From Mein Kampf to the Landsberg Haggada

In 1946, Jews in a German displaced persons camp pulled together to create only 15 copies of their own personal story of delivery from slavery.

hebrew diary 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hebrew diary 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
INMATES OF the Kaufering camps were forced to work in industry, agriculture and in building massive underground bunkers to be used by Messerschmidt to manufacture planes. The Kaufering, known as the 'cold crematoria,' were the last camps in Germany to be liberated by the Americans In l946, Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons camp in the Bavarian town of Landsberg penned a Pessah haggada, telling the story of their people's freedom from a previous slavery. Only 15 copies were made of the Landsberg Haggada, written by the survivors together with Jewish emissaries from British Mandate Palestine. The 60-page handwritten haggada contains both the story of the Exodus, in Hebrew, and accounts of the suffering of some of the displaced persons, in Yiddish. The haggada was not the only manuscript to come out of Landsberg. Twenty-two years before the survivors of Nazi atrocities took pen in hand to write the story of the Jews' escae from Egypt as well as their own sufferings, Adolf Hitler - imprisoned in 1924 just a short distance away following his Munich coup attempt - dictated the first draft of his infamous manifesto Mein Kampf. The Landsberg prison was later designated "War Criminal Prison No. 1" by the US Army and housed Nazi war criminals sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials. The last of the 284 executions that were carried out in Landsberg was in l951 - the same year that the last of the Jewish DPs left the town. The Landsberg DP camp, 72 kilometers west of Munich, was set up in May 1945 in what had been the German Army base of Saarburg Kaserne. Until September of that year, the camp housed both Jewish survivors and non-Jewish political prisoners. The political prisoners thinned out as they were repatriated to their home countries, but the Jews, most of whom had no homes or families to return to, remained at Landsberg. Of the 15 original Landsberg Haggadot, it would appear that only one has remained extant. It recently joined the collection of Israeli Judaica collector and amateur historian Aviram Paz. "The Landsberg Haggada was printed using a hectograph that had been brought specially for that purpose from Munich," explained Paz, whom had been told about the haggada by someone who had been present at the Landsberg seder and whom Paz met some years ago in Israel. "The hectograph system allowed for a maximum of 15 copies to be printed off and basically involved handwritten text etched on to a thin rubber sleeve wrapped around a roller, ink spread into the wording, and copies rolled off," explained Paz. "However, in the last few copies the print would be getting rather faint and as one can see they went over it with a pen in places where it was difficult to read," he says, holding up the fragile-looking exercise book-sized manuscript and pointing to places where the writing was thicker than in others or in a different color. There are no illustrations in the Landsberg Haggada, and the style of Hebrew or Yiddish handwriting varies, as it was penned by different hands. An improvised hectograph was also used by World War II prisoners of war incarcerated in Colditz Castle, who used their version of the printing system to make the documents necessary for their escape bid. "Soldiers of the Jewish Brigade did not get to Landsberg in time for the l946 seder, but they did prepare that of the following year. They used a more modern (for the time) stencil system to print a five-page haggada they wrote out for those still in the camp," said Paz - a kibbutz-born sabra who taught himself Yiddish in order to be able to read and understand material in his vast collection of Judaica. The Yiddish writings in the Landsberg Haggada include translations of songs from Hebrew to Yiddish, a short report from the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, and a translation of the Song of the Partisans, as well as notices that had been pinned up in the last days of Dachau, which administered 11 concentration camps in the area surrounding Landsberg. Inmates of these camps, named Kaufering I-XI, were forced to work in industry, agriculture and at building massive underground bunkers intended to be used by Messerschmidt to manufacture planes. With subhuman conditions, cruel guards and outbreaks of deadly diseases such as typhus, life expectancy of prisoners in Kaufering I-XI was limited to around three months. The Kaufering, known as the "cold crematoria," were the last camps in Germany to be liberated by the Americans. Almost 15,000 Jews died there. Those who survived and were housed in the DP camp called themselves the "saved ones" (she'erit haplita), and with the assistance of the Jews from Palestine who came to work among them, began to prepare themselves to make aliya. Representatives of the kibbutz movement who were working with the survivors in Landsberg began to organize groups of future kibbutz members and demanded that while they wait to leave for Palestine, they be given farms to train on in Landsberg. Different groups thus founded "kibbutzim" in and around the Bavarian town, immersing themselves in the socialist kibbutz movement's ideology and celebrating Jewish holidays. They marked Pessah, the holiday of freedom, with their own version of the haggada. David Ben-Gurion was among the many visitors to the Landsberg camp. He visited before the "kibbutzim" were formed and promised to press for Nazi-owned farms to be turned over to the groups of DP farmers. The visit of the future prime minister of the state of Israel created great excitement, not only among the survivors and the Palestine Jews working with them, but also among the American soldiers serving there, such as camp commander Maj. Irving Heymont, who proudly posed for a photograph with Ben-Gurion. Many years later, Heymont (by then a lieutenant colonel) worked together with a group of local Germans in Landsberg for the right to preserve a few buildings left from one of the Landsberg camps as a memorial to those who perished there. The rest of the camps were razed, and no physical evidence of their existence survives. But the sole surviving Landsberg Haggada, spelling mistakes crudely crossed out and altered, its page edges yellowed and worn and splattered here and there with brownish stains, is testament to yet another chapter in the struggle for the survival of a people who every year celebrate their freedom from slavery - and some of whom are still fighting for their very existence.