‘We Were Slaves to Hitler in Germany’

Just in time for Passover, a quirky kibbutznik shares his rare collection of Haggadot used by soldiers and Holocaust survivors at seders held in the 1940s.

He’s a carpenter by profession, but Aviram Paz prefers to be known as a collector. And he collects pretty much everything.

There’s a vast collection of Hanukkah menorahs on display in the main room of his modest home on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, some his own creations. In a back room, behind lock and key, is a collection of books from previous centuries about expeditions to the Holy Land.

In a chest of wooden drawers in a nearby corridor is a neat collection of military emblems from around the world. Directly underneath is a collection of pins commemorating Israeli Independence Day. Beneath that is an assortment of Israeli youth movement paraphernalia. And the list goes on.

But by far his favorite is the collection of rare Passover Haggadot used mainly by Jewish soldiers and Holocaust survivors gathered around seder tables in the 1940s.

As of this month, it’s no longer necessary to trek to this northern kibbutz to get a glimpse of it. “The Egyptian Exodus: Then and Now,” a new book showcasing the gems in the Paz collection, has just been released by Maarechet publishing house at Kibbutz Dalia. Although the descriptions and background material are all in Hebrew, many of the Haggadah pages and covers photographed in the book contain English and Yiddish texts.

Gil Eliyahu

“About half of the Haggadot in this collection are the only remaining copies left in the world of a particular edition,” boasts Paz, who maintains that his is the largest collection anywhere of “unconventional” Haggadot, as he describes them.

Paz scoured the globe in search of copies of the Haggadah — the book containing the text recited at the Passover seder that tells the story of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt — that were used during the most turbulent decade in modern Jewish history. “Each one in this collection adds something of its own interpretation to the Exodus story,” he says.

“Egyptian Exodus” contains photographs of Haggadot used by soldiers in the Jewish Brigade fighting with the British army; soldiers serving in the pre-state Haganah and its elite fighting force, the Palmach; Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps in Europe, in transit camps in Cyprus and in detention camps in British Mandate Palestine; and residents of Jerusalem during the 1948 siege. There’s also a special section in the 250-page book devoted to Haggadot banned by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for downplaying the role of God in the founding of the State of Israel.

Of particular interest are a special Haggadah containing hand-drawn illustrations (originally inscribed in a notebook in German) put together by Jews entering Palestine illegally and held at the Atlit detention camp; a Haggadah written from memory by Spanish-speaking Jews interred in camps in Vichy France; a Haggadah sent by humanitarian organizations to Hungarian Jews in 1942, two years before the great deportation to Auschwitz; a Haggadah used in the Landsberg displaced persons camp in American-occupied Germany containing survivor testimonies written in Yiddish; a Haggadah used in Beit Haarava, a kibbutz on the shores of the Dead Sea evacuated during the 1948 War of Independence; and a Haggadah printed especially for a seder held in Munich in 1946 that was attended by Jewish soldiers serving in the American army as well as survivors of Dachau.

The first page of this U.S. Army-issued Haggadah sums up the mood at this historic encounter by replacing the key nouns in one of the seder’s central phrases, such that “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” becomes “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.”

In his introduction to this extremely rare Haggadah, then-U.S. Army Chaplain Abraham Klausner compares General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the Allied forces in Europe, to Moses, writing: “And the khaki-clad sons of Israel commanded by Lt. General Truscott gathered together as was the custom in Israel, to celebrate the Passover festival. ...

“They spoke of Pharaoh and the Egyptian bondage... they spoke of the inevitable force of liberty which will lay waste to every tyrannical design.

“Pharaoh and Egypt gave way to Hitler and Germany. Pitham and Ramsees faded beneath fresh memories of Buchenwald and Dachau.”

Among those Haggadot banned by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is one in which the first glass of wine at the seder is raised “to the life of the Hebrew state,” the second glass to the Haganah, the third glass to immigration to the Jewish state, and the fourth and last glass to a favorite Israel Defense Forces unit (a blank space is provided to allow seder participants to fill in their unit of choice).

It is not only the written Haggadah texts that Paz, who is 62, collects. He is even more passionate about discovering the stories behind them: Who wrote them and where? Who drew the illustrations? What arguments went into their preparation? Who attended the first Passover seder where they were used? How many copies were made?

Revealing the backstory of each Haggadah often requires considerable detective work, and the results of these efforts are chronicled in “The Egyptian Exodus.”

Paz’s interest in rare Haggadot was sparked about 25 years ago, when Paz purchased his first collection of books and discovered buried in the bunch one used by soldiers in the Jewish Brigade in 1942. “That’s when I decided I wanted to take this direction,” he says.

Another owner’s copy of one of the Haggadot in Paz’s collection recently sold for $10,000 in a Sotheby’s auction, says Paz. But true to his kibbutznik roots, Paz, who was born and raised on Mishmar Ha’emek, is not in this for the money, and has no plans to unload his treasures any time soon.