A Hanukka miracle

A Hanukka miracle

December 12, 2009 04:18
Israel Shinar

Israel Shinar . (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo )

For Polish Jews who clung tenaciously to life in Nazi-occupied Poland, Hanukka of 1944 loomed as the darkest ever. For those still in the camps, despair reigned as Hitler's crematoria ran day and night, trying to finish the job before time ran out. Outside the camps, a few more fortunate Jewish families languished in hiding, their survival dependent on those who brought them food. Among the latter were the seven members of the Shinar family. Two years before, they'd taken refuge in a 2-meter-by-2.5-m. attic bunker, a space barely larger than a storage closet. With no end in sight, how could Hanukka, the festival of lights, be celebrated with joy? But the Shinars were committed to keeping all of the mitzvot, no matter what it took, and celebrating Hanukka was no exception. Early in their captivity, they'd used a board to plot out their own Jewish calendar, so all holidays could be observed on the correct days. Even so, knowing Hanukka was approaching was scant comfort. They had virtually nothing with which to mark the festival. A festival of light was especially problematic. In their second-floor bunker, even normal light was scarce: Two tiny peep holes in the outside wall enabled the occupants to do little more than distinguish night from day. Food was scarce - certainly there were no latkes. Occasionally something was brought to them, but every piece of stale bread was cherished. Only a tiny morsel was eaten; the rest was wrapped and put away, saved against tomorrow when there might be nothing at all. For 17-year-old Israel Shinar, the only thing he had in abundance was time. As he considered the matter of Hanukka, he decided that candles could probably be improvised. During their first year in the bunker, the Shinars - Israel, his three brothers, one sister, mother and father - had marked the eight days with nothing but a hand-drawn hanukkia, above which they had drawn a flame for each successive day. But during the summer, Israel Shinar came up with an idea for the next year. He could fashion candles, he thought, if he could convince someone from their caretaker family to help. A boy in that family was roughly his age and had seemed reasonably friendly to the Jews hidden away in the attic. Shinar finally dared to ask the boy if he would collect some of the wax left over from the candles in the big home. The boy agreed, and for several weeks, he brought tiny bits of wax to the bunker. With those drippings and a bit of thread as a wick, Shinar fashioned eight tiny Hanukka candles. This year, the Shinars would celebrate Hanukka with light. Always an optimist, the young Shinar hoped for another Hanukka miracle. Maybe by next year they could celebrate with real candles. Today, Shinar owns and operates the Menora Candle Factory, the largest candle-making business in Israel, located in Sderot. At the nearest estimate, Shinar has manufactured more than 3.6 billion candles, although the exact number has never been tallied. One figure is certain: For this Hanukka alone, Shinar's factory has manufactured and shipped 64 million candles to homes and shops all over the world, ready to publicize the miracle of Hanukka to hundreds of millions of people for eight successive nights. Shinar's Holocaust travails didn't begin in the cramped attic bunker. Born in 1928, Shinar struggles to speak of the horror of his early years in Poland. When the Germans first arrived, he recalls, his whole family fled their home and lived in the forest. "My most vivid memory is about how terribly cold it was," he says from his modest second-floor office overlooking the massive candle-manufacturing process going on below. "I was 15 when we went into the forest. We hid there for almost eight months. Sometimes the temperature dropped to minus 25º, and frequently we had no food. We scavenged for whatever we could find, usually what we could dig up, like potatoes or turnips that had been left in the field. Finding a carrot was cause for real celebration." A business acquaintance of his father's came to the family's rescue. "My father had a mill where wheat was ground into flour," he says. "One of the men he'd done business with took pity on us and allowed us to live in a tiny bunker. We stayed two years. During the day, we couldn't move about or talk, because if the people down below heard us, then the Germans would come. The one thing we did through it all was to remain very observant. We didn't miss any of the daily prayers or holidays." Liberation came in January 1945. "One day we heard some unusual noise and peeked out the tiny hole," he recounts. "We could see it was Russian soldiers, and wondered what that might mean. Was it all over? Was it safe to go out? It was hard to believe. We waited one more day, just to be sure, and then we walked out. The only thing I took with me was my tefillin - I hid them in my pocket. They were my most precious possession and stayed with me through everything. I still have them." Once out of hiding, Jews weren't much safer in Poland than they'd been before the Nazis came. Much of the non-Jewish population had harbored anti-Semitic views before the war, and that hadn't changed. Sporadic anti-Jewish disturbances, riots, blood libels, roving bands of gangs and a number of pogroms resulted in the loss of 1,500-2,000 additional Jewish lives between liberation in January 1945 and 1947. "When the Germans came into our village, they began by setting fire to most of the houses," Shinar says. "After the war, we went back and saw that our house was still standing - something of a miracle all by itself. A pharmacist was living there, but we asked if we could just stay in two rooms for a time, and he agreed. We stayed about seven months. For us all, the goal was to get out of Poland. I was lucky when I came across a group of men from the Jewish Brigade who agreed to take me along. I left Poland, traveled through Czechoslovakia, through Germany, and finally made my way into France. "Initially I had trouble in France, too," he says. "I didn't have any papers, so they put me in jail. I stayed there for the four weeks it took them to get everything straightened out. I used the time to study French." However, the release from French prison didn't mean prosperity. "Everyone was looking for a job, and there just weren't any," Shinar recalls. "But I didn't really want to work for anyone else anyway. What I wanted was to find a way to make a living on my own, to have my own trade and to be independent. One day I saw a knitting machine. With such a machine, I thought, I could make something, sell it, and be in business for myself. The problem was that I didn't have the money to buy the machine. But few other people had the money, either, so the owner finally agreed to let me take the machine on the condition that I'd pay him out of the proceeds of what I sold. So that's what we did. As soon as I'd paid off the first knitting machine, I started saving to buy another. That's how it all started." Shinar's first knitting machine eventually grew into an enormously successful textile-manufacturing business in France. By 1952, Shinar had opened his first textile factory, and shortly afterward, he added another. He then expanded again into clothing production. "There wasn't any big leap in how I was growing the business," he says. "I just worked hard and saved all the money I possibly could." One by one, he brought his family to France. A brother came to Israel in 1947 and stayed for several years, but as Shinar's factories grew, he needed help, so his brother returned to France to join the business. Did he think of making aliya himself during those years? "There was no point in thinking about it," says Shinar. "I didn't have any money. I didn't have a visa. I was working very hard in France, and I decided to focus on that." One story about Shinar's early days in business is revealing. "I traveled to London, planning on selling some of my merchandise there. I arrived, went to my hotel room, and then found myself having a crisis of confidence. I kept asking myself, 'What am I doing here? I don't know anyone. I don't have any contacts. I don't speak the language. I don't even know where to start.' But every day I went out anyway, showed my samples to anyone who would look, and day by day, the list of orders grew. By the time I left, I'd sold all my merchandise." As the factories began to prosper, Shinar set out to find a wife. As a frequent visitor to Israel, he decided to look here for the perfect woman. "I found her," he says with a smile. "Her name was Tikva, she lived in Petah Tikva, and she was very good and beautiful." They married, returned to France and eventually had four daughters. By the late 1980s, Shinar was getting restless. "I was looking for something new," he says. "My wife wanted to return to Israel, so we started looking for a business to buy. We looked at several ongoing textile operations, clothing, things of that sort. We considered buying Castro, but that didn't work. We tried Fox, that didn't work, either. Then one day, someone mentioned a candle-making business in Holon that was for sale. 'Yes! That's it!' my wife said. 'Making candles! That's the right thing to do!'" The candle factory in Holon had been owned and operated by the Rubinstein brothers for over 75 years, and before that, the Rubinstein family had produced handmade candles in Warsaw. In Holon, the Rubinsteins had continued to make all the candles by hand, dipping the wicks into the paraffin over and over until they reached the desired size. The Rubinsteins' first Hanukka candles were packed into a box designed by the Bezalel Academy of Design in Jerusalem. Today, the box is a collector's item. "We bought the Rubinsteins' candle business, but immediately constructed a new factory in Sderot and moved the business there," Shinar recalls. "I'm often asked, 'Why Sderot?' The answer is, I wanted to be in a position to offer jobs in some community where it was really needed. I knew what it was like not to be able to earn a living. If I could help someone else avoid that experience, that's exactly what I wanted to do. Sderot needed businesses that would hire people, making it possible for them to earn a living. So we went to Sderot, built a new building, installed completely modernized and automated equipment, and began making candles." Today the Menora Candle Factory is a beehive of activity 12 months a year, operating out of a 5,000-sq.