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A Guggenheim Haggadah

A Guggenheim Haggadah

Hans Guggenheim, a refugee from Nazi Berlin who found haven during World War II in England and Guatemala, and eventually in the United States, conducts his own seders every year in his Boston apartment that doubles as a personal art museum and extensive library.

Each year his guests read from among his collection of a few dozen Haggadot.

This year they’ll all use a single one — a Haggadah that Guggenheim, an artist, recently finished drawing and writing.

This year, his Haggadah is available only online, in PDFformat (, to reach the greatest number of possible readers.

“The Unfinished Haggadah: Autobiography of an Israelite” is four dozen pages of color, black-and-white and sepia images, his own artwork and a few photographs, which incorporate some standard Haggadah text, supplemented by his personal recollections. Inside are references to the Holocaust and other key points in Jewish history, some, but not all, of the standard Haggadah text. Languages featured include English, Hebrew, German, Yiddish and Ladino.

“Traditional Haggadahs ignore all these other things,” like the Holocaust, the Bar Kochba revolt and the persecution of Jews in Arab countries, Guggenheim says, calling these additions consistent with the Passover message of deliverance from danger. He says he focused on content that will help people make “a seder in the 21st century.”

While many Holocaust survivors and refugees have in recent decades written wartime memoirs, Guggenheim’s Haggadah is one of the first attempts to do it in Haggadah form, says Danny Levine, owner of J.Levine Books & Judaica in Manhattan. While “it’s admirable that this guy went and did this,” most Jews who attend a seder still follow the traditional steps outlined in a standard Haggadah, Levine says. “That’s why it’s called a ‘seder,’” Hebrew for order.

But authors offering their Passover writings — more typically Haggadah commentaries and supplements — online are becoming more common as computer-based technology becomes easier to use, Levine says. “I’ve seen a lot of people do it.”

Guggenheim says he may seek to have his Haggadah published in book form in a future year; this year, his seder guests will get a printout of his creation.

He calls his work “The Unfinished Haggadah,” he says, “Because our [Jewish] history is never finished.”

Growing up in prewar Berlin, Guggenheim would attend his Orthodox grandfather’s seder every year. It was long. “I would fall asleep at some point.”

Part of the extended Guggenheim family (“All the Guggenheims call themselves related,”), Guggenheim worked in the United States as an artist, historian, collector, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, illustrator for LIFE magazine and anthropologist.

In his Haggadah, which opens with an image of him sitting at his grandfather’s seder table, are pages from a German-language Haggadah, a drawing of a Kindertransport scene, photographs of relatives, a Heine poem, and pictures of death camps in Europe, which he visits each year.

Guggenheim’s artistic style is sometimes realistic, sometimes impressionistic; his Haggadah is intensely personal, a reflection of his own life and of many Jews’ 20th-century experience. “Most of the [standard] Haggadah is in it some way,” symbolically, through his artwork, if not actually.

What would his grandfather think of his Haggadah?

“I don’t think he would accept it at all,” Guggenheim says. But, he adds, “It’s not for him.”

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