Gefen Bar-On Santor

The light of Hanukkah—held hostage

Source: iStock; Shmulitk
Source: iStock; Shmulitk

It has been observed that the opposite of hate is not love but indifference.  The Nazis, obsessed with Jew hate, were not indifferent to the Jewish holidays. These special days, cherished by the Jews, formed, for the Nazis, pretexts for “imaginative” torment.

In “A Hanukkah Candle in Auschwitz,” Moshe Prager describes the sadistic pleasure that the Nazis took in the “celebration” of Hanukkah:

“On that snowy night the ‘death train’ was unloaded as usual, and its new transports were led to the main entrance of Auschwitz, where the inscription could be seen above the gate, ARBEIT MACHT FREI (Work Is Freedom). The chief Kapo was in no rush. He did not prod the faltering marchers. He did not use his crop on their bowed heads. Nor did he use the familiar lie, “Move on, dirty Jews, move on to the big bathhouse. Move on!” That night the secret order from the camp commander was to direct the new arrivals to the cabins of the ‘labor squads’ and arrange a ‘game’ in honor of the Jewish festival, the Feast of the Maccabees. The brutish face of the chief Kapo took on an air of anticipation, and he spoke in mock sympathy: ‘No rush, Jews, no rush! It’s your holiday today. A good meal is waiting for you. Your bones are too dry and brittle. Can’t use them to make a decent fire. In your honor we have kindled all four furnaces today, and all their chimneys will be letting out billows of smoke and tongues of fire. It is your festival of lights, Hanukkah, as you call it!’

This was the Satanic game:

“Filthy Jews, I promised you a good meal for your festival, and I am going to keep my promise! I will give you regular hotel and restaurant service—to fatten you up. But first I will teach you a lesson in the good manners we observe in this camp. Rule one: We have prepared boiling soup for you, and we will pour it into the palms of your hands. Rule two: A twenty-gram slice of bread was allotted to each one of you. Every ten men will get a whole loaf and will divide it among themselves without using a knife. Rule three: Two grams of margarine will be given each one of you tonight. You will lick it off your fingers, at my order!”

When the victims are crowded into a small narrow cabin, an old Rabbi rises to comfort the congregation.  He reminds them that they can celebrate Hannukah even in the kingdom of the Nazi Satan and without candles because “Who needs oil and wicks?  Every Jew is a candle, even as it is written, ‘The Soul of man is the light of the Lord.’”

The Kapo had dropped bits of margarine on the floor and ordered the Rabbi to pick them up before leaving the cabin “to get his friends and let them share his enjoyment of watching the Jews being degraded.”

But the Kapo comes back to an astonishing sight: Chanukah candles are burning at the windowsill, as commanded by Jewish law. To fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Hannukah candles, one of the newly arrived victims tore out the buttons of her coat.  These became containers for the precious margarine, used to ignite light on Hannukah:

“The old rabbi stood before the window through which he could see the smoke of the ovens rising up to heaven, and intoned the blessing over the miracle of the oil, kindling the holy flame in everyone’s heart.”

When the Kapo returns and sees the candles, he is enraged:

“Hell and damnation! You will pay dearly for this, all of you. And you, impudent old man, you first!” the Kapo screamed, his voice bristling with disappointment, seeing that his plan had been foiled. That night the residents of the camp tasted of the miracle of Hanukkah. In their hearts, as well as in the heart of their tormentor who had vowed to take revenge, a feeling remained, a feeling that the small flickering lights on the windowsill had scored a victory over the chimneys of the giant crematoria and even over death itself.”

Philip R. Alstat’s “Lights are kindled in Bergen-Belsen” describes similar resourcefulness in Hannukah 1943:

“Living in the shadow of death and not knowing when their own turn would come, the Jewish inmates were nevertheless determined to celebrate Hanukkah in the traditional manner and draw whatever spiritual strength they could from the heroic story of their Maccabean ancestors. But where did they get the candle essential for a Hanukkah ceremony? From their meager food portions, the men saved up some bits of fat. The women, on their part, pulled out threads from their tattered garments and twisted them into a makeshift wick. For want of a real menorah, a candle-holder was fashioned out of half a raw potato. Even Hanukkah dreidels for the dozen children in the camp were carved out of the wooden shoes that inmates wore.”

Risking their lives for doing so, the victims light the candle:

“The assembled inmates joined [the rebbe] in a chorus of weeping, for all of them had also lost their own families. In low voices, choked by irrepressible sobs, they struggled to chant the traditional hymn “Maoz Tzur,” which proclaims steadfast faith in God, the Rock of their strength. On regaining some composure, the rebbe tried to comfort them and instill new courage and hope. Referring to the words of the second blessing, that “He wrought miracles for our fathers in days of old,” the rebbe asked: Is it not anomalous to thank God for miracles He had wrought for our ancestors long ago, while He seemingly performs none for us in our tragic plight? In answer to his own question he said: By kindling this Hanukkah candle, we are symbolically identifying ourselves with the Jewish people everywhere. Our long history records many bloody horrors our people have endured and survived. We may be certain that, no matter what may befall us as individuals, the Jews as a people will with the help of God outlive their cruel foes and emerge triumphant in the end.”

I am quoting these stories from the Holocaust because I fear that the imagination of the Hamas is rather similar to that of the Nazis. We know that as we celebrate Hannukah, hostages are being tormented in Gaza.  Accounts of “Hanukkah in Gaza” might be added to the holiday anthologies of the future—but today hostages remain victims of crimes against humanity.  They and their loved ones and anyone who cares about crimes against humanity are struggling with hopelessness and despair.

Today, unlike during the pogroms or the Holocaust, the people of Israel have an army to defend them—an army that has been forced into a war full of moral dilemmas.  I hope that the people of Gaza will see a future not ruled by Hamas—a future with greater stability and prosperity.

And when Israel tragically fights for the right to defend its people—no longer simply the helpless victims of whoever decides to murder, rape, torture or kidnap them—what happens to individuals does matter.

Our hearts are with the hostages.  They belong in the light and warmth of their homes. We hope that somehow they feel our collective love from afar.  We hope that the rock of ages can give them strength.

For years, the Jewish people have been reassuring themselves that the Hanukkah doughnuts deep fried in oil have zero calories—so eat! We want the hostages who are still in Gaza to come home and eat Chanukah doughnuts—and latkes with sour cream or apple sauce or sugar.  For them, may these timeless delicacies be packed with calories—and smothered with the love of many generations—the eternal human chain of the Jewish people and of all those who want peace.

Happy Hannukah—Bring them home!

Source for quotations: Goodman, Philip. The Hanukkah Anthology (The JPS Holiday Anthologies) . The Jewish Publication Society. Kindle Edition.

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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