-m. building in the town's industrial park. It employs an average of 70 people, who manufacture 60 different kinds of candles for every conceivable purpose and holiday. In addition to several types of Hanukka candles, there are havdala candles for marking the end of Shabbat, decorative candles of various sizes, tea lights, memorial candles and long-burning candles for multi-day holidays. Shinar makes scented candles, thick candle columns to burn for atmosphere, and many different kinds of Shabbat candles. Some fit into traditional candle-holders, others fit into tiny glass containers, and the most innovative are made to burn without dripping. There are candles that serve as torches, candles that float and candles that can be used for heat. Once a year, a prized project is hand-dipping a number of large blue-and-white candles, which are used for ceremonies at Beit Hanassi. Surprisingly enough, Hanukka candles don't constitute the majority of the factory's business, says Sara Zadka, Shinar's second-in-command, who's been with the candle factory since its earliest days in Holon. "Actually, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana are our biggest holidays, although of course Hanukka is uniquely important," she says. The array of Hanukka candles seems endless, ranging from the inexpensive "short" packs that sell for NIS 2.80 - manufactured just to make sure there are Hanukka candles everyone can afford - all the way up to this year's favorite, hand-painted artistic candles that retail for NIS 11.80. "Every year we have a different design for our hand-painted candles," Zadka says. "Each is created by a professional candle designer, worked with vivid colors and one-of-a-kind designs. Since every candle is hand-decorated, no two are exactly alike. These candles are made with high-quality kosher paraffin that looks shiny and smooth [and] burns evenly with a stable flame for a full 90 minutes." In late November, the annual Hanukka candle-making rush was over. Most candles for Hanukka were made and shipped months ago, Zadka says - but by now, the factory is working overtime to make more of the hand-painted variety. "The hand-painted candles were sold out," says Zadka The process of hand-decorating candles is labor-intensive. Several women stand around vats of liquid paraffin in several colors. Each candle is first dipped deeply into one color, allowed to dry, then partially dipped into a slightly darker color, dried, then dipped again at the base, producing a four-color candle. Only after that are the designs painted on. In another part of the factory, bright blue and deep orange candles are being made in an impressive display of manufacturing innovation. Big containers of liquid paraffin are hand-poured into molds to make over 100 candles at a time. Each mold holds a 100% cotton wick still attached to spools underneath. The paraffin dries, then a long, sharp blade is slid underneath to cut the wicks all at once. When they're completely dry, the new candles are ejected from the molds and moved into large containers for either packing or further decorating. After each use, all the excess, unused wax is shoveled off into a box to be remelted and reused. The dripless Shabbat candles are unique to Menora. "None of our candles are made from tallow, animal fat, anymore," Zadka says. "It's too expensive, and besides, in most cases it wouldn't be kosher. All our candles - with the exception of these special Shabbat tapers - are made from paraffin, which is a petroleum product. For our Shabbat candles, we use vegetable products instead of paraffin. With a 100% cotton wick, they burn very hot, which means they're essentially dripless." Another unique product is a memorial candle for Holocaust Remembrance Day. The long-burning candle comes in a yellow tin, exactly the color of the "Jude" stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Most of those candles are exported to the United States, Zadka says. When Shinar's wife passed away 13 years ago, a full-sized synagogue was created within the factory, dedicated to her memory. For several years, Shinar invited a kollel of young yeshiva students to come to the factory synagogue, where they'd sit and learn all day and Shinar would subsidize their time and travel. That had to change when, in 2000, the Kassams and Grads began falling on Sderot. "The factory isn't bomb-proof," Shinar notes. "One day the young men arrived in the car we'd sent for them. They left the car, walked into the factory, and the car drove away. One second later, a Kassam struck the place where the car had just been. Even though no one working in the factory was ever hurt by a Kassam, there were too many near-misses. Soon it began to be too dangerous for the yeshiva students to come, so that program lapsed." But according to Zadka, that was hardly the end of Shinar's charitable endeavors. "He's very modest," she says with a smile. "He won't talk about any of the other good things he does. But what he did next was to buy an eight-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv. Each bedroom is equipped with a bed and bath, and there's a kitchen and living room below. It's offered - free of any charge - to any religious family who's staying in Tel Aviv to be with hospitalized family members. Many times it's hard for the family to travel back and forth, especially for Shabbat. So he welcomes them, provides everything, including food, and just hands them a key. And that's just one of his projects. He's a very good man." This year, Menora's Hanukka candle production is up 15% from last year, even with the worldwide economic downturn. Still, these are difficult days. Imports threaten to flood the market. But Shinar's response is to develop new and ever more innovative candles. At 81, Shinar still puts in a full work day, rising early for morning prayers and then running the factory until lunchtime. After an afternoon break and minha, he's back at it. "He makes every decision, sees every order, oversees every project," Zadka says. "And he almost always walks from place to place." Shinar shrugs off the praise. "I do what I do," he says. "I work hard, I save money, I turn out the best product at an honest price. I help people when I can. And I always know that no matter what happens, everything will work out for the best."

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