One Seder during WWII - and one right after - left an indelible mark on the renowned educator and activist
The Passover Seder is unique in the Jewish calendar, the only one of the festivals which is celebrated in the home, in the presence of family, friends and even strangers. Indeed, at the very beginning of the Haggadah reading we invite strangers, the hungry, the needy, to join us.
From early childhood on, I recall my mother always setting an extra place at the table, in anticipation of my father’s bringing a stranger from out of town from the synagogue. During the years when Soviet Jews were not permitted to leave their country, we set an empty chair to symbolize our hope for their passage to freedom. I do not recall a single Seder night in my parents’ home or my own, when there was not even one stranger present (until coronavirus imposed isolation, leaving me with the four members of my family who share my home).
Of the scores of Seder nights that I recall well, two in particular stand out. One was in a time of war, the other in the first year of post-war peace, soon after we first learned of the extermination of European Jewry under Nazi occupation.
In 1940, when I was fourteen years old, my parents, brother and I fled the fury of the German Blitz on London for the safety of a small village in Buckinghamshire, some fifty miles north-east of the capital. My father bought a house on High Street which, though small, was blessed with a large plot of land on which we could not only keep chickens, but also grow vegetables and fruit to supplement the comparatively meagre rations that were available at the local grocery.
Apart from ourselves, there were a few Jewish families among our fellow evacuees, almost all of whom came from the comparatively poor East End of London. Some of them were also refugees who escaped from Europe before the war. None were wealthy.
My father took upon himself the task of organizing a minyan for the High Holidays and Shabbatot and, in 1944, also the hosting of the Seder night for some forty or so Jewish soldiers among those serving in an army camp on the outskirts of the village.
Two days before Pesach, he announced to my mother that there were still thirty soldiers for whom he had not succeeded in finding hospitality. We ourselves would have to host them.
The slaughterer was brought from London, seasonal vegetables were picked, dozens of eggs collected. Benches were brought from the village hall, our dining table, extended to the full, was supplemented by a smaller table from the kitchen. My role was to whip the egg-whites for the eight sponge cakes that my mother baked. Electric beaters not yet having been invented, this task was performed with the aid of a simple fork and required strong arms, with which I was fortunately blessed.
The guests streamed in. I, the youngest present, recited the Four Questions. When the time came for me to help my mother bring the food from the kitchen, I was forced to crawl under the table to reach the door. There was not space enough for me to go around it. The guests could not stop expressing their thanks. Like Cinderella, they had to leave before midnight, leaving us glowing with gratification at their response to our welcome.
Two years later, in 1946, when we were back in London, my father, who had been active in the Polish-Jewish Federation that was established some years earlier, was invited to attend the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Seder Night fell on a Monday. At noon on Sunday, he phoned from Paris to announce that he was bringing three guests from the US who could not reach their homes in time for the festival.
It was still a time of food shortage and strict rationing and we no longer raised chickens nor grew vegetables. My brother, then studying in Cambridge, had invited a number of Jewish fellow students from the Land of Israel to join us.
My mother met the challenge unfazed. Chickens could still be bought in the morning, additional vegetables bought for soup, the giblets could be served in a sweet-sour sauce as an entrée, there was a local bakery nearby and fortunately we had a plentiful stock of wine.
When my father returned on Sunday evening, he brought with him a huge carp, a fish unknown in Britain, but beloved by Polish Jews like my parents. It more than adequately supplemented the feast.
However, the greatest surprise and delight stemmed from the identity of the three guests: Opera singer Emma Schaver, who had developed an extensive repertoire of Yiddish songs which she performed in the Displaced Persons camps in Europe; the poet-philosopher Israel Efros; and Leib Halpern, a poet-dramatist who wrote under the pen-name of H. Levik, and whose most famous work was the poetic drama “The Dybbuk”.
The wide-ranging, sparkling, fascinating conversation was mainly in Yiddish, the commentary original, illuminating; and the food, delicious, evoked justified compliments. And finally, a cherry on the icing, Emma Schaver introduced us to a melody for the “Who is One” song that comes at the close of the Haggadah. Though it proved to be well known in the Land of Israel, we had never before heard it. It is the one we’ve sung ever since and each year, when we sing it, I recall Emma’s strong contralto ringing out at our first post-World War Pesach Seder.
We had survived.
The Alice Shalvi Archive is safeguarded among the collections of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
The “Passover Memories” project on The Librarians has been created as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.