Seders Of Liberation

Passover is a time of stories.

In the Haggadah we tell the story of the Jewish people, and at the seder table the people often tell their own stories.

More than any other time in the Jewish cycle of holidays, Passover spurs stories – of preparing for yom tov, of memories at the seder, of lessons learned at school.

The Jewish Week this week presents three unique Passover stories in three individual’s own words: a member of Uganda’s Abayudaya group of Jews, a Holocaust survivor who was part of the Bielski Brigade partisan unit during World War II, and a prominent conductor who tells how his friendship with the late Pope John Paul II affected his spiritual life and his family’s seders.

Passover 30 years ago this year had special meaning for Aaron Kintu Moses and other members of Uganda’s small Abayudaya Jewish community. Idi Amin, the country’s president and military dictator since 1971, who had outlawed open practice of Judaism, who had collaborated with the terrorists who hijacked the Air France plane and taken Jewish passengers as hostages in Entebbe in1976, was deposed on erev Pesach 1979. Moses, now headmaster of the Abayudaya Primary School in Mbale, was 13 then.

We heard the news on the radio that the Uganda National Liberation Army had taken over the government. All the people rejoiced.

When Idi Amin was in power, it was very, very difficult for us to hold a seder publicly. The synagogues were completely closed. We used to observe Passover in people’s houses; we used to hide. We did not have matzah – we had something similar. We made our own type of bread that was chametz-free.

The local chiefs were on our backs all the time, threatening to report us to the authorities.
The new government declared freedom of worship; it is easy to be Jewish in Uganda.
When Idi Amin was overthrown, in the morning we had to organize opening up the synagogue, cleaning it, painting it. We had to decorate our synagogue with flowers. We were free to move around the villages, collecting food. We had a goat we had to slaughter. We had a lot of work.

When the seder came, everyone was ready for it. When the seder came, there was real rejoicing. The synagogue was full, people had to sit outside.

The leader of the seder was my Dad. I remember my Dad saying Psalm 83 [“For your enemies rage/They plot craftily against Your people/May they be frustrated and terrified, disgraced and doomed forever.”]

When we talked about Pharaoh and freedom, in our minds came Idi Amin. He was like a Pharaoh.
The prayers we were saying were thanking Hashem for letting us free.
It was a real Pesach, because we were celebrating freedom.

Lea Friedberg was a teen during World War II, when Nazi soldiers occupied her village in Poland and she went into hiding. She was part of what is now known as the Bielski Brigade, a group of Jews, numbering about 1,200 when the Red Army arrived, who lived as a small community and fought as a partisan unit in the woods of what is now Belarus. The Bielski Brigade is the focus of a current movie, “Defiance,” which stars Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber. Mrs. Friedberg, who came to the United States in 1949, now lives in Queens and Florida.

I was in the ghetto with my parents.
My father worked [at slave labor] for the Germans.
One day, one person said to my father, “Send your daughter to the forest. There is the Bielski Brigade there.” At that time it wasn’t a brigade, just a group of 16, 17 people. My father knew the Bielskis from way back.

My father said I have to go – they [members of the Brigade] are going to take a few people from the ghetto. I said, “I’m not going.” My mother said, “Go sweetheart. We’ll come later.”

It was in the middle of the night, a terrible, terrible night, cold and wet. It was raining. Under the barbed wire. On my stomach. We were crawling like animals. Surrounded by the Germans. How did we make it, I’ll never know. We got on the other side and it was very dark. We started to walk and walk and walk. Finally we came to the woods.

The Germans were constantly, constantly all over the place. We were hiding in a little forest; the little forest wasn’t good enough; we moved deeper. We moved from one place to another. More people came, and the group was larger and larger.

A couple of weeks later my father and my mother showed up in the forest.
Somehow, when the time came [for the holidays], we knew. Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur … there were some religious people, like my father; they would have a little gathering.

For Passover we would get together. Some people would make “matzah” – they would make a little fire and bake some flour. Everybody would get a piece of “matzah.”

