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Apr 2001 Journal

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Erev Pesach in Munich

A SURVIVORS’ HAGGADAH. (ed) Saul Touster. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2000.

This is the time of year when Jewish thoughts turn towards the festival of Pesach, to Seder Night, children asking questions and family and friends turning over the pages of well-loved, well-used haggadot in which we read that ancient story, told many times before and yet again. But not quite in the way presented in A Survivors’ Haggadah, whose origin dates back to 1946, when 200 displaced persons, men and women who had been slaves, not to Pharaoh in Egypt but ‘to Hitler in Germany’, gathered in the Deutsches Theater Restaurant in Munich for their first Seder after their liberation.

The Haggadah they used was created by two Holocaust survivors and published by the US Third Army, part of the Allied forces of occupation of postwar Germany. It has now been reproduced in a facsimile edition with an English translation. The book interweaves passages of the traditional Pesach liturgy with two stories: that of the Hebrew people’s release from Pharaoh’s enslavement on the one hand, and the survival of the few from Hitler’s Final Solution on the other. In his learned and meticulously-researched Introduction to the present edition of the original work, Saul Touster describes in fascinating detail the manner in which the piece was put together by its talented makers: Dov Sheinson, writer and teacher of modern Hebrew from Lithuania, and Miklos Adler, the established artist from Hungary. This Haggadah is presented in such a way that designs and illustrations, which include seven of Adler’s deeply moving woodcuts, are placed on the left-hand pages, while the accompanying translations and commentary are featured on the right-hand pages, thus establishing a dramatic “interplay of images - of life and death”, the hallmark of this book.           

Thus the sketch of Nazi extermination methods is displayed alongside an illustration of the traditional Seder Plate and the well-known enumeration of its fruitful contents. Ma nishtanah is followed by a reconstructed version of the authorised answers - some in Yiddish to comply with the injunction that they be given in the vernacular so that even the one who is too young to ask may understand - accompanied by a woodcut entitled ‘We dug trenches in an unending circle’. No less haunting is the reference to the bitter herb quoted alongside gas chamber imagery. Time and again the words of praise expressing joy and thanks for the deliverance from “hard bondage” are overshadowed by unrelieved grief. Indeed, the revised litany of Dayenu becomes a “veritable anti-Hallel” grudge against The One who gave his people centuries of insult, injury and persecution, which only Zionist self-action could bring to a realistic end. And finally, “Pour out Thy wrath upon the peoples…” speaks for itself.           

The title is a masterpiece of liturgical literature and graphic art. Like Schindler’s List and Shoah, it serves as a powerful reminder of that chapter in our history whose wounds time has not yet healed. And possibly, just possibly, it contains an answer to the controversial question as to the whereabouts of God at Auschwitz.
David Maier

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