Like meteors streaking across the blackest sky, Chanukah miracles illuminate some of the darkest hours of our people’s history, infusing hope and faith and the courage to endure.
One such “shooting star” flashed across a Nazi slave labor camp near Vienna 80 years ago, as Jewish prisoners there contemplated the approaching festival of Chanukah. Their yearning to perform hadlokas ner Chanukah even at the risk of their lives leap from the pages of a rov’s gripping Holocaust memoir.
Rav Moshe Nosson Nota Lemberger, a respected rov and dayan in pre-war Makava, Hungary, chronicled his wartime experiences in the preface to his sefer, Klei Golah. In this deeply personal account of his ordeals in slave labor camps, in Bergen Belsen and later Theresienstadt, he expresses his gratitude to the Borei Olam for the string of miracles that enabled him to survive the war.
His reflections have been published by Shaar Press in Forgotten Memoirs; Moving Personal Accounts From Rabbis Who Survived the Holocaust, edited and annotated by historian Esther Farbstein. These incredible narratives offer an intimate view of how some rabbonim responded to the Holocaust as it was unfolding. They also showcase the unquenchable faith of simple, ordinary Jews.
Rav Lemberger writes that as Chanukah approached, he and members of his congregation were deported to a slave labor camp near Vienna, where they were put to work chopping down trees in the forests. Part of the group was then sent to transfer heavy furniture and appliances from apartments that had been bombed.
“We hauled bathtubs, weighty ovens and furniture down many stories and lifted them into cars. We then had to haul them into the new apartments. We knew we were being worked to death. “We felt our life force expiring,” the rov writes.
He goes on to recount that on erev Chanukah, he and his group were ordered to remove the contents of an artist’s studio on the fifth story of an apartment building. The men climbed up and down the five stories more than 40 times that day. Their legs swelled up until each step was excruciating but there was no respite.
Then one of the men made a discovery in the studio—a small tin of oil—that transported them from unbearable pain to soaring happiness.
“How great was our joy, and how all pain was forgotten! This was a surely a neis Chanukah,” Rav Lemberger wrote. “One of us hid the oil under his armpit, knowing that he was risking his life by doing so. We didn’t even pause to consider whether halacha required us to endanger our lives. The only issue for us was the status of the oil. Was it stolen property, in which case we could not use it for a mitzvah?
The rov ruled that buried in the ruins of the bombed out houses, the oil was hefker. Then, in the basement of the camp, someone stumbled onto another windfall: small ceramic flowerpot bottoms in the shape of candleholders. The men saw this as another sign from Heaven that their efforts for the mitzvah of ner Chanukah would succeed.
No One Wanted The Heter
Rav Lemberger told his group it was sufficient in their circumstances for each head of a household to light one candle for the whole family on each of the eight days. There was no need to light additional candles for each night which would expose everyone to great danger.
“But who heeded these words of caution?” he marveled. “Who among us was willing to renounce any part of this mitzvah? No one wanted the heter. Not a one!”
The author goes on to describe their exhilaration as they kindled the Chanukah licht in great joy, “knowing that every moment we remained alive was a sheer miracle.”
“How can I describe how fervently we sang Maoz Tzur? Who can find words to convey the aliyah we felt? When we came to the verse, Chasof zeroa kodshecha… we shouted it, praying intensely for the yom hayeshua.”
Rav Lemberger describes the experience of watching “the learned chosid, Reb Kasriel Sholom Weiss, Hashem yinkom domo, as he kindled the Chanukah lights. With tears of joy, he lit them with oil brought to him by his daughters. The girls had sneaked into the camp with the precious treasure for their father in the afternoon. They had taken it from their place of work at the risk of their lives.”
The rov continues with an account of a remarkable event that same day that saved the lives of Reb Kasriel Sholom’s two daughters. Fearful of being caught and killed, the girls had delivered the oil and immediately raced back to their workplace—a Nazi gun factory hidden in the forest. As they fearfully approached the factory praying their absence had gone unnoticed, they were met with an astounding sight.
