Against All Odds

Kiel, Germany, 1932 – The local Rabbi’s windowsill is facing the Nazi headquarters.
On the back of the photo the Rabbi’s wife wrote later:
“That flag wants to see Judahs death, but Judah will always prevail,
and our light will last longer than that flag” (from Beit Hatfutsot Museum collection)

Miracles is one of Hanukkahs main themes. It begun back in the days of the Maccabees, who against all odds managed to establish a sovereign Jewish state in the midst of the Greek-Roman conflict between these two empires. Here is another wonderful story, from our more recent history.

Hanukkah in Bergen Belsen

For many days Rabbi Shraga Shmuel Shnitzler (1888-1979, known also as Rabbi Shmelke) asked the residents of the barracks if anyone can find some oil. He wondered if either of them knew someone working at the camps kitchen.

But the answer was always a resounding “no”.

Rabbi Shmelke (Shraga Shmuel Snitzler)

As Hanukkah (of 1944) was approaching, he was looking for some thin thread of hope that may encourage his comrades. Something that might keep some of them alive, so he hoped.

Shmelke had a “respected” job in the hellish camp: removing the dead bodies from the barracks. A day before the Feast, while clearing corpses into the open field, he stumbled over a tiny hole in the frozen ground. He pulled his foot out and realized something was buried underneath. Shmelke gingerly looked left and right, ensuring no one was paying attention. To his utter surprise, he pulled a tiny jar out of the ground, filled with congealed liquid.

“Oil”, he whispered.

He then noticed there were other treasures buried alongside the oil. In a carefully wrapped, frozen parcel, he found eight tiny glasses and eight thin cotton wicks (another version of this story tells that the treasure was not found in the field, but inside a pillowcase that was hidden in one of the shacks. Yep, thats the nature of miracle stories. As if the miracle in and of itself is not enough, we attempt to make it even more grandiose. But regardless, a wonderful, heartwarming miracle happened that week).

Rabbi Shmelke wanted so badly to take the treasure and share the news with his “roommates”. But he was not sure if the Jew that hid it was still in the camp, still alive even. “Perhaps hell come back looking for it”, he thought and quickly buried it back. That day he asked everyone that crossed his path: “I happened upon a small Hanukkiah and a bit of oil. Is it yours? Was it you who hid them?”

Al Hanisim Ve’al Haniflaot

The prisoners looked at him with sad eyes, convinced that the horrors the rabbi had seen in his line of work had claimed his sanity. They all sobered up the following night. When they returned to their shack after that night’s roll call, they saw a small hanukkiah on one of the bunks, and one little vat filled with oil!

Shmelke chanted the “Al Hanisim” prayer (“He who has performed miracles and wonders on our ancestors’ behalf, in times past, as in these days”), and the “Shehecheyanu” blessing (“blessed are You, God, King of the universe, who kept us alive and brought us to this day”). He then lit the first candle. His neighboring prisoners watched with eyes wide open as the tiny flame struggled to burn in the darkness surrounding. Some burst in tears. All were filled with a spark of hope.

Lighting Hanukkah candles at the Westerbork camp in Holland (Yad VaShem archives.
Though this picture is not from Bergen Belsen,

nevertheless it helps in understanding the overall setup of the story.)

There was enough oil in that treasure to lit all the wicks night after night throughout the Feast.

Who Burried the Treasure?

A few months later, on April 1945, a much greater miracle occurred. Germany surrendered and the war was over.

After the liberation of Bergen Belsen Rabbi Shmelke returned to Hungary and became a spiritual leader of many holocaust survivors in his homeland. Several years later he met the Rabbi of Satmar during a visit to the US. As they were reminiscing, the Satmar Rabbi mentioned he too was in Bergen Belsen.

“Four days before Hanukkah of 1944 I was smuggled out of the camp”, he told Shmelke. “I didn’t know I will not be there for the holiday, so I bribed some of the guards and scored some oil, glasses and wicks. I even managed to bury it in the field. But I always felt bad that my little hanukkiah was never used.”

Shmelke grinned, “your hanukkiah shone its light in the darkness for many Jews and helped at least some of us survive the war”, he exclaimed as he told him the rest of the story.

My Prayer

As hanukkiahs are lit this week all over the world, adding one more candle each day, I ask, Abba, that You turn this ritual into a prayer in the hearts of those who observe it.

I ask that Your light will grow in the hearts of the elderly, specifically the holocaust survivors. For many of them this could be the last Hanukkah they will celebrate in this life. So as they stare at the tiny flickers, remind them that You are light, and that no darkness resides in you. Fill them with hope.

I think of Manya and Yafim, Esther and Yosef, Arcadi and Miriam – all the survivors I know personally, as well as the thousands of others still with us today. Cause them to lift their eyes to a greater Source of Light and remember that as in past days, still just the same today, You are alive, You exist, You are involved and invested in the minute details of their lives, and You still perform miracles and wonders.

A Jelly-Filled Doughnut for Dessert

One of the hardest things for many elderly during this season is to endure the loneliness and isolation. Many of them struggle with fear and anxiety. They are detached from their loved ones, and unable to engage in their favorite activities. The song bellow was recorded as a fund raiser to recruit assistance to the elderly. Notice the guest singer…

“Yesh Bi Ahava” is its name (lit. there is much love within me.) The song declares that in these days of darkness, we can show love to those around us, especially those who suffer the isolation the most.

Yes, it is PM Netanyahu that joined one of our famous singers
(Eden Ben Zaken) in this special Hanukkah production