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Passover 1941

Passover 1941

A Passover story of Holocaust survival demonstrates how the powerful life force of a Jewish woman connects our past, present and future.


Occasionally, one memory escapes from the vault that holds the terror of those years. One Passover, my three-year-old grandchild looked up at me from his chair at the Seder table. I don't even know what he said, because the rush of Passover 1941 blocked everything else. I was a young girl hidden in a dark cellar in central France. I was without other family -- alone with four other children, all of us strangers.

Today and in recent years, as I celebrate Passover surrounded by the comforts and luxury of our London flat and the security of more than a dozen relatives and friends, I realize that for all their splendor, these holidays cannot compare in my heart to that unique event 62 years ago. 1941 was the most extraordinary Passover of my life. But before I describe it, let me explain how I got to that cellar.

I was born in the years preceding World War II and lived content and well loved by my family in Nurnberg. By 1933, however, my world was getting darker till, one day, Nazi storm troopers marched into Nurnberg ordering that all major buildings must fly the swastika flag by evening. In 1936, my parents took us to Paris, as my father had been appointed rabbi of the prominent Rue Cadet synagogue. Within a few years, as the political situation deteriorated, my father was conscripted into the army and had to leave us. In 1940, when the Nazis began bombing Paris, my mother fled with us -- her four children -- on the last train before the main onslaught. It was the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

The mass of people on that train -- a tornado of humanity -- repeatedly

wrenched us from one another. Months later, I lost track of my family altogether.

The mass of people on that train -- a tornado of humanity -- repeatedly wrenched us from one another. Months later, on another leg of our desperate journey I lost track of my family altogether and began to wander from village to village. Lone children all over were doing the same.

One night just before dawn, I could go no further. I knocked on the farmhouse door of what turned out to be a kind, courageous gentile farmer. He took me to his cellar where I found another little girl. Eventually two boys and another girl joined us. None of us admitted we were Jewish for several days.

It was a dire winter. Each morning, a few rays of light would poke their way into the cellar through two windows high on the wall -- our only eyes to the world outside. The farmer had lowered us into the cellar through those windows and every day through one of them he lowered a net with five morsels of food and a bucket for our natural needs. Strange as it sounds, we were very lucky. In that difficult winter, five homeless children developed values so different from those today -- as well as a bond of lifelong friendship.

One day, peering from the cellar up through the windows one of us noticed a streak of sunlight in blue sky. A few days later, another saw blades of grass penetrating the frozen terrain. We had no calendar or sense of time, but we concluded that, if the weather was indeed changing with spring on its way, maybe we were nearing Passover. Each of us children came from a different range of Jewish commitment, yet we shared a strong desire to do something to celebrate what we sensed was the upcoming Passover holiday.

When the farmer appeared with our food the next morning, we asked if he would lower in tomorrow's basket a small amount of flour, a bottle of water, a newspaper and a match. Two days later we received a small bottle of water, but we had to wait several days for the flour. The entire region was drained of provisions, with everything being transported north to Germany. Our host the farmer had himself barely anything to eat.

A day later, a newspaper came through -- and then a match. We waited a few more days. We saw a full day of sunshine and blue skies, and we decided that, in order to cultivate a festive spirit, we would switch clothing with one another and wear them as if new. So we changed clothes; the two boys trading and the girls exchanging dresses. Before evening we baked our matzah, though we hadn't a clue how to do so. We poured water into the flour and held the dough in our bare hands over the burning newspaper on the floor. We produced something which resembled matzah and, whatever it was provided enough for the five of us.

That night we celebrated Passover. One of us recalled by heart the kiddush -- the blessing that sanctifies the Passover night. Another remembered the Four Questions - the part of the Seder the young children recite. We told a few stories of the Exodus that we remembered having heard from our parents. Finally, we managed to reconstruct "Chad Gadya," the song which typically ends the evening.

We had a Passover to remember. With no festive food, no silver candlesticks and no wine - with only our simple desire to connect with God -- we had a holiday more profound than any we have known since. I thank God for allowing me to live to be able to tell my children and grandchildren about it. Even more, I feel obligated to the younger generations of my family, who never experienced what I did, to pass on the clarity it gave me -- the vivid appreciation of God's presence in my life, of His constant blessings, wonders and teachings…and of His commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Women's Journal of the Jewish Renaissance Center, a learning institute for women located in New York City.

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March 16, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Linda, April 6, 2009 8:22 PM

Beautiful and Moving

I was in Poland this past fall and wanted to share a survivors story at our seder and one hopefully related to Passover. Your story and spirit are being passed on to my children along with the traditional pieces. Thank you for sharing this private part of your life. Shalom!

(12) Sally Dominguez, April 7, 2004 12:00 AM

Passover 1941

Tears came to our eyes as my daughter and I read this beautiful story. How wonderful that the love of G-d was so deeply ingrained in these children's hearts.

(11) Thomas Sebastian, April 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Moving Story

Dear Madam Amelie
I admire the gift of faith and the blessings of hope you are endowed with and that you lived

(10) Anonymous, April 1, 2004 12:00 AM

This story was beautiful. It reminded me of a Passover 25 years ago when my children and I were in dire straits. We were on Food Stamps and they were used also to buy our Passover foods. To this day, I never waste leftover Passover foods. I continue to enjoy them until they are gone.

(9) raye, March 31, 2004 12:00 AM

We can learn from children

Because of their deepest desire to express their Jewish identity, these children had the ingenuity to create an unforgettable Seder from rudimentary items.
By contrast, it is related in the book
"How To Stay Alive in the Woods". some hunters starved to death because they were completely ignorant of the plants and insects surrounding them as a substitute for the animals that were not available.

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