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A Chanukah Story : The menorah in Auschwitz 

“But how…how is this possible? It can not be .” Rabbi Pearlman stammers out a, un-muffled attempt at a whisper, as his eyes slowly focus in the dark closet of a tool shed in Auschwitz. Four years have passed since he was torn from prestige to shame; from piety to dust. Yet in the camp it was Pearlman’s hope that sustained many of the walking dead in those days that seemed eternal. Days of death, horror, atrocity and violation…seemingly endless. Had Pearlman been unable to smuggle and conceal a small siddur, davening would have commenced regardless. Despite the mud and bitter cold, beyond the icy indifferent murder and daily plight, not to mention the hunger…O the hunger, and sickness. At the moadim, while shoveling, scrubbing, marching and often expiring, you could see, if one looked closely enough….a slight sway forward and back. A subtle parting of lips in the shape of a prayer many knew so well, as if it were part of their essence, coming as naturally as breathing, even in these conditions. But this! This is a true miracle. And just in time, the last chilling night of chanukah, and not a minute to loose. 

“But how is this possible?” How was it possible that a man, aged with years of faithful service and sacrifice to the treasured eternal covenant of the One True G-d could have doubt that, even in this horrifying evil place…a miracle could occur!? The possibility of doubt becomes more realistic when one has perspective. Pearlman’s perspective is pierced by blood and the terror of witnessing the wide and helpless eyes of an entire community of beloved children he had nurtured, counseled, married, Mikvah-ed, circumcised, sat Shiva with…asked him with their swollen frightful spirits…flashing in the black s of eyes he’s never again meet…..”How is this possible?!” Then suddenly here it is…opportunity impossible, becomes real in an instant. But then , what to do with it? What happens now? 

Yitzhak cradles seven small, pale beeswax candles in a tattered parcel of sackcloth ( it couldn’t be more appropriate.) When the shock subsides, duty and destiny pursue all the questions that commence. “Enough for one night, but where will be put the menorah?” “Where will we get a menorah?” “Who will stand watch?” “Where did you find them?” Yitzhak had been recently relieved from his position of personal “Jew slave” to the presiding Nazi commander. Yitzhak’s duties included residing over mouse traps, disposing of unmentionable waste and feeding the carnivorous men and dogs as the demand arose. It was while cleaning the officers latrine, that he discovered this treasure. Opportunity knocked and the concealed wax pillars of hope were easily transferred to the sackcloth ark one night, after the prepared potatoes had been demolished by the officers. They were starving after a long day of instituting starvation, degradation murder and violation. It was by the Divine timing of the One True God Yitzhak served, that he caught a horrible cold and was visibly incapable of remaining in his position of “Jew Slave” and food server. And so, Divinely, here he was, still able to work, back in the camp tool shed with Rabbi Pearlman and Chaim. 

Chaim was his only remaining tie to what Yitzhak once called…life. His brother-in-law Chaim’s sister had been murdered, shot…and hung for good measure for refusing to strip her clothes and parade shamefully before the Nazi oppressors. “We must try.” Yitzhak softly yet intently stated. “But how?” Chaim questioned, “What if we were discovered, it’d all be over.” “What choice is there Chaim? What is there to loose? Dignity, family, community, health, freedom…hope? These flames are the only light of life that can possibly exist in this darkness, and I for one am more than willing to give what is left of my so called existence here…even for the chance to be warmed and reminded by the glow of the eternal light of HASHEM, for even one moment before my soul returns to the Hand and Breath from whence it came….!” throbbing, still muffling his intensity, Yitzhak sucks full breaths slowly in and out now…and Rabbi Pearlman places a reassuring hand gently on his tight shoulder, then his other hand upon Chaim, humbled and silent. 

“Once there existed the courage to endure, but not simply to exist…and bend, fold and assimilate…a spirit of worship and honor in the way that the Designer Himself prescribed. This courage and passion was ignited under impossible circumstances and unmentionable conditions, yet…glory, honor and light prevailed! For man? No! But for those men who were ready to die for the Glory, Honor and Light of God in the world. From then and for generations hence. Who are we now, to ask, ‘How is this possible?’ It is a momentary weakness. What we must instead declare….’God will make this possible!’ Rabbi Pearlman encouraged himself and the men, who then exited the tool shed bracing the cold with a new warmth in their hearts. 

That night, the sun set, giving way to the deep darkness that enveloped them. There were only seven candles and a make shift menorah fashioned out a piece of wood pried from one of the simple bunks the mass of disheartened, bereaved, malnourished and abused men crammed their thinning spirits and bodies into each night. At the end of a grueling day they mustered enough strength to recite declaring…’Shema Yisrael, ADONAI Eloheinu, ADONAI Echad.’, wondering if tomorrow arrived at all, would it bring with it more sorrow and death? Chaim had painstakingly chiseled wells into this humble piece of wood with a dull but strong rock he had found in the yard. 

This final Feast of Dedication evening, the beeswax candles fit perfectly as the entire bunker huddled around Rabbi Pearlman and this menorah in Auschwitz, and light emanated in the bitter darkness. The warmth of hope shimmered over the hollow cheeks suddenly revived. If it hadn’t been so dark, would it have been such an incredible brilliance? If the risk hadn’t been so huge, would the illumination have been as sustaining as it was? and is? and shall be forever? As the pale beeswax candles burned down, eyes wept, hearts broke, yet lives were rededicated and reminded. The purpose of life, is light in a dark world, and with God, all things are possible. 

Rabbi- teacher
Siddur- ancient Jewish prayer book
Moadim- (moed) appointed times for prayer and Biblical Festivals
Davening- to pray 
Mikvah- ritual bath in living water to purify and symbolically spiritually purify 
Sitting Shiva- seven day period of mourning 
Shema Yisrael, ADONAI Eloheinu,ADONAI Echad- Hear O Israel, The Lord is God, The Lord is the One and Only. 
Feast of Dedication- celebration of miracles and light, Chanukah
Auschwitz- a Nazi concentration camp where more than 1 million souls were murdered.

 
* Written last year, 2012 Feast of Dedication on the eighth night. 
May it warm and bless you this year and always, 
Chag Sameach. Image
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