From an illegal Jewish movement to a Seder in the Gulag
From an illegal Jewish movement to a Seder in the Gulag

…I received several pieces of Matzo which would be my food during the whole of the Passover festival.

I see me crawling under the beds in my cell holding a lit match in my hand- doing the traditional Search for Chametz – Bedikat Chametz

Other prisoners ask: “What are you looking for under the beds?” and I answer- “I am looking for bread.” They laugh. “We already ate all the bread in the morning and none remains, and we are still hungry.”

I am sitting near the table. Lifting a piece of Matza and saying “Holochmo Aniyo..” “This is th bread of affliction..” (it is a very small room in which 5 other prisoners are sitting on bunk beds.)

The prisoners ask, “what are you saying there?” And I translate. They laugh – “is this the bread of affliction? If only we had such bread.”

The Pesach Seder Plate in Prison

… It was while I was in the Chistopol Prison. This was a very harsh prison. I was sent there for having kept the Shabbat in the hard labor camp. This was considered to be an offence. It was the tenth year of my incarceration. I was for some time in the same cell with another Prisoner of Zion, Hillel Butman

A month before the Passover festival I suggested that we hold a Pesach Seder.

He only laughed: “A Pesach Seder in the prison? It’s impossible.” I knew that he was an obstinate person and that if he said no- there was nothing one could do about it.

Therefore, I decided to make all the preparations alone.

In the Jewish underground in Russia one of the activities of Jewish education was to teach young people about the Pesach Seder.

I was lucky. Among my personal belongings I kept a postcard from Israel on which there was a photograph of a Pesach Seder Plate from the Israel Museum- a Pesach Seder Plate from Germany, from the 18th century.

Therefore, from this postcard I learned what I would need for the Seder Plate. And there was a further small miracle: in the margins of the postcard there was all the order of the Pesach Seder: Kadesh Urechatz.. I began at once to write my own Pesach Haggada according to the order written in the postcard.

I would need four cups of wine. How to obtain wine in the closely guarded security prison? – Very simple.

My father, Moshe Ben Aaron of Blessed Memory, had sent me 10 years previously a kilo of raisins. This was during the interrogation period and it was permitted to receive raisins. After the trial it was no longer permitted to receive anything like this.

I had saved the raisins during these years, I only used them for Kiddush. Although one needed the fruit of the vine –wine, but out of ignorance I decided that raisins were also fruit of the vine. Every Shabbat we would gather in another hut and I would make Kiddush over two raisins. By the tenth year there only remained to me a few handfuls of the raisins, but this was enough to make wine. And there was more. Every day a prisoner would receive a spoonful of sugar. People at once ate the sugar. But I decided to collect it. Every day I added another spoonful and another. After a month I had enough sugar.

I poured the sugar, raisins and hot water into the water-bottle and hid it underneath the bed. Although I was afraid that there might be a sudden search and they would discover my wine, but I had no choice.

Writer's note: How did I get into this situation? The distance from joining an illegal Jewish movement for aliyah in the USSR to the Gulag was a short one. The story is told below in the documentary of my life in Russia.

Article excerpted with permission from the writer's book "Unbroken spirit."