Passover 2020 is not the most difficult Jews have faced

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Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Passover 2020 promises to be unlike anything most Jews have ever experienced. How do you have a seder when most states have mandated, and the best medical advice tells us, that for our own protection we cannot gather together?

Without a doubt, having a seder this year will be more difficult than during any Passover most of us have known – but not all of us. Whatever the hardships we experience, they cannot compare to what it was like to observe Passover during the Holocaust.

It may be difficult to imagine Jews observing the holiday amid the horrors of life in the ghettos and concentration camps. Yet there are many stories of how Passover continued to be observed throughout the Holocaust. Haggadot have been discovered at the site of death camps, and there are photographs of Passover seders in ghettos. 

Passover traditions were shattered by the Nazis as they orchestrated the systematic destruction of Jews and Jewish cultural and religious heritage. In fact, it was on the eve of Passover that the Germans invaded the Warsaw Ghetto to liquidate it, prompting the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Despite this oppression, Jews strove to maintain the practice of their customs and rituals, to preserve their human dignity and identity during the Holocaust.

Pinchas Gutter, in his book “Memories in Focus,” relates that in 1943, on the first night of Passover, Gutter’s family made a seder in a secret underground shelter, seeking to find peace and comfort.

“We existed … by hiding, until April 19, 1943, Erev Pesach, the eve of Passover, which was also the eve of the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto. That day, there was an alarm. The Polish underground resistance on the outside who were working with the Jewish underground phoned someone in the ghetto to say that the Nazis were coming in to take everybody out.

“We had prepared a bunker underneath the ruins at the front of our building. The caretaker and the men in our building, including my father, had dug it out, creating a middle section as an entrance and a room on either side. They didn’t want to give up and be taken by the Germans.

“My father and mother prepared us children for when we would have to go there. They told us that when the time came to go into the bunker, we were to ask no questions and we must get ready as quickly as we could.

“That day, we all went down to the bunker, about 150 people in all. … My father must have brought wine, somebody else had matzos, and that evening in the bunker, they made a Seder. Everyone was crying and praying. These were religious Jews who knew by heart the Haggadah and it still amazes me that, at such a dire time, they never forgot their culture and their morals. They also always made sure to shelter and look after their children.” 

Michael Kutz writes in his book “If, By Miracle,” that “in April 1942 we had 22 Jewish partisans in our group.

“Because we had all lost our own families, we felt like a family. One of the Jews in our group, Moishe Abramowitz, reminded us that Passover was approaching. He managed to obtain some beets to make a red soup to substitute for wine. We had no matzah, but he dug up some horseradish from nearby fields. On the night of the first seder, we gathered near our underground bunker.

“As I was the youngest, it was decided that I would ask the Four Questions. I knew them well since, as the youngest in my family, I had always been the appropriate candidate. Here in the forest I interpreted the answers to the questions somewhat differently.

“In answer to the question, ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’ I replied, ‘Because last Passover all the Jews sat with their families at tables beautifully set with matzah and goblets of red wine. Last year, each of us had a goblet on our plate and listened to the oldest person in our household conduct the seder.

“ ‘Tonight, in the forest, our lonely and orphaned group, having miraculously survived, remembers our loved ones who were taken from us forever.’ Tears fell from our eyes. After this, we continued to keep the traditions of all the Jewish holidays, which gave us the courage and the will to survive. With God’s help, we would eventually live in this world as free people.” 

A story told by Jackie Shimshoni in her March 2018 article “Passover and the Holocaust” (https://hcofpgh.wordpress.com/2018/03/28/passover-and-the-holocaust) tells of how the rabbis in Bergen-Belsen even created a dispensation in 1944 permitting the consumption of leavened bread during Passover. They wrote the following, in Hebrew:

“Before eating hametz, the following should be said with heartfelt intent: Heavenly Father, here, openly and knowingly before you, is our desire to do your will and to celebrate Passover by eating matza and by observing the prohibition of eating leaven, but it pains our hearts that slavery prevents us and we are in mortal danger … we are prepared and ready to observe your commandments and live by them and, if not, die by them and be warned by the warning, ‘beware and guard your soul carefully.’ For this reason, we pray that You will keep us in life, and preserve us and redeem us quickly so that we can observe Your laws and do Your will and worship You with a full heart – Amen.”

So, while Passover in 2020 will be difficult, we can take inspiration from these stories and adapt to our current circumstances.

As we have for thousands of years, we will survive. We will celebrate. We will remember our history and we will pray for a better tomorrow for ourselves and all of humankind.

Chag Pesach sameach!

LEV POPLOW is a communications consultant writing on behalf of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center, in Providence. He can be reached at levpoplow@gmail.com.