This article first appeared in The Cutting Edge
April 28, 2011
By Martin Barillas
Rabbi Joseph Polak, a chaplain for Hillel House at Boston University, traveled to southern Sudan to speak to recently-released slave who managed to escape their bondage to Arab Muslim masters. Recalling the manumission of the children of Israel from their bondage in Pharaoh’s Egypt, the rabbi told a gathering of Sudanese on March 23 that they “must be a very special people, because God has listened to your cries,” – a reference to their liberation.The rabbi also led the freed slaves in a chorus of ‘Dayenu,’ – a song which in Hebrew means ‘It would have been enough’ that God had freed the Israelites from bondage.
In addition to sharing with his listeners, who were gathered beneath the spreading branches of a huge tree, the story of Passover, Rabbi Polak invited them to a traditional Seder meal of matzah, hard-boiled eggs, and wine that commemorates the hasty preparations of the children of Israel as they left behind their shackles in Egypt. His listeners appeared to appreciate the story, since 175 of them had only recently been released from bondage themselves. One of the women who was interviewed said that Arab marauders had attacked her village and beheaded men and boys, while she was raped and her genitals mutilated.
The recently freed Sudanese bore signs of hunger and abuse at the hands of their captors and torturers. Most were emaciated, and many disfigured and still bearing fresh wounds. “You have been part of a miracle, and you have to thank God for that,” Rabbi Polak told the freed slaves. Remember this day, he said, and commemorate it your homes. Polak led the group in singing “Dayenu,” a verse of which reads, “Had He brought all of us out from Egypt, then it would have been enough. Had He given to us all the Sabbath, then it would have been enough. Had He given to us all the Torah, then it would have been enough.”
During the 23-year Sudanese civil war, janjaweed militia forces from the mostly Arab and Muslim north swept down on villages in the Christian and animist south. They routinely killed the men, and raped and enslaved the women and children. Many were forcibly converted to Islam. Christian Solidarity International has freed some 100,000 slaves through a series of complex negotiations with their masters and intermediaries, trading at first cash and now cow vaccine for freedom.
The March 2011 seder was organized by Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, and funded by a New York-based Jewish philanthropist, who wishes to remain anonymous. Christian Solidarity is trying to free as many of the estimated 40,000 remaining slaves as possible before July, when the secession of southern Sudan from the north becomes official. That event might, abolitionists worry, enrage slave owners.
Rabbi Polak, 69, is a survivor of the Westerbork and Berge-Belsen concentration camps during the Holocaust. “I told them, be thankful to God and be thankful to man,” Polak said. “In the Shoah, no one came for us, but here the people did come for them. There is a systematic effort to reach these people.”
Many of the freed slaves did not trust the white foreigners nor that they had actually been freed. According to reports, it was not until a freed slave – a boy who had been blinded by his captors – assured them they indeed they are free.
Cutting Edge Senior Correspondent Martin Barillas also edits Speroforum.com