Is it possible to venerate freedom in slavery? That metaphysical question was posed, involuntarily, to the Jews who observed, or attempted to observe, Passover in Nazi concentration camps.
The story of my distant relatives — who were among the leaders of the Jewish prisoners of Bergen-Belsen — provides extraordinary insight into this question and into the meaning of Passover.
The story begins with my grandmother’s first cousin, Erna Falk, who was one of Germany’s leading opera singers in the 1920’s. Erna was a magnificent soprano. She commanded the stage of the Cologne Opera House from a young age and worked with, among others, the world-renowned composer and conductor Otto Klemperer.
Erna met and fell in love with Joseph “Jupp” Weiss, who served in the Kaiser’s Imperial Cavalry Guard and earned the Iron Cross for his service in World War I. Both were born in 1893, Erna in Krefeld and Joseph in Flamersheim, Germany.
They were married in 1922 and had two children: Wolfgang (Shalom) and Klaus-Albert (Aaron). Erna appeared on the cover of leading German magazines and on the radio to critical acclaim; Jupp built a family business in Cologne.
By 1933, their lives, and the lives of their fellow German Jews, were shattered. Joseph was arrested, ostensibly for smuggling but, in reality, for being Jewish. When he was released, Erna and Joseph fled to Ardenhout, Holland, near Amsterdam.
Believing themselves safe, Erna and Joseph rebuilt their lives and dedicated themselves to helping relatives and friends make their own Exodus from Germany. But the Dutch Jews were trapped after Hitler’s invasion of 1940. The Nazis removed Erna and Joseph from their home and eventually imprisoned them in Westerbork, a “transit camp” that prepared Jews to be sent to Auschwitz and other camps for extermination. (Anne Frank was in Westerbork.)
Even while imprisoned, Erna and Joseph continued their mission of helping fellow Jews and other refugees. Joseph was elected, by his fellow prisoners, as Lageraltester (Camp Elder). As such, he worked with Erna to care for the children in their barracks; Erna and Joseph frequently worked through the night, without sleep, to help fellow refugees and minister to the infirm. They also fought to have separate barracks for the elderly and sick. When they surreptitiously led prisoners in the observance of banned Jewish religious practices, they were threatened with death.
On Jan. 10, 1944, Erna and Joseph were shipped to Bergen-Belsen. Joseph was again Lageraltester and he and Erna continued to fight for their fellow refugees. Years later, he was eulogized by the Amsterdam Nieuwe Israelietisch Weekblad as “a man of dignity in a place of indignity.”
Shortly after the war, Joseph Weiss wrote his recollection of March, 29, 1945, which was Passover night in Bergen-Belsen:
“Tonight, you have to give a talk in every barracks,” my wife [Erna] reminded me when I greeted her in the morning in her barracks. What can I possibly say? I replied. Eighty percent of the people are ill: spotted typhus, general exhaustion. We are quarantined. There is hardly any bread left.
I have spoken at every previous Yom Tov [Holiday]…Think of Hanukkah eve when we lit candles simultaneously in every barracks including the infirmary and the old people’s and children’s barracks. This wasn’t just for the religious people, all Jews took part, not a negligible achievement in one of the vilest German camps. It is a sign of the strength and will to survive of Jews from 45 countries who are pressed into these barracks under inhumane conditions.
But to speak today, when I am required to recite “All who are hungry, come and eat with us?” No, Erna, that is too difficult to me.
“But that is exactly why you have to speak. The Haggadah verse you just cited will have to be the keynote for your talk…” answered my wife.
I visited all the barracks … and what I said went something like this:
“It is a paradox to recite the Haggadah verse ‘Come eat with us’ when the opposite is the case here. We all are hungry. We in leadership cannot get anything for you; our food situation looks hopeless…All I have is words to persuade you to have courage. Hold out five minutes longer. These are the last five minutes, we can feel it… We are among the very few European Jews who might possibly survive extermination.”
After 10 such speeches, I arrived at the children’s barracks…there was a marvelously set table. Our principal food in 15 months at Bergen-Belsen had been beets and turnips, but only once did I appreciate the value of the turnip; namely that evening: the Seder plate, the meal with its various dishes, and the wine (i.e. juice) were 90% turnip-derived.
Twelve days after Passover, Erna, Joseph and their youngest son were placed on a cattle train for Theresienstadt. The Germans knew they were losing the war, so the SS gave orders to conceal prisoners. What became known as the “Lost Train” meandered aimlessly for 13 days before it was liberated by the Soviets on April 23, 1945 in Trobitz, Germany.
Tragically, Erna died of typhus 14 days after liberation on May 6, 1945 in Trobitz. Joseph survived, was reunited with his two sons, and immigrated to Israel. He had Erna’s remains moved from Trobitz and interred in Jerusalem.
With the destruction of the Cologne Opera House and the persecution of Erna, nothing remained of her music.
Incredibly, Erna’s descendants found a recording of a pre-Nazi performance. The vinyl LP record, however, was so badly damaged it could not be played. Working with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, scientists were able to salvage two songs from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
The restored record was delivered to Erna’s grandchildren in Israel on Passover eve, 2015. The sublime voice that the Nazis sought to extinguish 86 years ago is now available to all.
If there is anything that can approximate an answer to the eternal question of the meaning of Passover, her voice — resurrected after all these years — is it.
The lives of Erna Weiss-Falk and Joseph Weiss stand as a reminder of real leadership and faith in humanity. Even in the hardest time imaginable, their iron will and unshakeable devotion to the elderly, to children, to fellow refugees, to the infirm and to the sick resounds through the ages.
Perhaps on this Passover they remind us that those politicians throughout the world who broadly condemn refugees as villains and criminals ignore the historical record while promoting themselves and dividing the citizenry.