A light in the dark: Singing Hanukka songs through the Holocaust

Hanukka was celebrated and observed throughout the war, in the ghettos and even in the camps, people hoping beyond hope that the suffering would end and believing that they would be free once again.

December 11, 2017 14:33
2 minute read.
The Raifeld-Welner siblings celebrate Hanukka, 1936

The Raifeld-Welner siblings celebrate Hanukka, 1936. (photo credit: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)


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The rare recordings kept in the National Library’s collection reveal the Hanukka songs that gave hope to Jewish children during the war.

In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill made his way up town New York on the city’s subway system. Word reached him that Jewish refugees had been brought to a hotel on the Upper West Side, and he wanted to get there as quickly as possible. A Jewish man of Polish descent, a lover of everything Yiddish and with keen historical awareness, Stonehill brought with him recording equipment.

When he reached the hotel, Stonehill found the lobby chock-a-block with men, women and children; the place looked like a European train station filled with luggage and lost people rather than a modern American hotel. Everyone there was a Holocaust survivor.

Hanukka in Fuerstenfeldbruck DP Camp, Germany, 1945. (YAD VASHEM)

Stonehill set up his equipment and asked the refugees to sing all the songs they knew from before the war. He recorded over 40 hours of music and most likely saved more than 1000 songs from being lost forever.

Men and women, young and old, sang in Hebrew, Russian and Polish. But most of them sang in their mother-tongue – Yiddish. Children clamored around the music recorder, begging for a chance at the microphone. They wanted to hear their own voices that Stoneholl had recorded. The technology delighted them and they were excited to sing the songs they heard at their parents’ knees, from their Hebrew school, from their youth movement, from the ghetto, from the camp and even from where they remained hidden during the destruction. Those pieces of their culture, their voices, would now be alive forever, for future generations.

As we listen, other voices can be heard in the background, other Survivors, crying, laughing and singing along.

Among the children that sang for Stonehill was a little boy named Meir, a 9 year old who survived the war and had just set foot in New York. The song is sung throughout Jewish households to this day.

Hanukka was celebrated and observed throughout the war, in the ghettos and even in the camps, people hoping beyond hope that the suffering would end and believing that they would be free once again. These were small glimmers of light in the endless darkness and Hanukkah was of specific symbolic importance during the Holocaust.

These rare recordings that Ben Stonehill taped reveal an old world, kept alive as an entire generation and culture was almost lost to us.

Thankfully we are able to listen to those bygone days.

This article was written with the help of Dr. Gila Flam, Head of music department: Music Collection and Sound Archive.

The Ben Stonehill Collection in the Sound Archive was catalogued by Amy Simon.

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