A spark from the crucible

A rabbi's recollections of the Festival of Lights from a Nazi Labor camp.

Hanukka bergen belsen 248 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy of Museum of Jewish Heritage)
Hanukka bergen belsen 248 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy of Museum of Jewish Heritage)
What does a rabbi in a Nazi slave labor camp say to his followers when they have a chance to steal a tin of oil to light the Hanukka candles? Snatch it, and risk execution by the Nazis, or relinquish the opportunity to perform this beloved mitzva, thus avoiding danger for another precious few hours? After his followers have meticulously saved their margarine ration for the purpose of lighting candles, should he try to convince them to light one candle on each night for the entire group, as is halachically permissible? Or should he encourage them to do the hiddur mitzva, in which each person lights for himself and lights multiple candles, despite the danger of attracting the guards' attention? Insight into these and similar halachic and moral questions will soon be available to the English-speaking public thanks to the efforts and initiative of Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, director of the Holocaust Research Center of the Jerusalem Michlala. An intrepid historical researcher, Farbstein has mined archives and rabbinic texts to unearth dozens of valuable Hebrew documents recording rabbis' experiences and spiritual deliberations from the Holocaust period. Rabbis who survived the Holocaust and published responsa or Torah commentaries often added introductions in which they wrote about their experiences. Farbstein has collected and formatted these documents into a database (now available in Hebrew; soon to be published in English as The Holocaust in Prefaces to Rabbinic Literature). The database includes biographical information about the rabbis and other individuals mentioned in the prefaces, information about relevant geographical locations and summaries of the introductions. Ten of the most interesting and readable introductions are being translated into English for publication by Artscroll-Mesorah Publications next year. One of the particularly gripping documents in the database was written by Rabbi Moshe Nosson Neta Lemberger, as the introduction to his book Klei Golah (published in 1995 in New York). Lemberger was born in 1909 in Polgár, Hungary, to a rabbinic family. He married the daughter of Rabbi Ephraim Rosenfeld, the last rabbi of the town of Zundern. Before the war, Lemberger lived in Makov. In the summer of 1944, he and members of his congregation were deported to a slave labor camp near Vienna. Their first assignment as slave laborers was from July 21 to November/December 1944, felling trees in the forests around Vienna. They were then transferred to a bakery, and finally to Theresienstadt. In his introduction, Lemberger describes his experiences in the slave labor camp. He begins with a learned exposition on the importance of recording the events of the Holocaust. He then details an intimate but threatening dialogue he has with the Nazi commandant of the camp. The Nazi speaks to him frankly and as a rabbi and leader, and demands to hear his thoughts on why the Jews are being persecuted so viciously. Having adequately answered the commandant and escaped with his life, Lemberger then describes the succession of holidays during his time in the labor camp, beginning with Rosh Hashana, then Yom Kippur, Succot and Hanukka. In the excerpt below, Lemberger describes Hanukka in the camp: "HANUKKA APPROACHED. At that time, some of the groups were sent to do the work of movers. Many of the homes of the Austrians had been bombed, and the district governor gave their owners houses in other parts of the city. We had to move the furniture from one side of the city to the other. We located what was left intact within the ruins of the bombed houses. We carried bathtubs, big cupboards and large, heavy ovens down several stories to cars and after they were transported to their new location, we had to take them up into the substitute apartments the owners were given. This was exhausting work, especially since we were already weak from the hard labor, the subsistence diet and the minimal sleep we got in rooms without window panes, since they were all bombed out. On occasion, as we carried down heavy loads hung around our necks, we thought that our life's force would end before we reached the bottom of the stairs. "On Erev Hanukka, we came upon a five-story building that had an artist's studio on the roof, with a view of the surrounding landscape. We had to carefully carry down the paintings, canvases and paints. We went up and down those five stories more than 40 times that day. Our legs swelled until each step felt like the stabs of a thousand needles. But how great was our joy, and how all pain was forgotten, when we suddenly discovered a tin of oil, just like the Hanukka miracle. Carefully someone hid it under his armpit, as the punishment for anyone who took any of those objects was an immediate death sentence. But in those situations, we felt an inner impulse to do a mitzva, and did not wonder or discuss whether Halacha required us to endanger ourselves. We discussed the case of one who finds an object