Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah
Illustrated by David Wander
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.
For the author and his immediate audience, their first Passover of freedom reverberated overwhelmingly with their own exodus from Nazi captivity. Tellingly Sheinzon’s rewritten “Dayeinu” recalls the Diaspora’s history of oppression, ending with the Holocaust itself, concluding with the statement: “Since all these have befallen us, we must make aliyah build the chosen land and make a home for ourselves.”
“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.”
This Haggadah challenges the guilty, silent world with its visual testimony on the page instructing us in “biur chametz.” Indeed in this search for chametz, the inspection shines a torchlight on the collective guilt the nations bear. The burning candle illuminates Wander’s iconic striped concentration camp shirt with its yellow triangle and a pile of neatly wrapped packages. The artist uses the boxes as a motif that unfolds throughout the Haggadah. Here they are newly wrapped, just like the Jews who dressed in their best to be led away to deportation, totally innocent [unaware] of the fate that awaited them. Later we will see them tattered and finally destroyed.
“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.
The section concerning the four sons is introduced with a full-page illumination that shows four books on a plain wooden table. Three are open and one is closed. One has burst into flames, another is open but there is nothing written, one is open to the Haggadah passage of the four sons, and finally one is closed. The metaphor is powerful and uniquely tailored to a people of the book who are commanded to remember our history through the recitation of this very text. The wicked son burns, the simple son has nothing written, the wise son reveals the text and finally the son who does not know how to ask is ultimately a closed book. We will encounter these four again as we open the door for Eliyahu later in the Haggadah.
“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.
After enumerating the visual translation of each of these wonders and the exhilaration of “Dayeinu,” Wander finally presents what may be the central visual paradigm in his work. A complete striped concentration camp uniform, shirt and trousers, dominates the page surrounded by the text: “In every generation, one is obligated to .” And in Wander’s visual translation, what are we “obligated” to do? Remember, never forget, in fact don the camp uniform, feel its coarseness, its ill-fitting contours. Only then will we be able to properly remember the Egyptian slavery by remembering the Nazi Holocaust. The memory is not distant; in fact it is all too recent to be avoided.
“In Every Generation” illumination from Wolloch Holocaust Haggadah by David Wander; Courtesy Hebrew Union College Museum
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.
Of course it’s not over. Next are the mitzvos of matzah, maror and the yom tov meal. We say Birchas HaMazon and pour the fourth cup and open the door for Eliyahu. Wander’s two illuminations are chilling. Reciting, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations ” we see the door opened just a crack, the red flames of destruction just visible.
“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.”
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org