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"Think about all the blessings": Three generations face Passover amid the pandemic

"We could tell things were getting bad for the Jews as early as 1938." That was the thinking of 10-year-old Helga Melmed, a self-described "sheltered" Jewish girl living in the Nazi capital of Berlin. 

Helga keenly sensed trouble ahead for her family and so many others across Europe. In October of 1941, she and her family were deported from Berlin to the Jewish ghetto in Łódź, Poland. This was the beginning of a journey that would help shape Helga's life forever. 

"I was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 and then to Poppenbüttel, a labor camp for young women," she recalled to CBS News. "I was then sent to Bergen-Belsen and liberated from there in May of 1945. I was 17 at the time [of my liberation] and weighed just 46 pounds."

At sundown Wednesday night, Helga, now 92, will celebrate Passover along with millions of Jews around the world. The holiday — known in Hebrew as Pesach — commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. At the Seder, the holiday meal where the story of the exodus is retold each year, it is customary for the youngest child at the table to ask "The Four Questions." The first of these questions is, "What makes this night different from all other nights?" The question is especially fitting this year, given the unique and difficult times we are living in. 

Under the social distancing restrictions due to the coronavirus, it is indeed a very different night for everyone. Instead of the traditional gatherings, many families will be greeting each other through a webcam. For some it will be a lonely holiday isolated from loved ones. But for Helga, and a dwindling number of remaining Holocaust survivors, this year's Passover will not come remotely close to the most difficult ones they've endured.

"I remember we had some sort of Passover in the ghetto in 1942," she told CBS News. "We mostly just reminisced."

"I recall my father provided coffee grounds and potato peels and my mother made patties using mineral oil… looking back, it was a terrible time." That was before she says her father was shot to death by the Nazis. 

Benjamin Roth, a 27-year-old New Jersey native, looks at Passover as a time to pay homage to his late grandfather, Lionel Roth, who was also a Holocaust survivor.

"Passover must have been an incredibly emotional time for him," he told CBS News. "He always emphasized the joy of the Seder. The more laughter there was around the table, the happier he was."

In 1944, Lionel's Passover was abruptly interrupted when Nazis stormed his home and removed him and his family in what is now western Ukraine.

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Lionel Roth (right), with his brother Arnold (left), and their father Morris, in 1947 or 1948, shortly after they arrived in America after surviving the Holocaust. Courtesy of Benjamin Roth

"He lost most of his family to the Nazis, and survived Auschwitz, Melk, and Ebensee [concentration camps] through luck and sheer force of will," his grandson told CBS News. "He was ultimately liberated by Allied forces exactly one month after Passover of 1945." 

Rabbi Chaim Zaklos believes the unusual circumstances of observing Passover amid the pandemic this year serves as an opportunity as well as a challenge. Since stay-at-home orders are keeping extended families apart, many younger people are finding themselves in charge of their own Seders for the first time instead of relying on parents or grandparents to lead the way.

"It provides a unique time for each individual to step up to the plate," said Zaklos, who is the rabbi for Chabad of Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. "Judaism is not only a family tradition, but it is something you are personally invested in."

Another aspect of the holiday has special resonance this year. According to the Haggadah, the ancient text recited at the Seder, the Israelites escaped Egypt only after a series of 10 plagues. In fact, the Jewish people were commanded to stay home under quarantine while these plagues were going on. 
 
So by staying home, this year's celebration of Passover is actually reminiscent of its original biblical roots. 

"To some degree, this unique situation is much like the first Passover celebrated in Egypt," Zaklos observed. "It was celebrated with a close group of immediate family."

That's what Helga Melmed will be doing this year.

"Passover this year is going to be kind of sad. My husband passed away two years ago. my son passed away last year. I have family in New Jersey who cannot come here. My daughter, who lives with me, I will celebrate with her," she said. 

"I think celebrating is nice, but I think believing in God and that maybe one day he will look upon us again is more important. We don't really need to celebrate. We can think about all the blessings we've had and keep positive."

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