1944 in Bergen-Belsen. After much toil the Rabbi of Bluzhov,
Rabbi Yisroel Shapiro managed to obtain oil in time for the
first night of Chanukah. Radiating a holy fire of his own,
the Rebbe, trembling with emotion rather than fear, recited
the three brochos and lit the first single flame.
Tears of joy and sadness combined and poured forth from all
those present. Suddenly, one of the inmates, a former member
of the Bund of Warsaw who had cast off any yoke of Torah,
approached the Rebbe and posed a question in a loud, clear
"Rebbe, I know you to be a wise man. I understand your
willingness to sacrifice your life for this mitzvah, for it
infuses us all with the hope that now too Hashem may hand
over the many into the hands of the few and the wicked over
to the righteous. I accept that you said the first two
brochos according to the halochoh. But tell me
Rebbe, the third brochoh — how could you bless G-d
for the fact that we merit to live and see this day? To
thank G-d when hundreds of bodies of our fellow Jews lie
lifeless around us, when thousands of Jewish souls are going
up in smoke in front of our very eyes?"
His painful, piercing question knifed through the air,
leaving all those present agape. All the inmates waited in
silence to hear the Rebbe's answer.
"You have a point my son," replied the Rebbe slowly, "and
while the third brochoh started to cross my lips, your
very question crossed my mind. I had trouble working on how
to recite the brochoh with true kavonoh.
"However, I paused and looked around at all my fellow
prisoners. Their faces mirrored the pain and anguish we are
all enduring and yet, beyond the tortured expressions, I saw
a firm will, a preparedness to take part in this candle-
lighting even on pain of death. For this I could truly say
with elation the brochoh of shehechiyonu."
From the diary of an inmate at the Niderschall Camp in
Somewhere in that obscure existence of days and weeks that
followed each other without name, date, rhyme or reason,
someone discovered that in a number of days would be the
first day of Chanukah. Word was passed around among us and
we all agreed that, come what may, we would light a candle.
True, this was not one of the mitzvos for which a Jew is
obliged to give up his life, but we felt that fulfilling it
would be a life-giving spirit for all of us. Two hurdles had
to be overcome. Although there was plenty of fuel in the
factory where we labored all day, how would we smuggle some
of it out into our barracks? The second problem: having
procured the oil, how would we light a candle without
bringing it to the attention of our German overseers?
We cast lots to decide who would bring the oil, who would
hide it until Chanukah, and who would light the candle under
the wooden board that served as his bed. The third paper to
be picked bore my name. Shimon managed to persuade his work
overseer that the machinery needed more oiling so they would
work better and a can of oil was brought to the camp. But
our hearts still skipped a beat at the question of how we
would avoid the attention of our guards.
The first night of Chanukah came. The emptied tin of shoe
polish that a German had thrown out was to be our menorah
and a few threads pulled from our meager blankets were to
serve as wicks. The oil was poured in and all was ready,
when suddenly we realized we had forgotten to bring matches.
Ben Zion, our strongman, was not fazed. Immediately he
instructed everyone to stop eating the watery soup we had
just been given. The remnants were gathered together to form
five portions that were duly traded for a cigarette. With
his precious cargo in hand, Ben Zion made his way to the
kitchen, handed over the cigarette and was given the box of
matches he demanded, no questions asked.
With my heart palpitating wildly, I recited the three
brochos and lit the first candle to the sobs yet
triumphant joy of the rest of us. Quietly we hummed and sung
Mo'oz Tzur and Yevonim, while even those who
were not shomrei mitzvos joined in.
For a few short, blissful moments, we forgot the torture and
suffering, each of us allowing himself the luxury of delving
a little into memories of years gone by, and into fervent
prayer that Hashem save us with miracles as He did
"What's going on here?" The hysterical scream of the Nazi
guard snapped us out of our reverie as we all froze in a
single moment. "I can smell oil burning," he continued to
rant and, together with his dog, began to search the
barracks. I knew it would only be a matter of minutes before
he would find the flame under my bed and this would be my
end. However, I was too frightened to stamp it out with my
foot, for the movement would alert the dog and he would jump
on me mercilessly.
It seemed there was no way out and I would die for my
mitzvah. And then the Chanukah miracle occurred.
A loud siren, warning of an air raid from the Allied
bombers, interrupted the search. As the guard stopped his
search, all lights in the camp were extinguished and I
seized the moment of confusion to stomp out the Chanukah
light. Together we all ran outside, as we had been
instructed to do at the sound of an air raid warning. I
managed to grab our `menorah' with me as I ran, and
threw it away outside in the darkness. "There will still be
a search," came the threat of the Nazi as we ran, but his
words rang hollow in the night air.
Pressburg, the city whose very name conjures up a picture of
the famous yeshiva and bustling Jewish life, was already
considered Judenrein by the Nazi masterminds. They
were confident that this year on Chanukah not a single flame
would twinkle in a window or doorway of Pressburg's houses.
Yet in a bunker, deep down under the floor tiles of the
washhouse of a small cottage, nineteen Jewish fugitives were
holding their own. The cramped space belied the greatness of
the characters in this little hideout occupying it. Here
were the gaon Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandel, father of
the underground hatzoloh, the Admor, the elderly
Rebbe of Stropkov who, upon wishing to enter the
bunker, sensed the reluctance of its occupants. They were
afraid that if an emergency should arise and they would have
to flee, how would the elderly Rebbe manage without
endangering them all? The Stropkover promised that if they
would allow him to take shelter with them they would all
survive the war — as indeed they did. The respected Reb
Shlomo Stern zt"l, a right hand to R' Michoel Ber, was
also part of this group, as was his son.
As Chanukah neared the owner of the hideout, a gentile
partisan who worked in the train station, was asked to bring
them oil. On the first night of Chanukah, a candle was lit.
Not by the window or the door of course, but a flame
nevertheless that drew all the Jews around it, their eyes
riveted to its dancing light. Soul-stirring talk of hope and
encouragement was heard in the depths of the bunker.
Pressburg's light was not extinguished.