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The story of Rabbi Abraham Klausner, the forgotten hero of the hardest Passover.

On the evenings of 15 and 16 April 1946, 200 survivors and GIs gathered for a Seder night unlike any other, before or since

    When the rabbi stepped into Dachau, he felt worthless. The camp stank, it wailed, swirling with stick-like figures, and had only been liberated for a few days. Surrounded by degradation, he watched an American GI flick a cigarette butt at three survivors in loose, hanging camp garb – who flung themselves darting under a fence like dogs to retrieve it.

    The rabbi looked different from the ones survivors knew. He was young, round-faced, and in American military uniform. His name was Abraham Klausner, born in Memphis, Tennessee, and he was the Jewish Chaplain in the US Third Army.

    He felt he had no purpose, nothing to give. Yet he did have something to offer, and would in a matter of days find himself the leader and father figure to the some 32,000 liberated Jews in and around Dachau – the Survivors’ Rabbi.

    Today, Rabbi Klausner is a forgotten Jewish hero, a man who helped tens of thousands find their families, their route to Palestine, and themselves, in the fetid and shell-shocked Displaced Persons camps of Bavaria. The rabbi walked in nervously, fingering cellophane envelopes filled with miniature mezuzahs the Jewish Welfare Board had given him to hand out. He had no brief, and he felt that nothing summed up how clueless the US Army and American Jewry were to help the Holocaust survivors than his stupid mezuzahs in cellophane.

    This is how his work began. On that first day, the rabbi steeled himself, and entered one of the low-lying grey barracks. He was assaulted by the stench, “telling, by churning and cleaving to the gut, of the ethos of human degradation”. To most, he was nearly invisible – just “an apparition”. He felt lost, hopeless and aghast. How could he ever do anything to help them? But one weak, weeping voice pierced the silence, begging: “Do you know my brother?”

    The emaciated survivor explained that his brother, who had emigrated to America, was also serving as an army chaplain. The Rabbi did not know the brother, but he knew immediately he had found his role in Dachau. Once Kaddish was said and the dead were buried, Klausner vowed he would reunite the survivors with what families and friends they had left, “and this way thread them back to the reality they once knew”.

    We remember – or rather, we imagine – black and white footage of cheerful, waving survivors greeting smiling GIs. This could not be further from what it was really like in 1945. The survivors more often than not repulsed American troops. We see this in letters. One of the first American soldiers into Dachau, Lieutenant Bill Cowling, wrote home: “They were dirty, starved skeletons with torn clothes, and they screamed and hollered and cried … I finally managed to pull myself free and get to the gate and shut it so they could not get out.”

    The survivors were not free. They were still locked in camps and hastily tossed together Displaced Person Centres. To Klausner’s fury they were not even recognised as Jews but sorted as Poles, Romanians, Lithuanians, and so on… often forced into barracks with those who harmed them. There was anger and neglect in the camps. One survivor heckled an American solider: “What’s the difference between you Americans and the Nazis except you don’t have gas chambers!” Conditions were so dire that US troops even wrote home from “liberated Dachau” warning of “genocide by neglect” of the skeletal Jews.

    Rabbi Klausner treated the survivors differently. Unlike others who came in contact with them, the rabbi did not regard them as scum, malleable fools, raw material or pitiful sheep. Klausner saw them not only as his equals: the rabbi saw them as tough Jews whose very souls had been reshaped by what they had survived. Jews, years before such a category as a “Holocaust survivor” was spoken of, that the rabbi had understood. This is why all Jewish life in the shattered landscape of Dachau and its sub-camps soon began to revolve around Klausner.

    The survivors were still trapped behind barbed wire and red tape. They were an afterthought, at the bottom of the food chain, denied entry to America or Palestine. This is the attitude the Survivors’ Rabbi rebelled against. He wrote endless letters to Jewish agencies in the US asking for help. When none came, he broke every rule to provide it himself. He even went as far as repeatedly sneaking back into Dachau after his unit was transferred elsewhere.

    The military authorities would not even give the Jews access to printing. When the army refused to help the rabbi draw up and print out a survivors’ list of the 32,000 Jews in Dachau and its sub-camps – lists that were indispensable if family members were ever to find each other in the chaos – Klausner went AWOL. Against strict military rules, he had the survivors’ lists printed privately in nearby Landesberg, where Hitler had penned Mein Kampf.

    Klausner set up with his lists in the bombed-out Deutsches Museum in Munich. As word spread, survivors began scrambling from all over Europe to the museum. The rabbi’s office became his own Wailing Wall, where survivors would pin notes and messages showing they were alive. The scrawled-on wall disgusted US military personnel, who ordered Klausner to scrub it down. Risking court martial, the rabbi refused.

    Klausner knew the survivors needed more than food and clothes to move forward. They needed a sense of community, and they needed psychological strength. Klausner agonised over how to breathe life into “my people”. With Passover 1946 approaching, he knew the Seder was his greatest opportunity. He would turn it into a festival for the survivors: both using US military rations and breaking religious orthodoxy.

