Stories of the heroes of our Jewish nation are heartwarming, eye opening, encouraging, and sometimes even frightening. When we hear such stories, we salute those people (most of whom we have never met) for their courage and perseverance, but most of all for their commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people.
One such story was outlined to my children at a Seder several years ago.
Hirsh was born in the small village of Kaydanovo, Belarus (White Russia) in 1913. His father, Reb Dovid, gave him a Jewish religious education, instilling in him an appreciation for the beauty of Yiddishkeit. In addition to learning in yeshiva until his late teens, Hirsh attended public school until 8th grade. He always ran home to his father and to his rabbis and teachers to absorb all he could about Judaism.
Hirsh learned to lein for his bar mitzvah, which was a small, quiet gathering celebrating his love of learning.
Times were not so easy for Hirsh’s family in Russia in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Just after his bar mitzvah, Hirsh started working in a metal fabrication plant.
Not long after Stalin rose to power in Russia, Jewish education and practice became illegal. On February 26, 1938, about a year after Hirsh was married, he was arrested for “being an active member of a counterrevolutionary national Jewish organization.” At trial, the prosecution depicted Hirsh as “…an enemy of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Power who carried out anti-Soviet propaganda and made comments betraying the fatherland.”
Hirsh was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Siberia for one reason: He was Jewish. While serving his sentence, Hirsh learned his wife had given birth to a daughter. Some years later he also learned that his wife and daughter both perished in the Holocaust.
The sentence, it turned out, had actually saved Hirsh’s life, as he was in Siberia while the Holocaust decimated European Jewry.
As we sat around the Seder table a couple of years ago, we asked the kids if they could relate this story to Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim. After thinking for a moment, they replied, “We guess we could. But Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim. Did Hirsh leave Siberia?”
Hirsh was released on February 6, 1948. He settled in the city of Kutaisi, Georgia, where he worked as a carpenter. He married a woman named Necha Kronghaus. On August 19, 1949, their son, David, was born.
Although Hirsh served ten years of hard labor for being Jewish, he continued to learn, teach, and honor the Jewish tradition that we all hold so dear. But the nightmare did not end. Before David’s first birthday, on June 29, 1950, Hirsh was again arrested for “…participating in a counter-revolutionary national group and continuing to engage in anti-Soviet activities.” This time the sentence was not ten years of hard labor but permanent exile to the Krasnoyarsk region of the USSR.
The kids stopped the story right there. “It’s not fair!” they shouted. “Bnei Yisrael did not have to go back to Egypt!”
Hirsh, Necha and David lived in the small village of Dolgi Moste among criminals who were serving sentences for real crimes. But Hirsh gave all the laborers respect and in return those men saved him on a number of occasions from physical attacks. While in Dolgi Moste, a daughter, Anna, was born to Hirsh and Necha.
After Stalin’s death, the political prisoners in exile danced in the streets. Hirsh prayed. On September 13, 1954, Hirsh and his family were released from the Krasnoyarsk region. They settled in the city of Rostov. Hirsh received a full pardon on September 13, 1957. In Rostov, Hirsh quietly became the chazzan and ba’al koreh, read the megillah on Purim and blew the shofar on the High Holidays.
The story of Hirsh can be summed up by the four expressions of redemption represented at the Pesach Seder by the four cups of wine: vehotzeiti, vehitzalti, vegoalti, and velakachti.
As most of us know, there is a fifth expression of redemption in the Torah: veheiveiti.
Hirsh and his family repeatedly and unsuccessfully applied for exit visas to Israel. Hirsh had a sister, Tzila, living in Montreal. Every Pesach Tzila sent “care packages” to Hirsh in Rostov that contained matzot. In 1971 Tzila advised Hirsh to apply for an exit visa to Canada. Tzila was granted a meeting with an administrative assistant to Canada’s then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, and asked if Trudeau would discuss Hirsh’s situation during a forthcoming visit by then-Russian prime minister Alexei Kosygin.
The application for an exit visa to Canada was granted. Hirsh and his family immigrated to Montreal just before Pesach 1972.
The kids sat in awe. “They came to Canada right before Pesach? They left Russia just like the Jewish people left Mitzrayim!”
Every year since then, we discuss modern-day stories of Yetziat Mitzrayim during the Seder.