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!
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.