Blood Libel, Death Camps and Independence Battles: Passover Haggadot Tell a Daunting Jewish Tale

For Jews around the world, the haggadah wasn't only a source of inspiration and an expression of hope, but a text that seemed to document their suffering

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A Passover haggadah from a Munich DP camp.
A Passover haggadah from a Munich DP camp.Credit: The National Library of Jerusalem
Noa Manheim
Noa Manheim

One warm day in early spring of the year 1144, William, an apprentice tanner of about age 12, left the home of his master in the town of Norwich, about 160 kilometers northeast of London. A few days later, on March 21, toward the end of the period of Lent that precedes Easter, his bloodstained and battered body was found in a nearby forest.

Modern-day investigators who have tried to unravel this ancient crime have come up with a variety of conjectures, from the theory that the boy was murdered in the course of being raped, to the conclusion that he was killed by highwaymen. But to William’s contemporaries, notably his hagiographer, Thomas of Monmouth, there was no doubt about where the guilt lay.

“The Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland,” the monk wrote three decades after the incident in his book “The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich.” “Every year,” he continued, “they must sacrifice a Christian in some part of the world inasmuch as it was because of Christ’s death that they had been shut out from their own country, and were in exile as slaves in a foreign land. Wherefore the chief men and Rabbis of the Jews who dwell in Spain assemble together [every year] and they cast lots [In the year of William’s murder] it happened that the lot fell upon the Norwich Jews” (1896 translation from the Latin by Augustus Jessop and M.R. James).

Like a poison capsule, this report contains three of the elements that would prove lethal to Jews in the centuries that followed: the murder of a Christian child, the Passover sacrifice and the annual gathering of the elders of the community. The Jews of Norwich, who did not flee after the publication of Monmouth’s book in 1173, were all massacred in 1190. Additional accusations of ritual sacrifices surfaced in 12th- and 13th-century England, in locales such as Bury St Edmunds, where 57 Jews were murdered on the eve of Easter in 1190, as well as in Gloucester, Bristol, York and Lincoln.

'The Jews, without the shedding of human blood, could neither obtain their freedom, nor could they ever return to their fatherland.'

Thomas of Monmouth

In the latter, in 1255, the blood libel involving a boy named Hugh led to the first judgment handed down in England on a charge of ritual murder. Eighteen members of the local Jewish community were hanged in a case so famous that Chaucer cited it in his “Canterbury Tales” over a century later. These anti-Semitic sentiments contributed to the expulsion of all the Jews from England in 1290, an “offering” for their sins: holocaustum, in Latin.

The supposedly secret ingredient for baking matzas was overlaid in blood libels midway through the Middle Ages, echoing earlier reports in which such accusations appeared (referencing cannibalism), such as in Josephus’ “Against Apion,” from the early second century C.E. – a polemical work in which the author sought to refute, among other allegations, charges of ritual cannibalism practiced by the Jews. The Christian child who is at the center of the blood libel ostensibly undergoes a staged crucifixion during which his blood is collected and mixed into the flour used to bake matzas. That action, the libelers claimed, was intended to mock Jesus’ instructions at the Last Supper, which is identified in Christendom with the Passover seder, when Jesus “broke the bread” and asked his disciples to eat from it, declaring “This is my body,” and offered them wine and stated, “This is my blood.” Jews, so the slander went, abandoned the metaphor and sought to implement it in practice, to reenact the sacrifice of the savior in the person of an innocent, helpless child.

Among the practices that the Jews introduced to the seder ritual in order to defend themselves against these accusations, was the custom of opening the door of the house and closing it ahead of the imprecation “Pour out thy wrath upon the heathens” In the view of many commentators, this was done in order to ascertain that there was no informer – or, God forbid, a body – near the door. This passage was probably added to the Passover Haggadah during the 12th century, as it is not found in the few texts that have survived from earlier times. In some versions of the Haggadah, only the first verse appears, whereas in others Jewish communities, such as the persecuted one in England, fully 17 verses from Psalms 79 are recited.

