Pesach, known in English as Passover, is one of the most commonly observed Jewish holidays, even by otherwise non-observant Jews.
Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first time of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu’ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances of Pesach ae related to the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery. This story is told in Exodus, Ch. 1-15. Many of the Pesach observances are instituted in Chps. 12-15.
The name “Pesach” comes from the Hebrew root Pei-Samekh-Cheit, meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or spare. It refers to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn in Egypt. In English, the holiday is known as Passover. “Pesach” is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as Chag he-Aviv (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzot (the Festival of Matzahs), and Z’man Cheiruteinu (the Time of Our Freedom).
Before the holy day, the house is completely cleaned, to get rid of all the leaven – chametz. This is to remind us that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the “puffiness” (arrogance, pride) from our souls. Matzah is the unleavened flatbread that Jews eat during Passover, it is traditionally made with flour and water, eggs can also be used. Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after first coming into contact with water.
A worn out Haggadah, similar to the one above, was found buried at Chelmno concentration camp
How did the Jews try and observe Pesach in the Camps?
Desperate attempts were made to observe this holiday, but it was also impossible to refrain from eating chametz, and there were no conditions to bake matzah. When receiving a few hundred calories per day (if that), not eating chametz meant a certain death.
However, there was a need and a desire to observe at least some part of the holiday. The Jews were living in conditions of slavery and relating to the festival of redemption.
“In all your habitations, you shall eat matzah. But here in the ghetto, they celebrated the Seder and ate bread rolls, a strange thing to do. A strange act. A strange ghetto – strange Jews, a strange world. A celebration of Passover, and for the Seder they eat [leavened] bread.”
Egon Redlich – April 20, 1943
The question may arise as to whether or not it is at all necessary to observe, or try to observe, Pesach, when conditions don’t allow you to do so. My answer would be for the belief in God and the belief in hope, it is a holiday that signifies the freedom of the Jews from the Pharaohs in Egypt and allowing the freedom of Jews. Yet despite the slavery under Nazi Germany, it could be seen as their own Exodus or rather the belief that will be freed and that they may yet have their own homeland. It gave more of a meaning and understanding to the words of the Haggadah. “In every generation, every person must see himself as if he himself came out of Egypt.”
There was one Moishale, the last Moishale in the Warsaw Ghetto
Asking his father, “Ma Nishtana”
“Ma nishtana halaila haze mikol haleilot?”
Why is this night so long and more terrible than any night before?
While Moishale asked all his questions
Heaven and Earth stood still
The angels were afraid to make noise
And his father, his father wants the answer
Moishale says, “Tate Zise, I have one more question of my own,
And this is the question:
I want to know, Tate Zise, would I still be alive next year to ask you, “Ma Nishatana”?
Would there be any Jewish children left to ask the “Ma Nishtana”?
Will there be any father left to answer, “Avadim Hayinu”?
And the father’s answer: “I don’t know…
I don’t know if I’ll be alive
I don’t know, I don’t know if you’ll be alive
But I know that there will always be one Mishale
Somewhere to ask the “Ma Nishtana”
I don’t know if I’ll be alive
But I know one thing:
כי בשם קדשך נשבעת לו”
“שלא יכבה נרו לעולם ועד