Natan Sharansky’s First Seder

The Haggadah's words were felt as KGB agents surrounded them. Later he would "celebrate" Passover in the Gulag

Natan Sharansky
Natan and Avital Sharansky upon their arrival in Israel, 12 February 1986 (Photo: Israel Simionsky). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

I was born into a completely assimilated Jewish family.

Nothing Jewish, except the anti-Semitism. No traditions, no holidays, no language.

At 24, I joined the Zionist movement. We struggled to free the Jews of the Soviet Union. As part of my Zionist activities, I began to learn Hebrew in secret, in an underground ulpan.

Natan Sharansky, 1972

I celebrated the first Passover Seder of my life with my fiancé at the time, Avital (then Natasha), in Moscow. Three Hebrew teachers brought all of their students together for one big Seder in a Moscow apartment.

As we didn’t know Hebrew well enough to read from the Haggadah, the teachers gave each of us a short part to memorize. We didn’t understand many of the words, expressions or sentences, yet one line in particular we didn’t just understand… we felt:

…ela sh’bkhol dor v’dor omdim aleinu l’khaloteinu” – “in each generation, they stand against us to destroy us…”

It was enough to simply look out the window and see the KGB agents surrounding the apartment to know that we ourselves were continuing the Exodus from Egypt.

And when we said, “L’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim!” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”, we believed and knew that just like the Israelites in Egypt, we too would live lives of freedom.

Before that freedom came, Avital and I would be separated from one another for twelve years.

For nine of them, I was in the Gulag.

Avital Sharansky, 1977

When I celebrated the Seder in solitary confinement, I needed to decide what would be matzah, what would be maror and what would be wine, when all I had in solitary were three slices of bread, three cups of warm water and a bit of salt.

I decided that the maror was salt, the wine was warm water, and the matzah was dry bread.

Recalling the lines I had learned for my first Seder, I felt that our struggle continued. It strengthened my spirit.

B’Shana zo anu avadim l’shana ha’baa bnei horin, ha’shana anu kan uv’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim” – “This year we are slaves, next year free men; this year we are here, and next year in Jerusalem.”

A crowd celebrates Natan Sharansky’s arrival at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 12 February 1986 (Photo: Efi Sharir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Natan Sharansky 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.


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