The Passover Seder held deep in Nazi Germany

A Jewish chaplain and his assistant sent a powerful message in 1945

No History Club this week! It’s Passover and there’s much to prepare.

One preparation: hosting Passover Seder. My wife and I are hosting on Sunday, March 28th (via Zoom), which got me thinking about March 28, 1945, and the Passover Seder hosted in the heart of Nazi Germany during World War II.

The Seder was organized by a military chaplain, Rabbi Eli Bohnen, one of the U.S. Army’s highest-ranking divisional chaplains. Capt. Bohnen was promoted by Maj. Gen. Harry Collins, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division and a savvy communicator and strategist. One soldier recalled that “Hollywood Harry” never “came up to the front without a full compliment of war correspondents and combat photographers.” Collins recognized that a Jewish chaplain in a high-ranking position would send a message against anti-Semitism.

In late March, the 42nd Infantry Division launched an offensive into Germany, capturing the town of Dahn. Taking a rest to resupply and re-equip, Chaplain Bohnen noted that Passover was only a few days away. He decided to host a Seder, with Gen. Collins’s blessing.

Chaplain Eli Bohnen (right) leads a Passover seder in Dahn, Germany, on March 28, 1945. Image source: U.S. National Guard courtesy of the 42nd Infantry Division archives.

Bohnen and his chaplain’s assistant, Eli Heimberg, drove a Jeep back to France. They got cases of French wine, eight carts of fresh eggs, and fresh chickens—luxuries that G.I.’s didn’t normally have on the front lines. They commandeered an abandoned German meeting hall and, in the heart of Nazi Germany, held a full Passover Seder. U.S. army cooks did the cooking. A young soldier asked the four questions. Approximately 1,500 people attended from the 42nd and surrounding units, Jews and non-Jews alike.

The division also made the locals be the wait staff. German civilians served the food, cleaned the tables and washed the dishes long after everyone had finished eating.

Most interestingly, Bohnen and Heimberg printed a special Haggadah for the occasion. It was called the “Rainbow Haggadah,” after the division’s nickname the “Rainbow” Division. Bohnen and Heimberg couldn’t find any Jewish books in Dahn (nor could they find any Jews), and there were no printing presses with Hebrew characters. So, they used a photo off-set printing process to extract Hebrew text from U.S. Army prayerbooks provided by the Jewish Welfare Board. Printed almost entirely in Hebrew, the Rainbow Haggadah ended with an English “Prayer For Home,” and replaced the traditional Passover song of “Next Year in Jerusalem” with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).”

The Rainbow Haggadah created by Chaplain Eli Bohnen and his assistant Eli Heimberg for the 42nd Infantry Division Passover seder in Dahn, Germany March 28, 1945. Image source: U.S. National Guard courtesy of the 42nd Infantry Division archives.

The Haggadahs were printed on the same presses used to print the division’s newspapers. Bohnen later wrote in a letter that,

“The Soldiers who did the actual printing told us that when they had to clean the press before printing the Haggadah, the only rags available were some Nazi flags, which for once served a useful purpose.”

It’s likely that the Rainbow Haggadah was the first Hebrew-language text printed on German soil since Hitler had risen to power. A few copies still exist among the families of veterans, as well as in the archives of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History and the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Following the Seder, the 42nd Division continued into Germany. Less than a month later, they would liberate the Dachau concentration camp.

Harold Margol attended the Seder and took part in the liberation of Dachau. In an oral history interview years later, he reflected on the juxtaposition of those two events:

“It really struck me emotionally in retrospect. That [Seder] was in late March, and about twenty-eight days later, April 29, 1945, we liberated the concentration camp of Dachau. A few weeks before, we were celebrating the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, and a few weeks later we liberated the Jews that were in the concentration camp of Dachau. So, from that stand point, it was very meaningful to me.”

The savvy Gen. Collins recognized the symbolism in his message inside the Rainbow Haggadah:

“My Jewish Soldiers– The celebration of Passover should have unusual significance for you at this time, for like your ancestors of old you too are now engaged in a battle against a modern Pharaoh. This Pharaoh has sought, not only to enslave your people, but to make slaves of the whole world.”

May we each conquer the modern-day Pharaohs we’re fighting against, and may we each derive the strength from our ancestors to do so.

Happy Passover.

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