The Secret Seder – Doreen Rappaport and Emily Arnold McCully, Hyperion Books for Children, 2005
It is difficult to balance presenting the truth and maintaining a sense of hope in Holocaust books for younger children. Books that inspire a sense of terror outside of the ability of children to cope undercut their own purpose; they may fail to make the connection necessary to teaching about a tragic era in Jewish history. Books that only present benevolent rescuers or the ultimate victory of liberation are misleading. In The Secret Seder, Doreen Rappaport and Emily Arnold McCully create the story of a loving and supportive family maintaining their Jewish beliefs within an ominous time. The author and illustrator neither minimize the child’s fears nor depict an unalloyed sense of security. Within the story, they emphasize the essential nature of Passover as a celebration of freedom and a defiance of slavery (unlike an unfortunate book that I reviewed earlier). Though published over 10 years ago, this is a book worth having at Passover time.
Jacques is a Jewish boy living with his parents in Paris, all desperately pretending to pass as Christians under the Nazi occupation.
Walking past a church requires that they cross themselves in a gesture of piety. They are not even sure which neighbors are actually also Jews. The child’s entire identity has been distorted by “Adolf Hitler’s black boot men,” who invaded his life and caused his beloved grandparents to disappear. To fulfill a promise to his own father, the boy’s father had promised to bring Jacques to participate in a clandestine Seder, the Passover ritual and meal, held outside the city. Jacques’s mother has risked their lives by quietly teaching him the Four Questions which the youngest child will be asked to recite as part of the Seder. As the family walks to the forest, Rappaport allows Jacques to express his anxiety, but in an understated way:
“I hear clicking on the cobblestones behind us…Papa pulls out the knife. I hold my breath. The clicking fades away but my ears still ring.
Something snaps at my chest. I jump. So does my heart.
‘It’s only a branch of a small bush,’ Papa says.
But I still feel scared.”
The Four Questions center on one basic theme, of why the night of the Seder is “different from all other nights.” Confusing and frightening to this young boy is the fact that this Seder is inherently different from all the other nights when Passover was celebrated in the past. Men are sobbing, and admitting the truth that this year’s oppression is worse even than other dark periods of Jewish history, when Jews were oppressed and expelled from their homes. Now the threat is one of their survival. Jacques’s recitation of the Four Questions, and the traditional performance of the rest of the moving ritual, are described with appropriate perspective. They are acts of resistance, but they cannot ensure the miracle of survival.
An afterword, glossary, and list of suggested books for further reading, are all welcome additions to the book. McCully’s pictures show expressive figures against a dark background, the shadows behind them contrasting with the candlelight at the secret Seder. They subtly manage to convey both intense fear and a glimmer of hope to young readers. This book can serve as an appropriate introduction both to the magnitude of the Holocaust and to powerful message of liberation embodied in the celebration of Passover. Older children and adults will also appreciate its affirmative but realistic story.