Gurs Haggadah

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

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