Baruch Hashem

Shabbos Stories for Shabbos During Passover
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A Passover in Siberia

A.N. was serving a ten year sentence for the crime of "harmful acts against the State." This, however, was a libel. The truth was that he was a religious Jew who had committed the "crime" of keeping his Yiddishkeit in every possible way he could, and encouraging other Jews to practice Yiddishkeit.

When this was discovered, he was sent to a "Correctional Labor Camp" in Siberia for ten years, to be reeducated in the company of political offenders.

On some other occasion it would be most interesting to learn about his experiences in this camp. Now, however, we shall tell you about a certain Passover he spent there. This was in the year 1943, the seventh year of his sentence. This is how he began his moving narrative:

"A few weeks before Passover, I received a letter from my home, telling me they were sending a package with matzos and other Passover products as in previous years. This letter had first been addressed to the previous camp where I had been working, and then it was readdressed to my new camp. I wrote home at once to inform them of my new address, and hoped that the package would reach me in time.

I gave my letter to David, a friend of mine, who was the manager of the Food Department in the camp. He, in turn, passed it on to someone outside the camp who was going to Moscow.

I eagerly awaited this package of matzos and Passover products which would enable me to observe Passover properly, as well as strengthen me, for I had become rather weak and suffered from stomach trouble.

One day, the woman who was the head of the "political division" of the labor camp came to see me. She was also the censor of letters and packages addressed to the prisoners.

She was new to the job and came to ask me if I was still keeping to my religious beliefs and practices. Was I still abstaining from working on Sabbaths and holidays and not eating the meals served from the Camp kitchen? Incidentally, she also asked me: "What is matza?"

I explained it all to her, then she asked: "When is Passover?" I replied: "In ten days' time."

"What will you do if your expected package of matzos does not come in time?" she asked.

"I would just eat potatoes," I answered.

"And if you don't get potatoes?"

"Then I would have no choice but to go hungry."

"For eight days?" she asked, wonderingly.

"The Almighty will not forsake me," I replied.

The conversation ended there, and she left.

The first Seder night arrived. No package. No matzos. No Passover provisions. I had invited David and a Jew named Berkovitch to the "seder." We had covered the table with a clean sheet of paper to serve as a tablecloth. We had boiled a kettle of water. I poured out glasses of tea, which were to serve us in place of the four cups of wine we should have had.

Then, to their unbelieving eyes, I produced three whole matzos! Thus, we observed the first seder. I recited as much of the haggadah as I could remember.

The following night there were no matzos. We again had tea in place of wine, and three pieces of sugar completed our seder. I again recited the haggadah from memory. I then told my guests the secret of how I had the matzos for the previous seder.

"Since I'm in the labor camps I always saved a few matzos from one Passover to the next, in case I'd have difficulty getting matzos for the following Passover. This year, luckily, these matzos were a blessing, and I was thankful that I'd had such forethought."

David was very angry with me for not telling them that this year I had not received any matzos for Passover.

"We would certainly not have eaten your last piece of matza last night had we known," he declared.

"That is the very reason I did not tell you," I answered. "Every Jew is obligated to eat a piece of matzo at least the size of an olive on the seder nights. During the rest of Passover we must only refrain from eating chametz (leaven). One can manage with eating potatoes, fruits, vegetables, etc." I said.

"You can forget about fruits, and it's not so easy to obtain potatoes either," retorted David. "How do you expect to survive a whole Passover?" he demanded, heatedly. "I was given a blessing by my father that I will return home in peace, and, with G‑d's help, I will manage," I replied calmly.

David was not mollified, and left in a sulk. I saw him only a couple of times during the whole of Passover. He then tried to persuade me to eat chametz or, at least, have something from the camp kitchen if I did not wish to die of hunger!

When he failed to convince me, he avoided me; he could not bear to see me suffering hunger, it seemed.

On the third day of Passover I had an unexpected visitor: the woman censor.

I was at work and she noticed that my hands were trembling. She realized that I was weak from lack of food.

"I have brought you something to eat," she said, and brought out a freshly baked roll. The appetizing aroma made my head spin! I told her that we Jews are not allowed to eat that on Passover. I thanked her and refused it. She left without saying anything more.

