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Seder In Auschwitz

Who invited Anne Frank to the Feast of Freedom?

by David Holzel

Passover is at once the most rigorous and malleable Jewish holiday. The regulations for removing chametz are extensive and arcane. The holiday meal is a stubborn holdover from the era before TV dinners – and any backsliding that saves toil is likely to produce an equal measure of guilt.

At the same time, the crucial issues of the day attach themselves to the haggadah with amazing ease. Over time some disappear. We no longer recall the Jews held “in bondage” in the Soviet Union. Other connections take on a life of their own. The feminist reclaiming of the holiday lives


from the Survivors Haggadah

on in women’s seders, with their prominent oranges, which allow participants to recall smugly the apocryphal rabbi who declared that a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate. Payback against straw rabbis is sweet.

The declaration, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” is the hook on which the Mazon organization hangs its fund-raising appeal to fight hunger. There are haggadot whose concern is Mideast peace, vegetarianism, and evolving consciousness. All bear a selective connection with Pesach and its story that begins with a demeaned, enslaved people and ends on a high of liberation and freedom.

No selective connection has stuck more tightly than the Shoah. “For many contemporary Jews, a meaningful haggadah must include the Holocaust,” writes Liora Gubkin, assistant professor of religious studies at California State University, at Bakersfield, in her new book You Shall Tell Your Children – Holocaust Memory in American Passover Ritual (Rutgers).

And although there is a surface similarity between the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt and life and death in the Nazi camps, the two events were fundamentally different.  The Pesach story begins with degradation and ends in glory; the Holocaust story, from beginning to end, is about the incomprehensible murder of millions of Jews. According to Gubkin, the attempt to preserve the memory of the Holocaust alongside the Exodus is to misremember the Shoah.

“Passover is a holiday that celebrates redemption,” she writes. “But ‘redeeming the Holocaust’ constitutes a dangerous form of forgetting.”

At the same time, she identifies the reasons Jews pair the two events without a second thought. “Exodus is a master narrative of Jewish self-perception, or Jewish identity," she says. "I think the gravitation toward Passover is part of the struggle to incorporate the Holocaust into contemporary Jewish identity.”

And Pesach is a nearly unanimous touchstone of Jewish identity. About 70 percent of American Jews between ages 35 and 64 attend or hold a seder.

In an interview with Gubkin, we discussed her argument that from the first post-war haggadah, used at a seder in Munich in 1946, Jews have sought to "add value" to the Holocaust experience – to find meaning in the otherwise meaningless death of millions. We also talked about the idea of “emplotment” – how Jews tailor the Holocaust to fit the narrative of the Exodus.

David Holzel: We’ve come to see as standard practice some sort of commemoration of the Holocaust during the Passover seder. But you point out that the Passover story and the Holocaust story are fundamentally different – enough to question why people see them as a natural pairing. Yet it’s something that most people – me included, until I read your book – look right through without recognizing. Is it a natural pairing? One is a story that goes from degradation to redemption. The other goes from degradation to genocide.

Liora Gubkin: People have a hard time tolerating genocide in the midst of a seder celebration – our ability to tolerate genocide elsewhere is another issue. My argument is that the emplotment, or overarching narrative of the seder – degradation to redemption – pulls the Holocaust into its narrative reading. In part this is because of the narrative and ritual expectations of the seder. In part this is because of the desire for the Holocaust to have been meaningful in some way. We see this all the time in the facile repetition of “Never Again” or “We need to learn this history so as to never repeat it.” We also see the desire for meaning in the elements of Holocaust-based Jewish identity that are part of Jewish education programs.

I do think that although the theological fit is problematic and I am horrified by the emphasis on the Holocaust as a secure base for Jewish identity, there is a sincere attempt, with joining the Holocaust and Passover, to come to terms with the ways the Holocaust is an important part of who we are as Jews in the 21st century.


You found that the Holocaust was included in the first haggadah after the war, so the connection was almost an instant one.

 The recent publication of the 1946 Survivors Haggadah  shows how the connection was used for pointed political critique. The Survivors Haggadah was used during a seder where many of the participants were Displaced Persons. The haggadah was created by a Zionist, and the introduction, written by a chaplain in the U.S. army, blames the liberators for the situation where the Jews are liberated from the camps, but are not free because of the limits on immigration to Palestine. The limits were put in place by the same people who had liberated –  but not freed –  the Jews.

You use the phrase “value-added redemption” – an attempt to read meaning into the Holocaust experience. And you cite examples, such as “March of the Living” as

  We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt

an attempt to give meaning to the Holocaust by making a connection between the Shoah and the creation of Israel. There’s something I find disconcerting about the Shoah Business. What is behind the attempts to add value to the Holocaust?

Lawrence Langer and Irving Greenberg both seem to suggest that the Holocaust challenged fundamental values regarding the goodness of humankind –  questioning the power of religions, or Enlightenment values, or liberalism  to affirm the goodness of humankind.

