PASSOVER AND THE HOLOCAUST
By Barbara Sofer
April 25, 2019
"My town of Piotrkow, Poland, became the first Nazi ghetto. By Passover 1940, we had been under German occupation for six months. Before the occupation, winter clothing was cleaned, and bedding aired in the sunlight. Families that used straw mattresses renewed the straw. Many homeowners made their own Passover wine from raisins, and glassmakers peddled their bottles door to door. Even under occupation, the Piotrkow bakers cleaned their ovens, covered the surfaces and began making matzah. It didn't occur to the Jews of Piotrkow that the holiday wouldn't be celebrated. Just the opposite. In the physical and psychological suffering of the ghetto, the week when we celebrated our deliverance from Egypt as slaves, there was still a symbol of hope."
Rena Quint, from A Daughter of Many Mothers
I'm visiting with Rena Quint, with whom I wrote A Daughter of Many Mothers, in Jerusalem. It's the week before Passover, and the long dining table is bereft of its usual pretzels and cookies, with which she greets visitors and the groups of tourists, many of whom have never met a Holocaust survivor. But today, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep arriving to bear holiday greetings and to borrow long tablecloths for their growing Seder tables. One pretty and precocious granddaughter looks like Rena. I imagine that was how Rena looked when her family's apartment in the Jewish quarter was enclosed within the ghetto.
Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, follows Passover by less than a week. Not by chance. When considering options for honoring the memories of the Six Million, Knesset members first thought of the 10th of Tevet, the day of mourning for the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 425 BCE. Others promoted the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the beginning of the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. Objections were raised. The joyous month of Nisan isn't a time of mourning, not to mention that the 14th of Nisan is the day before Passover. Still others rejected the idea of marking the memorial day on the anniversary of the famous uprising, lest it diminish the memory of those victims who weren't involved in the revolt. After vituperative arguments, a compromise was reached. The 27th of Nisan was chosen so it would be close to the 14th of Nisan, and yet separated from Passover. It would also form a meaningful link between Passover and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars/Independence Day. In 1951, the Knesset fixed the date of Yom Hashoah.
Each year, a theme is chosen to emphasize an aspect of the incomprehensible tragedy. The theme of Yom Hashoah this year is "The War Within the War: the Struggle of the Jews to Survive During the Holocaust." The focus, according to the website of Yad Vashem, is that Jews not only struggled to stay alive but "persisted in their struggle to preserve their Jewish identity, culture and religion. Thus, they sought to remember the past, feel the pain of the present and dream of the future."
Which brings us back to Passover. On the eve of Passover 1940, inside the Piotrkow Ghetto, despite the beatings, robbery and murder, you could see men carrying home from the bakery matzah wrapped in spotless white cloths. Piotrkow Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, 48, who would later be murdered in Treblinka, managed to get extra flour from other towns for baking matzah.
Says Quint, "As the youngest in the family, it was my honor to stand and sing the Four Questions at the Seder. Today, I try to conjure up that moment: standing on a chair, asking in Yiddish in my sweetest voice, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?' For every Jewish family, this is a highlight of the year. We had entered the unknown, but were holding on to what we cherished."
SURVIVAL INCLUDED the ethical and religious questions that were integral in Jewish life. Among his records that Rabbi Ephraim Oshry was able to retrieve from the Kovno (Lithuania) Ghetto (published in English as Responsa from the Holocaust) were moral dilemmas such as: "May one save oneself by causing the death of a fellow Jew?" "Was it right to grab a white card to save my life?" Men and women wondered how to determine whether your life was more valuable than another's.
Although it would seem easier, maybe even prudent, to put aside strictures under the unbearable conditions, it wasn't always so. Writes Oshry, "Many of the ghetto prisoners perceived that the only way they could oppose the will of their accursed German oppressors was to maintain some form of Torah study, along with keeping the mitzvot, so that their Jewish character would not be destroyed."
Oshry tells the story of Moshe Goldkorn, a Polish Jew who escaped to Lithuania only to be cast into forced labor in the Kovno Ghetto. In 1942, Goldkorn bartered goods for flour, which was baked in a secret kashered oven into matzah. Then he was caught with an additional small bag of flour. He was brutally beaten; all his teeth were smashed. Weeping, he approached Oshry. "With my broken teeth, how can I fulfill the mitzvah of eating an olive-sized piece of matzah, since I come from a hassidic family whose custom is never to eat matzah that is soaked?" In the ghetto, Oshry set up a rabbinic court to annul Goldkorn's "vow" of never eating soaked matzah.
NOT THAT everyone survived the Holocaust with faith undiminished. Who can blame them? Even though Quint prefers to look forward rather than backward, as the Passover approaches, she and her visiting son David, named for Rena's murdered older brother, reminisce about a certain Passover when they were living in Brooklyn.
A long-lost older first cousin, one of three other relatives among her 148 aunts, uncles and cousins who survived, suddenly appeared before Passover. Unknown to Rena, he had been living in Israel with his wife and two sons, and had recently moved to America. Stunned and elated, Rena immediately invited them for Passover.
At first they refused, fearing that Rena and her husband, Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Quint, would be too stiflingly religious for them. The family relented when Rena mentioned that if they weren't coming, she would invite newly arrived Russian Jews instead. The cousins turned up in the afternoon before the Seder, and David surprised them by taking their sons outside to play basketball.
By the end of the Quints' Seder, everyone was singing the Passover songs, "Who Knows One?" and "Had Gadya." A tidal wave of emotion evoked by the old family melodies swept away any barriers. They stayed for the second Seder, too.