Chanukah in the Death Camp

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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Ever since the September 11th bombing I have been wondering how we Americans will celebrate the holidays.  With thousands of our servicemen stationed in Islamic countries I know that, for them, the chances of a happy holiday looks slim.  Many families will not be together for the celebrations.

Deep in my heart I know that we are fighting for the freedom of many people.  Here in America our freedom is being challenged and we must rise to that challenge as we cannot afford to fail. 

One of the highlights of the holidays is the exchange of gifts between family members and friends.  I think of the children of all religions who are extremely busy looking for the latest toys and gadgets.  They hope for holiday gifts.  Jewish children anxiously wait for the night Chanukah begins.  As soon as the menorah lights are lit, the presents appear. 

Historically Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the Jewish revolution against the Greek occupation. This took place in Israel 165 B.C.E.  When the Jewish temple was reclaimed the main Menorah, a seven branch candelabra, was kindled.  Miraculously, the flames burnt for eight days without being replenished with oil; hence the festival became known as the Festival of Lights.  This year Chanukah begins Sunday, December 9th.

Lighting the menorah has not always been easy.  Let me share a story I heard from friends who were World War II Holocaust survivors.

Daily, the death train, cattle cars full of starving, frightened Jews, arrived in the death camp.  There one could see the tall chimneys blowing smoke, which were filled with burning bodies of gassed victims.

One day a new group of victims came to the camp.  The chief Capo, a sadistic man, infamous for his unbridled cruelty, greeted them.  "Jews, it's Chanukah. The great Satan told me that you want to celebrate Chanukah.  So today, instead of killing you, I send you to the nearby cabin.  There you can rest."  With that incredible welcome speech the Jews were herded into a cabin. 

A young man stood up pointing out of the window to the burning ovens and remarked "We will soon be the Holy Chanukah lights."  A religious student asked how could they celebrate Chanukah if they have no menorah and oil and wicks to light?  The children began to cry and were joined by the adults.

In the group was an old rabbi, Yossef.  Ignoring the pandemonium all around him he spoke in a sweet holy voice.  "Who needs candles, oil and wicks.  In every Jew there is a Godly fire.  No nation in the world can extinguish our flame.  We must have faith and show no fear."

It was then that the chief Capo entered the room.  "Today I'll play a game.  I will put one loaf of bread down and you will have to divide it up.  I know that you will fight each other trying to get a piece.  That will make great Chanukah entertainment.  I will also give each of you two grams of fat (margarine).  And to you, old  man, I give a double portion." The wicked Capo threw the fat on the floor and ordered the old rabbi to lick it up.  Yossef fell to the floor but instead of licking the fat he carefully put the fat into the fold of his coat.  The Capo laughed thinking that he had degraded the rabbi.  Soon he and his fellow henchmen would watch how the Jews would fight over the bread.

 "My brothers and sisters", said Yossef, "Today we have witnessed a miracle.  The fat will be the oil for lighting a menorah.  My coat has plenty of threads - so we have wicks.  Come join me for the lighting."  Some people gave their portion of fat and soon there was enough fuel for the wicks.  By ripping off the buttons from his coat and removing the cloth from the buttons, Yossef had little light containers.  Presto!  Here was a home made menorah ready for lighting.  Yossef looked like a holy angel.

 "My brethren," Yossef began, "We are here in the death camp.  Millions of our people have been brutally killed. Let's show our spirit.  As I light the menorah for this last Chanukah, let us all pray. I'm sure that our people will triumph over evil and cruelty.  Come sing with me."  The group of frightened people turned calm.  The Chanukah light had transformed them into a peaceful trance.

The Capo seeing the flickering light couldn't understand how the Jews did it.  How in the world could a starving, beaten, frightened people celebrate Chanukah in the death camp.  You need a soul to understand a miracle and that was something the Capo had lost.  Few survived the camp but the one who did, told the story.

So this Chanukah I will light the menorah and tell my children about the menorah in the death camp.  I will tell them how the spirit of people can never be broken. I hope to impress them with a Chanukah message that the holiday is more than toys and games, it's a celebration of freedom.  

To our fellow Americans and allies - let's show our spirit.  I am sure that with the Taliban surrender we will triumph over evil and cruelty.  As in the story of the Jews in the death camp, we see that people can overcome all hardships.  Our spirits must not be dampened during this season.

Best wishes for a bright and cheerful holiday.