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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Echoes and Reflections

Lesson 5

Information about culture, religion and education in the camps


During the Holocaust, desperate attempts were made to observe the holiday of Passover, however, it was extremely difficult. In the camps and in most of the ghettos, there was acute hunger and it was almost impossible to refrain from eating leavened foods that are traditionally not eaten by Jews on Passover. Moreover, suitable conditions for baking matza and holding Passover seders did not exist. The Passover holiday symbolizes the transition from slavery to freedom, and the living conditions of Jews under Nazi rule were in complete contrast to the concept of freedom. Despite all of the hardships, and perhaps because of them, there was a need and a desire to observe Passover during the Holocaust.

Excerpt from Sinai Adler, In the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979)
.[Hebrew]

"This was the first Passover I had to spend in a concentration camp. The previous Passover, we were still in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, where we could still hold the Seder within the family circle. However, we celebrated that Seder in a unique way, too, because in those days the suffering in the ghetto was severe, and once darkness fell, we were forbidden to illuminate anything, even light a match. Under those circumstances, we were forced to hold the Seder during the day. But I was still with my parents, and on our table there were a few sheets of matza [unleavened bread] as well as tea mixed with jam as a substitute for wine. The Mauthausen Seder was completely different… After the evening roll call and before we went into the hut to sleep, we were allowed some time to wander around the open space in front of the huts. I asked one of the chaps to walk with me a bit, and while we were walking back and forth, we recited extracts from the Haggadah by heart, as much as we could remember. A unique Seder night, without matza or wine, without a festive meal during which all the members of the family reclined around one table, but rather a Seder of walking. Our bodies were humiliated and enslaved, but they could not enslave our spirits again… because in spite of everything, we felt that we were free.”

During the period of the Holocaust, the stories of Chanukah miracles took on additional meanings, especially since the Jews themselves felt that the period in which they were living placed Jewish culture and tradition in real jeopardy.  The miracle of Chanukah, with its battle and victory, enabled Jews to express their hopes amidst their own struggles by observing the rituals of the holiday. At the same, it must be remembered that observance of these rituals involved many hardships not to mention grave danger. Many people were unable to celebrate festivals in general and Chanukah in particular.

This text is taken from a testimony given by a former prisoner, Leah Zonnenschein, in the Westerbork camp in the Netherlands.

“Chanukah came and we tried to light candles every day but the Germans didn’t allow it. The first day, they didn’t know yet; suddenly candles were lit in all the huts… On the second day, they came and imposed a stringent prohibition on lighting candles. And then a miracle happened, and there was suddenly an electricity blackout, so we had to light candles.

We tried to hold on to everything, whether it was a festival or the Sabbath, as best as we could. We also sang Chanukah songs. I remember that the teacher, De Jongh, was there… He didn’t remember all the words and suddenly he asked me: ‘Tell me, how does the second verse of Chanukah, Chanukah go?’ and I had to remember, but he wanted to know all the words at any cost so that he  could teach all the children Chanukah songs.”

Source: Yad Vashem Archive O.3/5859


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