Pesach in Siberia reminds us to count our blessings

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One day during my teenage years, I began to think about what my father, may he be well, had been doing at my age. The thought occurred too late for me to compare his and his family’s flight by foot from the Nazis in Poland to my own 14th year of life — when my most daunting challenge had been, the year before, chanting my bar mitzvah portion.

VShafran, rabbi Avi

Rabbi Avi Shafran

But I was still young enough to place the image of his subsequent years in Siberia — as a guest of the Soviet Union, which deported him and others from his yeshiva in Vilna — alongside my high school trials for comparison.

At the age when I was avoiding study, he was avoiding being made to work on the Sabbath; when my religious dedication consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning to attend services, his entailed finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga; where I struggled to survive the emotional strains of adolescence, he was struggling, well, to survive.

In my father’s unpublished memoirs, there is a description of how Passover was on the minds of the young men and their teacher, exiled with them, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941.

Over the months that followed, while laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” — so they were really only being good Marxists.

Toward the end of the punishing winter, they retrieved their stash and, using a small, hand coffee grinder, ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzahs to ensure their quick and thorough baking.

In the middle of the night, the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which, as the outpost’s other residents slept, they fired up for two hours to make it kosher for Passover before baking their matzahs.

On Passover night, they fulfilled the Torah’s commandment to eat unleavened bread “guarded” from exposure to water until before baking.

Perspective also is provided by the wartime Passover experience of my wife’s father, I.I. Cohen. In his published memoir, “Destined to Survive,” he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzah. All the same, he was determined to have the Passover he could.

In the dark of the barracks on Passover night, he turned to his friend and suggested they recite parts of the haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted the Four Questions other inmates protested.

“What are you crazy Chassidim doing saying the Haggadah?” they asked. “Do you have matzahs, do you have wine and all the necessary food to make a seder? Sheer stupidity!”

My father-in-law responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a Torah commandment — and no one could know if their “seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

Those of us indeed in such places can glean much from the Passovers of those two members — and so many other men and women.

The Torah commands Jews to eat matzah on Passover, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Egypt all the days of your life.”

Rabbi Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim, commented: “When recounting the Exodus, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his life — the miracles and wonders that God performed for him throughout.”

I suspect that my father and father-in-law, both of whom, thank God, emerged from their captivities and have merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that.

But all of us, no matter our problems, have experienced countless “miracles and wonders.” We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and benevolence with which we were blessed — or even the wonder of every beat of our hearts and breath we take. But that reflects only our obliviousness.

At the seder, when we recount God’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the gifts we’ve been given.

Should that prove hard, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization