The Freedoms Of Passover

This year, the celebration of Passover coincides with the anniversary of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto.

In 1940, Nazi forces herded more than 400,000 Jews, almost 40 percent of Warsaw's population, into an area of only 1.3 square miles; this mass of degraded humanity lived in poverty, surrounded by 10-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire. By the spring of 1943, about 40,000 ghetto residents had perished from starvation or disease.

On April 19, 1943, German troops and police stormed the ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants to certain, monstrous death in Treblinka. Jewish fighters -- thought to be 750 teenagers and youthful defenders -- held off the German army for almost a month before being overrun. Fifty-six thousand men, women and children were captured; 7,000 were shot.

The heroism of the Jewish fighters is enshrined in history, but the resistance of the ordinary men, women and children who refused to despair and die anonymous deaths is less well known. Their bravery is a part of a legacy of spiritual resistance and freedom that is often misunderstood, as is the central theme of freedom in Passover itself.

The revolt in the Warsaw ghetto was not about achieving freedom from oppression. To the fighters, the outcome was clear. Their revolt was about denying their oppressors some part of their humanity and sending a message to future generations about the true meaning of freedom.

A morbid curtain of death separated the Warsaw ghetto from the rest of humanity. There was no hope of escape. Public prayer was forbidden and punished by execution. Yet prayer services were held in hundreds of clandestine locations. Secret factories fabricated matzoh. Thousands of children affirmed their freedom to be human by studying the Torah in underground schools. Secular cultural activities flourished in the hollow of this hell. Theater productions, for example, were staged in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew.

Why did these people use their last vestige of freedom this way? Consider the example of historian Emmanuel Ringelblum. He chose to use his freedom to create an underground archive documenting the Nazi atrocities and, more important, the refusal of the Jewish people to surrender their religious, cultural and political life to Nazi tyranny. The records were buried in large milk cans and discovered after the war ended.

The actions of the men, women and children of the Warsaw ghetto teach us that Passover is not a passive celebration of historical events or superficially similar current events. Although we recline at the Seder table, Passover is not an exercise in laissez faire, do-your-own-thing libertarianism. We are not celebrating the freedom to be left alone.

We celebrate the freedom to repair the world, to light a candle for posterity, to continue to perform the many small prosaic acts of solidarity and sacrifice -- for friend and stranger alike -- in the shadow of totalitarianism and under circumstances calculated to make us think these acts are meaningless.

According to Jewish tradition, the prophet Elijah was a brave man who waged a struggle to deliver freedom from oppression. On Passover, we open the door of our home to Elijah and his promise of redemption from tyranny. It is a victory that armed freedom fighters can secure but not keep. The true meaning of Passover, as those in the Warsaw ghetto understood, is the freedom to engage the world, to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens, and to reject the seductions of spiritual and political retreat. As the martyrs of the Warsaw ghetto knew all too well, the work of Elijah must inevitably be our own.

Claire Simmons, a historian. She was chairwoman of the Jewish History Department at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.