Candles in combat

An estimable collection of hanukkiot lights an illuminating path through history.

Aviram Paz is an industrious collector of any items connected to Jewish soldiers during and between the two world wars. Over the past few decades, Paz has become a prominent collector of Haggadot, Rosh Hashana greeting cards and other memorabilia created by or for Jewish servicemen and women. In Paz's time machine, the hatches of history are locked down on the world of Jewish soldiers in Europe and the Middle East, Holocaust survivors transferred to refugee transit camps, and the so-called illegal immigrants imprisoned by the British in Cyprus. His one-of-a-kind collection of medals, emblems and documents from that period is fascinating; but with Hanukka approaching, hanukkiot were my main focus during a recent visit. Scores of hanukkiot fashioned by or sent to soldiers on the fronts of Europe and the Middle East are displayed in a glass cupboard in his family living room and the crannies of his Jezreel Valley kibbutz abode. Each piece has a story, and Paz has become a walking encyclopedia over the years in his constant quest for more items and research into those already collected. Often, he had to carefully restore the pieces himself. A bronze hanukkia from the War of Independence period bears an image of Theodor Herzl crafted into the billowing sail of a Viking-style vessel. A Magen David flanked by olive branches stands alongside the Father of Zionism, and the word "Israel" is engraved above them in bold Hebrew letters. A pennant flying off the main mast also contains a Magen David, the shamash holder is affixed to the ship's bow, and the other oil or candle holders ride on the crest of the waves below. The hanukkia has been crafted in such a way that it really does seem to be in motion, with its wind-filled sails and flying pennant, waves breaking around the bow and long oars emerging through portholes to the sea. "This hanukkia is rather a rare find these days," states Paz as he gingerly handles the rather heavy, extremely solid piece. He points to the emblem opposite Herzl's image. "This symbol was adopted by the Zionist Socialist Youth movement founded in Galicia in 1913 known as Hashomer Hatzair. They just added the words "Chazak v'ematz" (be strong and brave) underneath," explains Paz, whose kibbutz, Mishmar Ha'emek, is one of the flagship collectives of that movement. Another bronze hanukkia is popped onto the table for scrutiny. Also fashioned in the l940s, this one depicts a helmeted soldier, shirt sleeves rolled up over a muscular arm proudly holding aloft a rippling banner. The candle holders sit on the folds of the banner, and a Magen David is engraved on the flagpole. The soldier's other hand is firmly wrapped around the butt of his rifle. The words "Made in Israel" and the registered patent number, 1064, are engraved on the back. Another hanukkia, fashioned in 1946 with less detailed artwork, is composed of aluminum and what Paz terms cheap materials. "This hanukkia was made during the days of the victory march in Belgium in which soldiers from the Jewish Brigade participated," says Paz, needing both hands to hold the heavy item that looks like it was made from stone rather than a mixture of metals. A heavy-set soldier protrudes through the open hatch of a cumbersome-looking tank. The flag he is proudly holding aloft also has a Magen David. What is eye-catching about this particular menora is that the arch behind the tank, which one supposes the vehicle and crew have just passed under, is the victory Arch of Titus in Rome. "This is a particularly interesting piece because it ties the World War II victory with an all-important historical event for the Jewish people - Titus's conquest of Judea, which led to the sacking of Jerusalem," he comments, carefully putting the tank, soldier and arch back on their shelf. Paz takes down another, made from aluminum in Rome in l945 by a soldier serving in the second battalion of the Jewish Brigade. "This hanukkia is very artistic and speaks for itself," says Paz as he strokes the lightweight keepsake. "There's a signature of sorts on the back, but it's very difficult to decipher. He was a real artist, though, to create this hanukkia without any proper tools," adds Paz, pointing out the Jewish Brigade symbol - a Magen David in a square frame with two vertical stripes - scratched into one corner of the hanukkia's base, and "ROMA 1945" in the other corner. One hanukkia sports a sword in the middle of a wreath of olive branches, with a line of bullet casings at the base for candles. "During the first year of the state, soldiers received gift parcels with an appropriate item inside such as a Pessah Haggada. Small hanukkiot were distributed this way, and on each was stamped "the first Hanukka in Israel, 1949,'" says Paz. Soldiers also received hanukkiot during the Sinai Campaign in l956, and Paz suspects that one of those has ended up in his collection - but without any defining markings. A somewhat tattered cardboard box containing colored candles appears - donated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to inmates of displaced persons camps in Germany. It is hard to believe that this has survived the ravages of 60 years. The Joint also distributed a small booklet telling the story of Hanukka for the children in the camps. Jewish soldiers serving in Italy with the 524 Royal Engineers transport corps appear to have hijacked a supply of the booklets. Paz pulls out a faded yellow envelope depicting a map of Israel and emblem of the 524. "A Present from the 524 to the children of Firenze" is printed on the envelope. Inside is the Hanukka story booklet with a Joint label from the Americans and another from the 524 soldiers from Israel. "The soldiers would go from camp to camp to encourage the displaced persons to make aliya, the message being to come to the place where Jews have strength and an army of their own. Hanukka, like Pessah and Rosh Hashana, gave Jewish soldiers a stage to tell of their own personal experiences while connecting to their people's stormy and painful history but also talking about the hope of attaining a secure future for the Jewish people," he says.