Monday, April 02, 2012

Rabbi Shafran: Pesach In Siberia


Rabbi Avi Shafran

The group of Novardhoker yeshiva bochurim and their rebbe (and his rebbetzin)—along with a number of families—were packed into the train’s stock cars in the summer of 1941. Since Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, and his talmidim, then in Soviet-conquered Lithuania, had declined the offer of Russian citizenship, the Soviets were providing them an all-expense-paid trip to Siberia. Occasional pieces of bread and cups of water were also offered at no charge during the weeks of travel. Not to mention the cruise across a lake on a barge to the work camp where my father, may he be well, the youngest of the yeshiva group, and his rebbe and friends, would spend the years of the Second World War.

The Siberian summer is oppressive; insects left the exiles at times unrecognizable for their swollen faces. Winter in the taiga, of course, brought challenges of its own, including 40 degree below zero temperatures.

In his short memoir, “Fire Ice Air,” my father recalls that even as the yeshiva exiles arrived in the East, Pesach was already on their minds.

And so, as they worked in the fields, some of the boys squirreled away a few kernels of wheat here and there, carefully placing them in their pockets—something that was “entirely against the rules, and very dangerous.”

“The Communist credo, though,” he writes, “was ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ and so we were really only being good Marxists. Our spiritual needs, after all, included kosher for Pesach matzo.”

They put the kernels in a special bag, which they carefully hid where no one could find it.

The winter was brutal but the Novardhokers all survived it, as did the bag of grain. When the end of the cold season was rumored to be near, they ground the kernels into flour with a small hand grinder intended for coffee beans. My father remembers that the flour was coarse and dark, but resplendent all the same.

The next part of the Pesach plan was to arrange for the actual matzo-baking. Although the yeshiva boys were barracked with non-Jewish locals, there was one hut in the area that was occupied solely by a Jewish family, the Beckers, who had come from Kovno. Arrangements were made for some of the boys to come to their house in the middle of the night, when all the town’s residents were asleep, and fire up their oven on full blast for two hours to make it kosher. Then they would bake matzos for the family and themselves.

Since matzo dough is traditionally perforated in rows to ensure that it is “baked through,” the young men improvised a special tool for the purpose by whittling a piece of wood so that it could be fitted with gear-wheels borrowed from a clock. The apparatus was rolled over each matzo-dough quickly before the baking. “When Pesach came,” he recalls, “we all gathered at the hut and all of us—the Nekritzes, we yeshiva boys, and the Beckers—were able to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzo on the first night of Pesach, in remembrance of our ancestors’ release from the outsized prison that was ancient Egypt. Understandably, it was a mitzvah that resonated strongly for us.”

The four kosos could not so easily be addressed; there was no wine and there were no grapes to be found in Siberia. But, to at least undertake some semblance of that mitzvah, the exiles managed to obtain milk—an expensive delicacy in its own right—and used it instead. To them, my father writes, “it tasted of the finest wine.”

The group even bartered some of their possessions for a few eggs, traditionally eaten at the Pesach Seder. Some of the eggs were frozen, he recalls, “but that was nothing that a bit of roasting couldn’t cure.”

As we all prepare for Pesach this year, cleaning our homes and polishing our silver and shopping for our personal plethoras of pesachdikeh products, accounts like my father’s—whether from Siberian exiles, concentration camp inmates, or Jews in hiding—should be required reading, and required pondering, for our children and for ourselves.

They provide something priceless: perspective.


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