While COVID has restricted some of the public Hanukkah celebrations we take for granted, Hanukkah this year will once again be a time of celebration, with gourmet treats as well as historical reflection on Jewish survival.
Decades ago it was celebrated here in Australia in the traditional way. Reference to the Jewish press from previous years reveals advertisements for Hanukkah – Menorot – and celebrations including Hanukkah balls, children’s parties, etc.
It is essential, however, to remember Chanukah in the most tumultuous of decades, the 1940s. For it was then that the message of the few prevailing over the powerful acquired a special resonance.
In December 26, 1940, entry from his Holocaust survivor diary, Chaim Kaplan (Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Ghetto Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan): records:
âHanukkah in the ghetto. Never before in Jewish Warsaw had there been so many Hanukkah celebrations as in this Year of the Wall. But because of the sword hovering over our heads, they are not led among festive crowds, publicly displaying their joy.
âPolish Jews are stubborn: the enemy makes laws but they don’t obey them. This is the secret of our survival. We behaved this way even back in the days when we weren’t imprisoned in the ghetto walls, when the goddamn Nazis filled our streets and watched our every move. Since the inception of the ghetto, we have had some respite from overt and secret spies, and so Hanukkah parties have been held in almost every yard, even in the rooms facing the street; the blinds were drawn, and that was enough.
âThis year’s Hanukkah celebration was very busy. We almost forgot that we are only allowed to go up to the corner of Nalewki and Swietojerska streets. Dr Lajfuner gave a speech full of jokes and we all laughed heartily. There was a truth in his speech that must be emphasized: in all the countries where they want to bury us alive, they drag the gravediggers with us. Witness Tsarist Russia, Poland and Romania. Nazi Germany will meet the same fate, and in our time.
As Sydney-born Holocaust scholar Rabbi David Berman (who later moved to Israel and Warsaw) noted in his review of Kaplan’s journal: âIt would appear that the symbolism of the Jewish rebellion against the The superior Greek army was also a source of inspiration for some of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, just as their own self-sacrifice inspired subsequent generations. “
And that was just one of many recorded examples of Hanukkah observance during the Holocaust. Even in Bergen Belsen in 1944, the Chanukah lights on a primitive makeshift menorah were turned on by the Bluzhov Rebbe. When a spectator asked him how, in the midst of death and darkness, he could recite the blessing “shehecheyanu, – thanking God who has kept us alive until now”, he replied that indeed to that moment he had hesitated. But when he turned around and saw so many tortured and starving Jews staring at him, eager to see the lights of Chanukah, he indeed felt that he could thank God that there were still, even then, many people who believed. (Likewise, decades later, even when he was in the Gulag, Natan Sharansky would find a way to turn on the Chanukah lights.)
Too bad for Chanukah at a time when darkness covered the world. But as in the Haggadah, we find an allusion to Chanukah in that in the midst of many salvation incidences, God brought us out âme’afelah the gadol gold – from darkness to a great lightâ. Likewise, a few years later, the Jews of the world, albeit fewer in number but with strength of spirit, celebrated their first Chanukah with a renewed Jewish state. And in this regard, I turn to the editorial in The Australian Jewish News of Friday, December 24, 1948.
Under the headline âA Much Different Chanukah,â the publisher wrote:
âThe feast of Chanukah commemorates the miraculous defeat of the pagan Syrian army by the small group of heroic Maccabees, highlighting not only the survival of the Jew but the greatest miracle yet, the rebirth of Israel despite defeats and persecution.
âOver two thousand years ago, the Maccabees, though vastly outnumbered, miraculously won their freedom. There, opposing the Jews of the day, were the powerful hosts of Antiochus who was determined to totalitarianize his empire by exterminating minorities and their right to liberty.
âWhen the Jews saw the armies of their feared enemies, Judah Maccabeus’s response showed that the power of the spirit is more powerful than physical strength. The sword can win, but ultimately it is the spirit that triumphs.
The editorial concluded: âThis year 5709, twenty and thirteen years after the uprising of the Maccabees, will be very different from the Chanukah celebrations of other years – indeed much more vibrant and joyous.
âFor more than two thousand years we have been lighting the candles of the Jewish homeland. Although we all remember our martyred dead of 1939-45, this year ‘Shehecheyanu’ will be said with infinite gratitude for the renewal of Jewish life in the Jewish national home, Israel.
We too must take note of it and recite it with gratitude for all the blessings of our nation in this generation.
Yossi Aron OAM is AJNthe editor-in-chief of religious affairs
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