Cheryl Levi

Pesach Under Fire

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As Pesach approaches, I can’t help but think about what kind of Pesach we will be celebrating this year.  Where will our soldiers be?  Will the people from the south be back in their homes?  Where will the residents of the North be holding their Pesach seder?  Will we still be experiencing rocket fire?  Will we still be getting devastating reports of the deaths of our sons and daughters in Gaza?  So many questions.  But then, Pesach is the holiday of questions.

I can’t help but think about an earlier Pesach as well when questions plagued the minds of the Jews.  During the 1940’s Jews in concentration camps were overrun by questions.  Where is God?  How can He allow this to happen? How does Pesach, the holiday of freedom, even apply to us today?  Will I live to see another Pesach?  But others were asking more practical questions.  How can we celebrate our seder while the Nazis are watching our every move?  How can we acquire flour to make our matzot?  What is the best way to hold a seder despite our limitations in the concentration camp? Yet with all these questions, the stories of  Pesach during the Holocaust are inspiring. They are stories of victory over oppression, ingenuity over fear, and survival over annihilation.  Perhaps a glimpse into some of these stories is exactly what need at this time.

Vaihingen Concentration Camp

The Vaihingen Concentration Camp was one of the most horrific camps.  In the winter of 1944-1945, the Jews of the Radon ghetto in Poland were moved there in order to build armaments and dig tunnels that were used as bomb shelters for the Nazis and hideouts for their weapons.  The Jews slaved for 12 hours without a break.   This camp had one of the highest mortality rates.

Moshe Perl, one of the residents of the camp remarked, ““The people in the camp were already used to their miserable situation. They saw death before their eyes. But they were not willing to eat chametz on Passover.”  They were determined to celebrate their holiday, but they needed to figure out a way to get flour.  This is where Perl’s ingenuity stepped in.

Perl’s job in the camp was to paint signs.  One day he was asked to build targets out of wood for the Nazis to practice shooting.  Perl suggested that he make big targets with images of soldiers on them.  He said that he would need about 5 kg. of flour in order to paste the pictures on the targets. The Nazis agreed.

Armed with the flour, the people in the camp got to work.  They used wooden beams, and a wheel from Perl’s tools to make the matzot.  Once completed, the matzot were hidden underneath the shingles in the roof of Perl’s workshop.  Needless to say, this was all extremely dangerous.  Had they been found out, they all would have been murdered.

But they were not found out.  The first night of Pesach they gathered and conducted a seder.  They ate the matzot, drank their homemade wine (sugar and water), and even managed to read from a Haggada.

Their story, like so many others, represents the mastery of the soul over the denigration of the body.



The story of the Pesach seder in Dachau is a story about the power that one person can wield.  In this case, the man was known as “Rebbe”.

Rebber was considered a bit strange by the residents of Dachau.  He always smiled.  Amidst the death, hunger, and torture, he still smiled.  But Rebbe wasn’t just a smiler.  He was extremely brave and committed to Judaism.  The residents all knew that he had almost been killed when he held a Purim party in the camp.  That’s probably why the prisoners were very skeptical when he first suggested they bake matzot to celebrate Pesach.  But he had a plan.

He gave a prisoner named Sol who worked in the kitchen the task of exchanging two gold teeth for some flour.  The teeth were given to Rebbi by a prisoner before his death, and Rebbe promised the prisoner that he would use them to acquire flour.  Sol was less than excited about his task, to say the least.  The German cook in the kitchen who was in charge of the food, was a nasty man.  But as Sol stood before the cook, seriously reconsidering the task he had received, they suddenly heard sounds from the sky.  They were American fighter planes!  The cook was clearly uneasy.  That’s when Sol saw his opening.  He blurted out his request explaining the need for flour in order to celebrate Pesach.  The cook looked at him strangely and asked if Pesach was the holiday that Jesus celebrated when he sat with his disciples for his last supper.  Was this the “unleavened bread? The cook was a very religious Catholic who wore a cross on his neck.  When he found out that this was indeed the case, he gave a bag of flour to Sol.  He explained that he believed Jesus would want them to celebrate Pesach.  Sol happily accepted the gift, and brought it to Rebbe who then made the matzot on a small stove.

On March 27,1945, they had their seder.  Rebbe commented that they had both matzot and marror.  Where was marror?  Their life was the marror. As the youngest of the group, Sol, recited the Four Questions (Mah Nishtana) from memory.  All of the children in the camp had been killed, so there was no one to hide the afikomen.  Rebbe recited the rest of the seder by heart and ended with the following words, “Please, forgive us, Oh Master of the Universe, for conducting such a poor Passover Seder service. But it was the best we could do, and please deliver us, Oh Lord, from the hands of our enemies who rose up, once again, in this generation to destroy us.”

One month later they were liberated by the U.S. army.


This story strikes me as a story about the power of the individual and his faith.  Rebbe was an inspiration then, and he continues to be an inspiration today.

Warsaw Ghetto

The story of the Warsaw uprising will forever be closely connected to Pesach because it began on the night of the seder on April 19, 1943.  That was when German troops led by Jurgen Stroop entered the Warsaw ghetto with the intent of deporting the Jewish residents to Treblinka.

The Germans came with 2,000 soldiers and police, tanks and artillery. The Jewish underground consisted of two separate groups, the Jewish Combat organization led by Mordechai Anielewicz and the Jewish Military Unit.  Ultimately, they merged for the uprising and consisted of 750 underground soldiers.  They had also succeeded in getting in touch with a Polish underground unit and they received a small amount of weapons and explosives.  It was a true David and Goliath story.

On Pesach night, the Jewish underground was warned that the Germans were coming.  Its members told the residents of the ghetto to hide.  The people hid in underground bunkers and waited until the resistance encountered the Germans.  The Jews fought heroically and managed to push the Germans outside of the Ghetto on the first day.  They were poorly equipped and not trained, but performed sensationally in hand-to-hand combat where they would attack and then retreat into the buildings and underground hiding spaces.  The Jews who were not part of the Jewish underground did their part as well by refusing to listen to German orders to go to collection points.  The Nazis were clearly not acclimated to this type of defiance.

On May 8th, the Germans captured 18 Mila, the headquarters of the Jewish Combat Organization, and they would later burn the ghetto to the ground.  They never captured the leaders of the Jewish underground though.  They were believed to have committed suicide. On May 16th Stroop announced, “The former Jewish Quarter in Warsaw is no more.”  The resistance had held out for almost one month.


The story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising could not have fallen on a more appropriate date.  It is a story of Jewish resistance, unity, and bravery.   Just as the Jews defied their oppressors by leaving Egypt under the guidance of Moses, the Jewish resistance fought back under the guidance of  Mordechai Anielewicz.  Neither group hesitated because they knew that they were dealing with an existential threat.

There are many more stories about the enduring connection between Jewish resistance and Pesach. As the world turns against us, it is imperative to remember that we have been there before, and it is our faith, bravery,  ingenuity, and the power of the individual that has saved us in the past.

Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.
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