It can be challenging for American Jews to relate to slaves in ancient Egypt. But events from recent history can help illuminate the holiday's deeper meaning.


Charleton Heston's portrayal of Moses might not stir American Jews as profoundly as the memoirs of  Primo Levi. (Still from The Ten Commandments, Paramount Pictures, 1956)

This week marks Passover and the recounting of the freeing of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. Truth be told, for a 21st Century American Jew there is something hollow in the Seder's liberation story and the commandment to feel as if you were there. Unless we escaped from the Soviet Union prisons, even the poorest Jews among us will have a hard time imagining the feeling of gaining freedom from enslavement. The Haggadah's recounting--with four questions, four children, and four cups of wine--and telling of the Biblical story do not give us much insight into the emotional texture of the moment of true liberation. But we are not that distant from records of such moments, and we use them to enrich our comprehension of the transformation from "once we were slaves" to being free men.

On April 2, 1865, Jefferson Davis and the remaining Confederate government departed Richmond. Much of the city went up in flames when Southerners torched the tobacco warehouses and arsenals. When the Union troops entered the city the next day, whites remained away, while freed blacks experienced euphoria. As a Richmond woman described the scene: "Our servants were completely crazed. They danced and shouted, men hugged each other and women kissed."

And on April 4, President Lincoln unexpectedly visited Richmond. Newly freed blacks elatedly swarmed him. Admiral Porter, Lincoln's escort reported: "As far as the eye could see the streets were alive with negroes and poor whites rushing in our direction. .... They all wanted to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln or touch his coat tail or even to kneel down and kiss his boots!" An eyewitness wrote that the former slaves "exhibited the wildest excitement, bursting into all sorts of characteristic ejaculations, throwing up their hands and dancing about, as if the Savior of mankind Himself had made his second advent on earth." Everywhere "Bless the Lord" and "The Great Messiah" were proclaimed. A black man dropped to his knees before the president, who lifted him saying, "Don't kneel to me. This is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter."

Conversely, crazed, exuberant dancing, wild excitement, as well as blessings, thanks, and prayer were absent during the liberation of Nazi slave labor camps. Joy was mixed with irremediable pain, in part because the inmates were so physically debilitated that exuberance and excitement were impossible, and in part because the evil of murderous enslavement created an indelible shroud. Primo Levi was left among the sick when the Germans evacuated Auschwitz. Ten days later four Russian soldiers appeared on horseback, and he recalled:

Even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of prudency, so that we should have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us for ever.

Unlike in Richmond, there was no thankfulness to liberator or God in Auschwitz. Levi described "an unexpected attack of mortal fatigue accompanied the joy of liberation for us. This is why few among us ran to greet our saviours, few fell in prayer."

The scene was different at Dachau. A rabbi who was at the liberation of Dachau tells the following experience. A band of teenagers--Jews and non-Jews--liberated from the camp roamed the countryside stealing food and clothing from neighboring farms. They came upon a particularly viscious SS officer cowering in a barn. He regularly tied prisoners to an enormous anvil and whipped them if they could not move it--often whipping them to death.

When we saw Mueller there in that barn, all of us had the same thought: the shoe was now on the other foot. ... We found a rope hanging for a peg in the barn and tied one end around Mueller's waist. There was nothing comparable with the anvil in the barn so we dragged Mueller outside. He was crazy with fear, begging for mercy, his lips flecked with foam...We managed to secure the free end of the rope to this huge rock and then each of us grabbed whatever we could find to serve as a club. There were ax-handles, lengths of chain, and whatever else would serve the purpose...The three of us were the only Jews in the group...Like the others we relished the anticipation of doing to Mueller what he had done to so many of our friends...We could see him straining at the rope while horrible screams came from his throat...standing there waiting our turn to strike Mueller, suddenly [we] looked at one another. Then, without a word, we threw down our clubs and ran.

They ran until they escaped the man's cries of anguish and then happened upon a rabbi conducting a Jewish service for American soldiers. The teenagers stood at the back of the group praying in Hebrew.

Ecstatic joy and prayers of thanks. Overpowering moral anguish. Revenge--and the horror at seeking revenge. These are all the intense responses of liberated slaves. As we recall the Jewish liberation story, with the admonition about feeling as if we were actually there, these reactions can make us think more deeply about how we might respond.

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