Jewish tradition famously demands that the participants at the Passover seder bemoan the depredations of slavery and celebrate the salvation of freedom as if they themselves had escaped Egypt. For our generation, sitting in the comfort of our dining rooms, this can feel like an exercise in absurdity. Such hardship seems incredibly remote. But for my family, this recollection of suffering and redemption has served as our seder’s most moving moment, thanks to my grandmother and her remarkable story.
Until recently, I spent every Passover in Israel with my extended family. So long as he was able, my grandfather led the seder, taking us through each segment with erudite and academic commentary. He was a serious, quietly commanding force who could easily have led the entire affair. But each and every year, he would pause and hand the reins over to my grandmother, Masha, when we reached the time to sing “Avadim Hayinu.” The song consists of a single refrain: “We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, now we are free.” And every year, my grandmother would tell us her own exodus story.
A Lithuanian Jew, Masha knew the experience of slavery firsthand, having spent the years of World War II in various ghettos, ammunition factories and concentration camps. In March of 1945, in the Nazi-operated Bergen-Belsen, Masha, her sister Shoshana, their mother Yehudit (for whom I am named), and several others sat down to conduct a seder—of sorts. Without food, wine, prayer books or even a table, they did their best to remember the liturgy and engage in some sort of ritual normalcy.
Somehow they spoke of the bread of affliction that their ancestors ate, despite the fact that they too were afflicted and had no proper bread to eat. Somehow they proclaimed, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” despite their own hunger and lack of food. Somehow they spoke of how Pharaoh embittered the lives of his Jewish slaves, though they too were Jewish slaves whose lives had been impossibly embittered.
But when it was time to sing Avadim Hayinu, they found themselves smothered by an impenetrable silence. How could they—shaven, starving, beaten, broken, enslaved—sing of slavery in the past tense and celebrate their supposed freedom? How could they rejoice in a sovereignty and an independence that simply did not exist? It was too painful to even be comical. But somehow, summoning strength and a faith that I cannot fathom, Masha, Shoshana and Yehudit began to sing. One day, they hoped, they would once again sing this song from the comforts of a dining room and be able to genuinely celebrate the transition from slavery to freedom. One day, they prayed, they would be able to sing of slavery in the past tense, and retell, as Jews are commanded to do, the story of the exodus. For the millions that perished at the hands of the Nazis, including Masha’s father, this dream would never become reality.
A few weeks after Passover, Masha developed typhus. She was sent to the Nazis’ ersatz infirmary, fully cognizant of the fact that if she failed to recover within three days, she would die—either from illness or a German bullet, whichever came first. On Saturday night, she awoke to the sound of a man speaking over the camp’s loudspeaker. He was reciting the Havdala, the prayer that concludes Sabbath and ushers in the new week. Delirious with fever, Masha was convinced that she had died and entered some bizarre prelude to heaven. Liberation did not cross her mind. But, in reality, one week earlier, on April 15, 1945, the British army had liberated Bergen-Belsen. The man on the loud speaker, Avraham Greenbaum, was one of four Jews serving as chaplains in the British army. Within a year, he would become her husband.
The first words she heard him say were those of the Havdala, a prayer all about transitions. The text concludes by blessing God for differentiating between holy and mundane. Like the story of the exodus, it was about new beginnings.