Karmel-Wolfe led the Seder, picking up a slice of beet and said, "This is the bread of suffering...We are slaves in the land of Germany, but God will deliver us from here with an outstretched arm and with a strong hand. In every generation they rise to destroy us and the Blessed Holy One saves us from their hands." The women in the camp promised that should they survive the Holocaust, each year on their Seder plate, they would place a white sugar beet as a sign of remembrance. While Karmel-Wolfe explains that white sugar beets were hard to come by in New York, each year, she would tell her children the story of her Seder in camp, teaching the message of Pesach faithfully to her children.
Some thirty years later, she found herself in Cleveland on a book signing tour, when a woman in the front row said, "I was with her. Tell them about the Seder." Karmel-Wolfe related her story, and writes, "What I could not understand was; why were the people crying?" She recognized then that her Seder in the concentration camp was one of the highlights of her life.
Karmel-Wolfe's personal experience speaks to a powerful truth at the heart of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Mas'ei. In chapter 35 of the book of Numbers, Moses is commanded to establish six cities of refuge, where a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee, and live in safety, until such time that his case is properly adjudicated. Rabbi Harvey Fields explains:
During the biblical period, relatives of murder victims, whether premeditated or unintentional, had the right to find and execute those who were guilty of killing their loved ones. Those whose crime was committed by accident, however, had the right to save themselves from the revenge of families by going immediately to one of the six cities of asylum….No obstacle was to stand in the way of those seeking asylum. … The asylum cities are not “prison colonies” or “penal colonies.” Quite the opposite. The arei miklat are meant to be “rebirth” places where a person tormented by the shame and guilt of having accidentally taken a life would be able to surmount anguish and rebuild a creative human existence.
But how would this newfound "creative human existence" come about, especially in the wake of such awful circumstances? Even if by accident, the accused had still taken a life, an undeniably traumatic episode. Commentary by 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a further perspective on the composition of these cities when he writes, " The town should be of medium size…not enclosed by a wall provided with water and food markets…all national classes must be settled there. It must have teachers, students, people of science, of spiritual and intellectual quality... [Unintentional murderers] are to 'flee to one of these cities and live.'” Fields adds further that these cities are intended to be, "Environments for rebirth, nurturing places where human beings can enjoy the company of others, pursue their talents, and grow both spiritually and intellectually."
That's all well and good, but what, if anything, does this text have to do with women creating a Pesach Seder in a concentration camp? These women weren't murderers. They hadn't committed involuntary manslaughter. They weren't guilty of any crime whatsoever.
But they were still broken by life's circumstances. They were still craving a very human moment of optimism and hope. They still wanted the chance to begin again, something that would give them a glimmer of better days. So there, in that former industrial plant, they set tables with white paper, they ate white sugar beets because it was all that they had available to them, and they created their own "city of refuge," finding sanctuary and shelter, with one another, amidst life-threatening crisis.
The cities of refuge didn't come about because God commanded their creation or because Moses set aside three cities on one side of the Jordan and three cities on another side. The cities of refuge came about because of the actions and behavior of the people who lived there. Torah and our commentators don't record any incident of finger pointing, shaming or blaming, gossiping or rumormongering. It's not to say that these things didn't happen, because people are people, but that our tradition holds out hope that we can do better, and we can be better.
On any given day we have the choice to inflict terrible damage upon other people with our words and our actions. Or, Torah reminds us, with the image of the city of refuge, we have the capacity to be welcoming, supportive and embracing, to offer assistance, shelter, comfort and compassion. It was the people who lived in the city of refuge, who created the very city of refuge. They were able to integrate a newcomer into the fabric of their communal existence, helping a broken person begin the process of healing, rebuilding and starting anew, of somehow, finding and creating a new concept of "home" amidst awful circumstances.
So many places that we think of as providing us refuge are in jeopardy. We have often associated movie theaters, nightclubs, schools, and houses of worship as places of sanctuary and safety. But today, our world is a starkly different place. Maybe in addition to seeing "sanctuary" as a physical space in which we might gather, we need to think of our own capacity to offer other people "sanctuary," to see our ability to create community, as a way of offering a "city of refuge" for one another. How do we listen to and validate another person's story? How do we respond compassionately to another person's pain? How do we demonstrate kindness, a value that so often seems like it is missing from our world?
There, in that former industrial plant, Henia Karmel-Wolfe and her fellow prisoners, built a moment and created a "city of refuge" for one another, a profound occasion that would remain with them for the rest of their lives. We too are blessed with the skills to create places of refuge from life's storms, places and relationships where we can give and receive inspiration, guidance and comfort, places and relationships where we can provide and receive both reflection, and opportunities for enrichment and enlightenment. We are blessed with the skills, much like our ancestors, where in creating "cities of refuge" for one another, we can, in the words of a mentor, "Be Sabbath for those whom we serve."
 Henia Karmel-Wolfe, "Seder in a Nazi Concentration Camp." Included in Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth: Inspiring Tales to Nourish the Soul, ed. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins. Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, pp. 128-130.
 Numbers 35:6
 Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Volume Three: Numbers and Deuteronomy. New York: UAHC Press, 1993, p. 90.
 Quoted in Fields, p. 91.