Calligraphy by Yonah Weinrib
We are taught: “In every generation one is obligated to regard himself as though he had gone out from Egypt.” How difficult, what a leap of imagination for us in a free America, surrounded by friends and family, secure in our past and future yiddishkeit, to feel the terrors of long ago. Indeed we might forget, we might wish not to remember events in our own time and the time of our parents that were remarkably similar to the Egyptian horror. David Wander’s Holocaust Haggadah reminds us with a somber art that is defiantly infused with hope and compassion.
The Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah was commissioned in 1981 by Mr. and Mrs. Zygfryd B. Wolloch in memory of their parents who perished in the Holocaust. The original manuscript is 56 pages long with illuminations by David Wander and calligraphy by Yonah Weinrib. This intensive project of collaborative learning and study, Wander’s artistic interest in the Holocaust shaped by Weinrib’s Torah knowledge, was finally completed in 1984. It was then published in a limited edition for the benefit of the International Society for Yad Vashem in 1985 and can be found in most major collections and libraries of Jewish manuscripts and books.
The Holocaust Haggadah is the artistic successor to the famous Survivor’s Haggadah that was prepared and published in liberated Germany in 1946 by survivor Yosef Dov Sheinzon. The Survivor’s Haggadah has seven spare woodcuts by fellow captive Miklos Adler that are effectively brutal in figurative depictions of shootings and slave labor, its message delivered in stark black and white images well before the abstract symbols of the camps and ghettos had crystallized.
“Four Sons” illumination from Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah by David Wander;
Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum
In contrast, Wander’s Holocaust Haggadah employs the symbols of oppression and murder, eschewing almost all figuration. It is as if the use of the human form would sully both the sacred text and the memory of the millions who could not celebrate Passover’s freedom. Striped camp clothes, the badge of shame “Jude,” furnaces, chimneys, and buckets of blood, all stand in for the millions of murdered Jews. Considering the inherent limitations of symbols, Wander’s fluency is remarkably broad as he relentlessly exploits and builds upon the extensive symbolic nature of the textual elements themselves.
Contrasting the traditional Haggadah text, Wander intersperses a visual translation insisting on the 20th century context of the Holocaust. The well-known line from the Shema “And you shall teach your children,” headlines the opening page and establishes the essential tone of the Haggadah. In English and Hebrew we see a statement by Abba Kovner: “In the year 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power [and] murdered 6 million Jews, among them a million and a half children. Imprisoned in ghettos the victims fought desperately for their lives while the world stood by in silence.”
“Seder Plate” illumination from Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah by David Wander;
Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum
Soon the arranged Seder Plate appears, depicted as a gruesome history of Jewish suffering arranged around the six-pointed Star of David. The lamb shank is seen as a living lamb whose rear leg, red and raw, is seared of all fleece. The matzah is there, first whole, then reduced, finally split. Yes, the egg appears whole but the haroses becomes a section of brick wall, mortared well, a section of the oft-repeated smokestacks that finalized mass slaughter. At the heart of the image is a tattered yellow star emblazoned with the word “maror.” This indeed is the bitterness of Jewish identity. Suddenly the Seder plate has become a harbinger of the tragedies of Jewish history.
The key to the Wander Haggadah is the number of visual motifs he has invented and then unfolds throughout the text. Boxes wrapped in ribbon, the Kiddush cup, smokestacks, the Star of David, the striped concentration camp uniform and a collection of four books are some of the elements that appear repeatedly as they change and unlock multiple meanings throughout the work’s 57 illuminated images.
“Blood, Fire, Pillar of Smoke” illumination from Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah by David Wander; Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum
As we finish expounding on the central verses from Devarim 26:5 we joyously proclaim “Hashem brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, with great fearfulness, with signs and with wonders.” The wonders recounted as “blood and fire and pillars of smoke,” are transformed by Wander into the fundamental horrors of the Holocaust: the blood the Nazis drained from us, the fires of the crematorium and finally the pillars of smoke that rose up as our bodies were reduced to ash. Just as the Egyptian slavery was suffered by our entire people: the calculated cruelty, family disintegration, murder of children and crushing oppression, so too the entire Jewish population of Europe was decimated under the Nazi rule.
Finally we launch into the climax of the Haggadah experience, “Therefore it is our duty ” and the illumination immediately before the final bracha, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who has redeemed Israel,” makes the transformation from slavery to freedom perfectly clear. Three vertical bands proclaim our ascent to liberty; from the left the sewing pattern of the badge of shame to the burning cloth of the striped camp uniform and finally the proud Star of David emblazoned Israeli flag signals that out of the ashes of the Holocaust the Jewish people have been redeemed into their own land. We had been redeemed.
“Elijah’s Cup” illumination from Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah by David Wander;
Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum
But this is no victory celebration as the next illumination shows us a room destroyed, all the occupants have been taken away, the four books of the four sons, among others, are falling into the chaos of the destruction of European Jewish life. Through the open door the city is burning in the distance. And yet there is hope, the ornate Chair of Eliyahu is still upright and the Kiddush cup floats miraculously, awaiting a living person to make the bracha and drink the wine. So many Jews have been murdered but their spirit lives on.
David Wander’s Holocaust Haggadah is a tale of transformations shown through a visual translation of the traditional text. Just as the bread of affliction becomes the matzah of freedom, so too, in his images, the tattered yellow star, a badge of shame, becomes the Israeli flag of pride. All of our treasured sons become treasured books. And just as our imperative to remember our Egyptian bondage and the eventual redemption, so too we must remember the horrors and degradation of the Holocaust and see in the creation of the state of Israel its redemption. It is therefore entirely fitting that the title page of the Holocaust Haggadah contains this quotation from the Baal Shem Tov: “Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
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