On a Special Passover

Passover is coming up, and the holiday has always been one of my favorites. I spring from a background of fundamentalist Christianity. Yet, in my career as a teacher, I had the privilege of teaching in the secular section of a Yeshiva. That experience was eye-opening and incredibly instructive. Out of their generosity, one of the orthodox families at the school allowed me to attend their Passover Seder. It was an amazing thing to witness through both my lens with my background and through their lenses as well.

This story is about a special Seder celebrated near the town of Bergen and not too far from Hanover in what is now Lower Saxony in north central Germany. There had always been a Jewish population there, and one year in particular, the Seder for the community held special significance. You can guess why. In 1945, Passover fell on March 29 that year, and the Jews who had been denied observing the traditions, holidays, and sacred rituals of their faith were excited to have the ability to actually have a Seder.

The Nazi Concentration Camp of Bergen-Belsen is infamous for being a place where death was common, where the sanctity of life was ignored, and where mankind demonstrated–there and dozens of other camps across the Third Reich–how low it could slink in the treatment of other human beings. That’s why, in part, that the Passover meal remembering the liberation from slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt held such special significance in this particular year. By the way, Bergen-Belsen is notorious also for being the camp where Anne Frank was put to death for the crime of simply being alive.

One eyewitness to that year’s Passover was Rafael Grosz. He was but a young man, but he remembers. He also remembers the camp at Bergen-Belsen, because he was held there, also. Unlike Anne, Rafael managed to live through the terrible conditions, both physical and psychological; he remembers the piles of bodies and the terrible hunger and the nameless, ever-present terror of the camp.

And he remembers gathering wood to build the fire to bake the Passover bread that special year. He remembers helping the older men digging a pit and putting a grate over it, and he remembers lighting the fire beneath in order to cook the bread. For Rafael, that fire symbolized the freedom that Passover represented as its warmth rose up and cooked the Seder’s matzoh.

You see, for that special Passover, the Jewish community held their Seder together. For many, the irony was not lost on them. They had been in slavery together, they reasoned; fitting, then, that they celebrate freedom together.

Interestingly, the Bergen-Belsen camp was one of the first that the western Allies liberated given its location in the center of Germany. When the British and Canadian troops entered the camp for the first time, they were understandably shocked and stunned by the piles of over 10,000 unburied corpses and the hundreds of walking dead who were doomed because of malnutrition and typhus.

You see, the Allies entered Bergen-Belsen on April 14, 1945. And that was over two and a half weeks after 300 Jews in the camp, a young Rafael Grosz included, celebrated their Passover liberation while still under the watchful eyes of their Nazi oppressors.

On an Editor

Otto wasn’t sure how to handle the manuscript before him. It was immediately after the war, and many people in Europe weren’t that interested in another first-person  account of war-time experiences. After all, the market was saturated with them. Everyone from generals to privates had his story to tell. Here was yet another tale, in the form of a journal, that most people, he surmised, would probably not find interesting.

Otto thought that the account would probably be best sent to the author’s family and acquaintances, the type of thing that should be published privately since  it was likely that only the family would be interested in the contents. In fact, as Otto began to read through it, there were a lot of personal references to family members, references that he thought might be even too personal. The work was clearly that of an amateur even if it was honest and pulled no punches.

Yet, the task of editing the manuscript had fallen to him. Work had been hard to come by after the war for Otto, so he was glad to have the distraction. Like many in Europe, Otto had also seen difficult times during the war, but he was ready to start a new chapter in his life. And then this manuscript came across his desk.  The intermediary who sent the work to Otto was Dutch, and he knew that Otto had lived in Amsterdam for part of the war. In fact, the work was written in Amsterdam. So, at least, Otto had that connection to it.

But there was something else, something that began to touch Otto deeply. As Otto read more and more of the work, he felt that the words on the pages brought him closer to the author. As unpolished as the writer was, Otto felt a kinship to the author as he read, a bond that eventually  brought him to tears. By the time he finished reading it, the manuscript  had moved the editor unlike any thing he had ever read before. He was now determined to publish it, and he felt strongly that it was a story that should be told.

Of course, it makes sense that Otto would feel a relationship to the writer. She was, after all, his daughter. And so, Otto Frank edited his daughters’s journal.

You know it as The Diary of Anne Frank.