Passover: The story of 2 Haggadahs, one that survived, one for survivors

Let me tell you the story about one exceedingly famous Haggadah and the other one a metaphor for our own time.

ALL IN the family: The writer reviews the  Haggadah with a grandchild. (photo credit: COURTESY STUART GELLER)
ALL IN the family: The writer reviews the Haggadah with a grandchild.
This is the story of two Haggadot. One is the remarkable story of a Haggadah that survived against all odds; the other, a Haggadah written for survivors of the Holocaust that was only used once.
The modern Haggadot have, as often as not, been used to advertise supermarkets. The most famous of these, the Maxwell House Haggadah, is simply saying its coffee is kosher for Passover. In modern times, people have written Haggadot having such themes as freedom, equality and human rights. I have a Haggadah addressing the story of freedom for Russian Jews, which was more about their lives there than about Egypt.
No doubt this year special prayers will be written linking the Passover story with the coronavirus. There are many similarities. When the virus came, people didn’t realize what was to come. So too, when Pharaoh saw the first of the plagues, the Nile turning to blood, he was told by his experts that they were just magic tricks.
My hobby is collecting Haggadot. As I mentioned, the purpose of the Passover Haggadah is to tell the story. What is unusual, as I have learned from collecting, is that many Haggadot themselves have a unique story to tell.
People often ask why Haggadot were so elaborately illuminated, that is, why put artwork in a holy book? The simple answer is that since the Haggadah was a book for home use and not for synagogue worship, it was allowable to use artistic talents. In my collection, it is the rare Haggadah that doesn’t have artwork, and it is the artwork that makes the Haggadah itself famous.
Let me tell you the story about one exceedingly famous Haggadah and the other one a metaphor for our own time.

The Sarajevo Haggadah

The Sarajevo Haggadah is one of the oldest Sephardi Haggadot in existence. It was written in Barcelona around 1320. From Spain it was carried by Jewish families to Venice, Italy, and by 1894, was purchased by the National Museum in Bosnia, which is why it is called The Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah begins with a series of drawings that tell the Bible stories, somewhat like a slideshow, leading up to Moses blessing the people before his death. Across from that page, the Temple in Jerusalem is pictured. The Hebrew under the picture says, “The Holy Temple which will be built soon, in our days,” and in the center of the picture are the first words of the Ten Commandments.
One of the pages has the name of the Venetian censor of the Inquisition who allowed the book because it was not heretical: Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, 1609.
There is a story, and probably only that, about a child from the Cohen family who carried it to Hebrew school in Sarajevo and offered it for sale. The family needed money, as his father had just died. In any event, as I mentioned before, the famous book was purchased by the National Museum and was placed in its library where it remains today.
During the Second World War, a Nazi officer appeared at the museum and demanded the Haggadah. The librarian, Dervis Korkut, an expert in Muslim literature, said it had been taken the day before by another officer. He had actually hidden it in a mosque. Ironically, he and his wife had also hidden a Jewish girl during the war. That girl lives in Israel and helped them save their daughter during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. All in all, the Haggadah was hidden and saved by non-Jews several time. What fascinates people about The Sarajevo Haggadah is that is 700-year remarkable survival story.

The Survivors’ Haggadah

The Survivors’ Haggadah was written for a Seder attended by survivors in Munich, on April 15, 1946
Sadly, Jews who returned to Poland and Ukraine only found the same antisemitism and therefore returned to Munich. They were called “displaced persons,” and it was from that population that the authors and artists were drawn. The Survivors’ Haggadah was called the “A” Haggadah. The circled A was a symbol of the American Army and thus the first page featured the insignia of the US 3rd Army.
The Survivors’ Haggadah has two stories. The actual Haggadah was written in Hebrew and Yiddish. The history was edited by Saul Touster, whose father was an American soldier. His father attended that first Seder and kept a copy of the Haggadah, which Tauster found among his father’s papers after he died. He turned to Yiddish and Hebrew speakers to translate for him.
In the historical setting there are many stories here. Gen. George Patton did not make life easy for the Jewish DP’s, and Gen. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces, fired him. One of the real heroes of the story is Chaplain Rabbi Abraham Klausner.
Both Klausner and I come from Denver, Colorado, and I knew his father. Every Sunday it was our family custom to visit my grandmother and often, on the way, we stopped off at Rabbi Klausner’s father’s dry goods store. My father usually sat and talked with him in Yiddish for about a half an hour, and then we went on.
Dad and Abe Klausner actually went to cheder together. When I was a student in Jerusalem in 1966, my father came to visit me. One day as we were walking through the King David Hotel, my father called out, “Abe” and soon the two were reunited. Rabbi Klausner was flying to Haifa the next day in his Army helicopter. My father declined.
Just who was Rabbi Abraham Klausner and who, out of hundreds of rabbis who visit, had an Army helicopter at his disposal?
He was the rabbi who made that Seder in Munich happen. He got the printers, the theater, the kosher food. He even led the Seder; after all, Yiddish was his mother tongue.
Israel does not honor rabbis because they organize Sedarim. Klausner is remembered because he helped bring thousands of those survivors to Israel, often against orders.
When the Seder is over, we cry out joyously, “Next year in Jerusalem.” After telling a very bitter story, it is a proclamation of optimism. We look out on the horizon optimistically, certain that we will again make a Seder in Jerusalem. 