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This is the time of Passover, the holiday when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from Egypt in biblical times. As with many other Jewish holidays, the Passover ceremony follows a familiar refrain: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” How, then, did the survivors of the Holocaust interact with this holiday, given the painfully similar horrors they had suffered?
The recounting during Passover of bondage and escape, plagues and splitting seas, is a rather complex exercise, often requiring a Haggadah (a Jewish text setting out the order of the Passover service). A Haggadah published in the aftermath of the Second World War by three Jews – two survivors then living in a displaced persons (‘DP’) camp in Munich and an American army chaplain – grants us some insight into the complicated relationship between the Holocaust and Passover, as well as that between survivors and religiosity more generally.
Authored by Yosef Dov Sheinson, a survivor of four years in various concentration camps, and further embellished with woodcuts of Nazi Pharaohs and prison-garb-clad-slaves by survivor, Miklos Adler, and reprinted for a Passover service of some 200 hundred survivors by army chaplain, Abraham Klausner, A Survivor’s Haggadah makes a clear connection between Pharaoh and Hitler, between slavery and the camps, between Israelite labourers and Jewish prisoners.
In his English preface to the Yiddish and Hebrew text, Klausner emphasises that just as the Israelites had to wander the desert for 40 years after escaping Egypt, the saga of the Holocaust survivors – living in cramped DP camps with nowhere to go – had not yet ended. Indeed, the camps would remain open at least through 1953, when a quarter of a million refugees remained unsettled in Europe.
From Sheinson’s viewpoint, the tale of Passover and of the Holocaust connotes a central Jewish failing – the choice of Jews to remain in the Diaspora. The solution, of course, was aliyah – immigration to Palestine.
Foisting the burden for Jewish oppression on the Jews themselves is highly unusual, but an even more challenging theme makes itself known late in the service, when Sheinson’s version of the traditional “Dayenu” song is transcribed. “Dayenu”, meaning, roughly, “it would have been enough”, is a song which celebrates the many ways in which God helped the Israelites.
Sheinson inverts this, condemning God for his inaction. It would have been enough, he writes, “Had he scattered us among the nations but had not given us the first crusade.” Sheinson traces a path through the history of the Jews in Europe, concluding with the Holocaust. “Had he given us Hitler but not ghettos, dayenu. Had he given us ghettos but no gas chambers and crematories, dayenu.”
Such attitudes towards faith and God were not entirely uncommon in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel, the famed survivor, recounted an instance in which several rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial for “crimes against creation and humanity” – and found him guilty.
What are we to draw from all of this? Most importantly, we must understand that the tale of Passover is not just in the past – it could and did happen again to Jews, and is happening again to other oppressed peoples around the globe.
These tales also show us how even when faith or belief is weak or non-existent, events of cultural and historical significance like Passover can strengthen us. When we find in the past some reflection of our present, we can use that to help us persevere against incredible odds.
Marc Daalder is a writer and History student co-located in Amherst, Massachusetts and Wellington, New Zealand. Marc has been published in the Financial Times, the Chicago Reader and the Jewish Daily Forward.
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