We would do the seder – one day only – during the day. It was held outside; if it was cold, we would go in one of the bunkers. We would get together and pray and eat a piece of “matzah.” Everybody came. Later on, it was a little complicated – 1,200 people. We were in groups. One of the elders was performing the seder, saying the Four Kashes [the Four Questions].
There was no Haggadah. It was from memory.
The best food, if we could get it, was potatoes. Potatoes were a luxury.
The mood was: “Where are the Germans now? Are they coming? Are they surrounding us?” It was worse for us than by Pharaoh.

My parents survived the war with me. My parents came to the United States with me.
I have a daughter, a son; they are married; I have grandchildren. How much more could you be blessed?

Colloquially known as “The Pope’s Conductor,” Brooklyn-born Gilbert Levine had a uniquely close relationship with the late Pope John Paul II. Levine, who has served as conductor of prominent orchestras in the United States and Europe, first came to public notice as head of the Krakow Philharmonic in 1987. In 1988 he met the Krakow-born Pope, and was invited to conduct the concert marking the Pontiff’s 10th anniversary. In later years Levine, knighted by the Vatican, conducted several papal concerts, including a memorial concert for John Paul II in 2005.

When I was growing up we attended seder at my uncle’s home and my uncle’s father-in-law; his in-laws were extremely Orthodox. Those seders were very elaborate, very formal, and lasted well into the night.

Our home was very, very non-observant Conservative. We did not light Shabbat candles. We went to synagogue virtually only on the High Holy Days.

My attachment to Jewish culture and Jewish faith was extremely important. Interestingly, my wife and I were married at the Touro Synagogue, in Newport, R.I., which is Orthodox. Something drew us to it.

When we came to New York, we were members first of a Reform congregation.

When I went to Krakow, the seders we had at home were very loose, they were 30 minutes of seder and the rest was the meal.

The Krakow community in 1987 was entirely Orthodox. What was left of the community davened at the Remuh Synagogue [named for the 16th-century scholar, Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles, who lived in Krakow.] That was the synagogue I went to when I was in Krakow.

When I began the relationship with the Pope in 1988, the astonishing thing was the degree to which he welcomed my Jewish heritage. He honored my Jewish faith. He was such a powerful man of faith that he gave me a wonderful imagination of what a faith life could be for myself.

Over the course of the first two years that I knew the Pope I began to explore Jewish Krakow.

In New York [where the Levines continued to live part of the year], we joined a Conservative congregation, a Holocaust-related congregation, Congregation Habonim; German Jews who had fled were the base of the congregation. Our family was very Holocaust-involved. My wife’s family lost 40 members in the Holocaust. My wife’s mother and father were both survivors.

I came up with the idea to honor both my relationship with the Pope and my relationship with my mother-in-law by proposing the Papal Concert in 1994 to commemorate the Shoah, which the Pope embraced and fostered and nurtured.

After the concert I gave the Pope, as my gift for having worked with me, a copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an incredible beautifully illuminated manuscript. The Pope knew what it was. He understood the importance of this in Jewish history. He was fascinated by the Jewish community in Sarajevo that had given birth to this Haggadah. It was not the first time he had held a Haggadah.

From 1998 to 1994, we became more and more religious. We felt ever more comfortable in an Orthodox circumstance. We began to light [Shabbat] candles in our home. We are much more observant. Fifth Avenue Synagogue has become our spiritual home. We are much more involved with Jewish life, with Jewish tradition. Our life is much richer than it was.

I credit that to the Pope, to the degree to which faith can inspire faith.
For many years we have gone to a seder in Boston on the second night hosted by Orthodox friends of ours. I feel this is a continuation of the seder that was held at the home of my uncle.

At home we do a [first-night] seder for our immediate family – the whole Haggadah. The ritual is very important to us. We talk about Krakow a lot. We talk about the faith tradition of my wife’s mother’s family before the Shoah. We mention my mother-in-law. She passed away; she is a very importance presence at our table. She is a big part of what we talk about.

John Paul is always in our prayers. His spirit lives with us still.


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