The late American Holocaust scholar Yaffa Eliach shared this story of Hanukkah in Bergen-Belsen:
“It was time to kindle the Hanukkah lights. A jug of oil was not to be found, no candle was in sight, and a Hanukkiah belonged to the distant past. Instead, a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a Hanukkiah; strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick; and the black camp shoe polish, pure oil.”
Not far from heaps of dead bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of Hanukkah lights.
The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings in his pleasant voice, and the festive melody was filled with sorrow and pain. When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.
But immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights, and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third blessing: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”
As soon as the Rabbi of Bluzhov had finished the ceremony of kindling the lights, a leader of the Warsaw bund, Mr. Zamietchkowski, elbowed his way to the rabbi and said, “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 days of old, at this season.’ But the third blessing, the Shehecheyanu? Thanking G-d for bringing us intact to THIS moment in time is beyond me. How could you thank God and say ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this time?’ 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’?”
“Zamietchkowski, you are 100 percent right,” answered the rabbi. “When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? I turned my head in order 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 crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and concentration as they were listening to the rite of the kindling of the Hanukkah lights. I said to myself, if God, blessed be He, has such a nation that at times like these, when during the lighting of the Hanukkah lights they see in front of them the 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.”
You may ask the question in reverse. Why, on the eve of one of our most enjoyable holidays do I feel compelled to share this depressing and gruesome story? Because it is inspiring and uplifting? Yes and No. It IS inspiring and uplifting, and it NEEDS to be told, so that a new generation is aware of our history and knows what it means to live a life illuminated by a light that is larger than life – but does it have to be told NOW? Can’t we wait till after we spin the dreidel, eat some hot latkes, and unwrap the gifts?
When I wrote this article I, too, hesitated in light of these reasonable questions. And then I read the news, in which a famous man wearing a stocking over his face expressed admiration for Hitler and the Nazis as casually as if it were a conversation about the Americans competing for the World Cup. And as I felt the color draining from my face, I realized that it’s now or never to share this story and many others, both internally and externally. The Shehecheyanu that we recite over the candles encompasses the stories that must be shared NOW, precisely at this time.
Our recalling the atrocities that occurred Bayameem Hahaym, in those days, “is our most important weapon, Bizman Hazeh, in THESE times. Our silence would be our Maginot Line, allowing haters to simply bypass reality with fictional revisionism and grotesque statements. My beloved brothers and sisters, we can ill-afford to remain silent. And Hanukkah IS the perfect time to speak up.
Dare I say, that it is also the time for the Million Jews March in Washington?
Wishing you all
A Freilichen Hanukkah Θ
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker is the spiritual leader of Chabad of the North Shore.