Rabbi Pesach Lieberman reverently laid the matzo on the makeshift bench. Passover had always been the holiday closest to his heart. Possibly it was because his given name Pesach meant “Passover” in Hebrew or maybe it was because he had never forgotten the old days when he and his brothers, sisters and parents used to cluster around a glittering festival laden table, old and young converging together to celebrate a three thousand year old miracle.
Today’s celebration, however, was going to be markedly different. His intention was to follow the usual procedure, but the difficulties involved were more than apparent. True, the room had been swept and cleaned, with meticulous care having been taken to remove any signs of chometz, the leavened grains that all Jews were obliged to avoid for this particular festivity. As for the rest, well, he would have to make the best of it.
His mind drifted to a Passover, way back in the past. It was the time he had first met his wife. His parents had invited their new neighbours, the Kronenbergs, to join the celebration with them and they duly arrived en masse with their brood of children, including Rebekah, their seventeen year old daughter.
Originally, his father had her in mind for Pesach’s elder brother, Sholem, but once Pesach had held her hand that evening as they danced to the Lashana Haba'ah, he determined there and then to never let it go.
He smiled wistfully and gently laid another four matzos on the bench. In doing so, he marvelled to himself at how Josef Weiss and Zalman Lanski had managed to utilize their culinary skills, procuring the precious unleavened grain and, with practiced dexterity, rapidly fashioning and baking five circular flat breads before the kitchen had been locked for the day.
For Pesach Lieberman, this had been a miracle almost comparable to the one they were about to celebrate.
He recalled what he personally considered to be another miracle. It was on a Passover some years after they were married, when both of them had given up all hope of it ever happening, that Rebekah placed his hand on her belly and nodded her head, smiling at him, her eyes glistening with tears. He wept with joy that day.
They named him Isaac.
From behind the makeshift bench, he studied the other elderly men in the room, some even older than he. Together they had formed a minyan. Ten males selected to represent the community of Israel. Among them were not only Weiss and Lanski, but also Bronislaw Michnik, the pious tailor from Krakow, whom many thought would conduct the proceedings until that honour was bestowed upon Pesach.
There was no animosity. No man present was better than any other in the eyes of G-d, with each having been chosen to participate in recognition of his distinction and worthiness amongst the community.
In time, grandchildren came along. Three, to be exact and, for him, the Passover began to take on a new significance. Despite their tumultuous history the Jewish race continued to survive and multiply.
Bronislaw Michnik placed the five seder cups next to the matzos. These were to be filled with wine. Four to represent the “expressions of redemption” promised by G-d and the fifth to be poured in order to welcome the prophet Elijah to the festivities. Unfortunately, the beverage today would not be up to the usual standard. In fact, on this occasion, wine was distinctly off the menu. Rabbi Lieberman was sure that the prophet would, under the present circumstances, be sympathetic to his plight and understand fully.
One of the men remarked how fitting it would be to ask the prophet Elijah to step into the room right then and herald the long awaited redemption. Everybody present agreed wholeheartedly.
The hour had arrived for Passover to begin. It fell to Pesach to break the middle matzo in half to signify “the poor man’s bread” and as he did so he recited from the Haggadah, the story of the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. How, on G-d’s command, they took with them unleavened bread, symbolised this evening by the five small matzos which they were about to consume. For the last three thousand years or more the story had been told on this night wherever Jews congregated together, with every new generation gaining something from each retelling.
Here, tonight, it had found a particularly new depth and meaning.
Each member of the minyan took half a matzo as his share. The size of the portion had somewhat diminished from what they had first imagined it to be. Some turned their faces Heavenward, crying out, giving thanks for the opportunity and privilege of partaking in the sacred “bread of affliction”, whilst others, of a more pragmatic disposition, made a desperate plea to the Almighty to help them get through the week.
Pesach ate his cherished ration slowly, chewing stolidly and swallowing hard. Rebekah was waiting for him, as always. He wasn’t sure how much longer, but he would see her soon and they could celebrate together.
They passed the four seder cups among them, each taking their turn to drink the plain beverage of water, reciting verses from Psalms as they did so.
Stanislaw Herschel, the accountant from Gdansk, then poured the Cup of Redemption for the prophet Elijah, who, tradition maintained, waited outside, anticipating the invitation to enter.
The door flew open with a loud crack! However, there was no sign of the prophet Elijah. His place had been taken by five SS guards accompanied by the camp Lagerfuhrer.
With considerable force, they were manhandled from the hut and the festivities came to an abrupt end.
All ten were marched in single file towards the camp perimeter. The smoke from the chimneys of the ovens rose into the night sky, twirling and twisting until it disappeared into the gloom. Pesach glanced over toward the grey slab of a building which contained the chambers. It was to this place that they took Rebekah on the first day they both arrived at the camp from the Lodz ghetto.
They stopped at the perimeter and stood in a row. With the aid of a rifle butt to the lumber regions, the guards forced them to the ground. The Lagerfuhrer pulled a luger pistol from his holster and walked behind the line of kneeling men.
Rabbi Lieberman gave a resigned sigh. They had all known the risk was high. They were the venerable elders of the community. It was the prime reason that they had been chosen to participate in this special celebration. Old men did not survive long in Auschwitz. Sooner, rather than later, one by one, they would have been selected for Sonderbehandlung, the term employed by the Nazis for the proposed destruction of his race.
Yes, the risk had been high.
Yet somehow, they had managed it. It was the last act of defiance in the face of a barbarous regime. Right under the noses of their persecutors, they had done the inconceivable. They had celebrated Passover amid the wretchedness and depravity of that filthy place and they had done it with the sacred unleavened bread, exactly the way G-d had intended.
The first shot rang out like an explosion and from the corner of his eye he could see the lifeless body of Itzhak Goldberg, the music teacher from Malbork, sprawled out in the mud. He always referred to them by their professions. In this squalid pit of despair, he felt it gave them back a little dignity.
Weiss, the baker was the next to fall, followed by Bronislaw Michnik.
His turn was approaching. He knelt with his head held high. Rebekah was waiting for him, as always. He would see her soon and they could celebrate the Passover together.