For Jewish Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw, Passover’s message felt all too real

On the first night of Passover, more than 100 Ukrainian refugees gathered for a seder at the Doubletree-Hilton in Warsaw, Poland. The Haggadah, the accompanying liturgical libretto, directs its readers to see themselves as if they had personally exited from slavery. This year, Russia made that task easier.

“We have pharaohs in neighboring countries,” Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, speaking to the world from Ukraine.

Those here in Warsaw left behind family and friends in places like Kyiv and Sumy. Some hope to return but are uncertain if they would any time soon. Israel and Germany loom as likely next stops. “Next year in Jerusalem,” the 2,000-year-old credo, remained the evening’s final words.

The past is really never past; history haunts. My father grew up in Pacanów, a small shtetl in south-central Poland. As the second world war descended, his family fled. They weathered the war years in Uzbekistan. Against this backdrop, Passover 2022 marked an unanticipated homecoming – of sorts.

Back at the hotel, reasons for personal optimism reared their collective head. A couple spoke excitedly of their newborn son and his upcoming bris. A mohel was set to arrive from Austria. Families also schlepped their pets. One dog – Foxy – appeared at the seder. The internet enabled those employed by multinationals to continue working.

The seder looked typical. Were it not for those attending, it would have been unremarkable. The rabbi who led the service stressed that doing one’s best to sustain normalcy was paramount. So too were crafting an instant community and letting people know they were not alone – just as in the first Passover recorded in the Book of Exodus.

In the Bible’s telling, the holiday is a celebration of liberation, religious freedom and family. Later, pilgrimage to Jerusalem and a stream of sacrifices marked the occasion.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the seder and Haggadah gradually emerged, partly as an effort to recapture lost memories, but also as an expression of gratitude, grievance and anxiety – in different measures at different times.

The text repeatedly offers thanks to the deity, and says dayeinu, “that would have been enough”. The sentiment, “if You had only brought us out of Egypt and done nothing more, that would have been fine”, closely tracks the literal message on the page. Practically speaking, however, few would wish to be stranded in a desert.

Like a river, the Haggadah accretes content. It is not a static narrative. The Crusades ravaged the Rhineland’s Jewish communities. In the early 13th century, the Haggadah came to implore God to vent his wrath, the unmistaken request of the powerless.

During the second world war, Poland and Ukraine doubled as battlegrounds and killing fields. More than three million Jews were slaughtered in Poland. In Ukraine, the estimate exceeds one million. At times, local collaborators lent their hands to the carnage.

As for Poland and Ukraine, both are Slavic countries whose relations date back to at least the 14th century. Oscillating between allies and enemies, they fought each other between 1918 and 1919 in what became known as the Polish-Ukrainian war.

Religious and linguistic differences are potential sore spots, too. Parts of Ukraine, formerly ruled by Poland after the Union of Brest in 1596, became Catholic, tied to Rome rather than to Orthodoxy. Later, in the Austro-Hungarian part of Ukraine, Polish emerged as the language of secondary school instruction, and was viewed as the more “civilized” tongue.

Ghosts still hover, but not all apparitions are scary. Necessity can supplant memory and shape what follows. One place to start with is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The facade of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a prime example.

Large Polish and Ukrainian flags now drape the museum’s exterior. The building sits on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, on a street named for Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old leader of the ghetto’s uprising against the Nazis. Message and meaning are inescapable.

Likewise, the quotidian possesses its own elegance. On Good Friday, an overflow crowd spilled out of a church just a mile up the road from the hotel. The priest’s homily and the choir’s song echoed from a loudspeaker.

Posters expressed support for Ukraine. A memorial to Pope John Paul II reminds worshippers of past clashes with communism and the Soviet regime. A food truck decked in blue and yellow stood in the church’s parking lot. Religion and patriotism matter, as do small gestures.

The west is not as decadent nor as cowering as Vladimir Putin and his allies believe. There is fight left. Historic enmities and rivalries can be set aside in the face of a common threat. A wolf at the door is a great motivator.

The Haggadah reminds the reader that adversity can forge renewed resolve. For the people of Ukraine and its refugees, let us hope it does.

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