My most memorable Pesach sedarim are the ones I shared with my maternal grandparents. They were born in Poland and spent World War II in a Siberian labor camp where my mother was born. After the war, they lived in a DP camp in Germany before immigrating to America in 1951.
My grandmother was a classic European bubby, both in looks and demeanor. She loved her grandchildren and great-grandchildren fiercely and asked for nothing more than a phone call from them. She was a serious person with a sharp wit and was fluent in both current events and politics.
My grandfather was unlike any other grandparent I have ever encountered. The minute he saw me, he would engulf me in a giant bear hug and squeeze until my grandmother scolded him to let me go. He would then shower me with a thousand kisses, sit back, and just beam at me because, to him, my mere existence was a source of joy. He was also incredibly strong, hoisting my little brothers high in the air and depositing them on top of the fridge where they would shriek with delight and terror.
Years later my very young daughter made a reference to her zeidy. It wasn’t immediately clear which zeidy she was referring to; when we asked her, she blinked and said, “Happy zeidy.” Indeed, my grandfather exuded such incredible simchas hachaim that even the tiniest child sensed the joyous aura that surrounded him.
When I was very little, my grandparents made Pesach on their own and stayed home for the sedarim. My grandmother was very stubborn and insisted on doing all the cooking and cleaning herself, not wanting to be a burden to my mother. Eventually it got too hard for her and she reluctantly acquiesced to come for the first days.
My father was born and educated in America, and his enunciation of both Hebrew and English was precise and perfect, honed by his four years in the rabbinate. I was used to the way he conducted the Seder; he would read aloud from the Haggadah and we would follow along, breaking in the middle for divrei Torah and the requisite singing. All in all, it was a decorous affair.
I was therefore quite unprepared for my grandfather’s Seder. It started out familiar, but as Maggid progressed, my grandfather’s voice broke, tears streaming down his face and anguished sobs punctuating his words. The first time I saw him cry like that, I was terrified. I had never seen him sad or upset, and at the time no one explained to me what was going on. It was only years later that I began to comprehend that he was reliving his own yetzias Mitzrayim.
I knew my grandparents had gone through the war, but they didn’t talk about their experiences. The first time my grandparents came to Highland Park, NJ, to see our new home, my grandfather went to shul for minchah with my husband. While he was there, he caught the eye of another older man on the other side of the shul. “Hersh?” my grandfather called out. “Luzer?” the other man responded.
I wish I could have seen these two friends reunited after 50-odd years. They had grown up together in the Polish town of Rozwadow. The town was split into two groups; one group, which included my grandfather’s friend, went with the Germans and ended up in concentration camps. The other group, which included my grandfather, ended up spending the war in Siberia working in the labor camps.
After this chance meeting, my grandfather was more open to discussing his previous life, but we never really sat down with him to chronicle precisely what had happened and when. I realize now with much regret that had we asked the right questions, we would have acquired a lot more information. Interestingly, my mother, who was seven when they came to America from the DP camp, has no memories of her life before her arrival on these shores. All we have are a couple of photos that tell a very fragmented story.
We say in the Haggadah, “Chayav adam liros es atzmo k’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim” – we are obligated to make the exodus personal. The memories of the sedarim I spent with my grandfather, watching him relive his torment and subsequent salvation, have certainly made this directive very personal for me. Although the exact details of what my grandparents endured during the Holocaust are nebulous, the impact of their experiences has been indelible. May their memory be a blessing.
Dedicated to my mother, Sally Rosen Hirsch, she’tichye, and to my late grandparents, Laser and Mindel Rosen, z”l.