|The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition
Edited by Bella Gutterman and Naomi Morgenstern
|The Gurs Hagaddah: Passover in Perdition
is a deeply moving description of the lives of the Jews imprisoned in
the Gurs detention camp in southwestern France, prior to their
transports to the death camps. It contains actual memoirs of
former inmates, including accounts of their deportations to the Gurs
camp, as well as photographs, poems, paintings and sketches of the
camp, and a copy of the handwritten Hagaddah used at the Passover seder
in 1941. It is a remarkable volume.
On a personal note, the story of the Gurs Hagaddah begins with a date which my family marks every year. Friday, May 10th 1940, was the day my parents, who were then teenagers, and their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles, fled from Antwerp, Belgium, many but not all, finally arriving in safe havens. May 10th 1940 was the day that the Nazis bombed Western Europe and it is a day etched in our consciousness forever.
Foreign subjects, mostly Jews, were arrested and sent to Gurs after the German attack. "On Friday, May 10, 1940, while German planes bombed Belgium, I was held for inspection in Brussels, along with other foreign subjects. We waited in line to have our identity papers checked by clerks who were sitting behind tables set up on the street. On Shabbat I was kept in the school building, along with a large group of German citizens.
The fact that I had left Germany seven years earlier out of fear of the Nazis, and had immigrated to Belgium, did not matter one iota." (page 15) Ironically and horribly, although first put in Gurs for fear of being pro-German, when southern France came under Vichy control in June 1940, all the non-Jewish Germans and the pro-Nazis who had been detained in Gurs were released. The Jews, of course, were not.
The inmates at Gurs tried to maintain spiritual and cultural activities and regular prayers, Shabbat and holidays, history, Bible and Talmud classes, played an important role in their spiritual resistance. "I never saw such devoutness, such religious fervor as I did in those miserable, cold and damp huts, in those makeshift prayer halls," wrote one of the rabbis interred there (page 34). (The camp authorities encouraged religious activities thinking it would lessen the feelings of resentment and frustration). One particularly moving illustration shows Rabbi Leo Ansbacher, the camp's chief rabbi, standing on a platform giving a sermon to
crowds of inmates. The snowcapped French Pyreenes are in the background.
When it was time to celebrate Passover in April 1941, eight thousand of the Gurs inmates signed a document that they were willing to give up bread for the eight days of Passover, not knowing in advance that they would be given flour for matzot instead. One of the inmates, Aryeh Zuckerman, painstakingly wrote down the Haggadah in block Hebrew letters over a period of months for use at this seder - this is the Gur Haggadah. Copies of it were printed in Toulouse for everyone's use at the Seder and some copies of the Hagaddah were sent to friends and family living outside the camp. Those copies were illustrated by a non-Jewish inmate, FritzSchliefer, a communist, with postage stamp size pictures showing the atrocities of the camp. He was later deported to Drancy and then to Auschwitz for his role in the seder.
The Gurs Haggadah was discovered lying in a box in the archives of Yad V'Shem, the holocaust historical museum in Jerusalem, and was displayed there during Passover 1998. Visitors to the exhibit wanted to know more about the story behind the Haggadah and the archivists from Yad V'shem researched the circumstances surrounding its creation. They spoke with Rabbi Ansbacher who then lived in Tel Aviv, who was able to talk at length about the Gurs camp as well as the son of Aryeh Zuckerman who wrote a chapter called "My Father's Haggadah."
The Gurs Hagaddah: Passover in Perdition is a moving tribute to the inmates of Gurs and a testimony to the resolute faith and strength of Jews. Reading it in preparation for Passover will give new insight and appreciation for our history.
Review by Deborah Rosenbloom