When I was a kid—around 10 or so—I went through this phase of fascination with World War II. It may well have started with the Molly books of American Girl, but I didn’t really stay with the American part of it. I wasn’t interested in the restarting of the country after the Depression, or the Pacific Theatre, or the military strategy or the nationalism or the Russian massacres.
I was drawn to the Holocaust.
I was consumed by it, in some ways; I read every book my library had on it, including the Really Big Books from the Adult Section where the librarians would watch me suspiciously. My mother despaired of the stack beside my bed of history books filled with pages and pages of black-and-white skeletons refusing to grin for the Nazi cameras. The interest was a phase not because I stopped being interested in the Holocaust but because I began to realize how very concerned adults were becoming that this was what I chose to read in my off time.
There were two main parts, I think, to why I glutted myself on information of one of the most horrific genocides in world history. One was that I was old enough to understand that pure evil is never pure in humans, which blew my mind. Adolf Hitler was a twisted and broken demon of a man—but he was a man who, in his own way, loved, laughed, believed. The seemingly bottomless well of hate he contained was not from his being an otherwordly spirit of destruction, although it seems that way sometimes. He lived and died as human as I am—and that baffled me. The other was that people survived this. The Holocaust victims who lived—who live still, though in fewer numbers as age catches them—were an incredible source of hope to 10-year-old me, proof that you could go through Hell and come out the other side. I was just beginning to appreciate what dying actually meant, and to see the people who had looked Death in the face and come back was terribly powerful.
I am still drawn to this, now that I am old enough to know to hide that behind academic fascination and righteous outrage, perhaps for the same reasons. So it was doubly intense that Interpreter should loan me this Wolloch Haggadah, a Pessach (Passover) haggadah (script) specifically wrapped around the memory of the Holocaust.
He’d loaned me another haggadah, if you remember, geared more towards kids. This one is, in many ways, much plainer. Each page is English facing Hebrew; since I don’t understand Hebrew, I don’t know if it’s a direct translation or more of a general idea. I think it’s pretty close, though, because there’s a lot of repetition in the rite and even I can see that in both alphabets. The Hebrew is all in calligraphic script done beautifully by Yonah Weinrib. Even on the pages where there are no illustrations (which get more numerous as the book go on) the script itself is the art calligraphy is meant to be.
The thing about the haggadah as a rite is that it is meant to remind the Jewish people of God’s mercy toward them. God’s Spirit passed over their houses in the last of the plagues against Egypt, severing their bonds of slavery by utterly pinning Pharaoh to the floor, killing every firstborn of the Egyptians. I’ve always had a bit of trouble with that, for the obvious reason of whoa-God-killing-children but also for the Egyptians who were not part of this and their grief seemingly unearned.
Yet they were part of this. They were every person who did not say, “the Jews are not ours to own.” They were the people who admired the wonders of Pharaoh and did nothing about the blood on which they were built. It is not surprising, then, that David Wander had so much to work with in his illustrations for this book and the stark parallels between the Jewish exodus from Egypt and the attempted destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust. (There’s a really great explanatory article here, if you have the time.) The world was the Egyptians; the world watched Hitler ascend and did nothing, did not believe—still does not believe, to some extent. There was a professor at my undergrad who flatly denied that the Holocaust happened; she felt that there had been some small scale violence against Jews that they had then exaggerated.
Six million Jews were killed in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Another five million people were killed for various other reasons—political dissent, sexual orientation, “incorrect” ancestry, or any number of other things. That’s eleven million people, which is 11 and 6 zeros. In perspective, 11,000,000 is 100 times the amount killed by the nuclear bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined. There’s a really powerful film about what that number is, because we truly can’t wrap our heads around that much deliberate death.
This ritual of Passover is hard for me as a Gentile (non-Jew) to understand sometimes, and yet it is easy to see the need of remembrance. We must remember, we must teach our children, we must look back just as we look forward. The hope that is built into the script of there being a rebuilt Jerusalem, of the promised messiah coming to save the nation, is all the more poignant opposite paintings of chimneys smoking toward half-obscured Stars of David, ragged around the edges as though just torn off of a shirt.
I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t more paintings in this. About halfway through the book it feels like Wander just stopped; there are a few more paintings at the end, but most of it is calligraphy. Also, while I appreciate the inclusion of several songs at the end, I was sad that there wasn’t any music notation for most of it, especially in the English translations. But Wander pulls no punches in his comparison, and the ritual gains new strength.