Spring brings with it the celebration of Easter and Passover. Interesting to note that the observance of both holidays involve the egg in some fashion: whether it is rolling or decorating it (Easter) or placing it on the Seder plate and then ingesting it (hard-boiled, dipped in salt water – Passover). The egg was originally associated with pagan festivals honoring the advent of spring, symbolizing fertility and new life. For those who celebrate Easter, the egg represents resurrection. In Jewish tradition, its rounded shape symbolizes the cycle of life – birth, death and rebirth. In each, the overarching concept is one of hope and renewal – an affirmation of life in all its potential, a prayer for the future.
I watched with sadness this week as Notre Dame’s spire, engulfed in flames, imploded and toppled. Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris), a medieval Catholic church, is a majestic icon, representing the history of a nation and the faith of its people, a structure that had managed to survive centuries of conflict and war. Considered one of the finest examples of French gothic architecture, its construction spanned almost two hundred years, a testament to mankind’s fortitude. Its flying buttresses and intricate sculptural decorations explode with the imagination and exuberant spirit that lie within us. Human creativity, love and devotion unshackled.
Which brings me to one of the many stories my mother told me through the years, of her experiences during World War II.
It was 1943. Five women were chosen to cook and clean for German soldiers stationed in the Blizyn concentration camp. Some of the women had come from the death camp Maidanik, others were part of the final deportations from the ghettos. They shared a room in the building that housed the German soldiers. They had been chosen because they were young and still healthy. Having survived an initial selection, they did not know whether their husbands, children, fiancées, siblings or parents had survived. When they could, they would take scraps of food from the kitchen to share amongst themselves, to stave off starvation. They would comfort each other through their sadness and fear, talking through the night. A year passed this way. In 1944, as the Russians approached Poland, the Germans closed Blizyn and the women were sent to Auschwitz. There, they stood in line as Mengele made his selection. The oldest of the five was sent to one side as the other four were directed to another line. The four were sent to Hindenberg and worked in a factory that manufactured bombs. These were 10-hour days, carrying 100-pouind objects, living on a ration of thin soup and a morsel of bread. Mengele would come every two weeks to inspect the group. One day, they found two potatoes. Carefully, stealthily, at night, they cooked the potatoes in a small fire. The German woman in charge of their barracks discovered them and two of the group were sent to Mengele and punished with 25 lashes with a leather whip. My mother, one of the two, became sick and was sent to a tent for the sick. One night, the other three women came to get her. They had heard the camp was closing, as the Russians were approaching. She was to be ready to leave with them in the morning.
It was called the “march of death”. In the middle of winter, 300 inmates of Hindenberg walked 10 kilometers a day, without water, without food, without stopping, clad in wooden clogs and the thin rags they had worn for years. If someone paused for breath, they were shot. My mother described walking along a path littered with the dead. At night, they rested in barns. After five days, my mother told the other three she could no longer go on. She would stay in this barn and was ready to die. The others refused to leave her behind. Rose took a piece of string and bound her wrist to my mother’s. The next day, and the days after that, Rose dragged my mother beside her, the string binding them together, sharing her rations with my mother, until they reached Nordhausen. There, they were put on a train to Bergen-Belsen. The train had no roof. They stood for days, herded into the cars like cattle. No food, no water – only the flakes of snow they caught in their mouths. They knew Bergen-Belsen, a death camp, whose inmates starved to death, would be their last stop. My mother contracted typhus there. But Rose kept bringing her soup. Miraculously, they were able to survive until April 15, when the camp was liberated by the English army. Without a doubt – my mother survived due to the care and devotion shown by her “concentration camp sisters”, because of Rose and her string.
As we approach this weekend where we observe the rituals of hope and renewal, let us think of the diaphanous threads of love, friendship and community that bind us together. This fragile net envelops the individual to create a supportive societal network. Together, we build flying buttresses and spires that scrape the sky. As we sit down to the table surrounded by our family and friends, let us remember that there is an innate humanity that resides in each of us. Let us put aside old quarrels and create anew from the ashes of fear and hate. Let’s celebrate our ingenuity and creativity. Let us renew.
A staple of the Passover Seder is “charoset”, a mixture of diced apple, nuts, honey and red wine. It symbolizes the mortar that bound the bricks used in building ancient Eqypt’s structures. While it is meant to remind us of the suffering imposed on the slaves forced to labor, let us transform its significance for the future – as a symbol of our drive to construct, create, begin anew. As we roll our eggs or eat our eggs, let us celebrate life.
In my mother’s fashion, I have included the ingredients for charoset. It is yours to make, to taste.
Toasted chopped walnuts
Sweet red wine
Toss together and eat, preferably on matzoh.