Allied bombers had sighted the factory through the trees and had scored a direct hit, reducing it to rubble. Their SS tormentors had been killed in the strike, granting the girls a stunning reprieve.
Brush With Disaster
The memoir continues with the recounting of a hair-raising incident a few days later on Shabbos Chanukah. Rav Lemberger and three others from his group were driven to train tracks far from their camp. The tracks had been bombed, rendering it impossible for freight cars to approach and unload coal for the war industry.
“Our job was to load the coal from the freight cars and pack it onto trucks,” he recalls. “At the nearby entrance to the forest, there was a hut where an old Austrian woman sold drinks and refreshments to hikers. After finishing our work, we had to return to this hut, from where we would be picked up and driven back to the camp.
“As we worked unloading coal, two local non-Jews passed us, leering at us maliciously and smirking to each other. I whispered to my companions to beware, these thugs were planning something evil. As the sun began set, we davened mincha on the train cars where we were unloading coal, pleading with Hashem to protect us.”
The men could see the Vienna cemetery in the distance as they fervently prayed, and their thoughts turned to the tzadikim buried there.
“We called on the kedoshim, including my own Asher Anshel, Hy”d, who died on 6 Mar Cheshvan…. We also called upon the zechus of my ancestor, the Ohr Zoruah [Rabi Yitzhok of Vienna, rebbi of the Maharam of Rothenburg], who was buried in one of the old cemeteries in Vienna,” Rav Lemberger writes.
“When we finished, we returned to the hut to wait for our transport back to the camp. The old woman there whispered to us, “Do you hear that pack of devils whistling? You have a few minutes until they get here. If you can hide among the weeds, you’ll be saved.”
The men dropped to the ground and began crawling through the mud, lying silently between bushes and weeds as they frantically awaited their transport back to the camp. For reasons unknown, it only arrived two hours later.
“This was an outright neis,” the rov writes. “Had the transport come on time, those devils would have still been in the area as we came out of hiding to board the train. Who knows what they would have done to us? But they got tired of waiting for us to appear and left.”
The rov’s harrowing saga did not end here. Toward the end of the war, he and members of his congregation who were still alive were forced on a death march to Theresienstadt. Rav Lemberger miraculously survived the march and was liberated shortly afterward.
After a period of recovery, the rov returned to Makava, Hungary, where he helped a handful of broken survivors rebuild their lives. He tried to restart the kehilla but harassment from Communist authorities forced him to leave the country for Israel in 1952. He settled in Haifa, in Kiryat Ata, where he raised his family and led the community. He also established a yeshiva and served as its rosh yeshiva until his passing in 1982.
Secret of Jewish Endurance
In his sefer, Rav Lemberger discusses the Jews’ intense devotion to performing mitzvos even when they were exempt. He explains that their courage sprang from the belief that a person’s mesiras nefesh for Torah can generate a spiritual force capable of bringing about the annulment of an evil decree.
“At such times,” he wrote, “we felt an inner urge to do certain things that went beyond [halachic obligation]. That undoubtedly added force and vitality to the upper realms, causing Kiddush Shem Shomayim… sealing the mouths of the accusers.”
He analyzes the force that pushed ordinary Jews past the boundaries of what was normally possible, saying it came from the powerful desire to connect to their ancestors and to previous generations of pious Jews.
That connection generated a “strength that comes from the Borei Olam, together with the strength of our holy Ovos and the strength of the Jewish people” that pushed ordinary people to accomplish lofty deeds.
Chanukah In Buchenwald
Simcha Bunem Unsdorfer, the son of a well-known rabbi in Bratislava (Pressburg), was 19 when the family was deported in 1944 to Auschwitz. There the family was separated and his parents killed. Simcha was transferred to Nieder-Orschel, a slave labor sub-camp of Buchenwald, to work in an airplane factory.
