By Jeanette Friedman- Sieradski | Published 04/18/2008 | Cover Story |

Sixty-five years ago on April 19, the night of the first seder, a handful of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up and fought back against the Nazis and their collaborators. For the first time in 19 years, these dates match. That date is also the yahrzeit of Yaakov Rabinowich, my uncle. An escapee from Treblinka, he knew the Jews were doomed, but he urged them to fight and die with dignity — and to take as many Nazis as they could with them.

Our senior play at Esther Schoenfeld High School on the Lower East Side was adapted from John Hersey’s popular novel “The Wall,” one of the first about the Holocaust. It was 1965, long before the Holocaust was taught. The students, most of them daughters of survivors, wrote it and produced it. I played a man who urged people to fight back and was killed by the Nazis on the first seder night. When it was over, my mother told me I played the role of my own uncle, her brother Yaakov. And then she said nothing more.

My parents were both survivors. My dad, z”l, was from Munkacs, survived Auschwitz, a litany of labor camps, a death march, and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. My mother, a Polish Jew, escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and was on the Kasztner train, with a group held in Bergen-Belsen, ransomed and released in Basel in December 1944.

The only time they talked about the Holocaust was on Seder night. My father would quote the Haggadah: “In each generation we should regard ourselves as if we, too, had come out of Egypt.” And then he and my mom would tell small stories, but no one talked about Yaakov, and neither my siblings nor I thought to ask.

Fast forward to 1979, to the Zachor conference, where hundreds of children of survivors began to discover who they were. I picked up a copy of Emanuel Ringelblum’s “Warsaw Ghetto Diary” and found a footnote about a Yaakov Rabinowich and references to the gravediggers of Treblinka. I called my mom and asked who that was. She told me it was her brother. If I wanted to know more, she said, I could find it in Hillel Seidman’s “Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto.” I discovered Yaakov Rabinowich again when I worked with Warsaw Ghetto survivors on their memoirs. My uncle, I was told, looked like a madman, as he went from bunker to bunker, begging people to take up arms.

When my kids were little, we conducted the Seder by the book. But the older we got, the more questions we had — and we wanted to create new and personal traditions. Computer technology made it possible for us to design and print our own Haggadah at home, and so, one year, with Seidman’s “Diary” and other works, like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s “The Fifth Child,” quotes from Shlomo Carlebach, and other sources in hand, we designed our own Haggadah. We dedicated it to Yaakov, because he refused to go quietly into the good night, and we begin the Seder by lighting a candle in his memory, then reading his story.

CLICK BELOW TO READ YAAKOV’S STORY


DEDICATION PAGE

YAAKOV’S PAGE ONE
YAAKOV’S PAGE TWO
YAAKOV’S PAGE THREE