    This was to be the Survivors’ Passover. On the evenings of 15 and 16 April 1946, 200 survivors and GIs gathered in Munich’s Deutsches Theatre restaurant. This elegant dining room had been popular with Nazi grandees. It was to be a Seder night different from all other Seder nights, before or since, as Klausner had discovered a radical rewriting of the Haggadah itself, written in Hebrew and Yiddish by Yosef Sheinson, a Hebrew teacher and survivor of the Kovno Ghetto.

    This was the Survivors’ Haggadah. Why was 
it so necessary? Because the rabbi knew that only a Haggadah written by and for Holocaust survivors could make Judaism meaningful 
for those who had seen the death marches. The opening page starkly rewrote the text’s most echoing words as: “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.” It reflected the feelings among survivors that their experiences in the camps were a calamity darker than Egyptian slavery.

    The rabbi, who saw survivors all around him casting off a Judaism that did not respond to the Holocaust, rushed to publish this radical, some might even call sacrilegious, text. The Haggadah was published with the help of the American Third Army at the former Nazi printing house, Bruckmann KAG.

    That night, the dining room was as elegant as a Viennese restaurant for the Seder. Everything had been done to make the survivors feel that, once again, they were no different from anyone else. The long tables were covered with white tablecloths, silver cutlery and neatly folded white napkins, and set with flowers and bottles of sweet kosher wine. For the survivors, the symbolism and luxury were breathtaking. Yet, each agonised over why they had survived and their loved ones had not. The rabbi understood this, and when he rose to begin the Seder with a speech, he made a point of addressing the hundreds of absent families and fellow Jews who perished during the war, blessing their memory.

    How did the survivors respond to returning to Jewish rituals? “We read the Mah Nishtana,” remembered Solly Ganor, then 18. “We asked, what had changed? What is the difference between this night and any other night? The first and most painful difference was the absence of small children who traditionally asked the four questions. The Nazis murdered them all.”

    This is why a Survivors’ Haggadah was essential. The Rabbi knew the Seder could not pretend there had been no devouring. That is why that night, the text they read was both bitter and ironic: “When the righteous among the nations of the world saw that Hitler had decided to exterminate Israel, their great assembly came together and out of their great sorrow decided to keep silent. And the Children of Israel groaned and cried out but were not heard. And they cried out to the Lord, the God of their fathers, who saw their suffering and oppression, and their cry went up.”

    The Survivors’ Haggadah spoke to the scars and experiences of those assembled: “When peace came down on Earth, the people of Israel were gathering. The surviving remnants were coming out of the caves, out of forests, and out of death camps, returning to the land of their exile. The people of those lands greeted them and said: ‘We thought you were no longer alive, and here you are, so many of you.’ And they sent the survivors all sorts of messages, telling them to leave the land, even killing them.”

    Radically, God himself was portrayed as a spectator of the Holocaust. Dayenu, instead of reciting God’s wondrous acts, listed the atrocities permitted by God: “Had He given us Hitler but no ghettos, we would have been content. Had He given us ghettoes but no gas chambers and crematoria, we would have been content. Had He given us gas chambers and crematoria, but our wives and children had not been tortured, we would have been content.”

    The Survivors’ Haggadah was given furthering terrifying majesty by seven haunting woodcuts by the artist Miklos Adler, a survivor from Debrecen, in Hungary. One image showed a hard-faced Nazi officer separating a boy from his mother as Jews trudged off toward smokestacks. “While Pharaoh decreed death only for male children, Laban sought to uproot all,” read the Haggadah. In the final woodcut, smoke was seen curling up from tall chimneys, becoming the disembodied heads of an old couple and a child. The caption read, ‘We are bound to…’ leaving out the final word ‘continue’.”

    “It was our first Passover Seder after our liberation,” remembered Solly Ganor. “We were going to celebrate a double holiday of freedom. One for the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the other, our Exodus from Hitler’s concentration camps.” Solly’s father was a friend of Sheinson, the Haggadah’s original author, and the three men had survived the Kovno Ghetto together. “Yet Moses managed to bring all the Jewish people to freedom, whereas only a fraction of European Jewry survived the Holocaust. What were we to do?”

    To this simple question Klausner had the answer. The Four Sons were retold in Zionist terms. In the Survivors’ Haggadah the Wise Son is told: “Who knows how long their charity and their protective arm shall be extended to us? A home and a country should not come out of charity but by right.”

    We should not forget this rabbi, and this Seder, nor let the survivors turn into a faceless myth. To this day there is still something shocking in the Survivors’ Haggadah. In its simplicity and its terrifying woodcuts, it speaks of a destruction worse than slavery, an absence more frightening than the desert.

    When in the ninth century Rabbi Amram, Gaon of the great Talmudic Academy of Sura, dispatched the first Haggadot he had compiled by the Euphrates, he sent them not just to 
Barcelona, where the Jews needed them, but to the future. 
This was his wisdom. It is said he did not write down the prayers, but only their order, and left it open what should be said in between – to keep them alive. 