A Warsaw Ghetto Passover


Near the start of the seders I conduct, mostly in former communist countries, I usually cite, then refute, the statement by Ahad Ha’am, the early Zionist leader, that “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”

The seder, I say, has preserved the Jewish people; most are not shomer Shabbat; most go to a seder, even it involves a sacrifice.

That’s not bull. It’s Bull.

Bull was the pseudonym of 12-year-old Itzhak Milchberg, a Jewish native of Warsaw who posed as a non-Jew outside the Ghetto walls in April 1943, on the eve of Passover. He was the street-smart leader of a group of young Jewish boys who had escaped from the Ghetto and were living by their wits in the “Aryan” part of Warsaw, selling cigarettes to the German troops while working with the resistance, smuggling food and weapons.

I learned about Milchberg 30 years ago after reading the book “The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square,” which describes the boys’ exploits.
Three decades ago Milchberg owned a gift shop in Niagara Falls, Canada, near Buffalo, where I lived. One day, he told me his story, which I tell at my seders.

April 19, 1943, was the day before Hitler’s 54th birthday. Milchberg hadn’t been back in the increasingly dangerous ghetto for three weeks; months of deportations to Treblinka had greatly reduced its size and population; the Nazis decided to liquidate the Ghetto as a birthday present for The Fuhrer.

Rumors of an imminent “cleaning” were in the air. Milchberg, aware that the noose around the ghetto was tightening, decided to return there that morning, to be with his uncle for Passover. Orphaned — he saw his father shot before his eyes, his mother and grandmother and two sisters deported — Milchberg wanted to spend yom tov with his remaining family.

He had never missed a seder. “It was in my blood,” he told me.

Leaving the Ghetto had been difficult; he had to crawl through gutters under the walls. “I was small. I had guts,” Milchberg says. Getting in was easier, at least physically: he just stood in line at the checkpoint, joining Poles going to work. The Nazi guards let everyone in. “They couldn’t care less.” Who would sneak into the ghetto?

When he walked in, a basket of eggs and potatoes under his arms, the fighting hadn’t started. Soon, soldiers and tanks and armored cars crossed the ghetto walls and started firing. The Jews, led by the Jewish Fighting Organization, fired back, from rooftops, with limited firearms and grenades.

The civilian population huddled in underground bunkers.

The ghetto was burning.

In the bunker of Milchberg’s uncle, away from the center of the fighting; you could hear the shooting at nightfall, he says.

About 60 people crowded into the candle-lit bunker. “The building was shaking. People were crying.”

His uncle, wearing a cap, told Milchberg, in Yiddish, “You’ll perform the seder with me.”

There was an uproar in the bunker. “God led us out of Egypt. Nobody killed us,” people screamed. “Here, they are murdering us.” The extermination camps were known.” They didn’t want a seder.

Milchberg’s uncle insisted. “He grabbed me by the ear. ‘Itzi,’” he said, using Milchberg’s Yiddish nickname, “You may die, but if you die, you’ll die as a Jew,” he told his nephew. “If we live, we live as Jews. If you live, you’ll tell your children and grandchildren about this.”

The seder started. Milchberg’s uncle had some matzah. “I don’t know how he got it.” Also, a shank bone and some vegetables. “No chrain [horseradish]. No charoses.” Plenty of bitterness.

Uncle and nephew read the Haggadah together, from memory, in Hebrew. Soon, most of the bunker joined in. “We did most of the prayers by heart,” Milchberg says. “The seder went very, very late.”

He left the bunker the next morning, and spent the next three days working as a “runner” for the fighters. No second seder.

On the sixth day of the Uprising, Milchberg was caught and deported. Miraculously, he escaped from the train ride to Treblinka. He made his way back to Warsaw, lived with a Catholic shoemaker’s family till the war ended, went to a DP camp in Germany and eventually to Canada.

Following his uncle’s wishes, he told his children about Passover in 1943.

I asked, was a seder worth the risk to his life?

“Of course,” Milchberg said. “I had many risks. To be alive was a risk.”

This year, retired at 81, he will go to a seder in Florida. I will lead one in Poland. Both of us will tell the same story, of how keeping Passover has kept the Jewish people together.

E-mail: steve@jewishweek.org