By Sarah Shapiro
It was erev Pesach, 1944. The entire Jewish community of Rotterdam — men, women, and children — had just been transferred from Vesterbork, a deportation camp in Holland, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Conditions in Vesterbork had been harsh, but continued religious observance had, to some extent, preserved the Jews’ dignity and their will to live. Under the leadership of their beloved and revered talmid chacham, Rabbi Aharon Davids, some semblance of communal cohesiveness and optimism had been sustained. But upon arrival at Bergen-Belsen, daily existence took a sudden, overwhelmingly drastic turn for the worse, as everything that makes a human being feel human was taken away. Families were divided, the unrelenting hard labor and starvation broke people physically and emotionally, and disease spread quickly.
Would it be possible to keep even one mitzvah?
Having a true Seder with a Haggadah was, of course, impossible; obtaining matzoh unimaginable.
Rabbi Davids — then in his early forties, and separated in the camp from his wife, Erika, and their three children — yearned to keep the spirit of his family and his flock alive, even as their physical strength ebbed. Yet under such calamitous circumstances, refraining from eating chametz would surely result in death for many Jews. What should be done during the week of Pesach with their small daily rations of bread? Would it be possible to keep even one mitzvah?
He conferred with other rabbinical authorities in the camp, and after anguished and lengthy discussion of this dilemma, they agreed upon a course of action. On the Seder night, Rabbi Davids sat at the head of a long table in the male barracks, conducting the ceremony from memory for his starved and downcast brethren.
When the Seder reached the climactic moment of reciting the blessing, “…Who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to eat matzoh,” he lifted his voice and recited clearly the following prayer:
Heavenly Father, it is clear to You that our will is to do Your will and celebrate Passover by eating matzoh, and by refraining from chametz. But we are sick at heart because the oppression and mortal danger in which we find ourselves prevents us [from fulfilling these commandments].
We are ready and willing to fulfill Your mandate that we “live by the commandments* and not die by them.”** And we are observing Your warning: “Protect yourself and keep your soul alive.”***
We therefore beseech You to keep us alive, sustain us and redeem us speedily, so that we may observe your statutes, carry out Your will and serve You wholeheartedly. Amen.
He then reached for a piece of bread and took a bite, urging his forlorn brothers to do likewise.
Rabbi Davids, along with his son Elijah, died shortly before Bergen-Belsen’s liberation by the allied forces. His wife and daughters, along with approximately 2,800 others, were evacuated by train from the camp. During the two-week journey, 570 died and were buried in a mass grave along the way. Those who survived were abandoned by the Nazis near the East German village of Troebits.
In 1947, Erika emigrated with her daughters to Eretz Yisrael, taking with her a copy of the prayer, provided by eyewitnesses, that her husband had composed. Each year, even since her death in 1997, her family and descendants read the prayer aloud on Seder night, to hear once more how Rabbi Davids, begging Hashem for help, beseeched a shattered people to do the unthinkable: “to live, not die, by them.”
* Leviticus 18:5
*** Deuteronomy 4:9
Sarah Shapiro is a writer living in Jerusalem. Her most recent book is Don’t You Know It’s a Perfect World? (Targum/Feldheim)
This story is recounted in Dignity to Survive, by Yona Emanuel.