Artwork by Daniel Kabakoff
The Last Seder, by ER Sprung
I survey the chaotic scene in the dining room with unshed tears in my eyes. The dining room chairs and floor all have sticky residue, some wine colored and some Pesach-lollipop smeared. The table is strewn with matzah crumbs and haggados, pillows and towels. Eyes are drooping around the table; the clock has struck twelve quite some hours ago. Yet the pull of the seder table has even the youngest children still (or already!) awake. My grandchildren’s joyous renditions of Mah Nishtana and my sons’ divrei Torah have filled my exhausted being with a healthy dose of nachas, and Nirtza has (too soon) arrived. The men start Chasal Sidir Pesach in a timeless chant, my husband leading the singing in a tune from my parents’ home.
Chasal Sidir Pesach was usually sung with much fanfare in my grandfather’s childhood home, but not in the year 1943. The approaching German army, the rumors and horrors whispered by those who escaped the Polish terrors and constant mindless round-ups were enough to quiet down the Pesach preparation to almost-silence. My grandfather’s family, like everyone else in the town of Pest, then not yet united with Buda, tried their best to bring Simchas Yom Tov into their homes, but to say their hearts carried more dread than joy would be an understatement.
After the subdued kashering, simple dishes replaced by festive Pesach ones, matzahs baking and burning of the chometz in little fires in the courtyard, fear still hung over them like a heavy drape. The Germans ym”sh knew that this was a big night for the Yidden, and were out bombing with a vengeance on a night known as leil shmirim, the sound of explosions a heart-stopping background to the seder. When the ma nishtanas had been recited, the kzaysim eaten, the bitter marror chewed with real tears streaming from their eyes, the family longingly chanted “Chasal Siddir Pesach” in the family’s ancient tune, traditionally transmitted from father to son for generations. And when they fell silent, one of the children wonderingly whispered, “Who knows whether we’ll all still be together next year such a time? Who knows where we’ll be, and what will happen?” The words were more of a prayer than a question, a plea for hope in a time of despair. In response, my great-grandfather broke out in a begging melody, “Leshana Haba B’Yirushalayim!”
The seder was over, their troubles just beginning. Through trials and travails, on the run and in the camps, with mass graves and death marches, the siblings who survived later shared that during their visit to gehinom on this earth, when Pesach time came, they would hear that question in their ears, pray with all their hearts and hope for the best, to still meet around the table for a Pesach seder, together.
My grandfather and some of his siblings miraculously survived; their parents and the rest of their extended family did not. My grandfather had just two sons, a ‘small’ family considering his desperation to rebuild what had been lost. Yet, just seventy years later, I survey my family, only a fraction of his progeny, and can’t help but still hear the whispered question reverberate in the air. Zeidy, I’m sure, is celebrating with his family in gan eden, looking down at the generations of frum ehrlicha grandchildren who are singing the family tune. The years have been good to him and his family, as year after year the whispered Pesach question was answered, not yet with the ultimate geula, but with another year of life, opportunity, mitzvos and nachas.
And I, drunk with happiness and contentment, remember that we are still in galus, pray for a year of gilui Hashechina, hum along quietly and silently hope that the yearly request gets answered in my home as well, this time with “Leshana Haba B’Yerushalayim”.