blessed to meet. One of her most inspiring stories was that of observing Passover in the forests of Radin. While the picturesque town of Radin was very small and had only about one thousand Jewish residents, it was home to one of the most famous spiritual giants the Jewish world has ever known, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen, also known as the Chafetz Chaim. Growing up in the same small town as the Chafetz Chaim meant your hometown was not only your geographical base, it was your spiritual bedrock. Indeed anyone who knew Lieba for the entirety of her life knew she would always distance herself from any kind of gossip or negative speech. This is because Rabbi Yisrael Meir’s magnum opus was a book called Chafetz Chaim warning against harmful speech and gossip. The Chafetz Chaim’s sincerity, piety and devotion radiated onto anyone in his presence and was very much a part of who my cousin Lieba was.
This is why when Passover of 1944 approached, even as she lived in the frozen forests of Radin, Lieba began thinking of the upcoming holiday. A young widow of 26, her husband had been recently killed by the Nazis. She could not even begin to dream about baking matza as any kind of baking and assembling the equipment needed would give off their location to the Germans or Polish locals who would be happy to turn them in for a reward. She decided she would not eat any Chametz despite the fact that much of her nourishment came from the dark, stale bread they were able to fetch from nearby farms. Weeks in advance, she began collecting mushrooms, potatoes, and anything she could get her hands on in a bag so that she can eat those for the eight days of Passover. Lieba hid her bag of vegetables next to a tree in the forest in a secure location only she knew about. Two days before Passover as she was going to check on her secret stash of vegetables, to her horror, Lieba had realized they were no longer there; someone had taken them. Would this Passover be the first time she ate Chametz? Would she have to break her resolution to abstain from eating Chametz? Lieba took one of the last and most precious treasures she had: her deceased mother’s coat and her deceased father’s boots.
In the dark of the night and in roundabout ways, lest she be traced or give away their hiding location, Lieba came to the home of a Polish farmer who knew her family and exchanged the coat and boots for a sack of vegetables. Her joy knew no bounds. In the ditch with the few survivors left, she convinced her friends to declare their bread ownerless, boiled snow in their pot to make it Kosher for Passover, and for eight days, they all ate vegetables. Her joy knew no boundaries.
In an extraordinary way, remembering this story of Passover observed in the frozen forests of Radin is part of Passover’s original design. The Mishna in Pesachim chapter 10 teaches that to fulfill the mitzvah of the Seder night—telling the story of Yetziat Mitzryaim—we cannot just speak of our freedom and redemption; we must begin by talking about our hardship. “one must begin with our the negative, and conclude with praise.”
Moses Maimonides, the great Medieval thinker and codifier of Jewish law, is very clear about the centrality of this theme to the Seder night. He writes in his Laws of Chametz and Matzah (7:4)
“One must begin [the narrative describing our ancestors’] base [roots] and conclude with [their] praise. What does this imply? One begins relating how originally, in the age of Terach, our ancestors denied [God’s existence] and strayed after vanity, pursuing idol worship. One concludes with the true faith: how the Omnipresent has drawn us close to Him, separated us from the gentiles, and drawn us near to His Oneness.
Similarly, one begins by stating that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and [describing] all the evil done to us and concludes with the miracles and wonders that were wrought upon us and our freedom.
This [implies] that one should extrapolate [the passage beginning] from [Deuteronomy 26:5]: “An Aramean sought to destroy my ancestor…” until one concludes the entire passage. Whoever adds and extends his extrapolation of this passage is praiseworthy.”
Sharing our humble and even “disgraceful” beginnings is not limited to the story of the Exodus; on the night of Passover, we discuss our forefather Terach, father of Abraham, who was an idol worshiper. We also discuss Lavan, Jacob’s father-in-law, who chased him with the intention of destroying Jacob and his entire family, potentially wiping out the Jewish people before we even had a chance to begin. In addition to those two humble beginnings, we then speak about “Avadaim Hayinu, when we were slaves in Egypt.” Three different times, we focus on how hard things were.
Passover’s theme as a remembrance of hardship versus a simple celebration of freedom is not only found in the text of Maggid; it is blended into our pallet and behavior throughout the evening. When eating the Matzah, we think of the haste with which our forefathers left Egypt while at the same time referring to it as a lechem oni, a bread of affliction. If one eats matzah that was made in haste yet is rich in content, a “matzah ashira,” one does not fulfill the mitzvah of the night. A Matzah made in haste with flour and eggs or apple juice does not satisfy the obligation of the Seder night. It can be used throughout Passover, just not on the Seder night. On the Seder night, there is an emphasis not only on the haste but also on the poverty, lechem oni, bread of affliction. This is in addition to eating the marror, reminding us of the bitterness of Egypt, and dipping the Karpas ins salt water to remember the tears of our ancestors through slavery.
