Chanukah In No Man's Land

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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After World War II Jewish Polish citizens who survived the war by hiding in forests returned to Poland. There they found their homes destroyed, synagogues burned and their businesses taken over by the government. They were told that their families were all killed or lost in the Russian Siberia. What were Polish Jews doing in Siberia, you may wonder.

Early in World War II the GermanRussian Pact gave Polish Jews a choice: to remain Polish citizens under Russian rule or to become new Russian citizens. Those who decided to remain Polish citizens were quickly sent by the Russian government to the far away lands of Birobidzhan and Siberia. By being sent away to these far away lands they were inadvertently saved. Deep in Russia were Jews from Poland. When the war ended the Russians would not allow Polish Jews to leave Russia.

I however know of one Jew who escaped. Its a story of unbelievable proportions.

During the war there was a group of fighting Polish partisans that had broken out of the Nazi war camps. These partisans consisted of a few Jews and former Polish officers. They organized a resistance force that used to harass the German soldiers.

On one of their missions an old rabbi was found starving. He had been left for the dead by the Nazi murderers. One of the Catholic partisans took mercy on the man and nursed him back to health. The rabbi was of no real use for the group of partisans and was given the job of cooking and praying for the safety of the fighting men. Strangely, for the rest of the war this group of partisans suffered little or no casualties.

When the war was over the group broke up. Some went back to Poland; others traveled to Latvia. Others became wandering people with no homeland. As the Russian government clamped down on the people, depriving them of their freedom, the group decided to flee.

A plan was made to leave the Russian territories by night. An informant helping the now escaping Partisans told them, You must cross the river in the winter when its iced. When you reach the other side of the river youll be entering nomansland. There you will find a hut. This hut is used by a lone Russian soldier who is in charge of preventing border crossings by all unauthorized people. His job is to shoot at anything moving. However, at one oclock in the morning he leaves his hut and walks a few miles to the next hut where he meets another soldier. There the soldiers exchange reports and supplies. Then he returns to his watch. The complete trip takes him approximately two hours. During the time he is gone, you can warm yourselves in his hut but you must be out of the hut by the time he returns.

This group of brave men consisted of younger people. Most of the older people decided to remain behind in the Russian territories giving up hope. The only old man willing to travel was the rabbi. There broke out a heated argument. Lets leave him, said one. After all, he can find food ­in one of the towns. We really do not need to be slowed down by an old frail man. We have done our share.

A religious Christian partisan exclaimed, If we leave him, we are all doomed. I will not leave without him.  Reluctantly they included the rabbi.

It was the most terrible, miserable snowy night that you could imagine. A blizzard broke out. The cold and freezing temperature was of unprecedented measure. Sure enough, the leader was correct. The old man could not keep up with the rigorous climbing and running. The blizzard increased and more than once they had to stop to carry the old rabbi. As light as he was, he now was a big burden, slowing down the entire group. More than once, they would argue if they should  leave him behind.

It was one oclock in the morning when they observed the hut half buried in the snow. They could smell the fire and warmth coming from the hut. They waited and waited for the soldier to leave. It seemed like forever.

It wasnt a moment too soon that the soldier left. Almost frozen to death, the fleeing group fell into the hut, each one trying to get their icy hands and frostbitten feet closer and closer to the fire.

The old rabbi moved away from the group. He opened a small bag and took out an old and rusty menorah, a candelabra. Then he took a small piece of string, or cotton, rolled it into a wick and proceeded to fill the menorah with some grease or oil that he somehow miraculously had with him in a small tin bottle.

The very act of what was taking place put everyone into a trance. Not a word was uttered, nor could a sound be heard. In a spell, everyone  watched what the rabbi did.

In a barely audible voice the rabbi began the blessings for the lighting of this menorah. Then incredibly he picked up the menorah, placed it by the window of the hut, lit the menorah and began to sing an old Jewish song, Rock of Ages, which speaks of Gds miracles for his people.

Like an erupting  volcano, the leader jumped out of his stupor and yelled, Put out the light. You will bring the Russian soldier. Soon we will all be caught and shot. 

The rabbi tried to explain that it was the first night of Chanukah and that he had kindled the light in order to keep the commandment of remembering the miracle of Chanukah. No, said the rabbi. He would not extinguish the flame. It must burn one half hour. This is according to the ancient Hebrew law.

Suddenly the door of the hut flung open. A tall soldier holding a tommy gun yelled at the startled group to put their hands up into the air.

The Russian soldier approached the old rabbi, looked at the menorah, and said to him in Russian, I, too, am a Jew. I have not seen a menorah for six years. He kissed the rabbis beard and broke out into tears.

The soldier proceeded to tell the group, After I left the hut I suddenly remembered that I had left some reports in a drawer. As I was returning I saw a light coming from the hut. I couldnt believe my eyes. There it was, a Menorah in the middle of nomans land, in the middle of a blizzard right in my hut.

The soldier told the group that they were safe and proceeded to take out a large bottle of vodka giving each one a drink. He said, Its good that I was on guard. Another guard would have killed all of you! Come. I will show you how to cross the border. Remember me, Rabbi. Pray that I have the miracle of Chanukah and will be able to leave the army safely and be with my family.

The very surprised but relieved little group followed the soldier out across the border. Somehow they made it into freedom and then they all went their separate ways. The old rabbi came to Israel. He told this story to fellow survivors who, in turn, told it to me as a small boy when I was at the Yeshiva.

The message of the lights is a time honored holiday of freedom for all people.