Any and every Jew, even a great number who don’t usually have the good fortune to keep kosher, are now scrambling to purchase an assembly of mostly certified kosher-for-Passover products. But what do you do when this abundance is not available where you live? And more importantly, what were Jews of past generations to do, when food might be scarce, and their movements constrained?
Below is a historic document from one of the very darkest times of Jewish history, shedding some light on how they made efforts, even in the shadow of death, to keep Passover and celebrate whatever little freedom they still had, while praying to be redeemed once again from a valley of death.
Passover is clearly the hardest, but also one of the most popular holidays of the year. (This, by the way, confirms the Lord Chief Rabbi Emeritus’ contention, that people feel more drawn to “hard” religion, i.e., if you water it down and make it too easy, it drives people away. We couldn’t do Passover all year round, but as it is, it is quite hard, and it draws and inspires, despite jokes about matza induced gastric challenges).
For certain products, especially those who live further away from major Jewish centers wil make do with rabbinically authorized lists of products that may be purchased without certification, but those lists are understandably much shorter than all year round. We are still expected to buy the bulk of our even partially processed foods with actual kosher certification.
Not all generations had this luxury. My wife’s grandmother was in Auschwitz. There was no way people could eat matza in the camps, and with so little food, it was clear that even though bread was on the “menu”, many people who remained – or became – deeply religious in the concentration camps ate that bread on Passover and even on Yom Kippur, opting not to fast. Arguably, that was a halakhic obligation.
In his five volume magnum opus Scheelot uTeshuvot miMa’amaqim, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, whim I got to know personally, tells of how one 9th of Av he had to nstruct fellow ghetto residents to eat, so they would have the strength to last through the arduous slave work shifts. Fainting was a death sentence.
And yet, like so many others, a relative, Mrs. Bella Schwartz שתליא”ט decided to continue keeping Passover as well as she could, in Auschwitz. For eight days, she essentially fasted, subsiding on the light potato broth that was dished out to enslaved inmates along with their meager portion of bread. The bread, she hid for eight days. After the end of the holiday, she ate the meanwhile partly moldy bread, to regain strength.
As I noted, this was halakhically not required, may even have been prohibited, but these heroic Jews’ emotional connection to Jewish observance was stronger than anything, stronger than the Nazis’ rifles pointed at them, stronger than any legitimate exemption that might come their way, but they were quite obviously few in number to act in this manner.
Which is why I find it fascinating that in 1940, the besieged Jewish communities of Germany had a Passover kosher list, signed by rabbis of Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt and Hamburg. [Found in the Yeshiva University library. Hat Tip: Rabbi Gedalyah Berger]. Given the circumstances, the list was understandably quite permissive.
Among the usually prohibited items it permitted were:
- Matzot from years past
- Unsupervized Margarine from their all year round kosher list
- Sundry items sent from abroad, including meat products and a variety of processed foods
- People who had not much to eat (basically everybody) were allowed to eat kitniyot (beans are explicitly mentioned)
The list didn’t allow everything, though, and it mentions some items that cannot be permitted, for example ready made cocoa mix.
What is particularly interesting is that some products could be purchased in Jewish grocery stores, while others were available in supermarkets. Remember this is Berlin we are mostly talking about, and Jews were often excluded from businesses, though carrying the ellow star wasn’t universally required in Germany and German occupied areas until some time in 1941.
Though often ignored by historians, the tennacious will of Jews to continue observing and to maintain their humanity in the face of Nazi German bestiality is one of the many heroic aspects of that most tragic period.