Jewish Journal

A Survivor’s Pesach

by Mojdeh Sionit

Posted on Apr. 10, 2003 at 8:00 pm

The Passover I spent with Rav Tov, a Jewish Rescue Organization in Vienna, in 2001, was my first time being separated from my family and  our Pesach seder.

Rabbi Michael Pressburger, a prominent Austrian rabbi, hosted us in his small Orthodox synagogue. Pressburger, a native Austrian, spoke fluent Farsi. He had been in close contact with Persian Jews, because he was responsible for teaching religion, morality and Torah to Jewish young adults.

As an immigrant Jew, I -- along with other emigrants waiting in Austria for permission to enter the United States and England as refugees --  was told that nobody was permitted to cook in his or her apartment for Pesach, because our kitchens were not kosher enough for Pesach.

Some older women were assigned to cook for about 150 people in the small kitchen of the synagogue, and the rest would help distribute the food on the tables, where we would sit at and listen to the seder. 

We all pitched in. I washed dishes with a few other women a couple of nights. Every morning, some young boys would bring white eggs to our rooms (only white eggs were considered kosher), no more than two eggs per person.

Vienna, the old city that has witnessed anti-Semitism and atrocities against Jews since 1420, was now serving as a way station for those Jews who waited for months to seek refuge in the United States or England. Vienna hosted numerous emigrants -- mostly from Iran and Iraq -- who were considered a "religious minority" and were treated as second-class citizens in their country.

The rescue organizations in Vienna were mostly Jewish and supported by American Jews, but they also helped other refugees, like Christians and Bahais, who were mostly from Iran.

In Iran, my family's seders fluctuated. When I was young, we had a big one surrounded by relatives. But over the years, many relatives and friends moved to Israel and America. And then the Iran-Iraq War began, and our Passover nights were filled with anxiety and fear -- and fewer people at our seder tables. We had almost eight Passovers like this.

It is said that the foods on the Passover table symbolize the hardship and bitterness of the time that Jews spent in Egypt. In Iran, we could certainly feel the pain our ancestors felt in Egypt: during the war you were never sure how many more minutes you would survive. Every second was rife with the possibility of hearing the loud warning siren, followed by the noise of an explosion  somewhere.

When war ended, the situation seemed to get better. However, Jews continued emigrating. Scared of being abandoned, they joined their relatives who were settled abroad.

And now, both war-surviving Iranian and Iraqi Jews got together for Passover in Vienna, again living in anxiety, fearing what the future would bring them.

That Passover in Vienna -- with all its hardship and difference -- was again a touch of what our people must have experienced in Egypt. I am sure that those Austrian Jews in Vienna who lived in ghettos like Judenplatz had felt what our ancestors felt in Egypt, too. In fact, I believe every Jew who has experienced war, hatred and atrocity must feel the same way.

After several months of waiting, Iraqi Jews headed to London and Iranian Jews headed to different cities in the United States; mostly to Los Angeles and New York. They left Austria with the hope of reaching peace and freedom.

This year, Passover 2003, I am in Los Angeles. It could have been a rather normal Passover, but only if the situation was normal. But it is not. Once more I am living in wartime. How many times can I experience war in my life?

At my seder this year, not only will I say, "Next year in Jerusalem," but I will pray that next year, all of us -- in Iran, in Iraq, in Los Angeles and in Israel -- will be able to have peace-filled seder.  

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