(Baking matzah in hiding. Lodz, Poland, 1943. Yad Vashem Photo Archives.)

What It Takes to Go From Slavery to Freedom

Yeonmi Park's escape from North Korea is a reminder of Passover's true meaning. I spoke to her about the price of liberation.

Tomorrow night, as the sun sets, Jews around the world gather for the Passover seder, by far the most observed of all Jewish holidays. Millions of us will sit together and tell the story of our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt. I’ll be among them, hosting a seder of strays in our backyard in Los Angeles.

If all goes according to plan, we won’t just read retell the story, but each of us will feel as though we ourselves went from slavery to freedom. That’s what the holiday asks of us: “In each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself as though he or she personally went forth from Egypt.”

It’s an impossibly tall order. How can we understand slavery when we ourselves have known nothing but freedom?

My parents tried hard to make the Exodus come alive for us as kids. Beyond eating the maror (bitter herbs), we borrowed the Sephardic custom and “beat” one another with leeks and scallions. One year when I was in grade school, all the kids at the seder carried concrete blocks around the backyard. It’s sort of a miracle no one called Child Protective Services. At the end of the evening, we were tucked into our beds, full of macaroons and chocolate-covered matzah.

But the American Jewish community is the rare exception in history. Despite the original redemption more than 3,000 years ago, Jews of most other times and places have lived under evil empires, yearning, fighting, and sacrificing for their own liberation. It is those stories — of the millions of Jews made literal slaves in Europe; or forced into spiritual servitude in the Soviet Union — told in more and more detail as we got older that made the most essential story in all of Judaism come alive to me.

We didn’t just retell Jewish stories. My dad would talk about the American Moses, Harriet Tubman, who would sing about the Exodus on her missions to free slaves in the American South. We learned about how America’s founders saw themselves as modern-day Israelites — Benjamin Franklin wanted the image on America’s Great Seal to be Moses crossing the Red Sea — and about how the country’s second founders, like Frederick Douglass, fought to make that emblem a reality.

One of those liberation stories belongs to a 27-year-old woman named Yeonmi Park, who was born into slavery and now lives in freedom. We didn’t learn her story growing up because she hadn’t yet lived it. But this year at my seder, her story, which she told me over the phone this week, will be a part of the telling.

Yeonmi was born in Hyesan, North Korea, the part of the Hermit Kingdom that borders China. When she was a girl, her father was sent to a labor camp for the crime of selling blackmarket goods like sugar and rice to feed his family. “My father was so smart, he had the light in him,” Yeonmi told me over the phone this week from her home in Chicago. But he emerged a different man: “The regime didn’t just torture him they killed his soul.” 

In 2007, at the age of 13, Yeonmi escaped North Korea with her mother to China. Her mother was raped in front of her by traffickers. The teenager was sold to a man named Hongwei for $260.

If you’ve never heard of Yeonmi I’d encourage you to take eight minutes and watch this:

“When I initially left North Korea, I didn’t even know words like ‘freedom’” she told me.” In China she heard the word, but had no experience of it. The only way North Korean women can survive in China, she told me, is through being sold as sex slaves or working as prostitutes, literally or online. Another North Korean escapee told Yeonmi that freedom was possible if they could find a way to flee China and make it to South Korea. At the time, that meant two things to the 15-year-old: jeans and movies.

“In North Korea you can get executed for watching the wrong movie. Wearing jeans you can get sent to prison. So that’s what I thought freedom was. I didn't know anything like freedom of speech. I was willing to risk my life for jeans and movies.” She somehow survived the trek across the freezing Gobi Desert from China to Mongolia, aided only by a compass that she was given by Christian missionaries. 

Once in South Korea, she was asked straightforward questions like: introduce yourself, or tell me your hobby. This baffled and exhausted her. 

“When you are a slave, you don’t have to think,” Yeonmi told me. “In North Korea you can’t say I. You can just say we. We love the color red. Or we love kimchi. You know every answer. In North Korea, everything is determined for you before you are born, based on your family’s standing in the party. You don’t think: What do I study? Where do I live? Who do I marry? They decide.” 

“I remember after I published my book one of my first interviews was with NPR and they asked me about freedom. I said freedom was painful and confusing. I think they were expecting me to say freedom was awesome.”

But the truth was more complicated. “It was so painful to be free. I sometimes thought in the beginning if there was a guarantee to go back to North Korea and not get executed and just live on frozen potatoes I might go back.”

Hearing her say so put me in mind of the story of the Exodus, in which the Israelites on their way to the promised land pine for Egypt. They talk about how they miss particular food; they complain about the manna God provides. “All the pain of slavery they forgot. They just remembered the safety of the narrowness of Egypt,” Rabbi David Wolpe told me. “They built the Golden Calf because they couldn’t handle freedom.”

For Yeonmi, adjusting to freedom was a very gradual process. “The first seven or eight years it felt like things were coming online. Almost like a fire show in my brain,” she said.

The hardest thing of all, she said, was learning to trust. If everything she had learned in North Korea was a lie, how was she to discern what was true and what was untrue? “It was complete chaos in my belief system. The hardest thing was thinking there was no truth.” But classic books — she mentions “Animal Farm” and “1984” — helped her see that there were lies and truth, evil and good, hate and love.

She attributes much of her ability to adapt to her youth. “I was young, that’s why I was able to be free,” she said. “Communism changes you internally in ways I can’t describe. Yes, North Korea is a physical dictatorship, but it’s also an emotional dictatorship. And the emotional dictatorship is much harder to escape from.”

Here, too, her experience mirrors that of the Exodus story. One reason we are given for why the Israelites had to spend 40 years wandering the desert is that the older generation — those with a slave-mentality — could die out. And many of the Israelites never even left Egypt. Freedom was already beyond imagining for them.

“The Belzer rebbe once said that the greatest exile was not to know that you are in exile.  And the greatest slavery is when you don’t even realize you are a slave,” says Rabbi David Wolpe. “What the Passover story did for Jews throughout the ages was to remind them what it was and what it could be to be free.”

The climax of the Passover story is that of Moses and the Israelites defying nature and crossing the Red Sea as the Egyptians give chase. But some 3,000 or so years later, that is not the miracle I think of. I think of Menachem Begin in a gulag having a seder over four cups of coffee. I think of Natan Sharansky in his punishing cell making the holiday in his own Egypt over a few slices of bread and a few cups of warm water. I think of this prayer, offered in Bergen-Belsen. And I think of the picture at the top of this story, of Jews in the Lodz ghetto somehow finding a way to make matzah. 

Even when Jews were enslaved, they found ways to be free. That, as much as or perhaps more than the sea splitting, is the holiday’s true miracle.

If you want to get in the mood for Passover — or want to better understand its profound message — I highly recommend:

  • This essay, published last year, by Tablet editor Alana Newhouse.

  • This one, published in 2019, by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

  • This short lecture, by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, on the political genius of the Haggadah.

    And this new book, just published by Mark Gerson, called “The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.”

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