The view from Milwaukee’s Holocaust Seder

Before leading the motzi at this year’s Holocaust Seder, Rabbi Steve Adams took a moment to thank some people at Ovation Sarah Chudnow for their help in advance of the event.

“I’d like to thank the residents who helped make the butterflies on the centerpieces at your tables, Susie Fono for making the challah cover and Stephanie Granger, who folded the napkins like butterflies.”

Rabbi Adams making opening remarks

He lifted the blue fabric rectangle trimmed in pearls, then recited HaMotzi as the 80 attendees, a mix of Chudnow residents, community members and volunteers, followed in their booklets. Alongside each menu item was the name of the survivor whose recipe was used. All came from “The Holocaust Survivor Cookbook: Recipes from Around the World,” which includes recipes from Milwaukee-area survivors.

That book, and the Milwaukee-area survivors whose recipes are in it, sparked the Seder, which is now in its fifth year.

“In the fall of 2015, somebody showed me the book and said ‘I noticed that a couple of residents have recipes in here and I’d like to do something with this. What can we do here?’,” Adams recalled. “I said, ‘How about a Seder-like evening, when we read some of their stories and serve their food?’”

The next hurdle was figuring out an appropriate time of year. Adams noted that International Holocaust Remembrance Day occurs at the end of January, a time when the Jewish calendar is relatively quiet.

“That particular year,” he said, “it occurred on a Wednesday, so we do it now on the Wednesday closest to International Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Rabbi Adams with resident Susie Fono and her son David Fono

Between 80 and 100 people attend each year, according to Arleen Peltz, chair of the board of directors for the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and Ovation Communities.

For the first three years, the event focused on Holocaust survivors as a whole. With the Seder becoming an annual institution, organizers have tweaked components of the event. Last year featured stories and recipes from the German Jewish community; this year, Poland and its community was the focus. In 2018, Adams received an award for innovative programming from the Association of Jewish Aging Services. The award was presented at the group’s national conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. As a result, Holocaust Seders are beginning to catch on in other states, Adams said. He knows of at least two facilities in New Jersey and New York who now also host annual Holocaust Seders.

Two of this year’s recipes were from survivors who settled in Milwaukee, Sala Mydlak and Tauba Biterman, both of blessed memory.

“One very special resident who we lost last year was Sala Mydlak,” Adams said. “We have used her recipes several times and this year, we are serving her cabbage rolls.”

Mydlak’s two daughters and their families were in attendance, and her grandson Jonathan Naimon shared his memories of his grandmother. He recalled Shabbat dinners, Sala’s passion for reading (“specifically books related to the Holocaust”) and how she found “her own little community” after moving to Sarah Chudnow. She and his grandfather Aron, Naimon said, “symbolized hope for our family.

Resident reading story of a survivor.

“Living to see nine great-grandchildren, with a tenth on the way, they most certainly defeated the odds after losing close members of their family,” he said. “She left quite the legacy behind, that even when you face adversity, to continue to fight and that nothing matters more than family.”

Dessert was Tauba Biterman’s apple cake. Her friend Fono read Biterman’s story from the Seder Haggadah, which included brief biographies of the people whose recipes were served at the dinner. Biterman’s grandson Aaron wrote that she was interned in several Jewish ghettos and survived the war by posing as a Catholic woman, thanks to a former employer and his wife who gave her the wife’s birth certificate.

“The rest of her family survived the war by taking refuge in the former Soviet Union,” Biterman wrote. “…my grandmother lived past the age of 101 years in Milwaukee until her death a few months ago. She was a Holocaust speaker and educator.”

Steven Russek, whose mother Dora was evacuated from Auschwitz-Birkenau, explained in his Seder talk why he continues and will continue to tell his mother’s story.

“The failure to meaningfully comprehend history opens the path of ancient hatreds to be renewed and new hatreds to be created,” he said. “I view the lessons of my parents through both particular – Jewish – and universal – humanitarian – lenses.”

For Jews, he said, the situation in the world is worsening, citing the unprecedented number of attacks on Jews over the past 14 months. As an American and a global citizen, the lessons of the Shoah make it an imperative for him to study the history of and engage with other persecuted groups to understand and appropriately empathize with their plights, and to do what he can to make the world a better place for all.

“Sharing my mom Dora’s story of persecution and survival is one way of accomplishing this goal,” he said. “Many children of Shoah survivors, the so-called second generation, have chosen to do the same. We must take on the mantel, to convey the narrative of our parents in personal and intimate terms and make a lasting memory in each person with whom we speak.”