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Rachel Fryman
Rachel Fryman

Grandma Loved Chanukah: When Holocaust Survivors Celebrated Again

My grandmother, Clara Neuman, a Holocaust survivor, chose to live simply and laugh often, especially at Chanukah time. Beneath the joy of lighting the candles with family and oily latkes was a nostalgia for how Chanukah was celebrated in Hungary. 

Although Grandma reminisced lovingly of those childhood memories, after the darkness of war and communism, she strived to live in the present. At times she had the typical night terrors of arriving in Auschwitz and being separated from loved ones. She quietly endured flashbacks to the Death March, and memories of the chaotic years rebuilding her life in Communist Hungary and then again as a refugee in Canada. How did these events not define her and survivors of this generation?

Grandma’s shiva five years ago coincided with the eight days of Chanukah.  Every night we paused the open house to light the candles as a family. Deep down, I felt her presence. Grandma plotted with G-d for all of us to be together, eating someone else’s latkes, singing, and bringing light into the world. 

This Chanukah as we emerge from the aftermath of Covid halting our own lives, the instinct to connect with others is stronger than ever, but for many is also laden with mixed emotions. There have been tremendous losses and we know too many still suffering in the aftermath of this horrible pandemic. 

Immediately after the Holocaust, Dr. Viktor Frankl founded Logotherapy, a psychology focused on finding meaning in suffering and living with purpose. Frankl knew as a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, to increase resilience and foster growth, survivors of trauma needed a reason to live. My grandma’s new purpose became celebrating special occasions with her family and friends around food and with a heavy dose of humor. 

I have wondered (and wished I had asked my grandma) what it was like to be celebrating Shabbat, Shavuot, and The High Holidays in 1945 after Liberation? How many times did she get together with fellow survivors before they were able to laugh and live fully again, if ever? 

In Behavioral Activation, a treatment technique in therapy, a person struggling with depression becomes healthier as they find pleasure and meaning in activities, and repeats these pleasurable and meaningful actions over time with increasing regularity and comfort. The person does not wait to feel better or be motivated to start taking steps to change, but rather it’s those first steps that motivates to continue with greater confidence. Like lighting the Chanukah candles, it all starts on day one with one small candle, and gradually builds up to the full eight lights burning at the end. Change comes slowly, incrementally, and in due time. 

As we approach Chanukah this year, I am thinking of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s book Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places. Isn’t that the truth?  Grandma’s commitment to lighting the candles was enmeshed with the warm feelings of singing, eating, and connecting with family and friends. In her life, it took time to reclaim a new normal. This year, I will again light a yahrzeit candle in memory of Grandma, from the end of which I will then light that first shamash candle a day later. From loss comes light. 

About the Author
Rachel Fryman PhD LCSW is a psychotherapist at Adelphi University and in private practice on Long Island, NY. Her doctoral dissertation at Smith College centered around divorce in the New York Jewish community. Rachel is a graduate of Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work with a Certificate in Jewish Communal Service. She has received advanced clinical trainings and completed courses at Nishmat and JOFA to be a kallah teacher instructing premarital Jewish education classes. Rachel has taught, presented, and written on the intersection between mental health and Judaism.
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