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The Story of a Prayer

The Story of a Prayer

A Seder in Bergen-Belsen.


--- as told by Joseph Freuchtwanger, nephew of Rabbi Davids

It was erev Pesach, 1944. The entire Jewish community of Rotterdam -- men, women, and children -- had just been transferred from Vesterbork, a deportation camp in Holland, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Conditions in Vesterbork had been harsh, but continued religious observance had to a remarkable extent preserved the Jews' dignity and their will to live. Under the leadership of the loved and revered Torah scholar Rabbi Aharon (Bernard) Davids, some semblance of communal cohesiveness and optimism had been sustained. Upon arrival at Bergen-Belsen, however, daily existence took a sudden, overwhelmingly drastic turn for the worse, as most of the things that make a human being feel human were taken away. In what for us -- some 60 years later -- has become a familiar yet impossible-to-imagine scenario, families were divided, people starved, the absurdly hard labor broke body and soul, and disease was spreading fast.

Matzah for the Seder was, of course, unavailable.

Rabbi Davids, then in his early forties -- whose wife and three children had been separated from him upon arrival in the camp -- yearned to keep the spirit of his family and flock alive, even as their physical strength ebbed. Yet under such calamitous circumstances, refraining from eating chametz would surely bring on illness and death for an unknown number of Jews. What should be done during the week of Passover with their small daily rations of bread?

He conferred with other rabbinical authorities in the camp, and after anguished and lengthy discussion of this dilemma, they agreed upon a course of action.

On the 14th of Nisan, the Seder night, Rabbi Davids sat at the head of the long table in the male barracks, conducting the ceremony not from a Haggadah -- for of course there was none -- but from memory. When he reached the blessing, "...Who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to eat matzah..." he lifted up his voice and clearly recited the following prayer, as later translated into English by Prof. Harold Fisch:


Heavenly Father, it is manifest and known to You that we desire to carry out your will in regard to the commandment of eating matzah, and strictly refraining from chametz on the Festival of Pesach. But we are sick at heart at being prevented in this by reason of the oppression and mortal danger in which we find ourselves. We stand ready to perform Your commandments of which it is said, "You shall do them and live by them," (Vayikra 18:5) that is to say, you shall live by them and not die by them. And accordingly we heed Your warning, as it is written: "Take heed to thyself and keep thy soul alive." (Devarim 4:9) Therefore we beseech You that You will keep us in life and establish us and redeem us speedily from our servitude so that we may in time come to perform Your statutes and carry out Your will with a perfect heart. Amen.


He then reached for a piece of bread and took a bite, thereby urging his brethren to do likewise.

Rabbi Davids, along with his son Elijah, died shortly before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by the allied forces.

His wife Erika and their daughters, along with approximately 2,800 others, were evacuated by train from the camp. During the two-week journey to nowhere, 570 died and were buried in a mass grave somewhere along the way. Those who survived the trip were abandoned by the Nazis near the East German village of Troebits.

In 1947, Erika emigrated with her daughters to the land of Israel, taking with her a copy of the prayer that her husband had composed. She died in a Herzliya nursing home in1997.

Each year, her family and its descendants read the prayer aloud on the Seder night, to hear again how Rabbi Davids asked for God's help, beseeching a shattered people to do the unthinkable and live, not die, by them.

This article originally appeared in Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.


March 24, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Golda, April 11, 2018 11:59 AM

Yehi Ratzon in Hebrew

Hi Sarah - do you have this yehi ratzon by Rabbi Davids in Hebrew? Thank you!

(10) Sarah Shapiro, March 24, 2014 12:39 PM

Jewish Action

The editor of Jewish Action asked me in 2007 to refine the style of a story which she sent to me. I don't remember the details re. its author, but the origin of this story was not with me, but rather with Rabbi Davids.

(9) Marc-David P., June 8, 2010 11:46 AM

tears for bread

Tears were my bread as I read this. Thank you for sharing such a poignant story. Rabbi Davids had clear insight into the true will of G-d.

(8) Ramakrishnan, May 15, 2007 11:01 AM

God bless Sarah Shapiro for she is such a sincere person.

Sarah Shapiro, who are you? And where have you been all these years. I found myself reading you as though it was specially addressed to me by a close friend. God bless you! (It doesn't matter if your god is not the same as mine. I am a Hindu.) Ramakrishnan

(7) Herman Duizend, April 16, 2007 12:53 PM


I just want to mention that not the entire jewish population of Rotterdam was transferred from Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen. Most of them were slaughtered before in Auschwitz and Sobibor. Only those in posession of a Palestine Certificate were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, just as my father zl and his first wife. The Lost Train, which left Bergen-Belsen on April 9, 1945 was supposed to get to Theresienstadt to have the people gassed. Thanks Hashem the train got stuck in Tröbitz and freed by the Russians.

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