Passover Story

Few people find a mission while cleaning house, but that is what happened to Saul Touster ’46, J.D. ’48. One day in 1996, as he was...

Few people find a mission while cleaning house, but that is what happened to Saul Touster ’46, J.D. ’48. One day in 1996, as he was sorting his father’s papers in the attic of the family summer home, a pamphlet fell to the floor at his feet. He saw that it was a Haggadah, a text for the Passover Seder, but it bore the insignia of the U.S. Third Army and had an unusual place and date on the cover: “Munich Enclave, April 15-16, 1946.”

At first glance Touster took it to be a U.S. Army booklet for the use of military personnel in Germany. But as he leafed through it, he was struck by the stark woodcuts of scenes from Nazi concentration camps. “I realized,” Touster recalls, “that this Haggadah recast the traditional Passover story of the Exodus in terms of liberation from the camps. That suggested to me that it had originated with survivors of the Holocaust.” Moved by the powerful images, Touster decided to try to find out more about them, and about why the U.S. Army had published them. He also wanted to know how the booklet had come into his father’s possession, since his own wartime service with the navy had been in the South Pacific and his parents had not traveled to Europe after the war.

Touster had recently retired from the faculty at Brandeis, where he taught American studies and legal studies. He had the time to pursue his quest and plenty of research experience. This case was different, however, because he had so little to go on. “I had only three names to start with,” he says, “so it was really like detective work.”

It took more than two years to uncover the full story. His father, he learned, was given a copy of the rare work in appreciation for his efforts on behalf of displaced persons after the war. Then a reference work on Yiddish authors pointed Touster to Canada, where Lithuanian writer Yosef Dov Sheinson, the “arranger” of the Haggadah and a survivor of Dachau, had emigrated. The Haggadah’s ink drawings and texts in modern Hebrew and Yiddish were Sheinson’s work. Eventually Touster traced Sheinson’s papers to a Montreal library, where a staff member was able to put him in touch with the writer’s widow. Then Touster found Rabbi Abraham Klausner, the American army chaplain named in the booklet, living in retirement in Santa Fe. Klausner told Touster that his official duties included holding a Passover service for American GIs, but he bent the rules a bit that spring. He was committed to holding a Seder for camp survivors on the first Passover after their liberation, and planned services on two successive nights, to provide a square meal for as many of the undernourished civilians as possible. Leaders of the Jewish community brought him a copy of Sheinson’s Haggadah, and Klausner arranged for the army to print it. But he could not recall who had made the woodcuts.

That remained the biggest stumbling block in Touster’s quest. Finally, an archivist he consulted at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust archive in Israel, put him in touch with a collector who recognized the woodcuts as the work of Miklós Adler, a Hungarian artist originally interned at Theresienstadt who survived the war only because his transport to Auschwitz was unexpectedly diverted to Vienna.

With his search complete, Touster wrote an introduction and commentary for a facsimile edition of the Survivor’s Haggadah with an English translation; a trade edition was published last year (Jewish Publication Society). “It has been a great adventure,” he says, “and very moving—hearing from so many people all over the world. One family has adopted my wife and me, and we’ve been invited to weddings and to celebrate holidays with them. If ever I thought that after retirement I might find a second ‘vocation,’ this has been it.”

   

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