I found this radical questioning particularly poignant in the history of Reform haggadot. I was raised in the Reform movement, and am a fifth generation Reform Jew on my mother's side. I didn't include the early Reform haggadot in my book, but a comparison of them shows a move from extreme optimism in the goodness of humanity to questioning this goodness. The inclusion of the Holocaust brings with it an ambivalence about pre-Holocaust values, which were held with more certainty.

And to get more directly to this question, I think it is hard for people to live with the ambivalence, and so we see many forms of value-added redemption or meaning attributed to the Holocaust.

You write extensively about commemorations in haggadot of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which broke out on the eve of Passover, April 19, 1943. The fighters are recalled as heroes, rather than victims.

Passages often put great value on the idea that the fighters chose to be their own redeemers on the first night of Passover, in contrast to traditional Exodus when God redeems the Israelites. What is often left out in this formulation is that the Nazis chose the date of the Uprising [the Nazis picked Pesach for the final deportation of Jews from the ghetto, which led to a reaction from the ghetto fighters] and to be their own redeemers meant to choose their own form of death.

I am always floored by the passage that's printed in the Conservative haggadah and elsewhere, about all of us being present at the Nazi genocide and all of us being present at the final redemption.

One of the tensions of collected memory is that it collapses the individual experiences of people. By collected memory, I mean the creation of an authorized or shared understanding of an event.

In this case, I think that selections of experiences in contemporary haggadot often place the needs and desires of post-Holocaust editors and seder participants over the experiences of individual survivors. This became one focus of my book, especially after viewing the testimonies of survivors who commemorated Passover in concentration camps. I became more directly focused on preserving the multiple narratives from survivors.

Also, the haggadah tells a story that is larger than life. In contrast, what was lost in the Holocaust was millions of individual lives. I think we too often get caught in the millions –  whether 6 million or 11 million –  and lose sight of the individual losses of ordinary lives.


You write in detail about Anne Frank. She’s the poster child of the Holocaust. She puts a human face on the unimaginable number of 6 million murdered. But you say she’s been co-opted into this attempt at value-added redemption. With the often-quoted line from her diary, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart,” she seems to be used to console us –  and the gentile world –  that the Holocaust was not so horrible. The Anne Frank movie and stage play universalized her experience.

Writing that chapter was a powerful experience for me because I was able to closely compare the complexity of her diary with the versions of her presented in the play and movie that so strongly influence her appearance in the haggadah.

She's Scarlett O'hara after Rhett leaves her, saying, "Tomorrow is another day!"

How funny and terrible at the same time!

  Anne Frank

I think we feel bad for her for being cooped up in that attic. But we're so heartened by her wisdom and optimism. That's what Anne Frank is in the collected memory.  But as you point out, Anne Frank’s  message to us would probably have been a lot different if she had written her diary in Bergen-Belsen, while she was starving and dying of  typhus.

Right. And I'm certainly not the first to note that. Some people think that means her experience in hiding doesn't represent the "real" Holocaust. I disagree wholeheartedly with that position. Rather, she shouldn't be used to present the entirety of the Holocaust. And when she is discussed, her diary shouldn't be reduced to a single line that misses how insightful she actually was.  Of course, the draw to that single line is its assertion of hope and optimism –  all things most of the Holocaust calls into question.  Again, the lure of value-added redemption.

Which you've equated to misremembering.

A rather pernicious form of misremembering.

Please talk a little about the idea of the Holocaust experience being a trauma. Are we passing the trauma down through the generations?

What I found most interesting in reading about the Holocaust as trauma was the idea that the effects of the event aren't fully present at the time. The impact of trauma can be passed down through generations in unpredictable ways. I found that idea useful in thinking about why the Holocaust would appear in the haggadah. If we consider the Holocaust a traumatic event for the majority of the Jewish community, whether or not a particular individual experienced it, then the focus on the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish life could be viewed as an attempt to work through the trauma –  to make sense of it in some way. On the one hand, this is probably necessary. On the other, we run the risk of passing on the worst effects of traumatic experience, and risk supporting a victim mentality.

I want to leave you with a thought. I did my own mental midrash, which brought the Passover story more into line with the Holocaust story, instead of the other way around. For instance, it was only the Israelites who were alive at the end of the story who were redeemed. There were hundreds of years of slavery in which Jews worked and died. Similar to the Holocaust, when those who were left alive at the end were released. As in the Exodus, there were redeemers, and they too tarried – this time it was the Allies. It's not as good a story this way, I'll admit.

But it's a fascinating possibility. That thinking about the Holocaust, a much more recent past, as a story about real people and real losses in conjunction with the Exodus could change the way we remember those events as well.  

Copyright © 2008 by David Holzel
Woodcuts from The Survivors Haggadah
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