Hallel / Siberia
Kibbutz Lavi, 1994
When I was in the Gulag [a work camp for prisoners and prisoners of war in Siberia] from 1942 until 1948, these were the six hardest and bitterest years. In 1942 we knew when Passover fell because we were close to the border with Hungary and Russia however in 1943 we didn’t know. In 1944 we were informed by chance when Passover was, and this is the story: One day we went in a large group to work in the forest. Behind us was a guard, a Russian army soldier.
My friend and I were not in good physical condition, and therefore we were lagging behind the group. We were both former Yeshiva students.
The Russian guard, who was walking behind us, was singing something. I noticed that he was signing something very familiar to me. I said to my friend: pay attention to what he is singing. He is singing Hallel! My friend didn’t believe it – how was it possible that a Russian guard knows Hallel? I went up to the guard and asked him: “What are you singing?” and he sang to me: “When the children of Israel left Egypt” and he said to me you should know this is a Passover song.” The guard told us that he was Jewish and that he came from Kharkiv. His parents were very religious but he had been secular since he was a child. He went to a study hall and from there he knew all the prayers. For me and my friend it was a shock. Today was Passover and we knew nothing. We arrived at the workplace in the forest and started to fell trees according to the daily quota. We had to fell the trees, chop them and put them on carriages. On the same day we worked with a long saw and during the entire time of the work we sang Hallel.
I do not remember any time in my life that I sang Hallel with such intent as I sang in the forest. Of course it is not possible to think of a similar situation. The food that they gave us was watery soup three times a day. If we were lucky we found a piece of potato in it. Sometimes the soup was so salty that we could not eat it and sometimes it was too bland without any salt.
In 1948 we knew when Passover was. And that was also by chance. Our friend travelled to the town of Kirov in order to receive provisions (a journey of twenty four hours one way and twenty four hours return). In one of the warehouses he met an old Jew from Ukraine.
The old man had prepared a calendar for himself and according to that calendar he knew that it was Passover. The friend brought the news back to us at the camp.