A survivor’s Passover tale

I learned about Passover from my parents, from my teachers, but most of all from my uncle, Henry Kolber. The Nazis took Uncle Henry from his village in Poland at the very beginning of the war. For more than five years, he survived Nazi captivity. He was young. He was strong. He was lucky. He was a carpenter, and the Nazis needed carpenters. At first, they moved him from camp to camp, including a stay at Plaszow, where Schindler’s people were kept. And finally, Auschwitz. A slave laborer, he actually built much of the camp. When the allies advanced, he was taken on the infamous death march from Poland into Germany. He was liberated by the American Army in 1945. 

For as long as I can remember, my uncle never spoke about these experiences. We knew that he had been in the camps  — from the numbers on his arm and from his peculiar personal habits … the way he slept so still, as if he were still hiding. But he would never reveal to any of us where he’d been. 

It was Elie Wiesel who opened my uncle’s heart. Wiesel came to lecture at a local university, and my aunt and uncle went to hear him. Wiesel spoke about his time in Auschwitz. Every event Wiesel described, Uncle Henry had personally witnessed. Every character Wiesel described, Uncle Henry knew personally. Following the lecture, he approached Wiesel. They talked together in the deserted lecture hall for hours. Finally, Wiesel asked my uncle, “Have you told your children?” And my uncle sheepishly replied that he had not, he could not. “You must,” Wiesel admonished. “For if you don’t, they will never really believe it happened! They will never learn! You must be a witness. That’s why we survived — to tell the story, to teach them!”

After a Passover meal some months later, he sat us down, and for more than three hours, Uncle Henry told us his story: how the Nazis rounded up the Jews of his town and made a selection — who would live and who would die. How he was separated from his parents and sisters. The cattle cars, the brutal slavery, the camps, Auschwitz, the death march, and finally, his liberation. When at last he finished, we sat in silence for some time. We finally mustered the nerve to ask why he’d waited all these years to share this. He looked at us with an embarrassed expression, “I was afraid you wouldn’t understand. How could you understand? You grew up here, in freedom and safety. You have never felt real hunger or cold, you’ve never known fear or hate. How could you understand?” 

So then, why tell us now? 

“Because Wiesel is right. If you don’t hear it from me, you’ll never really believe that it happened, that it was real. You will never learn. I am a witness. It happened, worse than I’ve told you. Know that it happened. Learn from it!”

Now I understand Passover. I can imagine a generation of Israelite children, born in freedom and prosperity, always wondering about their immigrant parents’ experiences. Where did they come from? Why do they shudder when we mention Egypt? Why is their demeanor so strange?

I can imagine a generation of ex-slaves caught in my uncle’s dilemma: How can I tell you about realities you can’t possibly imagine? You, who know nothing of slavery, of degradation, of fear and hatred. But if I don’t tell you, then you’ll never really know it was real. If you don’t hear it from me, you might doubt its reality or hold it to be impersonal history. You must know that this happened, and that I was there. Your father and your mother were slaves. And we witnessed liberation. And that’s why we are who we are. As inadequate as it may be, we tell you this story of Passover so that our memories may become your own.

 But not all our memories. There are things my uncle refused to tell us. Refused, because they reside in a well of bitterness and pain too deep and too dark. On Passover, the whole meal isn’t maror — biting bitter herb. Just a taste. Enough to bring tears and shorten the breath. But always mellowed with the sweetness of charoset — the joy of liberation. For the story’s end must be hope. 

Following his revelation to us, my uncle became an ambassador of the Holocaust. He told his story to high-school kids all over the Eastern seaboard, but mostly in inner-city neighborhoods. His tale of the triumph of hope was his one-man fight against despair, his call to responsibility and courage. At the end of each talk, Uncle Henry would demand that the kids promise they would build a different world. He built Auschwitz, the kingdom of death, he told them; theirs is the task of building a kingdom of life.   

 My uncle passed away a few years ago. He left this precious gift, his story, and all the courage and wisdom it inspires. 

Whatever you do at your seder, remember that the central imperative is to tell the story. In whatever language you speak, with whatever dramatic flourishes, intellectual digressions, songs, symbols, props you employ — tell the story. This is the story that makes us who we are. We who crossed the sea saw history turn transparent and God’s presence become visible. We know that God has purposes in human history. This story gives us our ethics, our understanding of history, our experience of God, and our hope — our never-dying Jewish hope.   

Happy Passover.