As we finished discussing Emily Dickenson’s poem, “Alone I Cannot Be,” I tucked my book away and rushed out of class. The timing was perfect. My great aunt, Tante Anna, lived 15 minutes from campus and I headed over to join her in lighting her hannukiah. Pulling up to her home, I wasn’t surprised to discover her front door open. She was waiting for me to arrive with the table in her kitchen set for two and candles set in a window, looking out onto the street. I remember how we stood side by side, Tante Anna’s Yiddish accent in Hebrew harmonized with my American Hebrew as we sang the blessings together. When we came to the blessing in praise of miracles, I remember thinking of Tante Anna’s awesome journey and the profound marvel of our standing next to each other that night to sanctify the moment together.
In March 1942, Czechoslovakian police came to my great-grandparents’ home in Stropkov to arrest my then 23-year-old grandmother. As my Bobbe was not at home, the police took her younger sister, who would become my Tante Anna. Without fully comprehending what was going on, my great-grandmother located her elder daughter and marched her over to the Catholic Center, where the girls were being held, in an effort to obtain the release her younger daughter. The officers quickly took my Bobbe into custody as well, without releasing her sister, sending my great-grandmother home alone.
Initial rumors suggested that they were being taken to work in a shoe factory. But after being loaded onto a cattle car and traveling for days, they began to realize that they were being taken somewhere more distant, both in geography and circumstance, to a place beyond their imaginations. As they disembarked, they were herded under the fallacious sign that read, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Will Set You Free, the promise of a fate that precious few would realize. In a process that mimicked the efficiency of industrial livestock production, they were then shaved, inspected, showered, and tattooed with the numbers 1002 and 1149. For they were members of the first Czechoslovakian transport to Auschwitz.
The two sisters, my Bobbe and my Tante Anna, stuck together in the face of constant horrors. Years later, Tante Anna would regale me with stories of the many times that my Bobbe saved her life. One day, Nazi officers orchestrated a terrifying game in which they forced girls to jump over a pit. Anyone who fell in was shot. When my Tante Anna fell in, my Bobbe ran to one of the officers and pled for her sister’s life. The officer agreed with a taunting laugh: “If we don’t kill her today, we will get her another day soon.” Tante Anna would tell such stories with prideful indignation, flaunting her survival to repeat the tale.
In May 1945, more than three years after they were taken to Auschwitz, American forces liberated them from another camp outside Hamburg, to which they had been transferred in the face of the allied advance. They hitchhiked their way back to their hometown of Stropkov, a town that once bustled with Jews and Gentiles living side by side. But while its pre-war Jewish population had totaled more than 20,000, it now numbered less than 100.
My Bobbe and Tante Anna stayed close. Each married, had children, were widowed young, remarried, had more children, and became grandmothers. Each made their way to Queens, New York, and lived within walking distance of one another. Bobbe always had kokosh, a yeast cake with chocolate or cinnamon and nut filling, just out of the oven when I visited. She spent hours at her basement sewing machine, and sorting through tins of buttons and trimmings, making beautiful clothing for all of us. She loved tending her garden of bountiful bushes of hydrangeas and roses alongside vines of cucumbers and tomatoes. Even today, whenever I smell farm fresh tomatoes, I am transported back to that garden. Many years later, the rabbi of her synagogue told me how she would regularly visit him in his office to discuss the philosophical and theological impact of all that she had witnessed.
While my Bobbe passed away when I was 11, Tante Anna was blessed with another 32 years of life and with them the opportunity to experience joy, nachat, and even great-grandchildren. And we were blessed by a closeness that led me to rush over to light Hanukkah candles with her that evening as a college student.
On Hanukkah, tragedy and destruction form the foundation from which our celebratory hope and new light emerges. The Book of Maccabees notes the date of the 25th of Kislev, the first day of the holiday, is also the very day on which the Temple was first ransacked by the idol-worshiping Hellenized Greeks. (Maccabees II, 10:5) Hanukkah celebrates the joy of salvation born from destruction.
Our experience of Hanukkah is both in cycles and in lines. We usually think of miracles as unique events, but they resonate throughout our daily lives. Hanukkah is thus in a sense a spiral, we remember the victory of the Maccabees but experience the depth of those miracles in celebrating them today.
In formulating the blessings for lighting Hanukkah candles, our sages crafted two blessings, the traditional blessing of the commandment to light them, and a second one that praises God for miracles, the one that struck me so profoundly that year when I lit candles with my Tante Anna.
Over the generations, diverse formulations of this second blessing reflect debates of what precisely we are appreciating. When Jews in Spain petitioned a ninth-century Babylonian sage regarding the correct wording of the blessing he offered the formulation: “Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days, in this time.” (Seder Rav Amram Gaon 2:168). A generation later, a shorter version emerged that put more stress on bringing the ancient past into the present ‘Who performed miracles for our ancestors at this time,’ omitting ‘in those days’ (Siddur of R. Saadia Gaon: 255). In the 12th century, Maimonides offered a formulation that struck a balance between past and present: ‘Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days and in this time’ (Maimonides, MT, Laws of Hanukkah 1:3). These seemingly minute liturgical variations reflect the question of whose miracle we are celebrating. Are we celebrating the miracles of the past alongside those that happen today? Are the miracles of the past themselves only miracles because of their impact today? When we acknowledge the miracles of the past in the present, we revisit them, but even more than this, we renew these past miracles and fulfill them in this time.
Twenty-four years have passed since I stood in that window next to Tante Anna. Whether home in New York, California, or in Zichron Yaakov, I carry the memory of that night forward into the present, recalling the horrors that she withstood with my Bobbe and all of the challenges they faced. But I also reflect on how immeasurably blessed she felt to have survived to stand with me in that window, side by side, on that day at this time. And this year, this memory is particularly precious, as my Tante Anna passed away this past March.
Tante Anna had a profound kindness and sensitivity for everyone she met. From the mailman to the bank teller, to the entire membership in the synagogue down her block for whom she dedicatedly set up the weekly kiddush. Everyone was welcomed in to join her for a cup of coffee and cake at her kitchen table. Tante Anna somehow preserved the youthful exuberance of her easy laugh and joyous bounce. She rarely sat still and always bestowed a new item of clothing on me or a folded bill of cash. Any visitor to Tante Anna’s home knew that while you said goodbye inside, she would follow you out to the car to watch you pull out of her driveway and run halfway down the block next to your car to see you off. She loved with all of her heart.
As I grew up to raise my own family, I would take them to visit Tante Anna every time we were in New York. She would step back with her radiant smile to relish and appreciate each of my children, her sister’s great-grandchildren, feed them and snuggle them close. In later years, Tante Anna loved to sit with them and sing. From songs of the shtetl to Kabbalat Shabbat, from holiday songs to Hatikva. All of our voices joined together to share the spirit of the moment and appreciate the connection.
When the Talmud explores Hanukkah, it describes the miracles that saved a generation threatened in body and soul and how a year after the rededication of the Temple, they established the holiday to celebrate and praise this miraculous salvation. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Everything about Hanukkah involves revisiting and renewing memories. As the generation of Holocaust survivors pass the stories of their torture, pain, and survival onto us, the second, third, and fourth generations, we become their vessels and guardians.
This year as I light my hannukiah, with my American accented Hebrew, alongside my children with their Israeli Hebrew, I bring Tanta Anna’s song and soul along with my grandparent’s story forward, in celebration of our holiday in our home in Israel at this time.