Holocaust seder a new ‘ritual of remembrance and redemption’

By Michele Alperin/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Metrowest, speaks at the first Holocaust seder, an idea she initiated, in Whippany, NJ, on May 19. Next to her is Rabbi Len Levin of South Orange, the seder leader. Credit: Michele Alperin.

WHIPPANY, NJ—The imperative to remember the Holocaust is motivating new forms of Holocaust education, with fewer survivors alive to tell the tale themselves. With that in mind, Barbara Wind created a Holocaust seder that transforms the traditional Passover ritual about freedom from oppression into a journey from the Holocaust’s death and degradation to the redemptive hope of the State of Israel.  

Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Metrowest, saw her Holocaust seder debut on May 19 at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, NJ, drawing a crowd of about 300 that included survivors and their families, the broader Jewish community, and sympathetic non-Jews. The seder combined ritual, readings, music, dance, and PowerPoint presentations, keeping participants riveted for three and a half hours.

Click photo to download. Caption: Father Marco Pacciana of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Newark sings the Shema prayer at the first Holocaust seder in Whippany, NJ, on May 19. Credit: Michele Alperin.

For Shelli Frydman Brosh of West Orange, NJ, a daughter of survivors, the Passover seder is an apt structure for ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten. “The story of Passover, this amazing story from slavery to freedom, where one person stands up to power and inspires hundreds of thousands of people to escape their oppression and start a new life in a strange, brand-new place—on a certain level, this is the story of those who survived,” she said.

At Wind’s Holocaust seder, candles were lit, but not to initiate the Passover holiday—six candles were there for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, in addition to one for the millions of non-Jewish victims and one more for the righteous gentile rescuers. The seder plate on each table was similar yet different to the Passover iteration. The plate included ash, black bread, bitter herbs, and potato and turnip to symbolize degradation; an egg, a traditional symbol of mourning that also represents new life; and milk and honey for redemption.

Reflecting the theme of moving from degradation to hope, a cup of vinegar was poured first, and Rabbi Len Levin of South Orange, the seder leader, said, “In the depth of our suffering God is forcing us to drink bitterness, not a sweet cup of wine.” Then a cup of wine was poured—to look at, but not to drink until later—to symbolize hope. These themes were reinforced by a piano and cello duo playing Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre.” Only after the meal was Kiddush recited over three cups of wine—for consolation, hope, and redemption.

Click photo to download. Caption: The dais at the first Holocaust seder in Whippany, NJ, on May 19. Speaking is Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of Metrowest, who initiated the idea for the seder. Credit: Michele Alperin.

Instead of a traditional seder’s Hillel sandwich, which combines bitter herbs and matzah, participants at the Holocaust seder ate a Hallel (praise) sandwich of black bread, butter, honey, and bitter herbs.

The Magid section of the Holocaust seder, which tells the story, asked six questions about why the Holocaust happened and what we can learn from it  and described four plagues of racism, arrogance, greed, and anti-Semitism, which generated 18 additional plagues, all starting with the letter “d,” going from deceit and disbelief through deprivation and desecration to deportation, death, and denial.

The Holocaust seder was particularly emotional for survivors and their children and grandchildren. Mark Kleinman, chief executive officer of the Metrowest federation, who had lost his survivor father a month before, said, “The real live eyewitness connection is gone, and it is up to me and my generation and the next generation to tell the story.”

Seder participant Gina Lanceter, of Brody, Poland, was one of three saved from a transport of 3,000 headed to the gas chambers because her parents threw her out the window. She was very moved by the seder, saying, “It was very emotional. It brought back memories of seders before, at home, and of my father and my family.”

The seder also drew Christian participants. Father Marco Pacciana of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Newark and two seminarians sang “Shema” by composer Kiko Arguillo, who came to Christianity after a personal crisis regarding the suffering of the innocent. A church group danced to “Hine Ma Tov.” Wind also included the song “Let There Be Peace,” a favorite of her mentor Sister Rose Thering, an activist against anti-Semitism who was instrumental in getting the New Jersey legislature to pass its mandate on Holocaust education and who taught in the Jewish-Christian studies master’s program that Wind completed at Seton Hall University.

For Wind, several experiences came together to inspire the Holocaust seder, including a series of post-seder poems she wrote in 1995 relating Passover themes to the Holocaust, a “freedom” seder she worked on in 2002 connecting the experiences of a Sudanese slave redeemed by a Jewish organization to slave labor during the Holocaust, and a survivor’s concern that the Holocaust would be forgotten without a standard ritual.

Wind sees the Holocaust seder as a new way of commemorating the Holocaust and educating the public. “We are calling it a ritual of remembrance and redemption,” she said.

Regarding the modern miracle of the state of Israel, the Holocaust seder “talks about the fact that survivors, for all their losses and hurts, at least survived to see the creation of a sovereign Jewish state,” Wind explained.

Holocaust survivor Ann Monka, who sang the “Partisaner Hymn” at the seder, escaped from Lida, Poland, with her mother. Although her father, brother, and sister had been put on a train, her brother managed to save them and seven others by climbing through the tiny window in the locked boxcar and opening the door from the outside.

Eventually Monka and her mother met up with her father and siblings in the forest, where they all lived for two and a half years under the protection of the Bielski brothers, who saved more than 1,200 Jews and whose story was depicted in the 2008 film “Defiance.”

Monka sees her family as being extraordinarily lucky.

“My daughter was blessed to have a bubbe,” she said. “Very few survivors survived with their parents.”

For Wind, the Holocaust seder is about “remembering for a purpose, learning the lessons Holocaust to create a better world.”

“It focuses on the personal responsibility of each individual to stand up and do the right thing, and we hope it will inspire some to do just that,” she said.

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Posted on May 26, 2013 and filed under Features, Holocaust, U.S..