As we approach the celebration of Passover, we recite the story of the first known mass liberation and exodus of hundreds of thousands of slaves in human history. We Jews are therefore reminded to treat the downtrodden and homeless with respect, because we were once slaves.
The Passover seder is one of the most widely observed religious rites among Jews, and it is increasingly shared with non-Jews, even at the White House. The Last Supper of Jesus, immortalized in Da Vinci’s painting showcased in Milan, Italy, after all was a seder. But Passover’s tale of liberation has been universalized into the human quest for liberation.
This is the theme of Michael Walzer’s “Exodus and Revolution,” published in 1985.As professor emeritus of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, he was struck by how Black churches used the story of Exodus to motivate the quest for freedom in the Jim Crow South, through sermons and gospel songs such as “Let My People Go.” He writes: “Wherever people know the Bible, and experience oppression, the Exodus has sustained their spirits and (sometimes) inspired their resistance.” Seventeenth-century Puritans in England and the Bay Colony of Massachusetts, Black Baptist churches in the 1960s, and Roman Catholic revolutionaries in Latin America all have used the Exodus story to seek political power and liberation. Even in America’s own revolution, the exodus story loomed large, when a founding father, Benjamin Franklin, suggested using the parting of the Red Sea as our national seal. And the secular Zionist leaders used the liberation motif in the founding of the Jewish State after two millennia of exile from freedom.
Just last week, this theme was highlighted by the premier of the film “Liberation Heroes: the Last Eyewitnesses,” which was part of the JCC MetroWest’s New Jersey Jewish Film Festival. The film featured the testimony of U.S. soldiers who liberated concentration camps in Germany. The producer is Andy Friendly, whose father, Fred Friendly, later an executive with CBS News, witnessed the horrors inflicted on their victims by the Germans, and the inhumane conditions the starving survivors faced.
The film showed footage of Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower and Generals Omar Bradley and George Patton leading troops and German civilians to bear witness to the carnage wrought by the Germans. GI eyewitnesses featured in the film included Jews, Christians, and a Japanese and an African-American, the latter two fighting for freedom even as their relatives were either incarcerated or suffered segregation in the Jim Crow South back home.
I had the pleasure of moderating a session with the producer, Mr. Friendly; Ari Zev, a former executive of the USC Shoah Foundation, which has so ably provided documentation of the Holocaust and other genocides; and the indefatigable Alan Moskin, a decorated sergeant who served in Patton’s 3rd Army. A Jewish native of Englewood, Moskin recounted the horrors he encountered when he and his fellow soldiers liberated the Gunskirchen concentration camp in Germany. He encountered the dead, whom he helped bury, and the “living skeletons” among the “undead.” Many of those who were liberated died shortly afterward from malnutrition and disease. And Moskin was a member of the Army of Occupation, running the many displaced person camps throughout Europe, where my parents lived and my brother was born.
Thanks to the efforts of Sarah Diamond, director of the New jersey Jewish Film Festival, and Lisa Melamud, we introduced Alan to Martin Baranek, a survivor liberated by Moskin’s unit. This reunion was both emotional and inspirational. Moskin was only five years older than Baranek, who was astonished to learn that his liberator was much younger than had thought. But Moskin reminded him that he was only 18 years old when he learned such a grievous lesson at such a young age of the power of unabated evil. Baranek’s story was captured in Melamud’s biography, “Determined: One Boy’s Holocaust Story.”
Even apart from its emotional impact, the power of “Liberation Heroes” is that it serves as another source of documentation that cannot be discounted by unfounded claims of bias or partiality by Holocaust deniers. It also serves as a counterweight against celebrity anti-Semites on Twitter, who were condemned by NBA great Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who invoked his father’s role in liberating Jews from their camps.
But Martin and hundreds of thousands of survivors were not the only ones who were liberated. Martin has three children, nine grandchildren, one great grandchild, and another on the way. Because so many survivors still believed in a future for themselves and the Jewish people, they had among the largest birthrates during the post-war period. Steven Spielberg’s epilogue in his brilliant film “Schindler’ List” displayed the hundreds of descendants made possible by Schindler’s heroism.
So the liberation of Moskin’s army did not liberate only the survivors but also provided the pathway for future generations not yet born, including yours truly.
The story of liberation endures forever.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014 and he is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation.