‘Like a barrage of machine-gun fire came the German commands “Komme, komme, komme, komme, komme.” The men selected were marched outside. S.S. Men with rubber truncheons and iron prods awaited them. They kicked, beat, and tortured the innocent victims. When the tortured body no longer responded, the revolver was used… The random selection went on inside the barracks and the brutal massacre continued outside of the barracks until sundown. When the Nazi black angels of death departed, they left behind heaps of hundreds of tortured and twisted bodies.’
This was the beginning of their first Hanukkah in Bergen-Belsen.
This account was heard and recorded by Yaffa Eliach in June 1975. It is one of the many moving testimonies provided by survivors of the Holocaust for Eliach’s book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.
Hanukkah is one of the most important Jewish festivals. It commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid forces and the miracle in which a single cruse of pure oil lasted eight days to light the menorah. Traditionally, the community celebration includes lighting the menorah for eight days, playing dreidel games, and the sharing of delicacies like potato latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).
But basically, the core values of Hanukkah are about not giving up in the face of oppression and resisting till victory is achieved. Needless to say, for those who believe, these values can only be realized through faith and devotion to God.
The Jewish people are no strangers to alienation and persecution. After being driven out of Israel in the ancient ages, they made a home for themselves in various parts of Europe. But even in Europe, throughout the middle and the modern ages, they were subjected to humiliation and indignity– be it the anti-Jewish pogroms of the Russian Empire or the Spanish Inquisition of 1492 that ordered Jews to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain.
Often accused of being the killers of Christ and miserly usurers, violence against Jews escalated in Europe throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Anti-Semitism rose to its peak in the 1930s in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. And this is what ultimately culminated into the Holocaust.
The account of the Holocaust is painful, heartbreaking, and shameful. To read more about the daily lives of the people living in the concentration camps, read more here.
But this piece is more about what sustained some of the inmates even through those horrific years of abuse and dehumanization.
Coming back to the observance of Hanukkah, it is important to note that the inmates lived in constant fear and that they had no rights– a fact that was rubbed in their faces by the S.S. as described at the beginning of this piece.
And yet, in those unending dark hours, the menorah was lit.
‘Not far from the heaps of bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of Hanukkah lights.’
There was no oil, no candle, no wick, and no menorah.
But a wooden clog (a shoe from one of the inmates) was used as a menorah. Strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform served as a wick. And black shoe polish was used as the pure oil.
The Rabbi lit the first candle and chanted the first two blessings-
1. Blessed art Thou,
Lord Our God, King of the universe,
Who made us holy through thy commandments
and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.
2. Blessed art Thou,
Lord Our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who wroughtest miracles for our fathers
In days of old, at this season.
These two blessings are recited on each of the eight nights while lighting the menorah but there is a third blessing that should be recited after these on the first night. And according to Eliach’s book, the Rabbi stopped just as he was about to chant the third blessing. Instead, he turned his head and looked around as if he were looking for something.
But finally, he turned back to the lights and continued to recite the third blessing in his strong, sure voice.
“Blessed art Thou,
Lord Our God, King of the Universe,
Who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us,
And enabled us to reach this season.”
Among the gathered inmates, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund, Zamietchkowski had a question for the Rabbi. According to the Rabbi’s account, this man was an intelligent, sincere man with a love for discussing religion, faith, and truth. Even in the extreme and austere conditions of the camp, he maintained his passion for such conversations.
Unsurprisingly, he asked:-
“Spira, you are a clever and honest person. I can understand your need to light Hanukkah candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, ‘who wroughtest miracles for our fathers in the days of old, at this season.’ But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say ‘Blessed art Thou, Lord Our God, King of the Universe, Who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, And enabled us to reach this season’? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Hanukkah lights, when thousands of living Jewish skeletons are walking around in camp, and millions more are being massacred? For this, you are thankful to God? For this you praise the lord? This you call ‘keeping us alive’?”
But the Rabbi, who had himself hesitated upon reaching the third blessing, had wondered about these very questions in that moment, had an answer for Zemietchkowski.
“I turned my head to ask the Rabbi of Zaner and other distinguished rabbis who were standing near me, if indeed I might recite the blessing. But just as I was turning my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large throng of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and concentration as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Hanukkah lights. If God, blessed be He, has such a nation in times like these, when during the lighting of the Hanukkah lights they see in front of them heaps of bodies of their beloved fathers, brothers, and sons, and death is looking from every corner, if despite all that. They stand in throngs and with devotion listening to the Hanukkah blessing ‘Who wroughtest miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season’; if, indeed, I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”
A few years after the liberation, Rabbi Spira received a message from Zemietchkowski. The answer of the Rabbi given on that first night of Hanukkah– surrounded by death, fear, and faith– had stayed with him and was a source of comfort and inspiration during times of trouble.
Faith means different things to different people. But as young Anne Frank wrote in her diary, a single candle can both defy and define the darkness. For the people in Bergen-Belsen that night, their painful, meager, and unforgettable menorah lighting was that candle.
Note: The Holocaust left an indelible mark on our history. It is important that people remember what happened so that it never happens again. Donate to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here