Cross-posted to Daily Kos
Good morning! Welcome once again to Sunday Griot.
This week the world’s Jews are celebrating Passover, so I thought I would present a Passover story. I’ll warn you right now, it’s a bit dark, but there’s light in it too. And I have to say I’m sorry I couldn’t think of a better title that was as descriptive as . . . Passover In Hell.
It was 1944, and the Nazis had gathered them together in a concentration camp.
“Tonight the Passover begins,” one of the men, a tailor named Mendel said.
“Goodness me,” said Klein, a watchmaker. “And here we forgot to search the house for leaven.” This bit of gallows humor brought chuckles from the others.
“I remember our seders when I was a child,” said Mendel. “My father was a rabbi. He would take in a dozen, two dozen people who had no where else to celebrate. That plus our family. My mother would complain that he was going to feed us out of house and home, but she didn’t really mean it.”
“Shut up,” said Baum, a silversmith from Dresden.
“What’s the matter?” asked Stein, who had been a student at the university in Cologne.
“What’s the matter?” Baum asked back. “Maybe you haven’t noticed it, but we’re not exactly free men here. We are in captivity as bad anything our forefathers in Egypt experienced. Maybe worse. We have no reason to celebrate the seder.” He turned from the others. “That world is dead to us.”
“It’s only dead if we let it be dead,” said another voice. Everyone turned toward him. The speaker was Rosenzweig, an American who had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time and was now interred here with the Germans and Poles and Dutch and others who had been rounded up. “It’s only dead if we kill it.”
Baum snorted and turned away from the group again.
“Let me tell you something I heard once,” Rosenzweig said in his halting Yiddish, remembered as best he could from his immigrant parents who had encouraged him to learn English and supplemented by what he had learned in the camp. “In Rome there is an arch built to commemorate the victory over the Jews and the destruction of Solomon’s temple.”
“We know it,” Mendel said.
“It shows our people being led off in chains and the spoils of victory, including the menorah. But down at the bottom, if you know where to look, someone has written ‘Am Yisrael chai.'” They didn’t have to be told what this means: “The people of Israel live.”
“My grandfather told me once that we can sum up every Jewish holiday in this way:
‘They tried to kill us.
The others looked at Rosenzweig. They said nothing. Some just didn’t know what to say.
Then they all turned back as quietly, Rosenzweig began to recite the seder service.
“Tsha!” Baum said. “Are you mad? They will kill us.”
Rosenzweig stopped. “If you haven’t noticed, we aren’t doing so well already,” he replied. “We are living on borrowed time. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die a Jew.” And he began again.
Baum made again as if he would stop Rosenzweig, but Mendel held him back. Sssssh, his body language said. The American is right. Crazy, perhaps, but right. Let him continue.
Rosenzweig recited the Kiddush. He held up his hand, cupped as though it were holding a glass of wine, and mimed taking a drink. A few of the others joined him. They mimed eating the cucumber and washing their hands. They lit pretend candles. And as Rosenzweig was about to begin the cup of sanctification . . . he stopped. He couldn’t remember the words.
After a moment, Mendel took up the ceremony, and from there they continued. Others recited different portions of the haggadah. Eight different men asked the Four Questions, once each in Hebrew and Yiddish. Baum himself asked “Why is this night different from all other nights?” in Yiddish. Klein, who had learned a bit of locksmithing in addition to his watchmaker’s trade, even picked the lock on the barracks door, opened it a crack to invite the prophet Elijah in, then hurriedly closed and locked it again.
The ceremony continued to its end, with each man remembering the sounds and smells and tastes of the Passovers of days past. Then, when they finished the ceremony, a Chasidic Jew named Steinberg told the story of how the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidic Judaism, had laughed three times at a Sabbath. That story too involved a service where a poor couple had nothing to eat, no tablecloth, no candles to light. Just their love for the Lord and their love of each other.
And then, someone began to sing. Everyone turned, because they had never heard the voice before. The voice — a beautiful tenor voice — was coming from a man named Meyer. No one could remember him so much as speaking before except perhaps in answer to a direct order from a guard, much less singing. He finished the first verse, then turned to the others. “My father was a cantor in Rotterdam,” he explained. “I had dreams of being a cantor myself, before . . . before all this. When I came here I decided there was no reason to sing anymore, and I fell silent. Tonight, I am going to sing.” And he started the second verse. It was a simple song, one they all knew, so they all joined in. Then someone started another song, and they all sang some more. Even the ones who didn’t know the words joined in as best they could and singing la-la-la to the rest.
Outside the barracks, a guard turned with a puzzled expression on his face, which quickly turned to anger. He ran toward the barracks, unlocked the door and threw it open. The singing stopped. “What are you Jewish fools doing?” the guard barked. “What can you canaries possibly have to sing about? Shut up and go to sleep.”
The guard left and locked the door again. About a minute later the singing resumed, louder than before. This time the guard unlocked the door and cocked his revolver. “If I hear any more singing,” he said, “I am going to start shooting you. Now STOP SINGING!” and he slammed the door.
This time the hesitation was a bit longer, but Rosenzweig started the singing again, and everyone joined in. The guard returned, threw open the door, and the singing continued. The guard watched for a moment as the men sang, and then closed the door behind him, knowing there was nothing he could do against such a show of faith.
The singing continued well into the night.