I have been searching the internet for the prayer to say upon eating bread on Pessah, and I found it by Googling “zachor Michlalah movies.” There you can see/hear the late Reb Yonah Emanuel who was a teenage inmate in Bergen-Belsen during the Passover of 1944 when the prayer over bread was recited. He reads the entire prayer (it is not a bracha) over bread and describes Pessah in that death camp in this 3 minute segment of a longer DVD. The reason for my search: The recent controversy over selling hametz in the public square during Passover in Israel.
I translated the prayer for bread during Passover into English at the end of this posting.
The controversy and court decision (by a national religious judge!) that permits selling bread in Israel during Passover reminded me of two Seder meals sixty-something years ago.
Passover 1943, Konin Concentration Camp
Before describing Pessah of 1943 in the Konin concentration camp in Poland, Rabbi Yehoshua Aronson gives us, in his memoirs, this startling description of a new arrival, one Dr. Hans Knopf.
“In the summer of 1942 a limousine came into camp. Several SS officers stepped out, followed by a serious and grandly dressed old Jewish man. The chauffeur unloaded six leather suitcases, each bearing a label with its owner’s name. As we observed this impeccably dressed Jewish gentleman with his six expensive leather suitcases in a Jewish slave-labor camp, we went into a fever of curiosity. We strained to observe this heartening phenomenon that burst into our benighted camp.”
This description of Dr. Knopf, along with large portions of Rabbi Aronson’s memoir, are now available in English in Esther Farbstein’s Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah, and Leadership during the Holocaust.
She points out that the memoir describes the special status of this Jewish doctor from Germany with telling details such as his having his own room-cum-clinic, and his owning fine silk pajamas.
“He was given a room that, as a German patriot, he decorated with photographs of himself on horseback and medals from his glittering military past as an officer in World War I. Sometimes he would dandify himself by putting on his officer’s uniform. Knopf treated the Jews with condescension and estrangement, ashamed to come into contact with fellow Jews.”
Slowly, however, he began to realize the connection between the Jews’ fate and his own. The memoir describes the transformation wrought in this assimilated Jew, for by the time Passover rolled around in the spring of 1943, Dr. Knopf was deeply involved in seder preparations. “The German-Jewish doctor of all people insisted we hold the seder despite our fatigue and the late hour.”
Perhaps it was contact with deeply rooted scholars such as Rabbi Aronson, that triggered this metamorphosis. “When he discovered that I was a rabbi, Knopf never stopped pestering me; he would often pour out his heart to me. He told me how devoted he had been, how he had served and fought for the German homeland. As I observed this disillusioned Jew, I became heartsick.” Rabbi Aronson survived to write his memoirs and to become the beloved chief rabbi of Petah Tikva,
Many inmates came to Rabbi Aronson with the dilemma: to eat hametz or not? Realizing that most were too weak to last a week without bread, Rabbi Aronson responded with guidelines. Hametz was to be eaten on Pessah, but in order to minimize the transgression involved he ruled that each bite should be less than kzayis, “the volume of an olive” and the bites should be spaced at long intervals. Esther Farbstein points out that the desire to ask halachic questions was a form of spiritual resistance and heroism for two reasons. It reflected a cherishing of mitzvot as a raison d’etre which kept many Jews going and it was a form of defiance, their way to assert freedom in a slave-labor camp.
Back to our dandified Dr. Knopf who when he had arrived kept the other Jews at arms’ length. Here he was, ten months later deeply involved in preparations for the seder. His turnabout is poignantly expressed in one of the most moving descriptions in the Aronson memoir. Where would they find the means to bake the matza? Knopf had a stove in his clinic/room. He risked his life and insisted they bake the little bit of dough that they sequestered in his very room. They were not found out, and held a seder that year, although the doctor did not survive in the long run.
However Rabbi Aronson did survive. He went on to become the beloved chief rabbi of Petah Tikva, and to write his memoir immortalizing Dr. Hans Knopf who risked all to bake matza.