The next day she visited me again, and I was really feeling much weaker. This time she brought me some cookies made from white flour (a luxury).

"I baked these myself," she said, "with sugar and oil. You must eat them, otherwise you will die of hunger! " I thanked her, but again refused.

"You are probably wondering why I am so concerned about you," she said. "You probably have a wife and children who are waiting for the time when you will be free to return to them. I sympathize with them. I have no husband waiting for me. He was an officer in this camp and was sent to the battlefront. He fell in action, fighting against the Hitlerites. Now, do please take a cookie! It will do you good," she pleaded.

"Thank you, no. I am sorry to hear about your loss, but please leave me alone."

She went out, obviously annoyed at her failure to persuade me to eat anything she had brought me. I felt so weak, I had to lie down on my bed, and I had no more strength to get up.

Berkovitch came to see me a few times and brought me some warm, sweetened water to drink. He left me, each time, in sorrow at my sad plight. On the morning of the last day of Passover he came and found me in a semi-conscious condition.

I asked him to pour some water over my hands and give me my siddur. This, he did, but the words swam before my eyes and my head spun. I then passed out completely.

When I regained consciousness I found the head nurse of the hospital standing beside me. She had, apparently, given me an injection which made me feel very hot.

"I don't know where this obstinate Jew gets such strength and resistance," I heard her say to David who was also present. She then left the room. David stayed with me until it got dark.

"Passover is now over," he said. I tried, but was too weak to rtecite the evening prayers. He brought me some white rusks and some sugar. He dipped the dry rusks into some sweet tea, and fed me like a child.

After my meal I fell asleep and did not awaken until the following morning. I was still so weak that David had to help me put on my tefillin.

Two days after Passover Berkovitch came to tell me the good news that he had been freed, and would soon be allowed to return home.

At the same time he told me that, whilst he was at the post office, he heard that, some time before Passover, a package had arrived for me from my home, but had been sent back by the censor.

Now it was clear to me why she had been so upset when I refused to eat her food on Passover. She was afraid I would die of hunger, and my death would be on her conscience.

The freed Berkovitch remained in town for two more weeks before leaving for home. Each day he brought me milk, potatoes, bread, some sugar, and once, something special—scallions! I gradually regained my strength.

Meanwhile I was called to the office of the superintendent of the camp. Berkovitch was present. Also the woman censor. The superintendent told me he had learned that the woman censor had sent back my package before Passover and, she had, in fact, admitted doing so.

Further investigation revealed that she had also withheld and destroyed two letters from my home, so that I should not know about the packge they had sent me.

The superintendent asked me to sign a complaint against the censor, saying: "I will personally make sure she is punished."

The censor burst into tears and pleaded with the superintendent. "Have pity on me and on my orphaned children," she begged. "Their father gave his life for the Motherland," she sobbed.

"Don't ask me to have mercy on you. You must ask forgiveness from this man whom you have wronged so cruelly," he said.

I told the superintendent that the woman censor obviously regretted her inhuman behavior and had tried, somehow, to correct her misdeeds. In addition considering that her husband had died fighting the Nazis and had left her with the responsibility of caring for the orphans, I was ready to forgive her.

This, on condition that she would faithfully promise not to give an more trouble to the prisoners in the camp.

The superintendent was visibly impressed with my declaration of pardon. He promised not to report the matter to the higher authorities. He did, however, have the censor transferred to a position where she would have less authority.

Thus ended the matter. But that "foodless Passover" will remain in my mind all the days of my life. Thank G‑d I am alive to tell the story...

 

Barrels on a Riverbank

Editor's note: One of the central figures in the history of Chassidism was the famed "Seer of Lublin," Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz (1745-1815), who presided over the spread of Chassidism in Poland and Galicia; many of the great Chassidic masters of the time were his disciples. This story, however, is not about the "Seer" but about his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Kopel of Likova; in fact, it happened many years before the Seer's birth.

Reb Kopel earned a living by purchasing barrels of vodka and beer from the local distillers and selling his wares to the taverns in and around his native village of Likova. It was not an easy life, with the heavy taxes exerted by the government and the hostile environment facing a Jew in 17th-century Europe. Yet his faith and optimism never faltered.

