The Incredible Story Of A Passover Celebration In A Nazi Concentration Camp

Each year, Jewish populations all over the world observe one of their most long-lasting and sacred traditions ⁠— Passover. During Passover, the angel of God is said to have "passed over" the homes of Egyptian Jews in the time of the Pharaohs, freeing those Jews from slavery so they could be led by Moses across the Red Sea. An important part of Passover is called Seder dinner. That's when Jewish friends and family gather to share a meal and pass down the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, per USA Today. (A Jewish baker preparing unleavened bread for Passover is pictured above.)

Among the uncountable horrors endured by European Jewish populations during the Holocaust is the stripping of such important religious practices as Passover. It would not be the first time in history that Passover was targeted as a means of persecution or as part of an effort to stamp out the Jewish religion. In the waning years of World War II, during the winter and spring 1944-1945, Jewish prisoners at Vaihingen concentration camp managed to hold their own Seder in secret (via Haggadot). It was an act of resistance and bravery. 

What is Passover?

The tradition of Passover, sometimes called Pesaḥ or Pesach, is nearly as old as the Jewish religion itself (via Britannica). It typically lasts seven days, but in some Jewish communities around the world, it lasts eight. It takes place each year in the month Nisan, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar that typically equates to March or April. For observant Jews, the timing of Passover is always different. As part of the Easter celebration, a version of Passover has crossed over for many Christian communities, with more emphasis on the story of Jesus rather than the Jewish exodus from Egypt, according to USA Today.

One of the most important parts of Passover for Jews is the Seder dinner. For Seder dinners, particular foods are prepared, and leavened bread is avoided. This is because Jews escaping from Egypt were themselves unable to bring along bread that needed to rise, and so grain products are avoided to honor their sacrifice (via Tori Avey). For this reason, matzo (sometimes matza or matzah), an unleavened bread, is eaten at Seder dinner, among other types of symbolic dishes. When prisoners at Vaihingen concentration camp in Germany decided to celebrate Passover, they prepared matzo in secret with what little they had (via Haggadot).

Passover throughout history

The Holocaust was not the first time in history that the Jewish tradition of Passover was the target of those seeking to suppress or wipe out the Jewish religion. Another instance in history of such a thing happening is during the Spanish Inquisition, in 15th- through 19th-century Spain and throughout Spanish colonies (per Britannica). During that time, practicing Judaism was outlawed, and anyone found to be observing the banned Passover tradition could be subject to torture. Sometimes Jews from that period caught celebrating Passover were even killed, according to the Washington Examiner.

Another point in history when Passover was actively suppressed was in Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Explaining persecution of this type throughout history was the "blood libel," a false and anti-Semitic claim that Jews throughout history used Christian blood in their celebrations (via ADL). In the instance of Passover, Jews were falsely accused of using the blood of Christian children to make matzo. Instead of direct persecution, the Soviets tried to establish a non-secular "Red Haggadah" — the text read at Seder dinner telling the story of the Jewish exodus (via the Washington Examiner). Traditional Passover and Seder dinners persisted, nonetheless.

The Vaihingen Concentration Camp

For these reasons and more, imprisoned Jews at the Vaihingen concentration camp in Germany were well aware that Passover and Seder dinners held in secret were nothing new for their people. Built in 1942, the camp was full of Polish Jews, but also a number of other nationalities and ethnicities, such as French, Dutch, Russians, and Greek, among many others (per Gedenkstaette). The labor camp primarily made armaments for the German army, but later on in the war, Vaihingen also became a field hospital.

Conditions at Vaihingen concentration camp were terrible for the sick and well alike. Housing was sparse, and nourishment was inadequate. Shortly after the secret Passover celebration at the labor camp in the winter and spring of 1944-1945, a terrible typhus outbreak occurred at Vaihingen in February of that same year. More than 30 prisoners died from typhus each day (via Gedenkstaette). The memory of the Seder dinner some experienced only a short time before was likely a comfort during such a truly horrific time.

A Haggadah written from memory

When prisoners at Vaihingen decided to follow through on their Seder tradition for Passover, they were possibly inspired by an instance in another Nazi concentration camp when the practice remained amidst unimaginable suffering. This time it happened in France at Gurs, a concentration camp in the southwestern part of the country near the Pyrenees. Originally built by the French in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Gurs eventually came under Nazi control (via Britannica).

It was there that an observant Jewish prisoner wrote his own Haggadah from memory, distributing the text among prisoners. Remembering this time, one former prisoner at Gurs later quoted an important passage from Exodus (via Bible Hub) and said (via the Washington Examiner), "At the time, celebrating the Passover holiday in the Gurs camp, we felt as if a refreshing breeze from the Promised Land had descended upon us via the desert: 'By the strength of His hand, God took us out from the house of slavery.'"

The secret Seder at Vaihingen

With the Gurs Haggadah possibly on their minds, the inspiration to hold a Seder dinner at Vaihingen otherwise came from an unlikely place: an actual SS officer. According to Haggadot, one prisoner at Vaihingen named Moshe Perl was ordered by a member of the SS to build targets from wood just before Passover. Perl suggested they cover the targets with paper bags and pictures to make them larger. To do so required paste, and an important ingredient in homemade paste is flour. The SS officer agreed.

"I claimed that I would need flour, lots of flour, to paste the pictures of soldiers on the targets. He asked how much flour. I said I would need five kilograms. He liked my suggestion and immediately gave me an appropriate referral," Perl said (via Haggadot). Once given adequate flour, Perl and his fellow prisoners set about making matzo covertly. The prisoners baked matzo in Perl's workroom oven, "keeping the door and windows hermetically sealed," Perl later said. The matzo was hidden under the shingles on his work structure. And on the night of the Seder, 20 Jews gathered to celebrate Passover, risking their lives just to do so. In this sense, the true spirit of Passover took on new meaning during the Holocaust.