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Passover Prayer from Bergen-Belsen

Passover Prayer from Bergen Belsen
Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House

From the earliest stages of Nazi rule, religious Jews in Germany found it difficult to observe kashrut, a set of guidelines on the preparation and consumption of food. A German law introduced in April of 1933, for example, effectively outlawed kosher slaughter, greatly reducing the availability of kosher meat.1 But even where state policies did not specifically target Jewish ritual practices, imprisonment in ghettos and forced labor camps after 1939 limited Jews' ability to follow kosher laws.2 

The Passover holiday, with its prohibition on eating chametz,3 presented a particularly difficult situation. Shortages of basic ingredients and the lack of facilities to bake matzah left many Jews unable to conduct a proper Seder ceremony. Conditions of extreme deprivation in camps and ghettos here implied a dire choice: Jews were forced to either break kosher laws or worsen their physical decline. With a daily diet consisting of only a few hundred calories, not eating chametz could mean starvation and death.

According to testimony recorded after the war, on the eve of Passover 1944, two  rabbis—among a group of Dutch Jews deported from Westerbork to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp—proposed a solution. Citing a biblical commandment to live and preserve life above all else, Rabbis Aaron Davids and Abraham Levisson announced that the ban on chametz would be lifted for the holiday. Leavened bread, they agreed, could be substituted for matzah during Passover.4 In preparation for the Seder, the Rabbis authored a special prayer, featured here, to be recited before eating chametz at a Seder held in the camp. A group of prisoners distributed copies of the prayer, and it remains in circulation today.

While this reading of Jewish law can be seen as a pragmatic adjustment to extreme circumstances, the prayer also suggests parallels with the doctrine of kiddush ha-hayyim or "the sanctification of life" advocated by some religious Jews during the war. In contrast to a tradition of Jewish martyrdom, known as kiddush ha-shem ("the sanctification of God")—in which faithful Jews died in order to remain pious—kiddush ha-hayyim places physical survival above observance of holy laws.5 The conflict between these approaches complicates our understanding of spiritual "resistance" during the Holocaust. It also suggests a variety of religious responses to suffering.

Rabbis Levisson and Davids both died, likely due to starvation and exhaustion, shortly before liberation in the spring of 1945.

While this law did not actually refer directly Jews or kashrut, it prohibited the killing of animals for consumption without first stunning or anesthetizing them. Because kosher law requires that animals be conscious during slaughter, Jewish ritual practices no longer conformed to the law. The ban, enacted on April 21, 1933, followed upon earlier prohibitions on ritual slaughter—introduced before Hitler's rise to power—in the German states of Bavaria, Thuringia, Braunschweig, Oldenburg, Anhalt, Saxony, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse. See the related item, "New-Kosher!"

German policymakers sometimes associated the "menace" of Judaism—rooted in conceptions of a Jewish race—with Jewish influence in society, as opposed to the Jewish religion as such. Before the war, they thus often issued laws that aimed at persecuting Jews, but did little to specifically suppress Jewish religious practices. See Dan Michman, Holocaust Historiography, A Jewish Perspective: Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches and Fundamental Issues (Portland, OR: Valentine Mitchell, 2003), 273.

Leavened bread or any product containing yeast and grain.

Though some survivors of Bergen-Belsen described the story of Passover 1944 in the camp, the details of the prayer's composition remain apocryphal. See Esther Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah, and Leadership during the Holocaust, trans. Deborah Stern (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2007), 351, fn. 56. Historian Thomas Rahe credits Davids, Levisson, and another Dutch rabbi named Simon Dasberg with co-authoring the prayer. See Thomas Rahe, "Jewish Religious Life in Bergen-Belsen" in Jo Reilly et al, eds., Belsen in History and Memory (London: Frank Cass, 1997), 108, fn. 73.

For more on both kiddush ha-shem and kiddush ha-hayyim, see the relevant entries in Israel Gutman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan), 798-800. Rabbi Shimon Huberband also wrote extensively on the mandates of kiddush ha-shem, arguing for a broad definition of martyrdom. In Huberband's view, death in defense of other Jews or self-sacrifice on others' behalf also constituted "sanctification of God's name." See Shimon Huberband, Kiddush Hashem: Religious and Cultural Life in Poland During the Holocaust, Jeffrey S. Gurock and Robert S. Hirt, eds. (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1987), 247-248. See the related item in this collection Rabbi Shimon Huberband, "On Religious Life".

Hebrew: Leavened bread or any product containing yeast and grain.

Reference to a passage in the Hebrew Bible, Vayikra 18:5, declaring that Torah commandments were issued above all to sustain life; in this interpretation of Jewish law, the principle of pikuach nefesh—the preservation of human life—overrides almost any other religious consideration.

Reference to a passage in the Hebrew Bible, Devarim 4:9.

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Before eating chametz1 say the following with intent and devotion: our Father in Heaven! It is known to You that we desire to fulfill Your will and observe the Passover holiday by eating matzah and following the prohibition of chametz. But our hearts are pained that enslavement prevents us, and we are in mortal danger. We are hereby ready to fulfill Your commandment "And you shall live by them and not die by them,"2 and to observe Your caution of "protect yourself and safeguard your soul."3 Therefore our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe Your laws and fulfill Your will and serve You with a full heart. Amen! 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House
Accession Number Holland, catalog no. 41, registry no. 11518
Date Created
1944
Author / Creator
Rabbi Aaron Bernard Davids
Rabbi Abraham Levisson
Language(s)
Hebrew
Location
Bergen-Belsen, Germany
Document Type Religious Text
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