An exhibit at Israel’s National Library highlights themes of nontraditional Passover Seders in post-war Europe and pre-state Palestine

From the “Survivors’ Haggadah” written for the 1947 Survivors’ Seder in Munich, Germany (Courtesy National Library of Israel)

The themes of slavery and freedom in the Passover Haggadah are familiar but largely distant for many readers.

A new exhibit at the National Library of Israel offers a 20th century take on the story of exodus from Egypt, with a collection of Haggadahs written by Holocaust survivors as well as Jewish soldiers who served in the US Army, the Jewish Brigade of the British Army and the pre-state paramilitary force the Haganah during the years following World War II and at the time of Israel’s War of Independence.

“It’s a very familiar genre but less known now,” said Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library. “It’s all about freedom and independence, part of the big story we’re telling. It creates a bridge between Passover, a very traditional holiday, and the new Israeli traditions of Yom Ha’atzmaut. They’re celebrated differently but based on the traditional message that’s universal, not just Jewish, of freedom and anti-slavery. We all learned that from the exodus from Egypt.”

The exhibit, “Next Year May We Be Free, Soldiers and Survivors Write the Passover Haggadah, 1940-1948,” is open until May 31, spanning Passover as well as Israel’s 70th celebrations, Holocaust Memorial Day and Israeli Memorial Day.

The writing of new, non-traditional Haggadahs began in the 1920s and continued through the 1960s, said Amiud. The National Library has more than 10,000 Haggadahs in its collection, of which more than 2,000 date from the 1920s until today.

Following WWII, many survivors and soldiers wrote their own versions of the Haggadah for the Seders, although conditions were difficult and they didn’t have time or the materials to make copies of their texts.

“There were only a few copies left,” said Amiur, “so we chose those that best told the story.”

In those post-war years, many of the Holocaust survivors still in Europe were trying to get to Israel. In parallel, the Jewish Brigade of the British Army in Israel was about to leave Palestine, and members of the Haganah and Jewish US army soldiers who were stationed around Europe and Cyprus were sitting down to Seders with Holocaust survivors.

The exhibit ends with a selection of Haggadah booklets from 1948, wrapping up the period of time between the end of the Holocaust and the month prior to the May 1948 declaration of the State of Israel.

One of the selections is a Haggadah written by a unit of soldiers in the Haganah stationed in the Hula Valley in the weeks before Passover, when the War of Independence had entered a difficult stage. As the pre-state entity was preparing for the exit of the British Army and the declaration of the establishment of the state that would come in May, Jewish soldiers were being killed in battle and this Haggadah tells that story.

“They had just gone through a battle in which 22 soldiers were killed, and it tells the feeling of soldiers who felt that they were willingly sacrificing themsevles,” said Amiud. “They were waiting for the establishment of the state, and to bring Holocaust survivors to the country, and they speak about their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the creation of the state. It’s similar messages of redemption.”

Another Haggadah exhibited was created in 1946 in Munich, Germany. It was the first Passover after the end of the Holocaust, and Europe was full of Jewish refugees, many of them in displaced persons camps in Munich. A Seder was being planned for young survivors who belonged to a Zionist youth movement, with a Haggadah written for them by Yosef Sheinson, a Hebrew teacher and survivor of the Kovno Ghetto.

The Haggadah was rife with messages about the land of Israel, highlighting the similarities between the exodus from Egypt and their hopeful exit from Europe to pre-state Palestine. The opening page of the Haggadah, which starts with “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” was baldly rewritten as “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.”

“They likened maror, the bitter herb, to exile and to the bitterness of having not built the Jewish state in time for the escape from Europe,” said Amiud.

The Haggadah was illustrated with woodcuts made by artist Miklos Adler, a survivor from Debrecen in Hungary, who took the traditional concepts of Egypt, slavery and exodus and recreated them in the images of the concentration camps and Nazi Germany.

The last illustration in the Haggadah is of “Lech Lecha,” the biblical command to the patriarch Abraham to take his belongings and go to the land of Canaan, but reimagined as a survivor turning his back on the camps, the ashes and on Europe.

Rabbi Klausner, an army chaplain of the US Third Army, known as the Survivors’ Rabbi, saw the Haggadah and decided to reprint it for a Survivors’ Seder he was making for hundreds of soldiers and survivors in Munich. He added an introduction in English to the text that was written in Yiddish and Hebrew.

“They had just lived through their own slavery,” said Amiud. “It had happened to them.”

The exhibit, at the National Library in Jerusalem, is open until May 31. Entry is free.