A particularly important Jewish holiday is Passover (Pesach) when believers commemorate a past event related to their religion through a series of specific acts. One might assume that, as a holiday, it has the same meaning for practitioners of the religion over time. However, this would miss a crucial factor, namely the historical context.
What happens to religious rituals when a series of events threatens the life of a particular group of people? What possible new connotative meanings does this entail? We seek to answer these questions through the presentation of Pesach.
Passover is an 8-day (7-day in Israel) holiday that begins on the 15th day of the month of Nissan each year, marking the beginning of the harvest month. Symbolically, the holiday is linked to the liberation from slavery in Egypt, which lasted 400 years. The first night of Passover, known as the Seder, which is still held today, has the express purpose of telling the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt through rituals and food.
The evening is structured around a predetermined sequence of events that have evolved over centuries. The Haggadah preserves the complete script of the evening in 14 parts, including guidelines for preparation and eating. Most of the content of the book is the same from household to household, yet different versions (for example, for vegetarians, feminists, and other subcultures) are common in the developing world.
The celebration itself is preceded by a lot of preparations. The most important part is the cleaning, a process that involves getting rid of the “chametz”, meaning all the wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt that ferments and then ferments after coming into contact with water. This is a reminder that the Jews had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that they did not even wait for the bread to rise. Hence, one of the most important foods of the night of the seder is ‘matzah’, a flatbread made from wheat flour and water, with no sourdough.
Fortepan / Tamás Urbán (Image no.: 125635)
Besides being used in sandwiches on the night of the Seder, it is also worth mentioning in the breakfast menu of Hungarian cuisine. Such specialties include coffee made with maces and eggs with maces.
The seder dinner is therefore not a simple meal, but rather a predefined sequence of tasks linked to the food. In addition to the aforementioned chametz and matzah, in many cases, the dishes carry secondary meanings that help the believers recall the biblical narrative. The dipping of vegetables in water on the table symbolizes the tears shed during slavery. Moreover, the appearance of these vegetables is another significant interpretive factor, as the color green, for example, is meant to represent spring.
At the end of the meal, the evening concludes with the participants wishing that they could celebrate in Jerusalem in the coming year, expressing their hope that the Messiah will come to them. In this way, the feast becomes an image of hope, freedom, and liberation for the faithful. What happens when this celebration is placed in a situation where the people of religion are being persecuted and where a systematic campaign is being waged against them to exterminate them?
I sought the answer to this question in the testimonies of survivors recorded by DEGOB. Most Hungarian Jews were deported in 1944, continuing the complete deprivation of their autonomy. This included not only the crossing of the borders of physical but also of the borders of mental self-determination. In the latter case, one aspect of the violation of their religion is revealed in the following extract from a survivor’s testimony:
“After the German occupation, we were hit by one anti-Jewish regulation after another. We had to wear a yellow star, we were not allowed to go out after 6 p.m., and we could only shop in the shops between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. The worst thing was that every night an Arrow Cross Hungarian officer went into every Jewish house and counted the people so that no Jew could escape. He even came to our house in the seder, disrupted our celebrations, and looked everywhere to see if we had hidden anyone.” (Protocol no. 1485)
The holiday that was meant to pass on to generation after generation of believers that they were free suddenly meant something else. They were witnessing a reversal of the situation, where their people had become slaves again or were already slaves when they should have been celebrating the liberation of their ancestors from a similar situation. And how did this shape their attitude towards the seder? By beginning to associate other meanings with this night.
“At the end of March, on the very evening of the Seder, we were sent to Mauthausen. There we lived in terrible conditions and people were dying. We had no washing and no sanitation, so much so that there was an outbreak of phlebotomy and, of course, diarrhea from poor nutrition.” (Protocol no. 604)
“On Seder evening, 28 March, I was handed over to the Germans. I was taken on foot to Mauthausen.” (Protocol no. 2240)
“On the evening of the first Seder, we set off for Mauthausen via Sopron and Bécsújhely.” (Protocol no. 3437)
The seder and the various religious ceremonies marked the beginning of the new era. These became the points in time to which the deportees could measure the passing of time, as they had no other means of measuring it. Deprived of everything they had, their faith and religion became a kind of inner guide and a kind of anchor and inner clock in the unpredictable. The quotes presented here further point out the important narrative that the deportation routes were very similar. The survivors of the DEGOB testimonies who mentioned the Seder were all sent to Mauthausen, which illustrates the system behind the deportations, as those deported at the same time were sent to the same camp.
Fortepan / Lili Jacob (Image no.: 172150)
All in all, then, we can say that the role of religion was not exclusively sacral for believers when Jews were sent to death, labor, and concentration camps. The trust in faith that change would come was complemented by a whole new aspect. For Jews in captivity and in life-threatening situations, the ‘holiday’ suddenly became one of the few certain points of orientation in time and space. The holiday, based on the evocation of the events of the past, was no longer an image, but the reality of the deported.
One of the aims of our research team is to explore the survivors’ testimonies produced by DEGOB and their characteristics. An essential part of this is to learn about Jewish religion and traditions, and we wanted to contribute to this with our article. By studying Pesach and, within it, the night of the Seder, we have not only learned about the history and culture of a people. It allowed us to truly understand how the holiday, as expressed in the testimonies, was seen in a different light during an inhuman genocide and how this could have helped Jews.