He was fifteen years old, but tall for his age, and given a gruelling task too hard even for a grown man. He carried heavy loads from one place to another, from morning till evening; it was back and forth, day after day, in the heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter. By winter he was emaciated, and his stomach churned from starvation. Each Pesach seder in response to the four questions asked by the youngest person present, the story recited from the Haggadah, begins with the words, “We were slaves…” My late father z”l, like other Jews through the centuries, would recite this line as part of the collective memory of our people’s miraculous exodus from slavery in Egypt. But as he read aloud about the bondage of thousands of years ago, my father’s mind must have also drifted back to the burden, the snow and the hunger when he was a slave in Kretschamberg labour camp between 1944 and 1945, during the Holocaust.
Instead of the heavy bricks used to build the Egyptian storage cities of Pithom and Ramses, the depleted youth carried logs, each over a metre long, to clear an area of forest to store German ammunition. The Egyptian taskmasters carried whips, but the German prison guards had guns; one could lash, the other could kill. The torment of slavery is not only the work and the loss of freedom but its repetitiveness and endlessness, not knowing when or how the misery will end. We were slaves for over a hundred years in Egypt, a few years in Europe during the Holocaust, while for my father it was about seven months towards the end of the war.
Whether endured for over a century or less than a year, perhaps the state of enslavement is not the same as being a slave; the former reduces the person to an automaton, not knowing or caring, while the other may be mindful of present circumstances, believing that the future will bring freedom. My father was in Kretschamberg together with his father, my grandfather z”l. The father nurtured his son physically with extra small pieces of bread, and spiritually with secret lessons in Torah. They hoped and prayed that the rest of the family was still alive, and they would all be liberated soon. Tragically my father’s mother, my grandmother HY”D, and his younger brother and sister, Robert HY”D and Erika HY”D, were sent to the left during selection in Auschwitz, after passing through arched gates bearing the sign, “Arbeit macht frei”. Work makes you free. Irony wrought in iron. Auschwitz was evil implemented by the brutal. But the slaves were eventually freed.
The Kretschamberg inmates were liberated by Soviet soldiers in early February 1945. That exodus was not preceded by plagues or called for the parting of a sea, but the parting of the labour camp gates surely seemed miraculous to the slaves within. Two months later, on the fourth day of Pesach, my father’s older brother, Viktor HY”D, died in another labour camp.
“We were slaves. Now we are free…” May we always be free. May the world be free of slavery.
The seder meal over, we are replete with food and wine. Time to sing the traditional songs. As we sing “Next year in Jerusalem”, my father invites the others present to join a conga line around the table. Tired as I am, I join in this dance of hope and freedom.