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The Buried Seder Plate

The Buried Seder Plate

The tragic fate of one survivor's remarkable heirloom.

by

“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt…”

The exodus and the miracles of the Passover story happened a long time ago, but they are still part of our contemporary consciousness because of the power of memory. Thomas Cahill, the Catholic writer who authored the best-selling book, The Gifts of the Jews, concluded that it was the Torah with its commandments to remember that gave the world the concept of time and a reverence for the past. Passover speaks to all generations, reminding us to not only recall our past but to also shape our future.

But not everyone remembers, and tragically, some choose to forget, as demonstrated by the incredible incident I had with Shmuel's Seder plate.

A few years ago I was browsing in an antique store on the East Side in New York when I spotted an all-too-familiar object. I recognized it immediately, even before I spotted the family name clearly etched on its border. How could I not know what it was when I had been so involved in its story? After all, my eulogy of Shmuel, a miraculous survivor of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, focused on it.

What a tale it had been. The Germans had rounded up all the Jews in his little town for deportation. Some believed that they were merely being transported to another site to be used for labor. But Shmuel knew that they were meant to be murdered. He understood that the Nazis wanted to eliminate every Jew as well as every reminder of their religious heritage.

Had he been caught, he would have paid with his life.

So Shmuel took a chance. Had he been caught, he would have paid with his life. But he did what he had to do so that something might remain -- so that even if not a single Jew in the world stayed alive, someone might find it, reflect, and remember. He paced off 26 steps, corresponding to the numerical value of God’s name, from the apple tree alongside his house and carefully buried his treasure – a silver Passover plate.

He wished he could have hidden much more. How he wanted to preserve a Torah scroll. But he had so little time, so little space for concealing an object of value. His choice, in retrospect, seemed almost divinely inspired for its symbolism – the key vessel used to commemorate the festival of freedom. Shmuel thought, with what he later conceded was far too much optimism, miracles could perhaps once more occur even in modern times. And from that day forward not a day went by in the hells of the concentration camps that his mind did not return to his Seder plate in its special hiding place.

Shmuel could never explain how he, out of all his family and friends, survived. In his heart of hearts, he once confided to me, it may have been because he viewed his continued existence on earth as a holy mission -- to go back to his roots and uncover his own symbol of survival. Incredibly enough, in ways that defy all logic and that Shmuel only hinted to me, this escapee of 20th-century genocide was reunited with his reminder of deliverance from age-old Egyptian oppression. Shmuel journeyed back to his home, found his tree, counted off his steps, dug where he remembered he had buried it and successfully retrieved his Seder plate. It became a symbol of his own liberation as well. With it he celebrated dozens of Passovers, until his death.

That Seder plate, in almost total disbelief, is what I saw in the shop for sale. Where was it from, I inquired. What was it doing for sale when it carried with it so many precious memories? "Yes, I want to buy it," I assured the dealer, "but I need to know how you happen to have it."

"It was part of the sale of the contents of an estate by the children," the dealer replied. You see, the deceased was religious but his descendants aren’t. So they said they don’t really have any need for 'items like these.'"

The very symbol that sanctifies memory was discarded by those who forgot their past.

The very symbol that sanctifies memory was discarded by those who forgot their past.

If you have a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer's you know how horrible it can be to live without an awareness of events that came before. We don’t have a name for a similar condition that describes ignorance of our collective past. Yet the voluntary abandonment of historic memory is equally destructive.

How I wish that the unsentimental harshness of Shmuel’s descendants was just an aberration, a remarkably unusual demonstration of insensitivity not likely to be duplicated by others. But the sad truth is that we are part of a “throwaway” culture that gives equal weight to used cars, worn furniture, and old family treasures. What has served the past is of no interest if its sole claim to respectability is its gift of associations.

Memorabilia have lost their allure because we no longer revere the meaning of memories. So what, I am often asked, if my grandparents used this every holiday? We have no space, we have no need for it. As if utilitarian function is the only rationale for holding on to something that enables us to preserve our past!

The ring with which I married my wife may not be the most expensive but I pray it remains in my family as a legacy of the love we shared, perhaps to be used again by my grandchildren. The cup with which I usher in the sanctity of every Sabbath may reflect the poverty of my youth, but I hope it is passed on to the future as a testament to the importance of religious values in our household. If what we treasured is held sacred by my children, then perhaps what we lived for will also be reverentially recalled.

“Unless we remember, we cannot understand.”