Throughout his long ordeal, he and his fellow prisoners were mercilessly abused by Nazi S.S. men but held on to life, clinging to their faith.
In the following excerpt from his memoir, The Yellow Star, the author recounts an extraordinary incident from his time in Buchenwald that fortified his faith in a very dark hour.
“Every morning and evening, fifteen or twenty of us would crouch together quietly between the bunks to recite some parts of the prayers, encouraged by the knowledge that the G‑d for Whose sake we suffered was listening to our pleas,” the author writes.
“As winter advanced and it grew colder, life became much more difficult. The midday soup ceased, and we now felt the effects of working for twelve hours without food or drink. The skin on our hands began to peel and every tiny cut became septic, and took days to heal. The evening soup became thinner and thinner. The thirty-minute Appell (roll call) in knee-high snow froze our feet. All this, plus the absence of any news about the war, stretched our nerves to the breaking point.”
With morale at a very low ebb, Simcha became aware that Chanukah was only a few days ahead. He decided that “a little menorah light even in the gehinnom of Nieder-Orschel would go a long way towards lifting our spirits.”
His fellow inmates embraced the idea but two problems had to be overcome: oil had to be obtained and a place had to be found where the Chanukah flame would not be seen. “There was no lack of oil in the factory, but how could we smuggle even a few drops into our barrack in time for Monday evening, December 11, the first night of Chanukah?”
“We knew that Jewish law did not compel us to risk our lives to fulfill this mitzvah. But there was an urge in many of us to reveal the spirit of sacrifice implanted in our ancestors throughout the ages,” the author writes. “We felt that a little Chanukah light would warm our starving souls and inspire us with hope, faith, and the courage to keep going.”
Simcha and his comrades came up with a plan to draw lots. The first name drawn would have to steal the oil; another would hide it until Monday evening and a third would have to light it under his bunk. Simcha’s name was drawn for the hadlokah.
“Grunwald, who was picked to obtain the oil, did his part magnificently,” recalls Simcha in The Yellow Star. He persuaded the hated kapo that his machine would work better if oiled regularly every morning, and that this could best be arranged if a small can of machine oil was kept in our toolbox. The kapo agreed, so there was no longer the problem of having to hide it.”
On Monday evening after appell, Simcha busied himself under the bunk with preparing the makeshift menorah. He poured oil in the empty half of a shoe-polish tin, took a few threads from his thin blanket and made them into a wick. When everything was ready, he invited his fellow inmates to join him in the lighting ceremony.
“…I made the three traditional brochos and as a little Chanukah light flickered away under my bunk, a crowd of inmates surged around us, humming Maoz Tzur and other traditional melodies. These songs swept us into the past, immersing us in memories of our parents, brothers, sisters, wives, and children gathered around beautiful glowing menorahs, singing together…
“As that tiny little light set our hearts ablaze, tears poured down our haggard cheeks. For a moment, nothing else mattered. We were celebrating the first night of Chanukah as we had done every single year before this nightmare began. We were Jews fulfilling our religious duties, dreaming of home and bygone years.”
A terrifying roar of “Achtung” hurled the prisoners back to reality, as a guard nicknamed “The Dog” stood ferociously at the door with his Alsatian, looking for an excuse to wield his dreaded dog-whip. He suddenly sniffed loudly and shouted, “Hier stinkts ja von oehl!” (“It stinks of oil in here!”)
“My heart missed a few beats as I stared down at the little Chanukah light flickering away, while “The Dog” and his Alsatian counterpart began to parade along the bunks in search of the burning oil,” the author wrote.
Simcha didn’t dare extinguish the flame with his shoes for fear the Alsatian would notice his movements and lunge. He glanced at the deathly pale faces around him. Within a minute or two, “The Dog” would reach their row of bunks. Nothing could save them.
Suddenly a roar of sirens announcing an air raid made everyone freeze. The next second, the room went dark as all lights in the camp were switched off from outside.
