Why is this book different from all other books?
For starters, its backstory is almost as compelling as the narrative itself.
The Secret Seder, a children's tale by Caldecott-honored author Doreen Rappaport, tells of a Belgian family hiding from the Nazis in France, and centers on a young boy's introduction to the seder ritual by his father during the crisis. Rappaport was inspired to write the book after reading a memoir that mentioned the Pesach anecdote. The work was published in 2005, and during Passover 2008, the author got an unexpected e-mail — from the actual "boy" in the story.
Rappaport, a Long Islander, said the e-mail sent her running and screaming through the house, "He's here, I found him, the secret seder!"
The writer and her subject met one another for the first time last Tuesday evening at Oak Lane Day School. That boy, now a 75-year-old man, was Armand Mednick, who has taught art at the Blue Bell school for the past 48 years. Seated before an audience in the school's gymnasium — and flanked by projections of photos from Mednick's childhood and reproductions of the book's artwork — the pair told their respective stories.
Mednick praised the author, whose "fortuitous research had rescued this 65-year-old story from oblivion." Born in Brussels as Abraham Mednicki, Mednick and his family fled the country after the bombing of the city in May 1940. The border to France was closed to refugees, but Armand's father, Bernard, hired a smuggler to get them to the other side. They changed their names and lived as Catholics, eventually winding up in the south of France.
But, no matter the necessary ruse, Bernard had promised his father to keep the family's traditions alive, and when he heard about a secret seder being held in the mountains near their new home, he brought his son along to experience it.
"My father was my hero," said Mednick. "He was able to do what was necessary to survive, including saving my family." He added that, by taking Armand to that seder, his father showed active resistance to the Nazis.
Stories That Must Be Told
Rappaport told how she had been researching Jewish resistance during the Holocaust when she came upon a book by Ber-nard Mednicki, Armand's father, titled Never Be Afraid: A Jew in the Maquis, which included the Passover story.
"I came across the section on the seder, and Bernard had written that he wanted his son to have that experience, because they were passing as Catholics," said Rappaport.
"As I started researching more and more, I found a lot of stories about Jews celebrating Passover and Chanukah in secret," she added, emphasizing to the audience the importance of Pesach as a holiday of liberation.
Rappaport sought out her subject while writing her book, but he proved elusive, in large part because of his name change and the passage of time.
"I realized I'd have to fictionalize this story," said Rappaport, because she only had a small kernel when she began. Thus, she took elements from other similar stories to flesh out the plot. The book's theme, she said, was to "hold on to your traditions, even when oppressed."
In the end, the two — writer and "subject" — only found one another after Mednick's sister read the book and saw her father's memoir cited in the back, all of which prompted her brother to e-mail the author.
Rappaport said that, while books such as this are sometimes difficult to get published, she stressed that it's important they continue to be written.
"These stories are everywhere, and they must be gathered and told."