 

“Unless we remember,” English novelist Edward Morgan Foster put it so beautifully, “we cannot understand.”

That’s why I weep for my friend Shmuel, whose family has become an orphan in history, severed from its past.

And that’s why I keep retelling Shmuel’s story on Passover, because I believe it captures the essential message of this holiday. God commanded us to remember because it is only by treasuring the messages of the past that we can understand the present and hope for a more blessed future.

Published: March 15, 2010


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Visitor Comments: 27

(26) Anonymous, April 10, 2012 8:19 AM

Save the seder plate!

My great grandparents were religious. My grandparents and parents were not. I stayed with my great grandparents often until I was 6, even though they spoke very little English and I loved them dearly. My family moved to another state and my great grandparents passed away. I spent the night at a new friend's house, and at dinner, they were singing blessings for Shabbat. I recognised the words and sang along. From that night on, I began to go to synnagogue and to live as a Jew. Shortly before my wedding, an old family friend gave me my grandparents' kidush cups. My husband and I used them at our wedding, and I felt like my great gandparents were there. Save that Seder plate! I hope that one day you will be able to return it to one of your friend's grandchildren or great grandchildren.

Fred, March 29, 2013 10:12 AM

Missing the point

The seder plate is what saved Shmuel. Knowing that only he knew of it's location, he was determined to survive and get it back after having lost so much else. Yes, for Shmuel the plate had great significance. But we already live in a materialistic enough world. Where we prize our possessions be they jewelry, house, cars, clothes, or bank accounts. There is no mitzva to accumulate or cherish. As a religion, Judaism today is already too much about form and too little about essence. I care less about what my children and grand children do with my possessions after I die than about what they hold dear from the mitzvot we are required to do. Sell all my stuff and give it to charity, for charity and kindness are worthwhile mitzot to keep. Keeping my things in the attic serve no value at all. Nice story Rabbi Blech, but I think you missed the boat here. If the plate helps you remember your friend with happiness than great. Otherwise it's value is the silver content and not much more. No need to chastise his children or grandchildren. Hopefully he will have left them a legacy worth much more than the plate.

(25) Anonymous, April 9, 2012 6:35 PM

good for you!

yasher koach to rabbi blech for taking home the meaningful seder plate and paying honor to its original owner! although on shabbat i use whichever candlesticks speak to me on that particular friday afternoon, on holidays i always light candles in those which were passed on to me by my grandmothers, obm. in this way i honor them as their memories bathe us in light at the table. and the original use of these otherwise benign silver sticks is honored as well. i make sure that my guests know that a previous generation of jewish women join us in this way. someday (not soon!!!) my mother will pass along her candlesticks, which were used by her grandmother, to my daughter, and the cycle will continue. and, with luck, i too will have a granddaughter, or two, to whom i can leave these most important treasures. l'dor v dor. chag sameach!

(24) Anonymous, April 9, 2012 4:35 PM

To destroy the people and keep the relics.

I just came back from Savannah, Ga. and visited the oldest synagogue in North America. We were told that contrary to belief, the Jewish people were to be eliminated by the Nazis, but artifacts such as Holocaust Torahs were preserved in order to display them after the war in museums as trophies. Many were sent to London where apparently they exist today.

(23) Anonymous, April 9, 2012 2:03 PM

I Once Went to an Estate Sale in the House Across the Street

B"H Soon after I moved into my house twenty-seven years ago this Sunday, I saw a sign stating that there was going to be an estate sale inside the house across the street from me. A long-time lover of antiques - I still own and use and lovingly polish the carved and inlaid dark walnut lamp table that was a wedding present to my parents, o.b.m., in 1937 - I eagerly attended the sale. I don't remember what else was for sale that day. All I remember is seeing a chromium-plated, five-light Shabbat menora WITH FIVE CANDDLES HALF-WAY BURNED DOWN still in it! The shock of seeing this simple yet lovely and obviously-used-for-Shabbat candelabra sitting there with its candles snuffed out just as the life of the Jewish lady who had lit them faithfully every week had been snuffed out by illness or injury made me cry inside. How could her own children not want their own mother's Shabbat lichter? I could understand their passing it down to someone in the family if they already had their own candelabra - when I made aliyah, I gave my daughter my lichter because I didn't like it very much, but it had been in the famiy for generations - but to sell it to strangers? And worse still, with the candles still in it? Unthinkable, and so disrespectful of the lady who owned it and of the very Shabbat itself! I remember the shock and deep sorrow I felt to this very day.

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