Passover in the Warsaw Ghetto

Chaim Kaplan was born in 1880 in Belarus. He was the principal of a Hebrew school and wrote a children’s Hagaddah (Passover order of service) published in 1936.

But Chaim Kaplan is primarily famous for his diary, kept during his time in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto was a sort of urban prison for Polish Jews. The Nazis crowded ten times as many people as would humanely fit into a small area in Warsaw. The Jews in the Ghetto were transported off a little at a time to death camps such as Treblinka.

On April 24, 1940, former Hebrew School principal Kaplan wondered at the ability of the Jewish prisoners to keep Passover under such difficult conditions:

The synagogues are closed, but in every courtyard there is a holiday service, and cantors sing the prayers and hymns in their sweet voices. In every home the signs of the holiday are manifest . . . The people run around carrying packages of matzah as if the sword of sabotage were not hanging over their head . . .

The following year, conditions had deteriorated. Kaplan writes:

We are faced with a Passover of hunger and poverty, without even “the bread of affliction” . . . For eating and drinking there is neither matzah nor wine. For prayer there are no synagogues or houses of study. Their doors are closed, and darkness reigns in the dwelling places of Israel . . .

This is Kaplan’s last entry. Historians think his life came to an end in December 1942 at Treblinka. On the night of Passover just a few months after Kaplan died, the Nazis launched a mortar attack on the Warsaw Ghetto. Yes, the night of Passover became a night of killing in 1943 in Warsaw.

Still, though the story is a tragic one, there is a candle of hope in it. At least in the Passover of 1940, though conditions in the Ghetto were terrible, the Jews there kept the Passover.

It would seem that one of the historic shortcomings of Israel is also in some other ways a virtue. The stiffnecked Jewish people remained stubborn in the face of death, keeping the Passover even when slaves in Warsaw. I can imagine the depth of prayer in that Seder in 1940: “Yes, it would have been enough, it would have been more than enough, if he’d just led us out of Egypt. Dayeinu.”

In this time of relative ease, let’s keep the Seder in peace and pray for the day to come soon when there are no more Warsaw Ghettos for anyone, Jewish or not, in this world that he made and will redeem.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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