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 Administrative Conference

The United States is a nation of laws. In other posts, we have talked about how the courthouse is at the center of the county administration in the various towns and cities in the US. This is different from some of Europe where the church is often the center of town. Not that laws are not important to Europe, because they are. The point is that Americans believe strongly in the rule of law, and that concept lies at the center of American democracy. All American law springs from the US Constitution. So it is imperative that if some administrative action is to be enacted in the United States that it be codified into a law.

That concept is not unique to the United States, of course. I am thinking on this day of the codification of certain concepts in Germany 81 years ago. On January 20, 1942, a collection of administrators, including several licensed attorneys, eight of them holding doctorates, met in a villa in a suburb of Berlin to discuss the changing of citizenship laws in the country and how to deal with the movement of displaced persons in areas under their control.

From a purely superficial, administrative perspective, this meeting was necessary. The organizers argued that the war had created increasingly large areas of Europe to administer and had produced a large number of refugees going in all directions. By 1942, the military gains by Germany required a reshuffling of German citizenship law. And, being mostly attorneys and administrators, they all recognized the need to have these changes codified.

These reclassification proposals targeted 11 million people in Europe.  Again, you can begin to see that the administrative tasks were overwhelming in the minds of these administrators. You had to deal with transportation issues, food, clothing, healthcare, as well as housing. Not to mention the fact you were dealing with several different languages all across German occupied Europe. And the people were from several other nations and ethnicities.

And, again, these same types of questions are facing the United States today. Should we in the US grant these people any kind of civil rights that are normally reserved for citizens only? What obligations do we have for their welfare if they are not, to put it not politically correctly, of our kind? Maybe we don’t grant these refugees any rights at all, some people argue. Sadly, there are politicians in the United States who are treating the refugees as less than human.

And it may not surprise you that every one of those administrators at this conference in the outskirts of Berlin in 1942 felt exactly the same in dealing with the influx of what they considered “others.”

In fact, the codification of laws that the Nazis discussed at this meeting held in Wannsee on January 20, 1942, ultimately decided that the best and most efficient way to deal with the Jews was simply to kill them all.

On a Cheating Spouse

Emily’s husband was a cad.

That’s the nicest way to put it. When the man had immigrated to Argentina in the late 1940s, he had brought not only Emily, his wife of 21 years, with him, but he also brought his mistress as well as several servants and other hangers on. Now, you might be saying to yourself that any self-respecting person wouldn’t put up with this type of behavior, that any spouse would demand that the husband or wife get rid of the third person in the relationship or face divorce.

But Emily wasn’t like that. First of all, she loved her charming and dashing husband, and she knew that, like the other dalliances, this one, too, wouldn’t last. In fact, she had made a pact with herself, knowing that he was a brilliant–flawed, certainly–and generous man. She told herself that as long as he came back to her, that she would be there, waiting. And so, she was, for most of her life.

The move to Argentina proved to be yet the latest in a series of get rich schemes that Emily’s husband pursued in his professional life. He had made money–lots of it–over the years, but, sadly, he lost it all or gave it away. His theory was that there was no trick to making money, so it didn’t matter how he spent it. He had expensive tastes in clothes, food, furniture, and, as Emily could testify, women.

The Argentina experiment failed, miserably. The man was no farmer, and the people he’s hired to help him turned out to be equally inept at raising nutrias for their fur. By 1958, the small enterprise was bankrupt, and Emily’s husband left Argentina with a promise that he would go back to Europe and make money and then send for her.

So, Emily waited.

For decades.

And her husband never returned. She never received a good explanation why. Well, she knew that he had died in Germany of liver failure in 1974 at age 66. To fill her time, Emily began adopting cats in the neighborhood, becoming, by the time she passed away in her 90s, the proverbial crazy cat lady. People who asked her about her husband were told the truth by Emily; he was a drunk, a womanizer, a spendthrift, and a man she would’ve taken back in a moment if he had ever walked back through her doorway. Others spoke of Emily’s husband in kinder, almost sacred tones, and she would often wave a dismissive hand at them.

But until the day she died, Emily insisted that Oskar Schindler was the love of her life.

On a Polish Theater Student

Karol loved theater. As a high school student in the 1930s, he wrote, directed, and starred in several plays. The reviews of his writing and performances from his contemporaries said that he had great promise and a bright future in the theater. He was able to enter university in the fall of 1938. We all know what happened the beginning of Karol’s sophomore year at college–Hitler and Germany invaded Karol’s homeland of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Karol and his father fled the advancing Germans on foot to the east. They managed to travel about 150 miles into central Poland when they received the news that the Soviets had invaded Poland from the east. With nowhere to run, the father and son pair returned to their town of Krakow. There, they found that the Nazis had ordered every able bodied man must show proof of employment or be subject to removal to a work camp. Karol managed to find “work” as a delivery person/messenger for a restaurant. A friend helped him arrange this paperwork, and the “job” helped to keep the German authorities off his back. He returned to his studies.

