The remarkable true story of a survivor’s special Passover gift.
Meir and Hinda Schwartz* were married over 50 years. They moved to Newark, New Jersey in 1946 after suffering the horrors of Auschwitz and other notorious Nazi death camps. At that point Newark boasted a Jewish community of thousands with dozens of shuls. Meir Schwartz became a baker and worked for many years in a small bakery in Newark. His wife Hinda was a housewife content with making delicious suppers for Meir with the abundance of food in their new home in America. They were both in their late twenties when they arrived, full of hope and desire for a brighter future after their tumultuous past.
Their greatest dream was to rebuild their decimated families; each had lost their parents and most of their siblings in the war. They watched in happiness and anticipation as fellow survivors were blessed with children. Meir and Hinda lived in Weequahic in the South Ward of the city. During the 1950s, the local high school graduated more students who would go on to earn their PhD than any other school in the country! There were shuls and shteibels and kosher restaurants. The Jews ‘built’ Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and life was good. However, the Nazis had done their work efficiently and the Schwartzs were unfortunately not able to build a new family of their own. They remained in Newark much longer than most of the other Jewish families who fled already in the late 1950s.
They remained after Interstate 78 split the neighborhood. They remained even after the devastating riots of 1967. However, finally in the late 1970s, they relocated. First they moved to Elizabeth and then in 1999 to Passaic to be near their only surviving relative, a niece who was raising her family there.
My wife and I invited Meir and Hinda numerous times and they always declined. They would eat either alone or by their niece. However, last Passover their niece was away for Yom Tov and they agreed to join us at the first Seder. As Passover approached they asked us what they can bring to the Seder to help out. Although we were touched by their desire to help, we could not imagine taking anything from the beloved nonagenarian couple. We told them that the most precious thing they could bring was themselves.
On Monday afternoon, Erev Pesach, in the midst of grinding marror and checking the lettuce, Reb Meir Schwartz rang the doorbell. He held a mysterious, dusty bottle. Before I could say a word Mr. Schwartz said, “I know you said that you do not need anything, but I would like to bring you this one gift. It is a bottle of wine.”
I took one look at the dusty, old bottle and thought to myself, There is no way I am going to serve this old, likely spoiled wine at my Seder. I thanked Mr. Schwartz and as soon as he left I hid the bottle in the cabinet.
Around the Seder Table
Later that evening, as our family sat around the Seder table and I was about to begin Kiddush, my daughter piped up and said, “Ta, aren’t you going to use the bottle of wine Mr. Schwartz brought?”
Ah kids…. You gotta love them.
Thinking fast and still convinced that the wine was spoiled and vinegary, I proudly announced in my best Solomonic tone of voice, that we will pour a little bit of Mr. Schwartz’s wine into everyone’s cup and that way everyone can have a little taste of their special wine. That plan worked, and no one seemed to notice anything odd with the addition of the ‘special wine’.
When we reached the time to pour the cup of Eliyahu, my daughter suddenly had another insight. “Let’s use Mr. Schwartz’s wine to fill up Eliyahu’s cup. After all, Eliyahu will usher in the redemption and Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz were saved from the war and now they are like our family. So let’s use their wine for the Cup of Redemption!”
Mr. Schwartz had not said a word the entire Seder. After my daughter spoke, Mr. Schwartz looked up, cleared his throat and said, “Rabbi, I want to tell you where that wine came from. I know it is a dusty old bottle and it is old. In fact it is 75 years old. My father, of blessed memory, made it in Poland before the war. When the war ended after I was ‘graduated’ from Auschwitz, I went back to our hometown and to our old house. The Poles told me, ‘What, you are still alive? We thought we finally got rid of you people!’
“I quickly looked around our nearly destroyed and looted house and saw a partially exposed bottle of wine under one of the floor boards. This was the only thing I have left from my father. Nothing else remains – nothing. I carefully kept the wine with me for the last 68 years. My plan was to use the wine at my son’s bris and under his chuppah, but the Almighty thought otherwise and the wine remained unused to this day in my house.
“For some reason I decided to bring it tonight to your home. I thought who knows how long I will be in this world? Better that the wine gets used once in my life than sit collecting dust in my house. I was always somewhat bitter that God saved us only to deny us the blessing of children. But after your daughter spoke and mentioned how we are part of your family, I realized that despite not having own children, we nevertheless have witnessed the rebirth of the Jewish community after the Holocaust, something I never thought possible. So while things did not turn out exactly as I planned, I know there is a bigger plan and part of that plan is that my wife and I are with you this Passover and part of your family and that is good.
“Thank you for inviting us and thank you for using our wine for the kos shel Eliyahu.”
There was not a dry eye in the house.
And to think I did not want to open the wine.