Forum on faith: Passover, Freedom of The Spirit
The Jewish holiday of Passover begins at sundown on Wednesday, April 8.
Whenever it comes around I think of the holiday and its rituals. For thousands of years Jews have marked the event of the exodus from Egypt with a meal called the Seder. Unleavened bread, called matzah, is eaten. This food was eaten during the exodus from Egypt. By eating matzah Jews remember God's kindness.
Although finding and eating matzah is simple today, it has not always been so easy. Let me share this story I learned from Rabbi Eli Hecht, who learned from his teachers who were World War II Holocaust survivors.
Far away in Slovakia the Passover Seder was celebrated in a most humble fashion. Simcha Bunem Unsdorfer had been brought to the Auschwitz death camp. There the SS officers killed thousands of men, women and children daily. Simcha knew that there were only two ways to leave the death camp. One was through the chimney of the ovens after being gassed and burned. A better way was to find work for the German war effort.
One day a rumor was spread. The German military factories were bombed and new parts for guns and airplanes were needed. The Germans built factories in hidden areas. They used Jews to run their factories and literally worked them to death. Replacements for the poor workers were the men found in the death camps who were strong enough to work.
One such camp, "Nieder-Orschel," was established to produce parts for building wings for the Luftwaffe's fighter aircraft. Simcha and some Slovakian Jews were taken from Auschwitz to this camp. The men were forced to work 18-hour shifts and were given barely enough food to survive. The food rations were terrible but the lice and diseases were worse. Imagine wearing the same clothing for months. As bad as it was, the men felt that this was infinitely better than being gassed and burned in the crematoriums.
When the Passover season came the men gathered around and spoke of their need to have Passover matzah. In the Nieder-Orschel factory there were workers who were not prisoners. They were civilian workers who went home nightly.
Simcha had made friends with one Christian known as Meister Meyer, a civilized worker. "I need a 1/2 pound of flour," said Simcha to Meister Meyer. "What? Have you lost your mind?" exclaimed Meyer. "What do you need the flour for?" "The holiday of Passover is here and I need to bake matzah," answered Simcha. Meister Meyer muttered to himself, "How can Jews think of matzah when their God has forsaken them to the death camps?"
Since Simcha was very determined to have his way, Meister Meyer brought him a little bag of flour. "We shall not see each other any more. Here is the flour. May your God protect you." That night Simcha and a few friends sneaked out of the barracks and went into the smithy's shop. They worked feverishly with the bellows until they got a small fire going. Finding a small, dirty tin plate, they cleaned it as best as possible and used it as a platter. In a half hour three tiny, round matzah were ready.
That night, March 28, 1945, the small group held their Seder. They couldn't find anything as satisfying in their lives as eating the small matzahs in this godforsaken death camp. Simcha survived the death camp and shared his experience in a personal memoir called The Yellow Star.
Before the Nazi occupation Shimon Cohen was the head baker of his city. Shimon wanted to provide the Jews with matzah. A few days before the holiday Shimon organized a group of young men and asked them if they were willing to give up their lives for the performance of a mitzvah, the commandment, to bake matzah. In great secrecy they bartered old clothes for flour.
They sneaked into an old bakery and heated up the oven to bake matzah. Forgetting the grave danger surrounding him and his friends, Shimon became so excited with the baking that he began to sing. His soul felt like bursting. He sang louder and louder. "As the Israelites went out of Egypt," went the song.
Suddenly a shout was heard. The door of the bakery was smashed down. In entered the Gestapo leader. "Cursed Jews, what's happening here?"
Before they could answer, the Gestapo officers swung their batons and rifles onto the heads of the defenseless Jews. "Your singing gave you away. Your fate is sealed. We will put you against the bakery wall and shoot you!"
Shimon, the initiator of the baking said, "You cannot frighten me. Tomorrow is the Jewish holiday of Passover and I was baking matzah in honor of the holiday."
The commander began screaming like an animal in pain, "Typical Jewish audacity, you will be killed by us. We will not kill you by bullets, as we don't want to waste the bullets. Rather, we will club you to death." A group of sneering Nazi Gestapo men descended on poor Shimon and beat him mercilessly, killing him.
That night the Seder was held in the poor Jewish homes in the ghetto but there was no matzah to be found. Little innocent children gathered the bits of the matzah left in the bakery for the Seder meal. They wanted to prove to themselves that nothing would stop their belief in God. The little matzah bits were displayed on the Seder table to symbolize the ritual matzah.
Yes, Shimon Cohen had died a hero's death. The ghetto remembered his heroism for a long time. They called him "the modern day Paschal sacrifice."
This message is for all the people on Earth, as there is no monopoly on the spirit of life. The holiday of Passover is a lesson to all nations of the world. We all may be exposed to evil people but we don't have to become like them. We can liberate ourselves by remembering our divine spirit and experience freedom.
Rabbi Jon Haddon lives in Danbury and is Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation Shir Shalom of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, Ridgefield. He can be reached at email@example.com .