A Survivors’ Haggadah’ asks more questions


NEW YORK, March 20 (JTA) — A recently published Passover Haggadah doesn’t tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Instead “A Survivors’ Haggadah,” written by a Holocaust survivor in Germany in 1945 and 1946 and republished this year by the Jewish Publication Society, uses the language of the traditional Exodus story to talk about the Holocaust and the revival of Jewish life in displaced persons camps after World War II.

The role of Pharaoh is played by Hitler, who “sets his hungry dogs at the babes of Israel” and “the number of Israel diminishes slowly.”

Some of the Jews, in their familiar role of victims, hand their children over to Christians — some of whom hide the Jews out of conviction; others do so for money and later “bring them out to be killed.”

The Allies exert the retribution exacted by God in the original Passover story, subjecting the Germans to 250 plagues.

The displaced person camps are celebrated for being the place where the she’erit hapletah, the saved remnant of European Jewry, began to rebuild. But the Haggadah shines a critical light on the conflicts among competing groups in the D.P. camps, “And so it happens that the non-Orthodox snatch the children of the Orthodox, and the Orthodox snatch the children of the non- Orthodox.”

Yosef Dov Sheinson, a Holocaust survivor from Kovno, Lithuania, created the Haggadah.

Sheinson, a Hebrew teacher and Zionist before the war, survived the war in slave labor camps, including a subcamp of Dachau. After the liberation, he left Theresienstadt, which by that time was in Soviet hands, and crawled to a farmer’s home.

After a short stint in the Landsberg D.P. camp, Sheinson moved to a private house in Munich, where he worked on a Jewish newspaper. There he complied this Hagaddah, which was printed by a German publishing house in return for cigarettes and food rations.

Saul Touster, a retired professor of law at Brandeis University, discovered the Haggadah in 1996, when he was cleaning out his late father’s papers. The book was inscribed to his father, a longtime executive with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, who received it when he visited the camps in 1952.

Touster decided to publish the Hagaddah — he had it translated from Hebrew and Yiddish and compiled his own commentary — in part to honor his father.

“In a way, my work in recovering this is a testimony to him and what he had done,” says Touster, adding that he considers himself a Holocaust victim who luckily survived by being born in the United States.

Touster, who used the Haggadah last year, admits that it changes the seder mood.

“It’s not about do-goodism. You go away feeling the experience. And it tempers your spirit,” he says, recommending that it be used as a supplement to a more traditional Haggadah.

Each two pages of this Haggadah are a couplet. The left side is a copy of the original Haggadah; the right carries an English translation, plus commentary and selected readings.

With the help of 16 woodcuts created during the war by Hungarian survivor Mikos Adler, the Haggadah brings the burden of the Holocaust onto the relatively joyous Passover story.

What comes through most clearly is Sheinson’s struggle to find an answer to the questions of the existence of God and of Jewish survival in the wake of the Holocaust.

The traditional Four Questions are bordered with extra question marks, which Touster interprets as representing the underlying questions of how the Holocaust could have been allowed to occur. On another page, Sheinson included a fragment of the Torah that reads “Vehi emunateynu,” or “This is our faith.”

Sheinson’s answer appears to lie in Zionism. Indeed, much of the Haggadah is framed as a Zionist polemic.

The story of the Four Sons, like much of the Haggadah, is reframed in Zionist terms. Each of the sons, who question why the Jews want to move to their own land, are told why the Jews should move to Palestine. For example the wise son is told: “Who knows how long their charity and their protective arm shall be extended to us? A home and a country should not come out of the charity but by right.”

Despite these strong Zionist leanings, Sheinson never moved to Israel. In 1948 he moved to Montreal, where he worked in Hebrew education until he died in the mid-1990s.

One of the most moving parts of the Haggadah comes from one of Touster’s commentaries. He notes that a survivor who attended a Munich seder recalled that when it came time to ask the Four Questions, traditionally asked by the youngest participant at the table, the seder participants began to weep because there were no children present.

Then, the survivor recalls, one man began asking the first question. The rest of the survivors joined in.

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