- But now, this is what YHVH says, He who is your Creator, Jacob, and He who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you – and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you” (Isaiah 43:1-2)
Passover is known as both the Feast of Freedom and the Festival of Redemption, and it is the most intimate family celebration of the Jewish calendar year. I remember how my Kievan Jewish grandmother Rivka prepared for Passover delicacies for us: concord grape wine prepared weeks in advance; gefilte fish and matzah ball soup; tzimmes (glazed carrots with honey and raisins); beef brisket with prunes. The memories are perhaps even sweeter than the food.
Today the majority of Jews who keep the Passover are celebrating it in the Exile, as Moses prophesied even before the children of Israel entered the Promised Land:
- “If you are not careful to follow all the words of this Torah that are written in this Book, to fear this honored and awesome name, YHVH your God, then YHVH will bring extraordinary plagues on you and your descendants, severe and lasting plagues, and miserable and chronic sicknesses. And He will bring back on you every disease of Egypt of which you were afraid, and they will cling to you . . . Furthermore, YHVH will scatter you among all the peoples, from one end of the earth to the other. And there you will serve other gods, made of wood and stone, which you and your fathers have not known. Among those nations you will find no peace, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot. But there YHVH will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your lives will be hanging in doubt before you; and you will be terrified night and day, and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you will say, ‘If only it were evening!’ And at evening you will say, ‘If only it were morning!’ because of the terror of your heart which you fear, and the sight of your eyes which you will see. And YHVH will bring you back to Egypt in ships, by the way about which I said to you, ‘You will never see it again!’ And there you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:58-60, 64-68).
We sons and daughters of Jacob are in the middle of process – we are coming out of Exile and returning to our Land. But the majority of us still feel overly comfortable in the lands of our scattering – the Diaspora. Here is a tale of an unusually bittersweet Passover – a night to remember.
On April 18, 1943 the eve of the Nazi aktion, the SS and Police chief in Warsaw, Obergruppenführer Ferdinand von Sammern-Frankenegg was replaced by SS and Police Leader (SS- und Polizeiführer) Jürgen Stroop. Stroop had extensive experience in partisan warfare and had artillery and tanks at his disposal, as well as approximately 2,000 soldiers and police. These forces surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto on the night of April 18. April 19 would be the first night of Passover, and April 20 would be Adolf Hitler’s 54th birthday. “No one was sleeping in the ghetto that night. Everybody spent the time packing the most necessary articles, linen, bedding, food and taking it down to the bunkers. The moon was full and the night was unusually bright. There was more movement in the courtyards and streets than by day” (Tuvia Borzykowski, Between Tumbling Walls, p.48).
Around midnight, the two Jewish underground guerilla organizations – Żydowski Związek Wojskowy (The Jewish Military Union) and Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (The Jewish Combat Organization) – fanned out throughout the ghetto, banging on gates and doors, raising the alarm. By 0200, all Jewish fighters (only several hundred) were in position and waiting. Outside the ghetto were the sounds of the revving of trucks and tanks, and the marching of infantry. On that day the Jewish population of the Warsaw ghetto population was approximately 45-50,000.
A Jewish resistance fighter recalled the morning of that final battle: “Monday, April 19, was the day before Passover, and the first day of Spring. Sunshine penetrated even to the cheerless corners of the ghetto, but with the last trace of winter the last hope of the Jews had also disappeared. Those who had remained at their battle stations all night were annoyed by the beauty of the day, for it is hard to accept death in the sunshine of Spring.”
Alexander Donat, another ghetto fighter, felt a sense of Jewish destiny unfolding before his eyes: “Suddenly I felt beyond life and death. I felt sure we were going to die; but I felt a part of the stream of Jewish history. We were part of an ancient and unending stream of immortal tradition that went back to Titus and his Roman legions ravishing Jerusalem, to persecution in Spain under Isabella and Ferdinand, to Khmelnitsky massacres, and to more recent pogroms and massacres.”
Shoshana Baharir, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, testified about that foreboding April 19: “It was Passover eve, 1943, and we had arranged everything in the house in preparation for the holiday. We even had matzot (unleavened bread), everything. We had made the beds . . . The policeman who lived with us always told us everything that was going to happen . . . He told us, ‘You should know that the ghetto is surrounded – with Ukrainians. Tonight will not be a good night.’ He had heard this. We took all our belongings and went into the bunker. Why wait? . . . So we took what we still had at home, whatever food we had, everything, and went down into the bunker. And waited.”
