Kehilat Middlesbrough Newsletter No 10 April 2001 page 3
It was Seder Night on the Troopship
From the Autumn of 1941 until late Summer 1942, British troops, in their thousands, made their weary journey to the Middle East, India and the Far East by passenger liners converted to troopships. I was one who sailed in the “Duchess of Richmond”. The Mediterranean was closed to shipping and the voyage took the route of Vasco de Gama by the Cape of Good Hope. We left England on Friday 13th February 1942 and five weeks later we rounded the Cape with Pesach only a few days away. Built to carry 398 passengers for the Liverpool to Canada run, the “Duchess of Richmond” carried over 4000 troops crammed in impossible conditions. The food was almost unfit for human consumption.
We were about to welcome a long awaited shore leave in Durban. It was my comrade, Harry Black from Manchester who reminded me that Pesach was approaching; and this was to be my first Pesach away from home. On the mess decks we had one of those bores who inflicted us every day with a recital of “It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse”. Even this could have been entertaining had he known any more than the first few lines. And when Harry cynically whispered “It was Seder night on the Troopship” I was reminded how soon we would be approaching Pesach and how nice it would be to spend it in Durban. I had never looked forward so anxiously to Pesach food. With a promised shore leave of a fortnight and with Durban on the horizon, Harry and I were prepared to read the Hagadah at the table of any Jewish family who would care to take pity on two miserable and hungry Aircraftmen.
We duly docked and like thousands of troops of that era we made straight for the Jewish Club. This masterpiece of Jewish hospitality is remembered by thousands of troops the world over who passed that way and we soon learned that every Durban Jewish household was preparing to take Jewish troops on Seder Night. Then the very next day orders were issued for our squadron to report back to the boat. We were sailing that night. And with only two days to Pesach we were destined to spend our Seder in the middle of the Indian Ocean, three flights below at Mess Decks with food as far removed from Kashrut as Jock’s recital of “Christmas Day in the Workhouse”. The disappointment was catastrophic.
The Durban community heard about our plight and, like Jews the world over, promptly produced its “Machers”. Now I have never been one to condemn Machers. They have their uses. We found two men of that community who dealt with the situation, each competing to “outmach” the other. They sped round the city collecting matzos, chickens, fresh fruit, wine and bitter herbs. And for good measure they added a dozen Hagadahs. But how to get it all on board, store it and serve it? There were 23 Jewish troops on the “Duchess of Richmond” and one Jewish civilian cook. He was the Cook for the Captain’s Quarters and in peace time the Kosher cook for the “Duchess of Richmond”.
Like a good Kosher cook, he had carefully packed away the ship’s best Pesach dishes at the outbreak of the war and he kept the key. So, as the ship was about to set off from the quay, a lorry drove up with the crates containing everything from chopped liver to Hagadahs. And under the supervision of our Kosher Cook, Issy, the whole Pesach cargo was hauled on board and directed to the refrigerated compartments.
Two nights later, the Officer Commanding Troops issued an order that Mess Deck D4 will be out of bounds to all personnel except Jews “who will hold their Passover Service”. Issy did us proud. He even found white tablecloths, wine glasses and the ritual parsley, horseradish and Charoseth. And as we sailed through the Indian Ocean beneath an equatorial sky there was more than one who suppressed a tear when we heard our youngest soldier, aged 19, from Clapton, declare “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
[Ed note:David Niman sent us the above article, which was written by his late father.]