Why is this Haggadah different from all others? Hitler.
This particular Haggadah, different from all others, was bound to raise eyebrows — if not create a furor.
We don’t know much about its origins, but here’s what we do: It was written by a Jew in Rabat, Morocco, sometime after the start of Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion that spelled victory against the Axis Powers in French North Africa, and recounts those events. The author was someone called Nissim Ben Shimon (Nissim, the son of Shimon), who is named on the cover in French as Simon Coiffeur (Simon hairdresser). No other texts are attributed to him, nor does the name appear in other documentation, so it’s likely a pseudonym. One thing we do know for sure — and it’s enough for some to dismiss the Haggadah outright, and for others to be instantly intrigued — is its title.
“The original Judeo-Arabic actually says ‘Haggadah de Hitler’ — ‘The Hitler Haggadah,’” said Jonnie Schnytzer, a 38-year-old Ph.D. candidate at Bar-Ilan University, who happened upon the text one day in 2019, while researching North Africa. “You’ve taken Pesach, you’ve taken the Haggadah, and you’ve added to it the one keyword in Google that we all know and have very problematic connotations with, and that’s Hitler, and you’ve put them together.”
Schnytzer was shocked at the author’s chutzpah and compelled by what he found inside the unassuming pamphlet-sized volume. Ben Shimon or Coiffeur (if that is the author’s real name) took the structure of the traditional Haggadah’s Magid section and gave it a contemporary makeover.
“He does actually what the sages have told us for generation upon generation: to see ourselves as if we are part of the Exodus,” said Schnytzer, who adapted “The Hitler Haggadah” for its first publication since 1943, translating it to English with the help of his father. “He suddenly sees ‘wow this is happening today.’ The Allied forces, instead of God, are the ones that are bringing plagues upon, instead of Pharaoh, Hitler. He’s retelling a story, the story of his generation, which is the Allied forces beating Hitler, Mussolini.”
The resonances are not subtle. The text cribs a large amount of the Magid’s language and sticks largely to the format we know. That said, the specifics, and the substitution of proper nouns, make for quite the tour of history.
In the text, “Rabbi Joseph Stalin,” an Allied leader subbing in for the traditional Rabbi Jose, asks how it might be inferred Berlin suffered 10 plagues and Hamburg, 50.
Those plagues include the “Flying Fortress” (Boeing B-17s), flamethrowers and the Royal Air Force.
England is named the wise son, Hitler the wicked one, America the good one and Mussolini not “worthy of our words.”
Toward the end of the text we read that had Charles de Gaulle (tantamount to God here) “revoked the anti-Jewish laws but not reinstated Jews in their positions,” Dayenu — it were enough.
If this sounds like a strange project, it was in fact part of a genre popular in North Africa at the time. A writer named Asher Hassin, in Casablanca, for example, produced “The Hitler Maggilot.” Coiffeur’s book also has a kind of Canadian answer in A.M. Klein’s play on Homer, “The Hitleriad,” and is in the same kind of tradition as the bawdy, gruesome take on the Passover story from Sarajevo, “The Partisan Haggadah,” written in Ladino by a Jewish guerilla fighter.
But Schnytzer says “The Hitler Haggadah” is unique for its window into a region often neglected in Holocaust accounts, addressing what he calls a “black hole” of awareness for the travails of North African Jewry during the war.
In an essay for the republication, co-written by Schnytzer and his father, that reality is outlined. In Tunis, the Nazis and the SS occupied the area from November 1942 to May 1943. A Judenrat, a council representing the Jewish community, was established, and labor camps existed throughout Tunisia, and around 1,000 Jews died from malnourishment and disease. There were pogroms in Libya after the Axis got a foothold there. Coiffeur’s Morocco faced anti-Jewish laws that took stripped owners of their businesses and, in some instances, confined Jews to a ghetto.
It was a bleak time that deserves more attention. But with the early Allied victory in the African theater, the outcome allowed for a new mood among the Jews there — one befitting a sort of miraculous deliverance from oppression. As early as 1943, Coiffeur could laugh that, in a reversal of the Exodus story, the Italians were forced to flee Africa in such haste that “their dough didn’t even have time to turn into macaroni.”
By reprinting the text in an English edition, with a Hebrew translation from Judeo-Arabic by Avishai Bar-Asher, a facsimile of the original volume and essays to give the work context, Schytzer hopes to show how the African experience was distinct from the European one. He also interviewed North African survivors to better understand the period for his own edification.
“It’s important for each of us to understand the narratives and stories of different groups, and ideally for it to become part of how we see ourselves as Jews,” Schnytzer said. “So even if my grandparents come from East Galicea and had to eat gefilte fish, I’m still interested, for me and my kids, in creating a Jewish identity to incorporate that.”
In some ways, that is the message of the text itself. While illustrative of an overlooked and parallel history, Schnytzer said the most amazing aspect of “The Hitler Haggadah” was how it spoke to our commonalities through a shared tradition.
“There’s an incredible message here, an inspirational message of Jewish solidarity, because he’s a Jew living in Rabat, in North Africa, and yet he’s worried about what’s going on with his brethren in Germany, in Poland,” Schnytzer said. Even as the mood appears to have been jubilant in North Africa, the unknown author recognized there were members of his people still in bondage.
As Jews around the world sit down for our Seders, and tell the story of Passover as commanded, we can be reminded of our common origins — the larger story coming out of Egypt. How curious that something called “The Hitler Haggadah” could bring us that refresher.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected],