Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Memory and Memorizing: An Unexpected Lesson

April 30, 2022

By Shulamit Reinharz

While I was in France in March a few weeks before Passover, a side trip to Pau turned into a life lesson on the relationship between remembering and memory. My trip started in Toulouse, where I was invited to give a talk at a conference marking the launch of a new organization devoted to the study of European Jewry. I knew that Toulouse was relatively close to Pau, the town associated with the concentration camp named "Gurs."

The reason for traveling to Pau was steeped in knowledge of my mother's parents' fate, relayed to me through her memories. These grandparents, whom I never met, lived in Ludwigshafen, Germany, and were shipped to Gurs by train in 1940 because Hitler wanted the area in which they lived to be "Judenrein" (i.e., free of Jews). My grandfather, a lawyer, died in Gurs after a few months, unable to withstand the cold weather, lack of food, inadequate medical care and complete absence of work. My grandmother survived in Gurs until 1942 when she was deported and then died in a cattle car on her way to Auschwitz. That is the outline of the end of their lives.

In preparation for my trip to Gurs, I purchased and read a book published by the Israeli Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem. This book, "The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition," edited by Bella Gutterman and Naomi Morgenstern, is full of useful information about who was sent to the camp, when it was built, and its intended purpose. But, it also tells another story about an amazing occurrence in the spring of 1941 when my grandmother was still alive. As it turned out, many middle-class professionals such as judges, rabbis and students were among the inmates. The story that forms the heart of the book concerns one of those students.

Several months before Passover 1941, a young man — Aryeh Zuckerman — a yeshiva graduate, realized that he could write the Pesach Haggadah from memory because he knew the whole thing by heart. Somehow he found paper and pencil and wrote out the entire text on the two sides of five pages. What struck me was that he not only remembered the story of the Exodus, as we are commanded to do at the Seder table, but he remembered the Haggadah. His previous participation year after year in remembering the Exodus had inadvertently led to his memorizing the book about the Exodus. When his Hagaddah was complete, he gave it to someone in another bunk to copy. Eventually, numerous copies were made and on Pesach 1941, the inmates of Gurs held numerous sedarim in various bunks using the Gurs Haggadah. I can't know for sure that my grandmother read from these Haggadot, but I would like to think that she did and that it gave her some comfort.

I am extremely grateful to Naomi Morgenstern and Bella Gutterman, director of publications for Yad Vashem, for recognizing the value of this document that somehow survived the camp and the war, and for creating a book to explain its contents. I discovered this hagaddah as I explored the memories that remain of my grandparents. Since I never was able to actually celebrate Pesach with them, this book became a virtual substitute. I was also left with the question of what I should try to memorize.

But it is more than that. It is a lesson and an inspiration on the layers of memory that inspire our family stories and our Jewish tradition. May we Jews never again be in a situation that we will need to rely on memory in order to create a Haggadah. But, may we also contemplate the thin line between memory and memorizing, and may we be motivated to memorize much of our tradition.

Shulamit Reinharz is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Women’s Studies Research Center.