As a young boy growing up in Czechoslovakia, Hugo Gryn, who would grow up to become a prominent Jewish leader in England, was sent to Auschwitz with his family.
For a while he and his father shared a barrack.
In spite of the unspeakable horror, oppression and hardship, many Jews held onto what scraps of Jewish religious observance they could.
One year, the inmates became aware of the fact that it was the first night of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, and Hugo’s father constructed a little Hanukkah menorah out of scrap metal.
For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform and for oil, he had saved up some of the meagre rations of margarine.
Hugo’s father secretly gathered little Hugo and others to celebrate this first night of Hanukkah and light the candles.
Hugo remembers being outraged at his father, not because he was endangering the lives of everyone participating in this religious act of defiance,and not even because his father still insisted on clinging to the religion that seemed to be the cause of their hellish suffering…
No, Hugo was furious with his father because he thought it wildly impractical and frivolous to use a sliver of margarine which at the time equaled energy, calories, survival, and life itself, and put in a menorah rather in someone’s mouth!
“Would it not be better to share the fat on a crust of bread than to burn it?!” the boy protested.
Hugo’s father’s words would remain with him for the rest of his life:
“Hugo,” said his father, “If Aushwitz has taught us anything it is that a person can live for days without food but they cannot live for even one moment without light…
Many are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s theory of the pyramid and hierarchy of human needs, which places the physiological and metabolical at the bottom and most urgent, followed by physical and emotional safety and shelter, social belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
In his later years, Maslow explored a further dimension of motivation, while criticizing his original vision of self-actualization.
By this later theory, one finds the fullest realization in giving oneself to something beyond oneself—for example, in altruism or spirituality.
Each era has its unique struggles and solutions, each generation its particular challenges and calling.
In reality, the past 8 months notwithstanding, we live in an era of unprecedented privilege and prosperity, one in which the basic levels of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, food, clothing and shelter and education are available to more members of our human family than ever before.
But perhaps precisely because we don’t have to struggle for basic survival like our ancestors did, perhaps because we are so blessed materially, that ours is also – and perhaps even correspondingly – a generation that seems to be struggling increasingly with mental and emotional health and well-being.
Perhaps, therefore, ours, more than previous generations, understands the Chanukah message Hugo’s fathers taught him all those years ago:
That arguably the most important ingredient necessary for human survival and well-being is light: a sense of meaning, connection, spirituality, service, and purpose.
Interestingly, according to a Gallup poll* that came out this week which measured the decline in mental health over the past year across demographics, genders, ages and races, the only group of people whose mental health didn’t decrease but increased were those who attended religious services weekly!