Pesach during the Holocaust

April 19, 2019 by Simmy Allen
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The Pesach festival – which marks the Jewish people’s exodus from enslavement in ancient Egypt – was never more reminiscent in modern times as during the Holocaust.

stolen items confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish families. Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives

In the Pesach Haggadah, which recounts the miraculous story, Jews are told to proclaim: “This year we are here; next year we will be in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people.” For thousands of years, no matter where in the world Pesach seders (meals) have been held, this has been the central theme.

During the Holocaust, the Jews of Europe were imprisoned, enslaved and systematically exterminated by the German Nazis and their collaborators. Even during this darkest time, Pesach seders were held to remember the Exodus from Egypt and Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe proclaimed “Next year we will be free people.”

The Pesach story was especially pertinent to the Jews incarcerated in of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. On 19 April, the start of the Pesach holiday, the Germans began the liquidation of the ghetto. A nearly two-week long battle – later called the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – ensued, as the Germans tried to deport the remaining 60,000 Jews to their deaths. Tuvia Borzykowski, one of the Jewish ghetto fighters, described the scene of the seder at Rabbi Eliezer Meisel’s apartment in his book Between Tumbling Walls.

“The Rabbi’s reading of the seder was punctuated by explosions and the rattling of machine-guns; the faces of the family around the table were lit by the red light from the burning buildings nearby. Amidst this destruction, the table in the centre of the room looked incongruous with glasses filled with wine, the family seated around, and the rabbi reading the Haggadah.”

A US Army Pesach Haggadah

Army Hagaddah – US Army issued printed Pesach Hagaddah 1944- signed by Jewish paratroopers in Italy 1944. Credit: Yad Vashem Archives

During World War II, almost 1.5 million Jewish soldiers fought for the Allied forces across Europe and North Africa. In contrast to the many Jews who marked Pesach in death camps or in the shadow of events such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, these soldiers were able to celebrate the holiday as part of the Allied armies who were liberating Europe from Nazi occupation.

The U.S. Army printed haggadot for its Jewish soldiers, one of which was recently donated to Yad Vashem. It was used by Allied Jewish soldiers those fighting in the Italian resistance at a Pesach seder held on a British Army base 75 years ago in Bari, Italy, on 8 April 1944. The soldiers present at the seder signed their names on the inside of the book.

Sadly, several of the soldiers present at the seder did not live until the war’s end. Some of the soldiers were Palestinian Jews who had volunteered to join the British Army. They had emigrated from Europe in the years before the war, and the English utilized these soldiers’ knowledge of different occupied countries to send them behind enemy lines to organize resistance against the Nazis.

Jewish paratroopers Enzo Sereni and Peretz Goldstein, who both attended the seder in Bari, were later executed by Axis forces after becoming prisoners-of-war. Sereni – an Italian who emigrated to Mandatory Palestine – enlisted in the British Army during the war and served in Egypt and Iraq. In May 1944, he parachuted into northern Italy and fell into German hands. He was sent to Dachau and murdered there in November 1944.

The day after the Seder, Goldstein and Yoel Palgi – alongside famed female paratrooper Hanna Szenes – parachuted into Yugoslavia and from there they entered Hungary. They were caught in Budapest, interrogated, tortured and sent to concentration camps. Palgi managed to escape from the deportation train, but Goldstein was sent to the Oranienburg camp where he was murdered. 

A Family Matzah Cover

Matza cover belonging to Sally (Salah) Muller. Credit: Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection

Another artifact in Yad Vashem’s Collections relating to how Jews celebrated the traditional rituals of the holiday of Pesach during the Holocaust is the matzah cover that Sally (Salah) Muller gave to her son Avraham before he left for Eretz Israel in 1938.

After saying goodbye to Avraham, Salah and her husband Gedaliah fled from Austria to Belgium with their infant daughter, Ruth. They were hidden by a Belgian woman, and Ruth was given to Henry and Irma von Honberk who lovingly took her in despite her Jewish identity. In 1944, after being informed upon to the authorities, Sally and Gedalia were discovered and deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

Avraham kept the family’s precious matzah cover and used it for Pesach celebrations over the years in Israel. However, as time passed it began to fall apart, and the family decided to donate it to Yad Vashem, so it could be preserved for future generations and honour his family members who were murdered during the Holocaust.

The Matzah cover was preserved by the textile preserver at Yad Vashem and then added to its Artifacts Collection, numbering tens of thousands of items from the Holocaust period.

Sally and Gedalia left a will with the Belgian woman requesting that care for Ruth – who was nine years old at the war’s end – be sent to her brother in Israel. “My parents were very religious and they didn’t want me to stay with the non-Jewish family after the war,” explained Ruth in her testimony years later. “This was true especially because all of their extended family had been killed; my brother and I were the only two left. The Belgian woman gave the will to the Jewish Agency who got in contact with my brother, and he managed to get me to Israel.

Pesach Plates

Pesach Plate- Pesach plate with the word “Matza” in Hebrew from France Credit: Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection

As is traditional for Jewish families, many Jews in Europe and North Africa possessed special utensils for Pesach. Albert took these two Pesach plates in 1944 while he worked as a forced labourer, tasked with helping the Nazis confiscate Jewish property in Paris. Many years later, his son, Michael, donated them to Yad Vashem for safekeeping.

The Pesach plates illustrate how the “Aryanization” of property in Nazi-occupied countries included even the most personal objects belonging to Jews. In Paris, this was possible due to the active collaboration of the Vichy government, which helped set up a large storage space in the centre of Paris – ironically in buildings that had been Jewish-owned before the war – to store the stolen Jewish property.

Prisoners from the Drancy concentration camp who were “protected” from being sent to their deaths in Eastern Europe – for example, Albert, who had Turkish citizenship – were forced to work in confiscating Jewish property throughout France.

These artifacts join the tens of thousands of items in Yad Vashem’s Collections that will be stored in the Shoah Heritage Collections Center, a brand new state-of-the-art facility to be built on the Mount of Remembrance, which aims to preserve, catalogue and display these items as everlasting witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust.

“The Germans Nazis were determined not only to annihilate the Jewish people but also to obliterate their identity, memory, culture and heritage,” remarked Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. “For many, all that remains are a treasured work of art, a personal artifact that survived with them, a photograph kept close to their person, a diary, or a note. By preserving these precious items – that are of great importance not just to the Jewish people, but also to humanity as a whole – and revealing them to the public, they will act as the voice of the victims and the survivors, and serve as an everlasting memory.”

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