Illustrations from the Haggadah of the 3rd Battalion of the Palmach, 1948. The battalion fought in the War of Independence from its outset. Just after Passover it won an important battle at Nebi YushaCredit: The National Library of Jerusalem

The Haggadah took shape over centuries, ultimately attaining the form familiar to us during the Middle Ages, with some final liturgical additions in the 16th century. The text is a compilation that ranges from apocalyptic visions (“Bring near the day that is neither day nor night”) to counting songs (“Ehad Mi Yode’a” [Who Knows One], “Chad Gad Ya” [Only One Kid]), from semi-pagan rituals such as the trickling of drops of wine when the Ten Plagues are recited, to mathematical conundrums, from ritual eating to emotional feasting.

“It was through the Passover Haggadah that the Jews took back their sense of who they were,” historian Simon Schama writes in his multivolume “The Story of the Jews” (Vol. 1). In the exile, that identity gave rise to identification with the slave people groaning under the lash of bondage and yearning for redemption. As in the Book of Exodus, in which the first person who refers to “the Israelite people” (Exodus 1:9) is Pharaoh – in the Exile, too, the nation’s consciousness evolved in large measure as a result of aggressive antagonism.

And whereas the Haggadah acquired canonical status, an outlet for contemporary adjustments was found in artwork. The Haggadah is the most illustrated of Jewish texts, and, in contrast to the Bible, its illustrations were made by Jews and for Jews, and more especially for Jewish children. The supreme imperative of the Haggadah is “And thou shalt tell thy son,” and because education justifies the means, the text’s illustrators began gracefully to bypass the Second Commandment and to adorn the Haggadah with human figures bearing the heads of birds, such as in the oldest Haggadah that still exists in its entirety, from 13th-century Germany, or with Jews wearing the marks of shame required by the law of their respective state, with fantastical creatures and with eschatological and architectonic visions of a restored Jerusalem, as in the Haggadah from Renaissance Venice.

The Haggadah illustrations were the region in which space was created for what was not given verbal expression, such as the character of Moses, who despite his crucial contribution to what Schama describes as “the founding epic of liberation,” appears only once in the Haggadah. The illustrators, however, devoted considerable space to him, as a response to Christian art, which focused on the life of Jesus. They even injected jokes, such as in the Prague Haggadah of 1526, one of the first printed versions of the text, which recommends pointing to one’s wife while reciting the passage about the “bitter herbs,” and also costumed the Egyptian taskmasters in the official garb of their contemporaneous nobles.

'It was through the Passover Haggadah that the Jews took back their sense of who they were.'

Historian Simon Schama

Documentary value

The Haggadah’s subversive character did not escape the notice of those who were likened to slave drivers. In 19th-century Russian Haggadot, the “Pour out thy wrath” verses were censored, and present-tense passages, as in “In every generation there are those who seek to annihilate us,” were rephrased in the past tense: “In every generation there were” Haggadah commentators also toed the line: In an 1845 version from Poland, under czarist rule, a footnote was added to the effect that the same passage refers to “the generations that have gone by and passed, but in these generations we shelter under the wings of the kings of mercy.”

After the Russian kings were deposed, in October 1917, an industrious Jewish Moscow communist named Moshe Altshuler decided to compile a Haggadah in the spirit of the time, and wrote it in Yiddish so that it would speak to the masses of his people in their language (most were actually written in Hebrew). In that 1922 text, the burning of the chametz (leavened foodstuffs) is intended to “burn away” the bourgeoisie, as is vividly depicted in an illustration in which a bomb scatters them in all directions. Instead of the traditional “Next year in Jerusalem” wish, the Haggadah concludes, “This year revolution here. Next year – world revolution!”

A Passover haggadah from a Munich DP camp.Credit: The National Library of Jerusalem

“By definition, the goal of the seder is to tell a story, to educate, to transmit,” explains Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the exhibition “Next Year We Will Be Free Men,” at the National Library in Jerusalem (on display until May 31), in an interview with Haaretz. “It’s a text that was intended for adaptation, and receives additions all the time.”

