Pesach: A refugee story

The myth of Exodus presents the hardship of being a refugee, and the journey to Redemption.

Drawing by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Drawing by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
AS WE prepare for Pesach, the suffering of present-day refugees overshadows the great narrative of Exodus and Redemption. And allows us to better understand the fears of the Jews coming out of Egypt. For what were they but refugees? They could be the Syrian refugees, massing at the Turkish border. Almost two million crowded into Turkish refugee camps.
No wonder they take the chance of boarding battered wooden boats and leaking rubber dinghies to leave Turkey and reach Lesbos, Greece, the closest gateway to Europe from Turkey.
But they are not the only ones seeking refuge. There are also Iraqis, Afghanis, desperately fleeing death and destruction – barbarism we hoped was exhausted with World War II. They pay outrageous rates for transport, and many have drowned on the way.
Volunteers describe how parents, on arrival in Lesbos, look frantically for children who might have fallen into the sea. Others, frozen from standing in the cold water that has leaked into the boats, suffer hypothermia, and are carried off on stretchers. Yet thousands continue to put their lives in the hands of smugglers promising to carry them safely from Turkey to Greece.
There is no Moses to raise his staff and split the Aegean Sea, so that the refugees can march through triumphantly, no God to shower manna upon these starving people.
The Haggada presents the promise, the ideal of Redemption, of protection. But as Jews stood at the Red Sea, the Egyptians behind them, or trekked through the desert, not knowing what the next day would bring, how could they not have felt like these refugees, fearing that they too are merely another group of homeless that history would swallow up without a trace? And today’s wanderers, where will they go once on the European continent? Seeking refuge, they crowd the borders of Macedonia, push onto trains to Serbia. They’ve given up on Christian Hungary. They yearn for the Promised Lands of Germany; the Scandinavian countries are now beginning to rethink their hospitality. Denmark is asking for security pledges of jewelry and money to allow people to enter their welfare state.
To Jews, these are the all-too-familiar stories of the 1930s – the desperation of the refugee. “What can I do?” a German Jew writes to his friend, in 1939, who has succeeded in obtaining a certificate for Palestine.
“I have expulsion papers from Germany and I have no place to go. I’ve written to many countries for visas. But I’ve been refused. And my savings are dwindling. The Nazis destroyed my store on Kristallnacht.
How will I feed my family?” The refugee experience can inform our understanding of the Exodus. It helps explain why Jews were a “stubborn people” in the desert. For it reflects their simple, human fears – the dread of being homeless.
“Did you take us out of Egypt to drown us here?” the Bible describes their panic at the Red Sea, and one can add, “like the refugee boy whose body was washed up on the beach of Lesbos. “Will there be enough food?” they worry, hoarding two portions of manna despite Moses’s instructions, not believing there will be bread for tomorrow.
The chaos and breakdown of one’s former life, the uncertainty of what lies ahead, the need to hold onto something concrete, can, perhaps, explain the Jews creating the golden calf to lead them, when Moses tarried coming down from Sinai. The anxiety, the panic – it is the lot of the refugee.
And finally, the reaction of the “spies.”
What will the Jewish people find in this new land? Will they simply be prey to other nations? Are there giants who will kill them? Or closer to today’s situation, will they be sent back to Egypt, as the EU is attempting to send refugees back to Turkey, or even worse, to Syria, as Turkey is doing? At best, they will suffer the pain of dislocation, of beginning again. Will they ever recover the sense of self nurtured in familiar surroundings? The confidence of speaking the language imbibed as a child? In a word, the subtext of the Exodus story is the anxiety of becoming refugees.
There are many Israeli writers who have plumbed the depths of this experience; Yoel Hoffman’s sensitive books about the dislocation of Central European Jews who made it helter-skelter to this desert-like land in the ’30s. And certainly, there are works like David Grossman’s “Momik” and “Our Holocaust” by the recently deceased Amir Gutfreund, which portray the survivors of the concentration camps, the refugees from hell itself, as they are perceived through the eyes of Israeli-born children attempting to make sense of these experiences.
But no Israeli writer has better captured the refugee paradigm than 84-year-old Aharon Appelfeld, who as a child experienced it himself. Appelfeld has transformed it from a realistic description of fleeing the Nazis to an existential condition of life.
Appelfeld has written much fiction that depicts escaping Jews wandering from place to place, taking refuge wherever they can. Often an individual will find temporary cover working for a non-Jew until it becomes too dangerous, and moves on. They join small groups of Jews hiding in the forest, or become part of the mass of refugees on the move after the war, smuggling, black-marketing, trying to reach the ports that will bring them to America or Palestine.
Appelfeld’s recent book, “Long Summer’s Night,” depicts a boy called Yank and a blind Christian Ukrainian he calls “grandfather Sergei” to whom his father has entrusted him during the war. Homeless, they roam from place to place. A conversation with a prying woman epitomizes the essence of the refugee condition.
“Where are you going?” she asks. “I think tonight we’ll sleep in Yadovtche,” says Sergei.
“Is someone waiting for you there?” she persists.
“No,” Sergei answers curtly.
“And what will you do there?” she continues to ask.
“We’ll stay a few days in the shade of a tree, and then continue on.”
“And what is your destination?” “Wherever our feet will take us.”
“You’re not going home?” Grandfather Sergei admits, “We have no home. The heavens are our roof.”
One of the most poignant of Appelfeld’s novels about Jews fleeing the Nazis is his 1983 work “Tzili, the Story of a Life.”
“Tzili, a child of a large, poor family, grew up neglected among the abandoned objects in the yard,” writes Appelfeld in Dalia Bilu’s translation. When the war breaks out, the family leaves her to care for the house. She lies among the barrels in the shed, covered with sacking, and goes unobserved by the Nazis who come to search for Jews. As soon as it is safe, she runs away, finding shelter in deserted barns and stables. Cunningly, she escapes harm by claiming she’s one of the daughters of Maria, the local prostitute.
Appelfeld describes her refugee existence.
“She learned to walk barefoot, bathe in the icy water, distinguish edible berries from poisonous ones.” But eventually, she connects up with other Jews. First she meets and falls in love with Mark, an older man who has escaped from the camps, leaving his family behind. He builds a bunker, they hide together, and she becomes pregnant. One day he resolutely decides to leave the bunker and forage for food, but he never returns.
As the war comes to an end and the first refugees come marching through the area, Tzili realizes her fate is no different from theirs, and she joins them. It becomes clear that the pregnant Tzili is a redemptive figure, the symbol of the continuity of the Jewish people. When she can no longer keep up with the march, one of the women makes the convoy stop. She chastises these refugees who, during the war had learned to run, stopping for no one. “Man is not an insect,” she says.
Tzili’s condition brings them back to their humanity. They make a stretcher for Tzili, and the refugees lift the stretcher onto their shoulders. “A mighty song bursts from their throats, a mighty sound like pent up water bursting from a dam. ‘We are the torch bearers,’ roared the stretcher bearers and everyone else joined in.” The refugees are no longer fugitives, degraded and dehumanized.
They are human beings capable of Redemption.
Appelfeld teaches us that the myth of Exodus presents both possibilities – the hardship of being a refugee and the journey to Redemption.
Let us pray this Pesach that today’s refugees find both security and Redemption.
Rochelle Furstenberg is a Jerusalem-based journalist and critic.