This week, Jews began the holiday of Passover with seders, ritual dinners with family and friends, to commemorate the freeing of ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt some 3,000 years ago.
In San Rafael, California, a man with first-hand experience of Jewish enslavement and liberation led a seder for his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
At 97, Leo Trepp is the last known living rabbi who led German-Jewish communities through the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.
His voice is strong and clear as he chants the Hebrew prayers and leads the singing. This is the 74th year Trepp is conducting a Passover seder. His first was in 1936. He was 23, newly ordained, in Oldenburg, Germany, a region then controlled by the Nazis.
A spiritual leader in a time of suffering
He recalls what the community had to endure. "Jews sent away to concentration camps. Jews dying. It was a very rewarding rabbinate because the Jews needed me."
Within two years of ordination, Rabbi Trepp was the leader of 15 congregations. Until November 9, 1938, Krystalnacht - the night of broken glass - and the burning down of all of his synagogues. He was arrested, and the next day taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
"We were called out at 4 o'clock in the morning," he says. "The head of the camp, he said, 'You are the dregs of humanity. I don't see why you should live.' The machine guns on the towers around the camp were all directed toward us. And the only thing that came to me is, 'Dear God, if you want me to die for you at this moment, I'm ready. I'm ready.' And then in the strangest of ways, God was with me. I know God was there. In the concentration camp with me. And it was the worst place for it. That's why it was the best."
The chief rabbi of England pleaded with the Nazis for Trepp's freedom, and it was granted. That freedom may be what feeds his ability to find something positive in even the most devastatingly bleak circumstances. "I have to feel, for instance, that my mother went to her death [in a] concentration camp knowing that she did something for God."
In every generation, a struggle for freedom
After his release from Sachsenhausen, Trepp went to England, and then to California. That was 70 years ago, and he's since founded three synagogues in the United States.
Today, the rabbi doesn't see the Jews' slaughter in concentration camps, or the enslavement in ancient Egypt, as past history. He says they're omens of the future. The Passover readings, he notes, say that in every generation, people have tried to annihilate the Jews.
"It's happened over and over and over again. And you'd better not only be prepared, but have the inner strength to endure it. And we shall fight against it."
Because, says the rabbi, every holocaust has been followed by an ever-deepening freedom. "And freedom is the most significant element in Jewish life."
Rabbi Trepp breaks the matzoh, the unleavened bread that symbolizes the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and says the words of hope Jews have recited for generations, with a modern addition: "This year we are here. Next year, we'll be in the land of Israel. This year there are many people who are enslaved and impoverished. Next year, may all human beings be free."
Everyone at the table responds, "Amen."