I was very moved by the following brief speech my friend Tosia Szechter Schneider made at the “Unity Seder” at Atlanta’s leading reform Temple last month. It is really a poem as much as a speech, a poem about hope and memory. It is stunning to remember as we celebrate this feast of liberation, that there are people among us who in their own lifetime have actually gone from being slaves to being free. For more about Tosia, her life, and her remarkable memoir, see this foreword to her book, Someone Must Survive to Tell the World, available here.
Seder: From Tyranny to Freedom
Invited remarks delivered by Tosia Szechter Schneider at the “Seder of Unity” at The Temple, Atlanta 3/13/2018
In the days of old, a pillar of smoke led the way for Moses and the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
In our time, there were only the smokestacks of Auschwitz.
Unlike our ancestors, who fled their slavery with gold and silver, survivors were stripped of all their possesions, what was left were memories and scars, deep scars that never heal.
Jews lived in Poland for a thousand years.
The 16th century was The Golden Age of Polish Jewry. Poland was then refered to as:“Paradisus Judeorum,” a Jewish paradise. That paradise turned into a raging inferno in our time.
I grew up in a little town in eastern Poland, Horodenka.
30% of the population was Jewish, we lived and worked with our Polish and Ukrainian neighbors most of the time, in peace. Yes, we experienced discrimination and some violence as well.
In 1939 war broke out, and Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some of our people were exiled to Siberia; little did we know, that exile to that frozen wasteland of Siberia was much preferable to what awaited us all.
In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Germans occupied our town and the reign of terror began.
We all know about Auschwitz and Treblinka. Hundreds and thousands of our people were killed in mass shootings, as Father Patrick Desbois describes in his book Holocaust by Bullets.
My family was driven from one ghetto to another, starvation and disease took its toll. Eventually, I found myself in the forced labor camp of Lisowce. We were liberated by the Russian Army in 1944.
When the war ended, 90% of European Jews were no more. European Jewish culture lay in ruins, great institutions of learning, scholars, writers, and artists were lost.
I am the only survivor of 14 members of my immediate family
Yes. There were those who endangered their lives to save Jews, to them we are forever grateful. We honor them at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in israel.
We must be frank as well, about collaboration of some of the local population with the Nazis. No Polish laws, recently passed, can erase history.
It was a long and difficult road to learn to live a normal life again.
When i saw the Statue of Liberty, as I stood at the rail of the S.S. Marine Flasher, in 1949. My hopes was raised for a life of freedom, a life without fear.
For that I am most grateful. We raised a family, in our new country. We have three sons and five grandchildren.
As we celebrate Passover, our celebration is double, the delivery of our ancestors from slavery and thanksgiving for our survival and freedom.