Invasion of the ghetto
Simha Kazik, a ghetto fighter, explained: “On April 19, at four in the morning, we saw German soldiers crossing the Nalewki intersection on their way to the Central Ghetto, walking in an endless procession.” Their orders were to arrest and deport ghetto Jews who did not possess officially required permits. “Behind them were tanks, armored vehicles, light cannons, and hundreds of Waffen-SS units on motorcycles. ‘They look like they’re going to war,’ I said to Zippora, my companion at the post. Suddenly I felt how very weak we were. What force did we have against an army, against tanks and armored vehicles? We had nothing but pistols and grenades. I didn’t get depressed. Finally, the time came to settle accounts with them.”
At 0600 the first German detachment crossed into the ghetto. Jewish ghetto fighters concealed in neighboring buildings opened fire with sub-machine guns, grenades, and small homemade bombs. Several Nazi soldiers were killed or wounded. A second, larger battle took place later that morning at the intersection of Gęsia, Nalewski, Miła and Zamenhofa streets. The Nazis were surrounded on all four sides and suffered extensive casualties. Two German tanks were set on fire with Molotov cocktails. A strategic retreat was in order as Nazi forces prepared for a period of intensified urban combat.
Here are three stories of Jews who experienced and survived this ‘Passover amidst the flames.’
Keeping traditions alive
Roma Frey was 24 years old that Passover, recalling how she and her family tried their best to make their basement as nice as possible for the holiday, “We tried to put the candles on the table, and a white table cloth . . . The table was made of a wooden board resting on a few things underneath . . . We acknowledged to ourselves and to God that we want to keep the traditions. That’s what we felt in our hearts, we remembered our grandfathers, the hard times, slavery and our slavery, and here we have hardly a hope to survive even just one day or night.”
He never missed a Seder
Itzchak Milchberg was 12 years old in April 1943. He had watched while his father was shot. His mother and two sisters had been deported, most probably to Treblinka. His uncle Feivel remained inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Itzchak passed as a German, selling contraband cigarettes outside of the ghetto walls. But he returned to the ghetto to be with his uncle for Passover. “I had never missed a Seder.”
With bullets ricocheting around him, he ducked into his uncle’s candle-lit bunker. Sixty people were crowded into that tiny space. “The building was shaking,” he said, “People were crying.” His uncle Feivel embraced him in Yiddish, “Ir vet firn di seder mit mir – You’ll perform the Seder with me.” Some people cried out, “God led us out of Egypt. Nobody killed us. But here, they are murdering us!” Uncle Feivel whispered into his nephew’s ear: “You may die, but if you die, you’ll die as a Jew. If we live, we live as Jews. If you live, you’ll tell your children and grandchildren about this.”
The Seder began but there were no bitter herbs, “There was plenty of bitterness already,” Itzchak said. He and his uncle recited the Haggadah from memory. “We did most of the prayers by heart,” he recounted. “The Seder went very, very late.”
Itzchak snuck out of the ghetto before dawn through the sewer system. For a week he smuggled arms through those sewers to the Jewish fighters, until he was caught on the sixth day of the Uprising. He was placed on a train deporting him to Treblinka extermination camp, but jumped off on the way. He survived the Holocaust thanks to a Catholic family in Warsaw. After the war he moved to Canada, raised a family of his own and fulfilled his uncle’s charge to tell his children and grandchildren about that 1943 Seder night – Passover in the flames.
The Last Passover
That first day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising blended into the first evening of Passover. All across the ghetto, Jews in their cramped hiding places remembered the Exodus from Egypt with whatever meager provisions were available. Matzot were baked with coarse dark flour. Warsaw’s Jews were determined to celebrate the feast as had been done since the days of Moses.