The illustrations in the Haggadot in the exhibition, which were created in Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere between 1940 and 1948, depict the dramatic and catastrophic upheavals experienced by the Jewish people in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the Haggadot invoke the Holocaust directly, with the word “Pharaoh” replaced by “Hitler” and illustrations of inmates in concentration camps fleeing the whips of S.S. officers. Others, handwritten and duplicated by stencil, were for the use of members of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish army.

For the Jews in the concentration and death camps, from Poland to Libya, for the men and women who fought within the framework of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade, and for those who waited in Palestine with baited breath for the end of the war and its results – the Haggadah was not only a source of inspiration and an expression of hope for redemption, but a text that seemed to document precisely and harrowingly their own sufferings and ordeals.

“It’s the height of the contemporaneity of the story of the exodus from Egypt,” Amiur notes. “The Haggadah’s messages correlate absolutely with reality.”

For Jews through the ages, the Haggadah wasn't only a source of inspiration and an expression of hope, but a text that seemed to document their sufferings and ordeals.

The presence of the annihilation of the Jews in these Haggadot is also seen in various additions to their texts, such as the inclusion of a poem asking where God is, by Itzhak Katznelson, a teacher and author who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. That poem was included in a particularly provocative Haggadah created in the DP camps, wherein “the revolt and the participation in the struggle enter the rubric of the redemptive God,” explains Amiur, adding, “This is the only example we have of a Haggadah text that was adopted by everyone, from the radical Marxist extreme to the fighting radical. The seder night undergoes an adaptation from a family event to a gathering within frameworks that had not existed before, such as the kibbutz and the army.”

The Haggadot put out by the pre-state fighting forces became acutely relevant during the fighting in the spring of 1948. “The War of Independence is [perceived as] the end of one process and the advent of the redemption,” Amiur explains. “At Passover the forces move to the offensive, some of the most intense battles are fought and many are killed, but the fighters sense the end. The Haggadot complete that part of the story.” These were typically ad hoc texts, one of which, for example, includes a reference to a poem of sacrifice written just weeks earlier by the nationalist poet Uri Zvi Greenberg.

But when the cannons’ thunder faded, voices emerged that sought to silence the muses that had run rampant in such Haggadot and had inserted into them current events, secular texts and Zionist notions. “Orthodox Judaism looked very askance at all this,” Amiur says. Immediately upon the founding of the Israel Defense Forces, Amiur points out, “Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who was appointed the army’s chief rabbi, twisted Ben-Gurion’s hand in this matter,” and the Haggadot, like the prayer book, began to appear in a uniform text.

Illustrations from the Haggadah of the 3rd Battalion of the Palmach, 1948. The battalion fought in the War of Independence from its outset. Just after Passover it won an important battle at Nebi YushaCredit: The National Library of Jerusalem

One institution that continued consistently to produce unconventional Haggadot even after 1948 was the kibbutz movement. Every year they came up with new, ideologically appropriate texts, in whose creation poets, illustrators and composers were involved – a fruitful, important project that constituted a central fixture of the seder.

“The height of the nontraditional Haggadah coincides with the period of the height of the kibbutz movement,” Amiur observes. “When the movement begins to fade, the nontraditional Haggadot disappear, too.”

The nexus of the Haggadah was and remains the supreme imperative to re-experience the transcendent catharsis of liberation. The power of that injunction overrode sacred texts and divine prohibitions, because, according to Amiur, “more important than the text is the importance of understanding.”

Over the generations, the Haggadah sustained our forebears, not as a blank canvas, but rather as a multilayered palimpsest, which, as long as its essence remained intact, was endowed with a certain potent flexibility. That quality enabled it to resonate with tremendous power when the human blood – which according to Thomas of Monmouth had to be spilled if the Jews were to gain their freedom and return to their fatherland – was shed, and particularly, by the modern incarnations of Pharaoh. The Jews sailed on the Exodus and other illegal immigrants to freedom. They crossed their Red Sea and reached the land that they had illustrated time and time again – which they conquered with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.

And even today the Haggadot, matza crumbs and time caught between their pages, await the propitious moment at which the ancient story will take on a new face, new heart and new spirit. Each generation has its own form of bondage and its own redemption, and we are eternally enjoined to liberate ourselves from the one and achieve the other.

With thanks to the archives and archivists of the National Library of Israel.

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