There is no life at Buchenwald. Its gray barracks contain only fear and dread;
fear of what tomorrow will bring, the dread of what waits beyond the
door. Barbed-wire fences and watchtowers surround the entire compound;
the steady rat-atat of machine guns can be heard fulfilling their masters’
tasks. Down the road are the gas chambers; the smoke and smell they emit forming
clouds of death that hang over each bunk like a malevolent fog.
Building 103 at Buchenwald is different from the rest. It looks exactly like its
neighbors but it is not the same. It has a certain life within it, for it holds
the religious Jews in Buchenwald. They arrived here shortly after Kristallnacht:
rabbis and sextons, cantors and teachers. This barracks is their community now,
and as new prisoners enter Buchenwald, the religious among them are routed
The residents of Building 103 are not immune to German persecution.
They are regularly beaten, subject to selection, deprived of food and sustenance
like all the others at the camp. Those who cannot work or become ill are sent to
the gas chambers; those who fail to answer loudly or quickly enough at roll call
are promptly whipped.
Yet beyond the daily regimen of suffering, there is
a kind of life – religious life – in Building 103. The residents say prayers
each day, using a makeshift tallit (prayer shawl) made from a bed sheet. They
learn Torah, maintaining a nightly routine of study with the scholars among
them. Together they form a surreal congregation suspended between life and
death, Heaven and Hell. Their holy rituals give them a certain inner strength, a
higher purpose to life beyond just being fuel for the maniacal Nazi murder
Why these Jews are allowed to maintain their religious
activities, such as they are, is a matter of great debate. But whatever the
reason, they have carved out a tiny niche of meaning in this place of death,
which gives them reason to believe that God has not utterly forsaken
No official Nazi edict sanctions their religious behavior. It is
more an absence of repression, a blind eye and lack of response to the goings-on
in the barracks. There is always the fear that they might suddenly be
interrupted in the midst of prayer, or informed upon by a spy planted among
them. But for a long time, it seems an unofficial arrangement has passed between
Building 103 and the Reich.
AS WINTER comes to Buchenwald, the days grow
shorter and the nights longer. The inmates who work in the forests are
shepherded back to the camp by nightfall, and now have more time in which to
talk among themselves. They know Hanukka is coming and they have a bold,
completely outrageous thought: Could they actually celebrate a Jewish holiday?
While they have been able to pray and study periodically, they have never
actually observed a Jewish Holy Day. There was no wine upon which to recite
on Shabbat, no matza on Passover, certainly no etrog to smell and bless
on Succot. True, some had refrained from food and drink on Yom Kippur, but this
was a passive gesture to the day, not a real celebration. As night lengthens and
the discussions grow, there is a sense of courage and excitement at the prospect
of observing, in a real way, the upcoming days of Hanukka.
The debate is
fierce: How dare we risk our lives? And yet, if we could somehow celebrate in
this obscene place, how could
we not take that chance?
Finally, as Hanukka grows
closer, they decide to submit the issue to binding arbitration by the resident
scholar, Reb Herzel, a Talmudic master who had once led his own yeshiva. He
chose to teach his students until the very day the Germans seized him, rather
than escape to freedom earlier. His courage and intellect are acknowledged by
the entire camp, and they willingly submit the issue to him for
Reb Herzel buries his face in his hands, deep in thought as he
ponders the matter. The hungry and hopeful faces of the assembled watch
in silence, aware they stand on the precipice of a momentous decision. Finally,
he rises and delivers his verdict.
“Because this is a life-and-death
matter, I find no law absolutely compelling us to observe Hanukka here. Yet the
hanukkia symbolizes our determination that the flame of Judaism within us can
never be snuffed out, no matter how powerful the enemy we face. If we were
somehow granted the means to observe this holiday, we would re-create the
miracle of Hanukka, and in the merit of this action we might be saved. As no Jew
may command another to become a martyr, each of us must choose.”
is unanimous. Little by little, a hanukkia takes shape. Iron bars taken from
nine beds form the branches of the hanukkia. Atop each bar is attached
the end of a spoon, recessed to hold a drop of oil. The men agree to take the
bit of margarine they receive once a week with their bread and hide it in the
cold earth beneath the floor. The hanukkia is carefully hidden; the inmates
count the days until Hanukka.
The first night of the holiday arrives.
Roll call comes and goes uneventfully, the inmates retire to their beds and
feign sleep as the camp lights are extinguished. At midnight, they gather in the
center of the room as a close watch is kept at the window. The hanukkia is
quietly removed from a mattress and erected in the center of the bunk. The
stored-up margarine is taken from beneath the floor, a precious bit placed in
the little metal cup atop the first branch. A shoelace acts as a wick; one of
the men working in the camp kitchen has, at great risk, stolen a few matches.
The honor of lighting the first candle is given to the youngest among them, 16-
year-old Shmuel, representing all the children unable to celebrate
In hushed tones, the Jews recite the three blessings, and Shmuel
lights the lamp. The glow of that fire reflects the faces of men who pray for a
miracle, who have somehow reached beyond this place of misery to the homes of
their youth, where Hanukka was synonymous with joy and singing. For just a
brief, glowing moment, there is no Buchenwald, no Nazi terror; only faith and
the eternity of the Jewish people. The residents go to sleep that night with
empty stomachs, but their spirits are satiated.
This happy scene is
repeated on the second, third and fourth nights as well. On the fifth night
there is an tremendous snowstorm, which the Jews take as a good omen, a sign
that God is coating the camp in a white shroud of purity in recognition of their
having fulfilled a great mitzva. As they prepare to light the fifth candle, they
say the 118th Psalm, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and
revel in it.”
Suddenly, without warning, the door bursts open. Several
Nazi guards rush into the barracks. They order the Jews to lie face-down
on the floor, and seize the hanukkia. Several of the men, including Reb Herzel,
are taken to the center of the compound and summarily executed, the sounds of
the Shema prayer mingling with the gunshots. Their bodies are left lying there,
a warning to the other Jews in the camp and a tribute to Nazi
Back in the bunk, no one can speak. Once again, the eyes are
hollow and transparent, as if the souls had disappeared along with the hanukkia.
At the window, young Shmuel looks out upon the bodies, tears streaming down his
face. He shakes his fist with rage and finally screams, “They will not defeat
He lets his tears fall upon the fingertips of his right hand, and while
they are still wet, he presses them tight upon the icy window. The bitter
cold freezes them fast to the glass. With the defiant yell of a Maccabee,
Shmuel recites the blessings upon lighting the hanukkia. Then, with one final
cry, he tears away his fingers from the windowpane, leaving five bits of blood
and flesh on the window where his fingers had been.
The fifth candle has
been kindled.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of