From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Dreaming of Matzah

Courage is never to let your actions be influenced by your fears.

Arthur Koestler

“If all you have is lemons, make lemonade.” But what if you could only dream of having a lemon, or a potato, or even a bowl of watery broth? Where would you find your strength? This was the situation twenty-eight-year-old Abraham Krotowski faced at Passover time in 1945 when he was dreaming of matzah while being held captive in Dachau, Germany.

To some Jews today, Passover is considered a difficult eight days during which you are not to nosh on your beloved bagel, not eat your favorite pasta, not indulge in your delicious pizza. But the commandments of Passover are not “nots.” As a remembrance of the Exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, we are commanded to eat unleavened bread. Out of respect for the sacrifices of those who have gone before, it is a mitzvah to eat matzah.

To a concentration-camp prisoner, however, any food is an impossible dream. Eating matzah would be considered crazy. Since being Jewish was the crime that you were being punished for, why flaunt that in the face of your captors? There was nowhere to get matzah, anyway. Or was there?

Call it crazy, but with the help of some friends, Abe set out to make matzah in Dachau. The resolve that he mustered to achieve his goal was the same determination that kept him alive through six difficult years in three ghettos and two concentration camps. He was, above all, a Jew, a survivor, sustained by the same belief that had kept the Jewish slaves in Egypt before him alive—that someday soon he would be free.

The recipe for making matzah in a concentration camp is an odd one. Start with a generous portion of determination, add a few packs of American cigarettes, throw in a German construction foreman with a fondness for schnapps, keep your faith, and say a brakhah (Hebrew blessing).

For some time, Abe had been sneaking out of the camp at night and had befriended some Russian and Italian officers who were prisoners working in the nearby building for a factory. Having cleverly fashioned woolen blankets into much-needed scarves to fend off the fiercely cold weather, Abe exchanged them for bread or potatoes, enough to sustain himself. He was an honest and clever barterer, aware that what one person doesn’t need, another will pay dearly for. You just have to know your customer.

Thanks to the American Red Cross, that winter some prisoners in Dachau received relief packages—a small bar of soap, some sugar cubes, one can of sardines and two packages of Camel cigarettes. For those like Abe who did not smoke, the cigarettes became valuable bargaining tools. Abe offered his cigarettes to a lazy German construction foreman named Karl, who seemed to pay little attention to the prisoners at work. Karl asked Abe what he wanted in return, and Abe said food. The German told Abe how to get into his work shack where he could take some bread. It was risky business since Abe would have been shot if caught. But Abe got the bread and later came to Karl again saying that there were some sick people in his barracks and they needed flour for soup. Karl said he could get him flour, but Abe had to bring him some schnapps—a nearly impossible request. A few days later, after much trading and bartering, Abe had a small bottle of vodka for Karl. When Abe gave Karl the bottle, he was certain he would be killed on the spot. But Karl was a man of his word—and a man with a fondness for drink. His eyes lit up when he saw the bottle, and in exchange he helped Abe smuggle a five-kilo bag of flour into the camp.

For three nights, Abe and his brother-in-law Isaac Zelinski, a baker by trade, made matzahs in improvised tin ovens, under the cover of darkness. They made enough matzah to feed the entire barracks so that, on Passover 1945, each of the seventy-five prisoners had their own piece of matzah to eat during the short, secret Passover Seder. No bitter herbs were needed to remind this group of the harshness of slavery—or that miracles can happen anywhere.

Trish Krotowski

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners