Sunday, September 22, 2019 -
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Seder night, 1943


You can’t know right away by looking at the picture that it’s a seder in a ghetto. It could have been a group photo of family and friends gathered for any Passover holiday. Everyone is dressed in holiday finery. One of the gentlemen sports a fedora. The seder leader at the center of the photo is robed in a snow white kittel. The dishes are elegant. A round, lace-trimmed, silky white matzah cover sits casually at the end of the table. Matzos and wine are visible. There are three generations, from the old to a young mother clutching two little babies who look to be twins, dressed in bonnets, like dolls.

Ma Nishtana? What is different about this photo? Nothing, really.

Except when you notice that no one is looking at the camera is smiling. There is dissonance between the faces and the environment. You know something is wrong.

The picture is from the Yad Vashem archive. This particular photo with the two babies in the foreground is from the Warsaw Ghetto.

To look at such a photo, to realize the resilience, fortitude and sacrifice these Jewish people were making while facing the hardest of moments, is simply chilling and awe-inspiring. To be in those circumstances, and still celebrate?

While they themselves were not free, these people, with what must have taken all their strength, still chose to celebrate the freedom of their ancestors. They chose to mark their very Jewishness for which they were now being persecuted.

This photo is a moment frozen in time, of people who, despite the persecution, are choosing the freedom to be who they are, within crushing pain even worse than slavery.

They are telling a story of their people being taken from Egypt into their freedom, while they too shall soon be taken, but to their brutal deaths.

The sadness of this photo overwhelms. To look upon those faces, and know their fate of which they themselves did not yet know — they would soon be annihilated in Treblinka . . . Or, did they know? Yet, here they are, they still chose to celebrate the seder. There were rumors of an upcoming liquidation. In fact, the Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated just a month later, by May, 1943.

There are other seder photos too. Perhaps they are from the same ghetto, different years. Perhaps different ghettos. The centerpiece of one of the photos is of two blazing holiday candles. In another, the Haggadah is visible. in yet another, women are covered in headscarves.

In this photo, if you look carefully, you can see the twins’ crib in the background.

If this photo is from 1943, it is a snapshot of a seder at the same time as the night that turned out to be the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In fact, it began on seder night, 1943.

I wonder, did the people in this photo already hear the shots of the fighting echoing around them? Was the sharp smell of gunfire — invisible to the eye — in their nostrils?

Is this even a true photo? Was it rigged? Was it the sinister work of the Gestapo setting up scenes of Jews well taken care of, well fed, celebrating their holidays? Were Nazis pointing guns at the Jews at the seder table, invisible to the viewer?

One thing is certain, this photo, still reflecting the dignity of Jews celebrating a seder, was likely these people’s last stop in life. Somehow, evidence of this last stop has carried on through time. This photo is still there, for all to see.

While their names are  a mystery, we do know that these faces were at a Pesach seder on 7 Dzilena Street in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.

While looking through these photos, I happened upon a seder-themed poem by a Yiddish poet, Binem Heller, titled, “Varshever Getto Iz Itst Choydesh Nisn, It is the Month of Nisan in the Warsaw Ghetto.”

I found an adaptation of the poem in the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish Haggadah, as well as a poignant translation by someone named Yoel Sheridan.

A You Tube video published by the Yiddish Culture Club that I happened upon presents a reading by Hadassah Kestin. Her vocal interpretation is powerful.

I include the translation from that reading.

The poem is so pregnant with emotion and pain. It captures the emotional chaos rather than the order and sequence that the seder represents. It is a brutal and raw poem that comes to life in the video. If you have a chance, it’s worth the watch.

Heller’s poem captures how the seder in the ghetto no longer has a seder at all.

Oozing from the poem is the fantasy — or was it already the reality? — of an uprising melding two stories, Warsaw and Passover. They are all mixed up in this poem of cutting contradictions and aberrations of order — the only way to make sense of that time and place.

“It is the Month of Nissan in the Warsaw Ghetto”

In the Warsaw Ghetto is now the month of Nisn
Over goblets of borscht and matzos from bran
The people again sing of the miracles of old
How the Jewish People came out of Egypt
How old is the story? How old is the melody?
But now, behind shrouded windows, the seder takes place
And truth and lies are so interwoven
it’s hard to tell one from the other

Kol dichfin, let all who are hungry . . . ”
The doors and windows are covered
Kol dichfin, let all who are hungry . . . ”
Asleep from hunger, the little ones
Kol dichfin, let all who are hungry . . . ”
By empty Pesach dishes
Kol dichfin, let all who are hungry . . . ”
The old blind men are weeping

In the Warsaw Ghetto is now the month of Nissan
And one could think that the figures here piously swaying
are Marranos hiding from the outside world.
The remnants of the Jewish People
Of the “sixty ten thousands” that Moses
led out of Egypt has been driven into the ghettos.
Where dying’s permitted — but protest is not from Holland. From Belgium.
From France. From Poland.
Here sit the last of them weeping.
Here sit the last of them plundered and naked.
From 50 families remains only one.

In the Warsaw Ghetto is now the month of Nisan.
There’s Volinska Street. The crooked attic roof.
My mama has guests?
For the seder, from Brussels . . .
Her son and grandchildren have come.
From what can she prepare a seder?
Who could have counted on that so unexpectedly?
Accompanied by “angels”
with axes and crosses
They came to be slaughtered!

The table is set and the goblets are standing
Prepared for “selected” souls
But the children are begging for bread, in French.
And not one of them will ask “The four Questions”

In the Warsaw Ghetto is now the month of Nisan.
My mama puts a smile on her face.
Her lips which are bitten from hunger
Are transformed by the holiday.
Milder, softer.
Her eyes begin to shine again
Just as they did long ago in bygone times.
In her eyes the raisin wine is brimming
From long-forgotten distant Seders.
Suddenly her eyes widen in terrified surprise
Astonished, she stretches out her hands,
her pious hands.
Instead of starting the seder with Kiddush
Her son begins intoning:
“Pour out your wrath! . . .”

In the Warsaw Ghetto is now the month of Nissan.
The cup of Elijah stands full
But who has come here to disrupt this seder?
The angel of death has come to drink!
As always, German — the language of giving commands.
As always — the language of barking orders!
As always — they have come to round up
The Jewish People to slaughter

No more will the ghetto stand for the taunts of the Nazis
As they bring a world of destruction.
With blood we will smear the doorposts!
With blood from the Germans!
With blood from the rapists!

In the Warsaw Ghetto is now the month of Nissan
From neighbor to neighbor
the word will be passed
German blood will not stop flowing!
As long as one Jew in the ghetto still lives!
In their eyes will be no submission.
In their eyes there will be no more tears.
Only hatred and determination
And the fierce joy of resistance!
From their transformation!

Listen! How in the night the shots resound!
Listen! How death hunts the Nazis in their tracks!
Listen! We’ve come to the end of the story!
With heroic self-sacrifice on the first night of Leil Ha-Shimurim [the Night of Watching, Pesach]

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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