One ghetto fighter whose mind was totally not focused on Passover but on the Nazi incursion was Tuvia Borzykowski. He had been searching an apartment looking for supplies, and that basement flat happened to be the home of 60-year-old Rabbi Eliezer Yitzchak Meisels. Meisels had left Łódź, his hometown, along with some followers after the Nazi invasion, hoping that Warsaw would be a safer location. Meisels’ flat was littered with shattered glass and broken furniture. In the middle of this chaotic scene stood a table set for Passover. So Borzykowski sat down to celebrate Passover with the rabbi against the background of a ferocious battle which they all knew they were destined to lose.
Borzykowski, a member of the Jewish Fighting Organization, described that Seder: “Amidst this destruction, the table in the center of the room looked incongruous with glasses filled with wine, with the family seated around, the rabbi reading the Hagaddah. His reading was punctuated by explosions and the rattling of machine-guns. The faces of the family around the table were lit by the red light from the burning buildings nearby” (Tuvia Borzykowski, the Yiddish book ‘Tzvishn Falendikeh Vent’ [Between Collapsing Walls], p.48). Borzykowski survived the war and later helped found Kibbutz Lochamei Hageta’ot (Ghetto Fighters Kibbutz) north of Akko and Haifa.
Another witness to this Seder was Zivia Lubetkin, a ghetto fighter. She gave testimony at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem about this Passover: “I also remember that on the second day – it was the Passover Seder – in one of the bunkers by chance I came across Rabbi Meisels . . . This time, when I entered the bunker, this Jew, Rabbi Meisels, interrupted the Seder, placed his hand on my head and said: ‘May you be blessed. Now it is good for me to die. Would that we had done this earlier [ed. joined the uprising]!’”
God can deliver from the fire
The prophet Daniel proclaims that YHVH the God of Israel can deliver His people from the fire. But even if He does not deliver them, they will still remain faithful to Him:
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we are not in need of an answer to give you concerning this matter.If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods nor worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18)
In the case of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, the God of Israel miraculously delivered them from the fire:
- Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up quickly; he said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the middle of the fire?” They replied to the king, “Absolutely, O king.” He responded, “Look! I see four men untied and walking about in the middle of the fire unharmed, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” . . . Nebuchadnezzar responded and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who has sent His angel and rescued His servants who put their trust in Him . . . There is no other god who is able to save in this way” (Daniel 3:24-29)
A day of shaking is yet coming on the whole world, and the Jewish people will not be exempted from it. A promise remains that Jacob’s children will be saved out of that day of distress and that, after it passes, King David will be raised from the dead, and will reign over the entire world from Jerusalem under the blessed oversight of his Greater Son Messiah Yeshua.
- Ask now, and see if a male can give birth. Why do I see every man with his hands on his waist, as a woman in childbirth? And why have all faces turned pale? Woe, for that day is great! There is none like it. And it is the time of Jacob’s distress, yet he will be saved from it. It shall come about on that day, declares YHVH of armies, that I will break his yoke from their necks and will tear to pieces their restraints. And strangers will no longer make them their slaves. But they shall serve YHVH their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them (Jeremiah 30:6-9)
As we celebrate this Passover, let’s remember the mighty works of YHVH, and that He will purify and rescue His people from all their enemies – even as He did in ancient days in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
The one constant
One of the most beloved Passover songs sung at the Seder is “V’hi sheh’amda,” extolling the God of Jacob for His protective promises in the Abrahamic Covenant:
- “And that [promise] remains for both our forefathers and for ourselves! For not one time [but many times, the evil one] has arisen to destroy us. And actually, in every generation continually [our enemies] rise up to destroy us. But the Holy One, blessed be His name, rescues us from their hand!”
Though one third of Jacob’s children were cruelly murdered in the Nazi Sho’ah, the Lord God of Israel preserved the rest of His Jewish people and opened the gates of return for their homecoming to the Promised Land. God’s promise to curse those who dishonor and attempt to destroy His Jewish people abides today as well. And it stands firm in the face of those modern troublers of Zion who have risen up to destroy the children of Jacob in our day.
How should we then pray?
- Pray for God to reveal to the Jewish people and their leaders the serious and abiding nature of His protective promises
- Pray for a revelation of Messiah Yeshua to come to Jewish people everywhere as they sit at the Passover table worldwide
- Pray for YHVH to stir up increased intercession and proactive works among believers worldwide for these issues
- Pray for the raising up of Ezekiel’s prophetic Jewish army throughout the earth
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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