Karol felt that theater would be a way to passively resist the Germans. He saw the stage as an almost spiritual or religious place where cultural and political statements could subtly be made without the authorities being any the wiser. “He who has ears,” Karol said, paraphrasing a Bible verse, “let him hear.” For a little over a year, the young thespian managed to continue his coursework and maintain his employment situation. Eventually, he found paying work in a quarry, and this was a real job with good salary that he and his family needed.

Then, in 1941, Karol’s beloved father died. That event caused him to re-think what was important in life. He found solace in religion, and he added theology to his theater coursework. His theology connections at the university led him to helping several Jews hide from the Germans during this time. Again, Karol managed to walk the razor’s edge between the authorities and what he felt strongly God wanted him to do that was right and just.

In February, 1944, a German army vehicle struck him while he walked on the street in Krakow on his way home from the quarry. He suffered broken bones and a concussion. Surprisingly to the young Pole, it was some German officers who initially helped him after the accident. He began to see that there was good in almost everyone he met if one only looked for it.

Near the end of the war, as the Germans reeled before the swift advance of the Soviet Army, Karol came across a Jewish girl who had managed to escape from a concentration camp. She was on a train platform and had collapsed from hunger and cold. Karol helped her with some hot tea and gave her some food. He helped her–literally carried her–on a train that was going to her hometown, and even traveled with her to assist her with whatever she needed.

Years later, in 1998, the Jewish girl, who had been 13 when she encountered the nice young theater student who helped her, the man whom she credited with saving her life, met Karol again. She had tracked him down and wrote to him. He answered her letter, saying that, yes, of course; he absolutely remembered her. He invited her to meet with him, and she gladly accepted. This time, however, the meeting didn’t take place on a train platform.

No, this time, their meeting took place in the Vatican, because Karol had become Pope John Paul II.

On a Health Inspection

Maurice Rossel was a well-respected general physician in Switzerland when he passed away a few years ago. As a young man, Dr. Rossel was a health inspector. He spoke several languages as many people from his home area around Bern did. That skill and his medical ability made him well-qualified to be an international health inspector. In that capacity, he worked with various organizations inspecting hospitals, schools, and even small towns to see if they met basic health standards. Once, as a young man, not too many years removed from his medical school, Dr. Rossel received a job order to inspect a town in north-western Czechoslovakia (today in the Czech Republic). He joined a team of two other inspectors that would inspect the town and make their report.

The town wasn’t too terribly large, but to thoroughly check out the various public facilities and institutions, to look at the general health of the population, it took Dr. Rossel and his team the better part of a day—eight hours, in fact. Meeting the mayor of the place, the dignitary described his town as a “normal country town,” and so it proved to be in Dr. Rossel’s opinion. He noted that the citizens received adequate nourishment, they enjoyed a standard of living that allowed them to be fashionably dressed, and they received a level of heath care in the town that he said proved that they were “carefully looked after.”

Dr. Rossel was a careful documentarian, and towards this end, he took photographs to back up his findings in the report he later wrote (one of his photos showing a group of happy, healthy kids is shown above). This is standard, best-practices stuff in public administration circles today, but, at the time, the photographs were an example of how Rossel went above and beyond to document what he found on the inspection of the town. He later said that photographs always allowed him to remain objective, detached, and unemotional when it came time to write his report. Organizations and towns always tried to put on their best “faces” during inspections, he had learned, and the photos could help him look at a situation long after he had left the sites. They helped jog his memory as he wrote.

Dr. Rossel and his two colleagues returned to their base, and he wrote a report detailing all he saw. The report, which is still available today, is objective, rational, and draws no conclusions other than from what he personally inspected and witnessed. In short, it is the type of report that a professional would write given the information presented to him. He reported no issues, photographed happy people and clean conditions, and gave the town a passing mark. The happy town administrators took great pride in pointing to the report and Dr Rossel’s photos to show that they indeed had created a good, safe, healthy place for its citizenry to live.

Detractors who question Dr. Rossel’s report of the town still today point to the fact that he was, at the time, to be sure, young and inexperienced and therefore possibly ignorant of what to ask and where to inspect in the town. His choice as an inspector, these detractors say, point to the indifference the organization he was representing, the International Red Cross, had towards the town and the inhabitants.

It was years later that Jewish documentarian, Claude Lanzmann, confronted Dr. Rossel and asked him why his report told the world that the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt was a wonderful, safe haven for Jews destined for death in the Holocaust.