In the Former Soviet Union, Jews were unable to practice their faith, and many were enslaved and tortured. Passover is therefore especially meaningful to them.
When the Soviet Union still existed, all religious observance was strongly discouraged by the Soviet state. Thus, Jewish national expressions, whether such sentiments were religious or Zionist, were clamped down upon. The Bolsheviks set up a special Jewish section of the government which was tasked with trying to detach Jews from Judaism and the Hebrew language. In 1919, Jewish communal properties such as yeshivas were shut down. It became illegal to study Hebrew and print Jewish books. In 1928, it even became forbidden to print Hebrew calendars. While Soviet Jews living in non-Nazis occupied territories did experience a reprieve during WWII, the repression continued after the war ended. One of such Soviet persecutions was a prohibition on baking matzoh.
The American Jewish Congress on Soviet Jewry, writing in 1965, reported, “As a result of official Soviet policy, the vast majority of Soviet Jews will not have matzoh again this year. This means that they are again forcibly deprived of the chief means of observing Passover properly. American Jewry protests this discriminatory deprivation with all the force at its command.” Due to such protests, matzoh baking was then permitted in Moscow, Leningrad and Odessa. Yet even in those places, restrictions made purchasing matzoh very difficult.
According to the American Jewish Congress on Soviet Jewry, “Matzah baking has been prohibited this year in Minsk, capital of Byelorussia; there is no sign of matzah baking in any of the Baltic countries; in Riga, capital of Latvia, arbitrary obstacles prevented implementation of the permit which the congregation ostensibly received; in Moldavia, which has a sizable Jewish population, especially in its capital of Kishinev, no matzah baking is allowed.” Throughout all of the Ukraine, matzah baking was only permitted in Odessa, which adversely affected hundreds of thousands of Jews. In sum, matzah baking was prohibited in most places within the Soviet Union, save for three show cities in 1965.
The plight of Soviet Jewish Refuseniks who were sent off to Soviet Gulags because they refused to surrender to Soviet oppression was especially dire. In Nathan Sharansky’s autobiography Fear No Evil, the current head of the Jewish Agency for Israel spoke of what it was like to attempt to do the Passover Seder while living within the Gulag. He described how he had attempted to smuggle matzoh into the Gulag yet was discovered, thus preventing him from having matzoh. Sharansky was also forced to use salted sprats as his bitter herb and a cup of hot water for his harotzet, due to the yoke of Soviet oppression.
He was forced to recite the Haggadah based on whatever he could remember by heart, since his prayer book was discovered and confiscated. According to Sharansky, “I tried to recall every thing that I could from the Passover Haggadah starting with my favorite lines: ‘In every generation a person should feel as though he personally went out of Egypt. Today we are slaves, tomorrow we shall be free men.’”
Indeed, while in the Soviet Gulag, Sharansky was tortured and enslaved in a similar manner to what the ancient Israelites were in Egypt. Like the ancient Israelites, Sharansky refused to permit the modern-day pharaohs to break his Jewish spirit and soul. He continued to worship G-d and practice his faith, despite the Soviet persecution.
Yet Sharansky and the rest of the Soviet Jews are now liberated. They are now free to do the Passover Seder and bake all of the matzoh that they desire, without any restrictions. As the Haggadah states, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Thus, as Nathan Sharansky noted, under Soviet rule, the Jews were like slaves, yet now they are all living dignified lives and many of them made Aliyah to the State of Israel.
To view a video about the plight of Soviet Jewry, see below.
By Rachel Avraham