And so, while the Seder night is filled with expressions of freedom and royalty, it is also riddled with reminders of bitterness and pain. Unlike any other nation celebrating its freedom and independence, Judaism attributes inherent value to the remembrance of the pain and denigration that preceded our liberty and dignity.
Tell your child
But why is sharing our humble beginnings or even denigrating moments in our history so central to what Passover is all about? Why not just celebrate our freedom by giving just some background information?
The Midrash Tana’im (Dvarim 6) explains the verse, “and you shall tell your child—[this commandment] is so that you should not be ashamed to tell your child—Avadim Hayinu—we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” From this perspective, it is clear that the purpose of the commandment to mention our humble beginnings is to counteract the human tendency to hide past events that we might find embarrassing. In this view, we are obliged to mention our humble beginning lest we omit it in our desire to forget it.
A very different approach is found later on in the same Midrash Tana’im (Dvarim 26:5) when discussing the passage of Bikkurim, the recital of our thanksgiving upon bringing the first fruit of the land to the Temple, which also happen to be the same verses we recite on the night of Passover. The Midrash explains the verse we recite on the night of Passover: “And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt… Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says: when speaking of one’s own disgrace, one should say it out loud, yet when speaking of one’s glory, one should say that in a lower voice.”
In the mind of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, not only is mentioning our humble and even dishonorable beginning mandatory, but we should be speaking loud and clear, so much so that we should be speaking of it in an even louder voice than our glorious redemption. In this view, our inglorious beginning is even more central to our story than our glorious deliverance.
So what approach is the one that we follow? Is sharing our humble beginning merely a requirement that we may not hide, or is it something we ought to boast about?
While there is no official declaration or codification of what approach is the one we follow, the sequence of the Seder night clearly shows that our inglorious beginnings and even embarrassing history play a more central role in the story of our people than our actual redemption. The mentioning of Abraham’s father, Terach, the idol worshiper, Rachel and Leah’s father Lavan seeking to destroy his own children and grandchildren, the profundity of enslavement in Egypt, and so many more difficult details are no side details—they are part and parcel of our people’s story.
Why does our story need to focus so much on the painful beginnings rather than the glorious redemption?
To understand this, I look no further than my cousin Lieba Hershkowitz observing the Passover in the frozen forests of Radin, as well as the story of so many observing Passover during the horrors of the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, and so many other difficult events in our long history.
On the spectrum of the entirety of human history, it is clear that freedom, independence and victory can only last so many centuries. Nations celebrated as empires find themselves as mere subjects but centuries later. Nations celebrated as heroes and conquerors find themselves oppressed and often conquered within a short amount of time. No glorious celebration, stunning victories, or tales of glory can carry a nation through the pangs of national humiliation and personal suffering that may come its way. Yet the uniqueness of our story – the Jewish people’s story – is the embedded belief that pain and failure can be part of who we are without delegitimizing who we are. God is with us even through the burning shame of national humiliation and exile and even through the burning guilt of sin and deviation. Be it the thought of our forefather Terach being an idol worshipper or the pain of remembering our bitter slavery in Egypt – a redeeming God is still among us.
And so, whether we are suffering through becoming distant from God and losing much of our Jewish identity, or living through the worst of persecutions, Jews have always celebrated Passover. Not only because it reminded us of the glorious redemption and the making of our nation, but because it keeps reminding us that no matter how humble, inglorious, or disgraceful our current state may be, redemption is always there for us. True redemption is only glorious because of a problematic past, and it is that which we celebrate on Passover. I cannot imagine that my cousin Lieba sitting in a pit in the frozen forest of Radin in 1944 eating some mushrooms and potatoes on the Seder night reciting Avadim Hayinu – we were slaves in Egypt – dreamed she would see dozens of her children and grandchildren living in a rebuilt land of Israel, rebuilding the Golan Heights, studying Torah in Jerusalem, and continuing the legacy of the Chafetz Chaim and the Jews of Radin in a profoundly meaningful way. Yet, the power to overcome and experience God’s redemption and deliverance is imbued in us because our story is a story of humble beginnings. God knew that for redemption to be complete, it must have the power of renewal, the power to rise from shame, persecution, and destruction, and it is with that that the holiday of Passover becomes the most powerful holiday of both personal and national redemption. Chag Kasher Ve’Same’ach!
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Lieba Herschkowitz’s story has been relayed here very much based on her son Shamaya’s recounting of the events. More details can be found in her autobiography מלבת אש-סיפורה של ליבא אהובה שלוסברג הרשקוביץ