In Plain Language: The fifth candle

Hannuka at Buchenwald: Why the holy ritual gave them a certain inner strength beyond just being fuel for the maniacal Nazi machine.

Hannuka Candles 311 (photo credit: Creative commons)
Hannuka Candles 311
(photo credit: Creative commons)
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.
But 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 here.
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 machine.
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 them.
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 kiddush 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 judgment.
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.”
The vote 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 Hanukka.
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 “justice.”
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 us!”
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 Ra'anana; [email protected]