Save the Deli

A more reflective Pesach

Last year, I celebrated the start of Passover with a tiny bit of thought and a whole lot of shtick, including clips from the Family Guy. And as delis the world over shut down for the next week, entering a sort of forced fallow season (and the one time of year when deli owners get a holiday), I intended to do the same.

I had a list of articles I wanted to link to, mostly from the New York Times’ fantastic Passover page, featuring pesach stories, recipes, and tales of matzo factories.

That is, until I read Joan Nathan’s story on Passover during the Holocaust. Eliciting stories from survivors, the ever-insightful and caring Mrs. Nathan weaved a tale of food traditions preserved through the most horrific and difficult conditions. We’re talking about concentration camp seders, matzos made from turnips, and above all the driving need, no matter what, to respect Jewish tradition. It brought me right back to Poland and my research there, and I truly don’t think I could post anything finer for all of next week.

“The oven was in a makeshift synagogue,” said Bertha Schwarz, 83, whom Rabbi Schneerson rescued from the Brens internment camp and took to the chateau. “All of us children were mobilized to help with the rolling out, baking, shipping and packing the matzo for the camps.”

But none of this compares with the ingenuity of Pearl Benisch, who lives in Brooklyn. She remembers Passover in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in the spring of 1945, just days before her liberation.

“We had nothing to eat but watery soup, with bread once a week,” she told me in a very quiet voice. “But I was one of the lucky ones. I was working in a place where we peeled potatoes and turnips. I cut three turnips in narrow rounds, covered them up with a piece of brown paper and hid them in my shoes.

“When we had our Seder in the peeling room with one woman keeping watch for the guards, the other women moaned that there was no matzo. I said, ‘they are here, they are under the cover.’ They opened the brown paper and there were the three round turnip matzos.”

Then, Mrs. Benisch, now in her late 80’s, paused and said in a whisper, “Only God can make matzo from turnips.”

To the deli owners who can rest their feet, and the rest of us who will struggle without bread, I wish you all a happy, healthy, and joyous pesach.



2 Responses to “A more reflective Pesach”

  1. Aredee Says:

    About 40 years ago, ABC televised an opera by David Amram called “The Final Ingredient.” It was a made-for-TV production that took place in a concentration camp, It’s all about the inmates searching for items that can be used in a seder. As I recall, one of the prisoners is shot and killed by a guard while he climbs up a tree to retrieve an egg. The truly poignant part of the story, if memory serves me correctly, is that the prisoners go on with the seder in defiance of the Nazi captors with the dead fellow serving in the role of the pascal lamb.

    About 15 years ago, I met David Amram–a very talented eclectic composer and jazz musician, and asked him if a videotape of that production still survived. He said ABC had erased it.

    There was at least one CD of the score, available at Amazon

    There’s also a recording of Amram’s music that includes the final three scenes.

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