“Tolerance is what keeps humanity together, I believe.”

—Anne Willem Meijer, Member of the Dutch Resistance


Inspirations from the Jewish Experience: Passover

Four Haggadot for Passover
In 1945, when Werner Coppel and his few friends returned to Berlin after surviving Auschwitz and other concentration camps, they discovered many religious objects buried in the Jewish cemetery in Weissensee, the oldest and largest Jewish cemetery in the city. The young men dug up these artifacts and used the prayer shawls and prayer books at the first public Jewish worship service in post-war Berlin, in the synagogue where the late, beloved HUC professor Jakob Petuchowski’s grandfather had been rabbi at the turn of the century.

From among these religious treasurers, Werner was allowed to keep a tallit, which he still uses every year on Yom Kippur. He was also given a Passover Haggadah that is pictured here. In 1946, Werner used it to lead a seder at the Jewish old age home in Berlin, which housed 30-40 elderly Jews who survived the Terezin concentration camp. Just one month before the seder, Werner had married Trudy Silberman, and this was their first Passover as a married couple. Wolf Berner, best man at their wedding and the director of the Displaced Persons camp in Berlin, arranged for Werner to lead the seder.

Werner and Trudy do not know who owned their Haggadah originally, nor do they know who buried it in Weissensee. They brought it with them to America and have kept it ever since. For them it is doubly meaningful, telling the story of the Israelites deliverance from slavery, as well as their own personal story of new beginnings and regeneration.

Five years earlier, in the Gurs detention camp in southwestern France, Jewish prisoners wrote a Haggadah by hand in preparation for Passover 1941. Reading from their Haggadah at makeshift seder tables, the Jews of Gurs celebrated the Festival of Freedom from behind barbed wire. In the summer of 1942, most of the prisoners of Gurs were transported to the Drancy camp and then to Auschwitz. Their Haggadah and its accompanying paintings and notes remain in the archives at Yad Vashem, a testament to the Jews unwavering commitment to their religion and culture. One page of this Haggadah is pictured here; a facsimile edition has been published in Hebrew (Yad Vashem, 1999).

Holocaust survivors in the Munich area created a handmade Haggadah in the winter of 1945-1946. Written in both Hebrew and Yiddish and illustrated with beautiful woodcuts, this Haggadah interweaves the traditional Passover liturgy with the modern story of Jews enslaved in Hitler’s Europe and their liberation. The Haggadah also reflects the survivors yearning for the Promised Land, a Zion to be redeemed by the survivors-turned-pioneers. It was first published by Zionist groups in Munich and then reprinted by the United States Army of Occupation. Five decades later, Saul Touster, professor emeritus at Brandeis University, discovered the Haggadah among the papers of his father, a former president of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. It was subsequently published as A Survivors Haggadah (Jewish Publication Society, 2000).

Anna Ornstein recently published a personal Haggadah, telling her own Holocaust story of persecution, slavery, and redemption. When her daughter returned home from college for Passover, she wanted to create a new way for her whole family to participate in the seder. She asked everybody to prepare something to say about what freedom meant to them personally. Inspired by her daughter, Anna wrote her first Passover story and read it at the seder table. Everyone responded with stunned silence  teary-eyed and appreciative that she had shared a small part of her concentration camp experiences.

For each of the next twenty-five years, as Anna’s children were joined by their spouses and their own children at the family seder, Anna told another story. The eagerness with which those present wanted to learn about the Holocaust on the occasion of the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt formed a unique intergenerational bond. Like the traditional Haggadah, Anna’s stories helped the young people in her family maintain a sense of the continuity on which Jewish survival depends.

In 2004, Anna Ornstein published her Passover stories in a memoir called My Mother’s Eyes (Emmis Books, 2004). It was her hope that this book would make it possible for others to read about the daily struggles for survival that had to be fought in the camps. Anna explains the significance of the book in her introduction:

Year after year we sit around the seder table and read the familiar stories of slavery and the Exodus from Egypt. Year after year, we tell the story of the most recent slavery, recount our sorrows over the losses we suffered, and speak of our deliverance.

During the last few years, each time Passover neared, I decided not to write another story. But each time I changed my mind. I believe I cannot stop writing because these stories are memorials I am erecting in the minds of our children. I fear that if I stop writing, stop building the memorial, my children and everyone who reads these stories will stop remembering the people we have lost and those who are forgotten are truly dead. (My Mother’s Eyes, page 14)

Passover is a holiday of fours: four cups of wine, four questions, four sons (and for some, four daughters). Perhaps we can add to this list the remarkable four Haggadot described above. These four Haggadot have layers of meaning, for those who wrote them and for those who continue to use and learn from them today. Their poignant messages of freedom and connectedness speak to the essence of the holiday.