It was 1948, the year I attended my first Passover seder. To make room for the seder table, more than a dozen beds had to be moved out of the younger girls' quarters at the Children's Center for Unaccompanied Children in Germany's Neckar Velley.
As was his due, Erno presided at the ceremony; at 22 he was, after all, the oldest celebrant present. Benno's eyes shone with pride when, as the youngest, he read with uncharacteristic flawlessness the Four Questions. At 8, Benno was something of a rarity in the Displaced Persons camp. Precious few orphans under the age of 11 had survived.
The war in Europe had been over for nearly three years by the spring of 1948, but tens of thousands of Displaced Persons still crowded the camps. They had survived the years of hunger and bombings, the terror of the death camps and forced labor battalions. The war was over, but they remained the prisoners of international politics. Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and from every corner of Eastern Europe, they could not, or would not return to a homeland now controlled by communist regime.
Passover, in its celebration of the survival of a people and their deliverance from bondage, is a very personal experience, celebrated charactically not in the synagogue but in the family, and so that rite of 33 years ago was doubly poignant.
For most of the participants, family existed only as a faded memory or a dim hope for the future. For the moment, though, their shared experiences in the war and their common anguish about the future created family enough to celebrate the ancient rite of their religion.
I was there as a member of a two-person team of the American Friends Service Committee seconded as teachers to the International Refugee Organization's Children's Center in Aglasterhausen, a tiny pastoral village about 20 miles east of Heidelberg.
For IRO's purposes, a child was anyone under the age of 21, the cut-off age for preferential emigration programs to the United States and Canada that circumvented the immigration quota systems then in effect. For some of the nationalities represented in our center, quotas for adults were filled 50 years ahead.
At Aglasterhausen it was a constantly shifting population -- usually around 170 -- as the lucky ones boarded the transports to Bremerhaven and the start of a new life in America, only to be replaced by others who kept sifting to the surface in the massive adult camps scattered around Germany.
The hope for emigration was what all DP's lived for. What stood in their way was paper: documentary proof of date and place of birth, not easy to come by in a world of scorched earth warfare and iron curtains. They also required a certificate of good health, a problem for many who had endured the deprivations of wartime shortages, let alone the concentration camps; and assurance that they had never been a member of Nazi organizations.
For the children at our center, there was the added pressure of securing this paperwork before they were 21 -- 18 for the Canadian programs -- when they would have to go the more difficult route of emigration as adults. The calendar was their bitter enemy; I don't remember ever celebrating a birthday at Aglasterhausen.
Perhaps that was one of the reasons the Jewish children, who comprised about one-third of the camp population, poured so much of their energy and enthusiasm into the Passover seder.
Stuck off in the German countryside, the Jewish kids were, as far as I could tell, totally isolated from contact with rabbi or synagogue, except for an occasional delivery of supplie from the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Moreover, there is little likelihood that any except the oldest could remember much about Passover celebrations in their own families.
Yet, on that spring night, they plunged into the ancient ritual with aplomb and enthusiasm and never a missed cue.
Earlier in the day, the older girls had scoured out the dormitory room, in accordance with the age-old tradition of purging every crumb of leaven, and decked it with pine branches.
The invitation to the five "international staff," as we called, was extended to us personally by the smiling Erno. At 22, Erno officially was classified as an "overage youth" and was on the center's payroll as a cook. The Hungarian-born Erno seemed by consensus to be the spokesman for the Center's Jewish children, probably becuase he had both the most English and the most chutzpah.
From somewhere, with little or no assistance from the staff, Erno and his crew had scrounged dinner plates to set the U-shaped seder table. The center population usually ate from those awful army-surplus trays, the kind with five or six separate compartments pressed into them.
At each place was a haggadah, the order of service for the seder. It, like the Passover wine and the matzoh, was provided by the Joint Distribution Committee. The teacher in me noted approvingly that the haggadah was in English, the language that was at the heart of our school program.
Probably more than half the children present bore on their forearms the tattooed serial numbers of the concentration camps. Virtually all had lost mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in holocaust experiences of unfathomable horror.
Much of the seder itself is a ritual reenactment of the first holocaust of the Pharoah 5,000 years ago, and yet this one was far from an occasion for tears, as one might expect in the circumstances. The evening from start to finish was upbeat, joyous.
The kids gathered around the tables, well-scrubbed, neatly pressed, and decked out in the finest togs our supply room of American cast-offs could provide. After graciously getting the guests, Erno and a number of the older boys raised the first cup of wine and began the kiddush: "Blesses art Thou . . ."
Benno watched intently as the afikomen, a special matzoh, was broken and Josef made a show of hiding it. At the end of the meal it would be the role of Benno and the other young ones to retrieve it and claim a prize.
Then came the four questions, traditionally put by the youngest. Benno, usually squirming with mischief-making but now glowing with the importance of his task, read out the first question, distinctly and in flawless English: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
With an absorption, a dedication I never before had encountered among them, they continued through the ritual: how the pharaoh had enslaved them, set taskmasters over them and used them ruthlessly; how they had cried out to God; how God sent the 10 plagues on the Egyptians and delivered the Jews; how God had not abandoned His people and would not foresake those who were faithful to him; how the Torah commands the faithful each year to remember the Passover.
There was no attempt to update the haggadah, to link the deliverance of the ancient Israelites to their own, so recently accomplished. They were not theologians; they were, despite their extraordinary circumstances, ordinary Jews, intent only on observing the traditions that linked them with past and future.
If the celebration evoked poignant memories among the older ones, they did not show it, bending their energies instead on shepherding the younger ones through the ritual. As the meal progessed, the atmosphere of celebration and joy increased -- helped, no doubt, by the successive cups of sacramental wine -- and they began to sing: in Russian, in Hebrew, the traditional songs.
The tempo of the singing grew, pervading the entire group. Caught up, now, in an almost mystical fervor, as the meal ended they began pushing back chairs and tables and launched into a simple rhythmic dance. b
As unobtrusively as we could, the non-Jews withdrew and headed back across the compound to our own billets. A sense of unity, of 5,000 years of peoplehood enveloped the room. No matter how graciously they had welcomed us, it was a moment that belonged to them.