Paul Mirbach

Reminiscences of Pesach and the Empty Chair

When I was growing up in Bulawayo, Pesach seders were large extended family affairs. Many of the Jews in Rhodesia at the time lost the majority of their families in the Holocaust. I know mine did. My grandparent’s home had a table in the hall adorned with old pictures in elaborate frames of large families. People I never knew, and would never have gotten to know. I remember asking my grandfather once who they were. I must have been about six or seven. He put me on his lap and took the picture in his hand and started pointing at people’s faces. “That’s Yankel, and that’s his brother, my cousin, Hymie, and Yossel – he was a great scholar. And Beilinke. And that’s my sister, Sonia.” When I asked him where they were, I remember watching his eyes fill with tears. He put the picture down and said that one day he would tell me. He never did. He passed away before he could.
I did get to meet Sonia. She survived Auschwitz and made her way to America. She came to visit, and what I remember was, how hard it was for me to reconcile this frail, white haired old woman with a number tattooed on her arm, with the vivacious face of the young woman in the photo, with beautiful, full dark hair.
However, I digress; what I am trying to describe is that a large part of the Jewish community in Bulawayo comprised of the remnants of eastern European families (mainly Lithuania), lost in the Holocaust. From my grandfather’s generation, few had brothers or sisters who survived, and few had more than one or two children. Both my parents were single children, and since my grandfather lost most of his siblings (there were seven), my dad had only one first cousin.
Thus, third cousins were considered family. Pesach was traditionally held at the Liebermans. It would invariably be us Mirbachs, the Kibels the Adelskys and the Liebermans.
There was one year when we didn’t have pudding. Puddings were my mom’s bailiwick, our contribution to the Seder. This one year – I must have been eight or nine, we were waiting to go, and I was messing around with my brother, Nick z”l, and he challenged me to race to the car, Whoever got there first could sit in the front seat. I won. I jumped into the seat and promptly plonked my feet into the two pudding dishes that my mother had placed in the foot-well in anticipation of the short journey! One was chocolate mousse, and the other was fruit salad. I remember this, because the mousse stuck to my shoe, dripping with goo, and leaving a trail of chocolate mousse all the way to my bedroom to change them. I have never forgotten that; it wasn’t enough that we had to eat dry matzah, we had no pudding!

We would crowd into their lounge, that had been emptied of furniture to accommodate the twenty-plus Seder participants. What I found curious, was that no matter how cramped we were around the table – I could hardly move my elbows to eat – there was always one empty place at the table. When I asked my dad why they always had one empty place, he explained to me that it was “for the Jews in Russia who are not allowed to celebrate Pesach. So we put a place at our table to remember that they can’t”.

A typical Pesach seder at a crowded table. (Courtesy of Times of Israel, Nati Shohat/Flash90).
As much as Bulawayo was a backwater town, situated in the “bundu” of Africa (translated: wilderness), in this tradition, we were in step with the rest of the Jewish world. As an eight-year-old at the time, I don’t think I appreciated the significance. But when I met my father’s cousins who got out of Soviet Russia in the late 70s, I remembered this and the significance hit me.
There was even a special prayer that many recited, added to the Pesach prayers, The “Matzah of Hope”.
“The Matzah of Hope is a symbol from the days of Soviet oppression of its Jewish population when Soviet Jews had to celebrate the Seder secretly, if at all. One possible symbolism is that the three matzoth represent the traditional divisions of the Jewish population: Cohen, Levi, and Israel. The fourth matzah represented those Jews not free to fulfill their potential as Jews. (A fourth matzah is added to the traditional three on the main Seder plate and the following prayer is recited after “HA LACHMA ANYA” at the beginning of the Seder.)”
“This Is the Matzah of Hope: This matzah, which we set aside as a symbol of hope, for the three million Jews of the Soviet Union, reminds us of the indestructible link that exists between us. As we observe this festival of freedom, we know that Soviet Jews are not free to learn of their Jewish past, to hand it down to their children. They cannot learn the languages of their fathers. They cannot teach their children to be the teachers, the rabbis of future generations.

They can only sit in silence and become invisible. We shall be their voice, and our voices shall be joined by thousands of men of conscience aroused by the wrongs suffered by Soviet Jews. Then shall they know that they have not been forgotten and they that sit in darkness shall yet see a great light.”

Joseph Schneider at a protest in Israel demonstrating for the Prisoners of Zion. Courtesy of the Times of Israel, and courtesy National Library of Israel)
After the Jews from the Soviet Union were allowed to leave in the 90s, the practice of the “empty chair” became obsolete. We became used to enjoying more elbow room at the table.
Now, we need to do it again. Not for Russian Jewry, but for Israeli hostages being held by Hamas. They will not all be free before Pesach. They will not be delivered from captivity “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm”. There will be no חג החירות for them. So, let us set a place for them at our Seder table, in solidarity with them and the families of the hostages. In my father’s words, let us “put a place at our table to remember that they can’t”.
And, I would amend this prayer and say it after “Ha Lachma Anya”. Because the half pitta they get to eat per day, is the bread of their affliction.
Let’s do it.
#BringThemHomeNow . Before Pesach, so that we don’t need to do this.
About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.