Each year, on the morning before Passover, Reb Kopel would sell his chametz to one of his gentile neighbors. Chametz is "leaven" — a category that must famously includes bread but also all food or drink made with fermented grain. The Torah commands the Jew that absolutely "no leaven shall be found in your possession" for the duration of the Passover festival, in commemoration of the leaven-free Exodus from Egypt. In the weeks before the festival, the Jewish home is emptied and scrubbed clean of chametz; on the night before Passover, a solemn candle-lit search is conducted for every last breadcrumb hiding between the floorboards. By the next morning, all remaining household chametz is eaten, burned or otherwise disposed of.

What about someone like Reb Kopel who deals in leavened foods and has a warehouse full of chametz? For such cases (and for anyone who has chametz they don't want to dispose of) the rabbis instituted the practice of selling one's chametz to a non-Jew. Reb Kapel's neighbors were familiar with the annual ritual. The Jewish liquor dealer would draw up a legally-binding contract with one of them, in which he sells all the contents of his warehouse for a sum equal to their true value. Only a small part of the sum actually changed hands; the balance was written up as an I.O.U from the purchaser to the seller. After Passover, Reb Kopel would be back, this time to buy back the chametz and return the I.O.U. The purchaser got a tip for his trouble — usually in the form of a generous sampling of the merchandise that had been legally his for eight days and a few hours.

One year, someone in Likova came up with a novel idea: what if they all refused to buy the Jew's vodka? In that case he would have to get rid of it. Why suffice with a bottle or two when they could have it all?

When Reb Kopel knocked on a neighbor's door on the morning of Passover eve, Ivan politely declined to conduct the familiar transaction. Puzzled, he tried another cottage further down the road. It did not take long for him to realize the trap that his gentile neighbors had laid for him. The deadline for getting rid of chametz — an hour before midday — was quickly approaching. There was no time to travel to the next village to find a non-Jewish purchaser.

Reb Kopel did not hesitate for a minute. Quickly he emptied the wooden shack behind his house that served as his warehouse. Loading his barrels of chametz on his wagon, he headed down to the river. As his neighbors watched gleefully from a distance, he set them on the river bank. In a loud voice he announced: "I hereby renounce any claim I have on this property! I proclaim these barrels ownerless, free for the talking for all!" He then rode back home to prepare for the festival.

That night, Reb Kopel sat to the Seder with a joyous heart. When he recited from his Haggadah, "Why do we eat this unleavened bread? Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before G‑d revealed Himself to them and redeemed them", he savored the taste of each word in his mouth. All his capital had been invested in those barrels of vodka and beer; indeed, much of it had been bought on credit. He was now penniless, and the future held only the prospect of many years of crushing debt. But his heart was as light and bright as a songbird. He had not a drop of chametz in his possession! For once in his life, he had been give to opportunity to truly demonstrate his love and loyalty to G‑d. He had removed all leaven from his possession, as G‑d had commanded him. Of course, he had fulfilled many mitzvot in his lifetime, but never at such a cost — none as precious — as this one!

The eight days of Passover passed for Reb Kopel in a state of ecstatic joy. Then the festival was over, and it was time to return to the real world. With thoughtful steps he headed to his warehouse to look through his papers and try to devise some plan to start his business anew. Clustered in the doorway he found a group of extremely disappointed goyim.

"Hey, Kopel!" one of them called, "I though you were supposed to get rid of your vodka. What's the point of announcing that it's 'free for the taking for all' if you put those watchdogs there to guard it!"

They all began speaking at once, so it took a while for Kopel to learn the details. For the entire duration of the festival, night and day round the clock, the barrels and casks on the riverbank were ringed by a pack of ferocious dogs who allowed no one to approach. Reb Kopel rode to the riverbank. There the barrels stood, untouched.

But he made no move to load them on his wagon. "If I take them back," he said to himself, "how will I ever know that I had indeed fully and sincerely relinquished my ownership over them before Passover? How could I ever be sure that I had truly fulfilled the mitzvah of removing chametz from my possession? No! I won't give up my mitzvah, or even allow the slightest shadow of a doubt to fall over it!"

One by one, he rolled the barrels down the riverbank until they stood at the very brink of the water. He pulled out the stops in their spigots and waited every last drop of vodka and beer had merged with the river. Only then did he head back home.