that was lost in the sea. Such an object is considered abandoned property, and therefore the previous owner has no claim to it. Thus in this case, we were not using stolen property and thus not performing a mitzva by way of a sin. "For the few weeks preceding this incident, most of the Jews in our camp had been saving the margarine ration that was distributed every Sunday around that time. It was about as big as half a matchbox, and we used this to light the Hanukka candles. In addition, each man tried to obtain a small amount of oil in any possible manner. Those who were working in factories took risks during working hours, hiding congealed oil someplace on their bodies and bringing it to the camp. In the basement of the camp, we found ceramic flowerpot bottoms in the shape of candleholders. Despite the great difficulty and danger, no one was willing to give up the mitzva of lighting candles, even though I told them that according to Halacha, it was enough for each head of household to light one candle for the whole family, or that we all could light together and that there was no need to light additional candles for each night. But who listened to this, and who was willing to renounce this mitzva? "We recite the she'asa nissim ['Who has wrought miracles'] blessing on each night of the holiday - every moment we remained alive was a miracle. So we lit candles in song. How can I describe how we sang 'Maoz Tzur,' and shouted the verse 'Bare Your holy arm and hasten the end for salvation,' hoping it would happen any moment, 'for the triumph is too long delayed for us.' Who can extol the spiritual elevation we felt during those moments? "It was enough to see the learned hassid Katriel Shalom Weiss, may God avenge his death. With tears of joy, he lit the Hanukka candles with oil brought to him by his daughters, who had thereby endangered their lives at their place of work. In the afternoon (in the middle of their work), they came to the camp with the precious treasure for their father, and when they returned to their workplace, a gun factory hidden in the forest, it had been bombed to smithereens. The soldiers who had been their supervisors were killed, along with others, giving concrete meaning to the verse, 'To those who fear You, You gave a banner to be raised high' (Psalms 60:6). "On Shabbat Hanukka, we were driven in a transport with three others of our group, one of whom was my dear student Avraham Baruch Shalaman, may God avenge his death. We were taken to a place far from our camp and from the forest area, because the train tracks had been bombed and the freight cars could not approach to load coal for industry. [Allied bombings increased as the Red Army approached Vienna.] Our job was to load the coal from the freight cars onto trucks. The place was empty, silent. At the nearby entrance to the forest, there was a hut where an old Austrian woman sold soft drinks and refreshments to hikers. After finishing our work, we had to go back to the hut, and from there we were driven back to the camp. During our work, two civilians passed us, walking back and forth. I said to my companions that I could tell they were up to no good. The expressions in their eyes, and their winking and teeth-grinding revealed that they had a reason for walking past here. "We prayed Minha for Shabbat Hanukka on the train cars. We could see the Vienna cemetery at a distance. In our prayers, we called on the holy ones who were buried there, including our son Asher Anshil, may God avenge his death, who died on 6 Mar-Heshvan, due to their treatments in their hospital. He was already buried there. We also called upon the strength of my ancestor, the Or Zaru'a [Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, teacher of the Maharam of Rothenburg], who was buried in one of the old cemeteries in Vienna. "After our work, when we went to the hut, the old woman said to us, 'Do you hear the whistles of that pack of devils? You have four or five minutes. If you can hide among the weeds, you'll be saved.' So we lay down and crawled through the slush and mud, between a bush and the weeds, and silently sang the Shalosh Seudos song, 'No entry to arrogant dogs.' Miraculously, our transport was two hours late. If it had come on time, those devils would have realized that we were supposed to be nearby, and who knows what would have become of us." TOWARD THE end of the war, Lemberger and 1,200 other members of his congregation were taken to Theresienstadt, where they were liberated. After the war he went to Budapest, then returned to Makov, where he served as town rabbi. He also established and directed a yeshiva there. He made aliya in 1951 and settled in Kiryat Ata, where he led a congregation until his death. His son, Rabbi Shimon, replaced him as admor. Lemberger died on 20 Heshvan 5743 (1982) in Kiryat Ata. His books include Klei Golah, homilies on the Bible and the holidays; responsa and halachic discussions; and Ateret Moshe, novellae on the Torah and responsa he wrote while in Theresienstadt. The excerpt from Rabbi Lemberger's book is part of a collection of rabbinic writings from the Holocaust, collected and annotated by Esther Farbstein and translated by Jessica Setbon and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, to be published by Artscroll-Mesorah in 2009.