What was it like to celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday that brings light into the world, during one of the darkest periods in human history? Was it even possible during the Holocaust to observe a holiday that celebrates dedication to a cause and a miracle that allowed the Jewish people to regain control over how they lived their lives?
During the Holocaust, observance of Jewish festivals was severely restricted. In some places, Jews were forbidden to observe altogether. In other places, they found it difficult to celebrate the holidays because of the brutal conditions in concentration camps, for example. Yet many Jews still observed the holidays in any way they could.
In her wonderful book “Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust,” Yaffa Eliach shares an anecdote about celebrating Hanukkah in the Bergen-Belsen camp:
“A seemingly impossible celebration came about on the first night of Hanukkah 1943 in Bergen-Belsen. One of 11 fortunate survivors, Rabbi Israel Shapiro, better known as the Bluzhever Rebbe, was the central figure of that macabre Hanukkah celebration. Living in the shadow of death, and not knowing when their own turn would come, the Jewish inmates were determined to celebrate Hanukkah in the traditional manner and draw whatever spiritual strength they could from the story of the Maccabees.
“From their meager food portions, the men saved up some bits of fat. The women, for their part, pulled threads from their tattered garments and twisted them into a makeshift wick. For want of a real menorah, a candle-holder was fashioned out of raw potato. Even dreidels for the children in the camp were carved out of the wooden shoes that inmates wore.
“At great risk to their lives, many of the inmates made their way unnoticed to Barrack 10, where the Bluzhever Rebbe was to conduct the Hanukkah ceremony. He inserted the improvised candle into the improvised Menorah and in a soft voice began to chant the three blessings. On the third blessing, in which God is thanked for having ‘kept us in life and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time,’ the Rebbe’s voice broke into sobs, for he had already lost his wife, his only daughter, his son-in-law, and his only grandchild.
“The assembled inmates joined him in a chorus of weeping, for all of them had also lost their own families. In low voices, choked by irrepressible sobs – they struggled to chant the traditional hymn, Ma’oz Tzur, which proclaims steadfast faith in God, the Rock of their strength.
“On regaining some composure, the Rebbe tried to comfort them and instill new courage and hope. Referring to the words of the second blessing (‘that God wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old’), the Rebbe asked, ‘Is it not anomalous to thank God for miracles that he had wrought for our ancestors long ago, while He seemingly performs none for us in our tragic plight?’
“In answer to his own question, the Rebbe said, ‘By kindling this Hanukkah candle we are symbolically identifying ourselves with the Jewish people everywhere. Our long history records many bloody horrors our people have endured and survived. We may be certain that no matter what may befall us as individuals, the Jews as a people will outlive their cruel foes and emerge triumphant in the end.’ ”
Libi Astaire, in her article “Hanukkah in Bergen Belsen,” on Aish.com, relates the story of Rabbi Shmelke. During Kislev 1944 the situation seemed hopeless. The rabbi’s job, as he saw it, “was to keep up the spirits of the Jews who were imprisoned in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.”
“Since the beginning of the month the rabbi had been busy preparing for the holiday. He asked the same question to everyone he met: ‘Can you get us a little oil? Do you know someone who works in the kitchen?’ The answer was always the same: No. …”
“He had to find some oil. Even if he found only enough oil to kindle the first Chanukah light for a few seconds that would be enough.
“The day before Chanukah, Rabbi Shmelke was at work – his ‘other’ job in the camp was to remove dead bodies from the barracks – when he received an order to go to the last barrack, where some people had died during the previous night. While he walked across a field, his foot got caught in a small hole in the frozen earth and he almost fell. He removed his foot from the hole and noticed that there was something buried inside. After making sure that no guards were watching him, he knelt down to see what it was.
“He pulled out a small jar and a carefully wrapped package from the ground. Inside the jar was some congealed liquid. Oil for Chanukah! He undid the paper wrapping. Inside were eight little cups and eight thin strands of cotton. It was obvious that some Jewish prisoner had buried this little menorah and the oil. But who was he? And where was he? Had he been transported to another camp? Had he died?
“Rabbi Shmelke hoped that the Jew who had buried these things was still alive. When the prisoners returned to their barracks after the evening roll call they saw, to their amazement, a little menorah standing on one of the bunks.
“Rabbi Shmelke recited the blessings and then kindled the light. The group watched in silence while the tiny flame fought its eternal battle against the surrounding darkness. Some smiled, others cried.”
“Rabbi Shmelke was one of the fortunate few who survived the war. Several years later he made a trip to the United States, and while he was there he paid a visit to an acquaintance from the ‘old country’ – Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe. While they reminisced, the Satmar Rebbe mentioned that he had also been a prisoner in Bergen Belsen.
“ ‘I was rescued on the 21st of Kislev, four days before Chanukah,’ said the Satmar Rebbe. Before I found out about the rescue plan, I made provisions for the holiday. I bribed several camp officials and put together a package of oil, cups, and wicks, which I then buried in a field. I always felt badly that my little menorah was never put to use.
“Rabbi Shmelke smiled. ‘Your menorah was used. It dispelled the darkness for hundreds of Jews and helped at least one of them survive the war.’ ”
Hanukkah teaches us that one candle, just one little candle, can dispel the darkness that often engulfs our lives.
LEV POPLOW is a communications and development consultant writing for the Bornstein Holocaust Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.