This article was first published in The Jewish Advocate
April 1, 2001
By Leah Burrows
Some 150 people surrounded Rabbi Joseph Polak under the shade of a large mango tree in southern Sudan last week. Just days before, most of them had been slaves. Most were emaciated, and many disfigured. Some still bore fresh wounds. As Polak presided over an informal seder, the former slaves celebrated their liberation from northern Sudan with matzah and storytelling – in the same way Jews for millennia have marked their ancestors’ flight from Egypt.
“You have been part of a miracle, and you have to thank G-d for that,” Polak told the freed slaves. “Remember this day”, he said. “Commemorate it.”
Polak recalled the seder in a talk Monday night at Boston University Hillel, where he serves as rabbi, and in an interview with the Advocate. During the 23-year Sudanese civil war – which ended in 2005 – militia forces from the Arab/Muslim North swooped down on villages in the Christian and tribalist South. They shot the men and captured the women and children as slaves.
The humanitarian organization Christian Solidarity International has managed to free 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 seder was organized by Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group and an Advocate columnist.
Jacobs said he was approached with the idea several months ago by a New York-based Jewish philanthropist, who declines at this time to be named. For Jacobs, the trip for the seder was his second this year to Sudan. He was in the country in January, when southerners voted nearly unanimously to form their own country. On both that trip and a previous one – on Passover, 2001 – Jacobs witnessed the liberation of slaves.
He said Christian Solidarity is trying to free as many of the estimated 40,000 remaining slaves as possible before July, when the secession becomes official. That event might, abolitionists worry, enrage slave owners.
Rabbi Polak and his wife, Reizel, came in from Israel, where they had celebrated Purim. It took three plane rides and more than 48 hours to get to the medical compound in Sudan where they stayed in tents.
Polak said he was shocked by what he saw. “I truly didn’t really understand what a Third World country was before I got there,” he said. “The main occupation for most women is walking five miles a day, filling up a gallon drum of water – water that we would never drink – and walking back home.”
A two-and-a-half hour drive on unmarked, unpaved roads brought the Polaks, Jacobs, the translators, medical staff and a film crew to what they called the “redemption site,” where the emancipated slaves gathered on March 23.
“At first, the slaves trusted no one,” Jacobs wrote in an account of the trip. “Perhaps we – likely the whitest people they’d ever laid eyes on – were buyers. Only when Kir, a teen-aged boy who’d been liberated and whose masters had cruelly blinded him, explained to those gathered that this day meant freedom, did they begin to let themselves believe.”
The Americans spent several hours with the Sudanese, listening to their stories.
Most are Dinka, the largest ethnic tribe in southern Sudan. Before being captured, they had lived in small villages with thatched huts, farming and herding cattle.
Many were forced to convert to Islam by their masters. One woman, who was enslaved for 21 years, told Jacobs and the Polaks of being repeatedly raped and beaten for refusing to say Muslim prayers.
Polak urged the freed slaves to tell and retell their stories – not just to remember their suffering but to remember their redemption.
He told them how the Jews were slaves in Egypt – just up the river Nile – and how they, too, were redeemed by G-d.
The rabbi also told the story of the Holocaust, how Jews were slaves in Germany and Poland, and how this time, neither G-d nor man saved them.
Polak, 69, himself was a small child in the Westerbork and Berge-Belsen concentration camps.
“I told them, be thankful to G-d 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.”
After eating matzah, a hard boiled egg and drinking a little wine, Polak led the group in a version of “Dayenu,” the Pesach song that means “it would have been enough.”
One verse 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.”
Polak changed the words to fit these newly freed people. “Had you been freed, it would have been enough,” he sang. “Had you been delivered across the border, it would have been enough. Had you been delivered into a newly freed nation, it would have been enough.”
By the end, Polak said, everyone was singing.