Passover Bergen-Belsen, 1944
By 1944 there was no question that Jews must eat hametz to stay alive. Rabbi Avraham Levisson from Holland dealt with this issue in Bergen-Belsen. Esther Farbstein points out that he had been active from the start of the war in finding solutions to tragic dilemmas as the Dutch Jews were concentrated in Westerbork, Holland from 1939 onwards ( he encouraged inmates to give their wives a conditional get, lest they become agunas). Beginning in 1942 each Tuesday a selection was made of Jews who were transported by train to death camps such as Auschwitz and elsewhere. “Rabbi Levisson was known to the inmates as ‘Rabbi Simcha’ (‘Rabbi Happiness’) because of his warm, positive attitude toward them. He organized extensive religious activity. In 1943 he was deported via Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen.” In 1944 Rabbi Levisson and his father, along with the Chief Rabbi of Rotterdam Rav A.B. Davids and a number of Jews surreptitiously gathered in one barrack to quietly hold a seder.
Man cannot live on potatoes alone. The Dutch rabbis, seeing the Jews could not survive without eating bread on Pessah, composed a prayer to recite upon eating hametz during Passover.
You can see/hear Yonah Emanuel, one of those present in the camp, read this prayer and explain the circumstances in a segment from the DVD „V’Hi She-Amda” about Pesach during the Holocaust, produced by Zachor After the prayer was composed, other inmates wanted copies. Since there were no Xerox machines, typewriters, or carbon paper in the camp, Yonah’s older brother Elhanan Emanuel, hy”d, copied it again and again by hand in the concentration camp after his twelve-hour shifts of slave labor. Rabbi Levisson himself gave the few potatoes he saved for Passover to his own father, who was even weaker than he was.
This week I spoke with Rabbi Levisson’s daughter, who now lives in a religious neighborhood of Ashdod, to get the background details behind the prayer. She had been hidden as a baby with a Christian family in Holland. She explains that her father died of exhaustion on April 25,1945, on a train shortly before the train was liberated by the Soviets. Her family and many others recite the prayer over hametz on Passover at the seder each year, immortalizing the spiritual heroism that it represents. For the Hebrew version see the aron-hasfarim.co.il website.
To be said with utmost concentration before eating hametz on Pessah:
Master of the Universe,
It is manifest and known to You we want to fulfill Your commandment that we celebrate the holiday of Passover by eating matza and abstaining from hametz.
But to our great sorrow our servitude prevents us from fulfilling these precepts.
We are not masters of our own fate and our lives are in danger.
Therefore we are ready and willing to keep the mitzva: „So that you shall live by them” [v’chai bahem, Lev. 18:5] and not die because of keeping the mitzvot. Therefore we are commanded to do what we must in order to remain alive; thus by eating hametz we will be keeping Your other precept, „Be ever so careful with your life.” [Deut. 4:9]
We pray that You keep us alive and sustain us
so that we merit to survive to fulfill Your commandments wholeheartedly in the future. Amen
This week every radio talk show in Israel and every newpaper discussed the “hametz” law. I was surprised no one made a point that I often make when there is a charge of religious coercion: In Switzerland it is against the law to wash your car or hang laundry on Sunday. You get fined! But how come no one calls that ‘religious coercion” ?
FOR those who read Hebrew, you can read the entire trial decision permitting the sale of hametz on the internet. Judge Bar-Asher Zaban pinned her decision on the interpretation of the word „pumbe” – what is public versus private space.
For those in Israel — Hidden in Thunder, from which these two examples were adapted, will be sold at half price and is among the hundreds of books on sale at significant discounts in the annual book sale at the Merkaz Harav Kook Yeshiva Jerusalem, from the Sunday after Pesah until the following Sunday (22bNisan to 29bNisan, 10am-9pm, Fri. Til 1pm) in person or by phone. People outside Jerusalem can phone in credit-card orders that will be delivered, tel.02-651-5592.