Photo Credit: Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Editor’s Note: Rebbetzin Jungreis, a”h, is no longer with us in a physical sense, but her message is eternal and The Jewish Press will continue to present the columns that for more than half a century have inspired countless readers around the world.

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Every year it is incumbent upon us to recount the story of Passover and our Exodus from Egypt, and we never tire of it. But it is not only our collective history as recorded in the Haggadah that we recall – we also have our own personal memories we associate with Pesach.

It was on the first Seder night of Pesach that I was born, and from the time that I can recall, at every Seder my father, HaRav HaGaon HaTzaddik Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, would regale us with stories of my birth.

“We were just sitting down to the Seder,” he would begin, “and Mommy, zol zein gezunt un leben langer yahren, told us, ‘I think that this is the night when the baby will come.”

My father quickly dispatched our housekeeper to fetch the midwife (in those days in Hungary, babies were born at home and delivered by midwives). And so the Seder proceeded with intense prayer and trepidation. Then, as my father would relate, “When we opened the door for Eliyahu HaNavi, a cry was heard from the bedroom and the midwife announced, “Mazel Tov, Rabbi Jungreis! You have a beautiful little girl!”

Whether or not I was really born at that specific moment the door was opened for Eliyahu I cannot say, but for me, it sufficed to hear my father tell the story that way, and my father never tired of relating it. Even on those dark nights when we were trapped within the walls of the ghetto or in Bergen Belsen, when our table was bare, when the saltwater was made with our own tears – even then, my revered father related the story and made me feel special.

When we reached these blessed shores after our harrowing Holocaust experience, my parents enrolled me in Bais Yaakov elementary school. I didn’t speak the language and had almost no schooling behind me, so I had to start with the basics. Then one day it was announced at school that Barton’s, a new chocolate manufacturer, was running a contest, and the winner of the most meaningful essay on the Yom Tov would be awarded pounds and pounds of chocolate!

To me, coming from the concentration camps, it sounded like a dream. Chocolate was a luxury we could hardly afford. But how could I, with my limited, broken English, possibly win?

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of my teacher, I tried, and wrote of the story of my Pesach birthday, and how, even in the nightmare of the Holocaust, my father never forgot to speak of the moment when he opened the door for Eliyahu and heard my cry. Amazingly, although my teacher had to make many corrections in grammar and spelling, I won that contest, and my brothers and I were ecstatic. We had a chocolate feast second to none and happily shared our bounty with family and friends.

All this occurred many, many years ago, but the memory of my father’s voice lovingly relating the tale has not faded. As time passed, I married and became a rebbetzin, and it was no longer feasible for me to return home for Pesach. The manifold responsibilities of our congregation demanded that we celebrate the Seder in our own home, to which we would invite widows and others who were alone and bereft of family, as well as those who came from assimilated backgrounds and had never experienced a real Seder.

On Seder night, our table was always filled to capacity and as much as I missed being with my father, that chapter of my life had come to a close. Nevertheless, every Erev Pesach my father would remind me of the story of the first Seder night of my life.

After my first child married, the Seder took on a different dimension, for soon we had grandchildren around our table and the joy of that experience was boundless. But then came the year my Yom Tov joy turned into a time of anguish and pain.

As usual, I was expecting the arrival of my children and grandchildren. My preparations were feverish – I tried to get everything cooked and baked and the table set, so that when they arrived I might welcome them without tension. But, it is written “Rabos machshavos b’lev ish…” – A man makes plans, but in the end, it is Hashem’s Will that prevails.

As always on Erev Pesach in our home, the phones were ringing incessantly – people calling from near and far to wish a good Yom Tov or to ask my husband some last-minute sheilos. When the phone rang for the hundredth time that day, I picked it up and said, “Ah Gutten Erev Yom Tov.” But the voice of my brother at the other end of the line made my heart fall.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, bracing myself.

Totty had a stroke. He’s not responding. I’m waiting for an ambulance – the doctor will meet us in the emergency room.”

For what seemed like an eternity, I couldn’t find my voice, until I finally stammered, “I’m coming. I’ll meet you there.”

I called my daughter, hoping I would still find her at home (these were pre-cell phone days). Fortunately, I caught her; she was just getting ready to load up the car. I told her what had happened and that, as the eldest child, she would have to be in charge. I outlined all that still remained to be done as clearly and concisely as I could. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Everything will be fine and Zeide will have a refuah shelaimah.”

My husband was not at home. It was his tradition every Erev Shabbos and Yom Tov to visit the sick in our community, and I had no idea where to find him, so I instructed my children to tell him what had happened and they too insisted that I not worry, that all would be fine and they would daven for Zeide‘s recovery.

I ran to pack an overnight bag, throwing things in without thought. I was so overwrought that I didn’t know what to take with me. But my children came to the rescue, reminding me to take a Haggadah, matzah, wine, a small Seder plate with all the fixings, and, of course, food for a seudah.

Even as they spoke, they were packing up the charoses and the z’roa, and as they reached for the marror it occurred to me that this was one Pesach when I didn’t need marror; the taste of bitterness was in my mouth and would permeate everything else.

I called for a taxi. Fortunately, by the time the cab came my husband had arrived. He too hastened to assure me that the family would be fine and that Hashem would give my father a refuah shelaimah.

My husband and children walked me to the taxi and stood there waving until the car turned the corner. That drive was sheer agony. Like a broken record, the same thought kept repeating in my mind: “This must be a horrible dream; this cannot be happening to my Totty, the tzaddik, the crown of our family.”

But there was no awakening from this nightmare. The taxi finally pulled up in front of the hospital and I raced into the emergency room. There, on a stretcher, lay my father, unconscious. The clock was ticking away; my brother had to get back to his shul and make Seder for my mother and his mishpachah, so I told him to go home. I had come prepared to stay.

That was a Seder night that I will never forget. I sat at my father’s bedside the entire night. He wouldn’t get a room until the next morning, so I covered the little stand in my father’s cubby with a cloth my children had packed and placed the Seder plate on it. A kind nurse even arranged for some electric candles so that I might usher in the Yom Tov.

I davened from the depths of my soul and called out to Hashem for His help. Then I took out the Haggadah and began to read, but when I came to those familiar words, “Mah Nishtanah HaLaylah HaZeh? – Why is this night different from all other nights?” I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.

My question echoed in the cold, sterile room. I was holding my father’s hand, but his eyes remained closed and there was no answer forthcoming. What I would have given just to hear his sweet voice! But there wasn’t even a sound. My revered father did not react. But something amazing did happen. As I went through the Haggadah, page by page, saying each word loud and clear, I was infused with renewed strength and felt my father could hear me.

As the sun began to rise, we were finally given a room, but my father’s eyes remained closed. There was still no response. And so it went that entire day. But the mercies of Hashem are many, and as the second Seder night commenced, my father opened his eyes and his loving, beautiful eyes spoke volumes.

Es iz Pesach, Totty, es is Seder nacht,” I whispered. He nodded and made an effort to speak, but the words would not come forth. And then, as I prepared to read to him from the Haggadah, I distinctly heard him whisper “Estheka.”

My heart started to beat with joy. My father tried to say something more. I strained to hear his words. “Lichtige kind, du bist doch geboren heint bei nacht – My precious light, you were born on this night.”

And with those words, my bitter marror turned into sweet charoses. It was a Seder I will never forget.