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.