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Pesach in Siberia
by Eliezer Naness

Excerpted from his book Subota, which details his experiences in a Russian labor camp where he was imprisoned for nearly two decades

Just before Passover in 1938, I was summoned to the camp office. The commandant's aide informed me that my wife had sent a package containing warm clothing, a hundred rubles and a packet of matzot. He gave me everything except the matzot. "Because you do not work on Saturday, you will be having enough troubles. I advise you, for your own welfare, not to take the matzot. Ask the commandant to return them to your wife. Then there can be the possibility of discussing transferring you, and maybe your friend too, to some lighter work."

I thanked him for his advice and good intentions, and asked him to give me the matzot because I would not eat chametz (leaven) on Passover.

The representative apologized and added, "I can only warn you that you are doing yourself, and especially your young friend [Shmuel], a grave disservice. There is talk in camp already that you are demoralizing the other prisoners of your brigade. You know that there are plenty of ways of eliminating undesirable elements here. They'll send you off some place. On the way 'something' will happen. Your bones will never be found."

He gave me the matzot and said no more. I walked off delighted that we had matzot for Passover. The day prior to Passover, we went out to work as usual.

In the evening, when all the prisoners went to eat, Shmuel and I prayed the Passover evening service. Then we spread out a sack on the shelf where we slept at night and set the seder on it. We put out three matzot for both of us. We didn't have maror (bitter herbs) but we didn't lack bitter experiences. We had no wine either, but we had it in our thoughts, and we began the seder. First we recited the Kiddush. Then Shmuel asked me the four questions.

Shmuel and I spoke of our relatives. I thought of how my wife and my mother were now sitting in their houses alone, and that they were surely shedding tears over my condition in this brutal camp.

Shmuel's thoughts were of his parents, also sitting at the seder without him. We decided then, that whatever awaited us the next day, on the holiday of Passover, we would not work. Just as the nation of Israel believed that G-d would redeem them from Egypt, so we believed that G-d would save us from this camp and that He would take all the Jews from Russia and bring them to Israel; just as the Jews could not escape from Egypt, so the Jews could not escape from Russia. Only G-d could take them from Russia and bring them to the Land of Israel.

Late that night we presented our brigadier with some matzot. He was very grateful and promised to help me.

"You'll have to go out with the rest of the brigade. Otherwise I'll have to report you. Out there we'll find a way to keep you from working on the holiday."

On the first day of Passover, Shmuel and I evaded the brigade. The brigadier pretended not to notice our disappearance as we went wandering around the area. We found a tiny abandoned, unheated room, where we huddled in the intolerable cold. In the evening, when the brigade finished its work, we came out. Our reception was unfriendly.

After roll-call, everyone went to the mess hall while we prayed, conducted the second seder, and lay down to sleep. The following morning, the brigadier had a paternal conversation with us.

"You know that there are no secrets in camp. The commandant has already been informed that you did not appear for work yesterday because of your holiday. The rumor is that you will be tried for 'collective refusal to work.' You are well aware that your reward for this can be a rope. I won't force you to work on your holy days, but I will not suffer along with you. Do as you wish without involving me. I want nothing to do with the whole thing."

Avoiding work that day was much more difficult than the first day, but we managed. Frozen and famished, we wandered around the work area. When night finally fell, we davened and then returned to our brigade and started working. Returning to the zone, we found our supervisor waiting for us.

"Look here," he said to me. "If you want to destroy your life, that's your affair. I don't wish you any evil, G-d forbid. The commandant isn't the least interested in your trial, because this can cast a shadow on his whole career. He can send you to the other world without any trial, and he has done exactly that more than once to others. Consider very carefully how to get out of this danger."

In the commandant's office we found an NKVD colonel. The colonel spoke calmly and patiently, as though he counted his words. "What is the nature of your refusal to work on Saturdays and Jewish holidays?"

"Only religious."

"We have taken a particular interest in this matter. We are informed that, according to Jewish law, work is permitted on Saturday if danger to life is involved. Hence, it is clear to us that your refusal to work, especially in a collective manner, is of an absolutely political nature. Crimes of this sort may be punished by execution. We shall grant you one more chance. If you assure us that henceforth you will work honestly and diligently every day of the week, as do the others, we will give you your proper sentence. In addition, if your conduct is good, we might transfer you to lighter work."

He paused for our answer. "Well, what do you say?"

"I will not work on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays under any condition," I answered categorically. Shmuel said the same.

"I believe you will reconsider this," the colonel answered in a mixture of anger and exasperation. "In the meantime, go to sleep." Despite threats, beatings, and torture, Eliezer Naness never "reconsidered" when it came to the observe of mitzvot.

In 1965, ten years after he was released, Eliezer Naness and his wife were finally allowed to leave and settle in Israel, where he lived until his passing last year.

 

 


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