His fellow patients needed a good laugh, so Yisroel Meir Schwartz put pen to paper and began writing — first in black ink, then blue.
It was 1947 and Schwartz, who had survived several years in a traveling forced labor detail, was recovering from tuberculosis in a displaced persons (DP) hospital in Gauting, a suburb of Munich.
Now Purim was coming and it was time for some levity. The situation called for some traditional Purim grammen, or verse — performed in a call-and-response singsong shared between reader and audience. The grammen can lampoon anything and anyone, from prestigious community members to friends and family, but are often aimed at those perceived as enemies of the Jews. “There was a large group of Holocaust survivors — patients had a synagogue full of seforim [holy texts] where they prayed and learned together during their treatments and rehabilitation,” said Yisroel’s son, Yaakov Schwartz.
“In order to uplift their spirits in their bitter situations, he composed [the grammen] and shared it with fellow patients. His motto was always to be ‘tamid b’simcha‘ — always jolly and humorous with one another,” said Schwartz.
“Your advisor also had his end this year… Himmler is the same as Hitler, but one has a Mem and one has a Tes [letters of the Hebrew alphabet]. Put them together, they are the 49 levels of impurity… Before I finish I will talk about Goebbels. Every patient agrees — Poland should have recognized who he was early on,” reads a rough English translation of the poem.
And so goes the two-and-a-half page satire making fun of the most notorious Nazis, and referring to Hitler as if he’s a bridegroom about to fall into the abyss.
“There is a lot of word play here. I see it as such an affirmation of life. It’s so fascinating because I just detect so many different themes at play here. I keep picturing him [Schwartz] performing this before a roomful of survivors of Hitler’s persecution,” said Shoshana Greenwald, the collections manager at Brooklyn’s Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, which now holds the grammen.
‘I see it as such an affirmation of life. It’s so fascinating because I just detect so many different themes at play here’
The poem speaks to one man’s dogged determination to reclaim a measure of joy and embrace the future. It also continues a holiday tradition where Jews draw parallels between the villain Haman and a villain more appropriate to the times — be it Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or Ayatollah Khomeini. In more recent times Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened Iran to Haman during a speech before a joint session of the US Congress.
“There are so many instances of Purim as satire. During the Gulf War I remember all these comparisons to Saddam Hussein,” Greenwald said.
Purim is one of the only Jewish holidays to be interpreted and celebrated through the lens of where one falls on the political and social spectrum, said Dr. Jay Michaelson, an author and columnist for The Forward.
In an opinion piece last year, Michaelson compared then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to King Ahasuerus. In it he said Trump “is a violent demagogue concerned with his own aggrandizement and power,” someone who “gamers of a certain age call ‘chaotic evil.’”
“I’ve made a lot of predictions, but this one was one of my best,” Michaelson said. “Like Ahasuerus, Trump is very susceptible to his advisors. He is very swayed, for good or for ill. This is someone who has a temper and is totally unpredictable. But what’s scary is, if you take a deeper look at the Purim story, it’s about people turning against each other.
Michaelson said the metaphor still holds this year, and while he’s not yet sure who will fill the role of Queen Esther, “it’s clear that Steve Bannon is Haman.”
The Republican president isn’t the only target of Purim satire and commentary.
Back in 2015, American-born rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, compared president Barack Obama to Haman, as reported in The Times of Israel.
“The President of the United States is lashing out at Israel just like Haman lasted out at the Jews. I’m not making a political statement. I’m making a Jewish statement,” he told the audience seated in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Riskin later revised his comments to say that it was Iran, not Obama, who was akin to Haman. In 2014 Schwartz donated the manuscript containing the grammen to the memorial museum so others can see “how miraculously survivors returned to their sanity to commemorate the miracles that occurred, and gave gratitude to God and revived their heritage and beliefs, thereby rebuilding the crushed Jewish community.”
‘Miraculously survivors returned to their sanity’
While Schwartz’s poem speaks to his enormous desire to move forward in life, “there is an underlying sadness. It was as if they had to make up for lost time,” Greenwald said.
As the last line of the poem reads: “We hope next year we can do this again, I wish we could have done this six years ago [to not have gone through this] our hearts should rejoice with the coming of Messiah.”