Saved by the Sirens
“Fliegeralarm! Fliegeralarm!” echoed throughout the camp. Like lightning, I snuffed out the menorah light with my shoes and following a strict camp rule, we all ran to the open ground, brushing the kapo aside” the author relates.
“There will be an investigation…. There will be an investigation!” the kapo screamed above the clatter of prisoners rushing outside to the appell ground.
“But I wasn’t worried. I hugged my little menorah in the darkness. This was the longed-for sign from Heaven, a true neis Chanukah. Our struggle to hold on to our faith in spite of so much affliction was not in vain. Even in a place like Nieder-Orschel, we felt and saw Hashem’s presence.
“Outside, in the ice-cold, star-studded night, with the heavy drone of Allied bombers over our heads, I kept on whispering the blessing to the One Above who wrought miracles for His people bayomim haheim, bazman hazeh.”
- • • •
After the war, Simcha Unsdorfer made his way to London where he married and raised a family. He served as general secretary of Agudath Israel in Britain and was founder of its community newspaper, The Jewish Tribune, which he edited for several years. He also edited the Torah journal “Hederech” and published many articles on the Holocaust and other Jewish topics.
In 1961, he penned his war-time experiences in a haunting and inspirational book, “The Yellow Star,” one of the first books of its kind by a Holocaust survivor who survived with his faith intact. He passed away in 1967 at the untimely age of 43.
The Menorah and The Swastika
Rabbi Akiva Posner served as the last rabbi of the community of Kiel, Germany before the Holocaust. Persecution of the Jews in this city, a small town with a Jewish population of 500, began earlier than in many parts of Germany, as the Nazi party became the largest and strongest political party in the Reichstag.
Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, public notices saying “Jews forbidden from entering” had started to appear in parks and buildings across Kiel. In August 1932, Kiel’s synagogue and a Jewish-owned department store were bombed.
After the Nazi party opened its headquarters in a popular concert hall, a column in the weekly Nazi magazine Volkskampf tauntingly asked “whether the Rabbi living opposite us will still be able to sleep at night?”
Rabbi Posner, who had a streak of the firebrand in him, publicized a protest letter in the local press at the time, expressing indignation at the posters that had appeared in the city, with the words, “Entrance to Jews Forbidden!”
He was summoned by the chairman of the local branch of the Nazi party who ordered him to participate in a public debate. The event took place under heavy police guard and was reported by the local press. Rabbi Posner later recounted to his children that at the debate he argued that Jews were good Germans, and the Nazis, who wanted to destroy the Jews, would end up destroying Germany.
Those pronouncements outraged the Nazis and made the rabbi a marked man, as he soon found out.
A Priceless Photograph Captures An Era
The eighth night of Chanukah, 1931 fell on Friday evening and Rabbi Posner was hurrying to light the menorah before Shabbos set in.
In those days as the anti-Semitic climate intensified, most German Jews pulled their curtains shut so that the menorah couldn’t be seen from the street. But the Posners were different.
Directly across the Posner’s home stood the Nazis’ new headquarters, draped with a Nazi flag. With the menorah’s eight lights glowing brightly in her window, Rabbi Posner’s wife, Rachel, snapped a photo of scene: the family’s menorah lighting up the room directly across the street from the ominous Nazi flag with its swastika.
She penned a few lines in German on the back of the photo, likely never dreaming they would capture far more than the immediate moment. “Hanukkah, 5692: Juda verrecke, die fahne spricht. Juda lebt ewit, erwidert das Licht.
“Death to Judea,” says the flag. “Judea will live forever!” respond the Lights.
With tensions and violence in Kiel intensifying after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Rabbi Posner saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to leave the country with his family. Before his departure, he told his congregants that he sensed impending doom for the Jews of Germany and urged them to follow his example and save themselves.
In a sign of how deeply the rabbi was respected, his warnings were taken to heart; the entire community except for 8 individuals managed to leave for Israel, the United States and other countries.
The Posners spent a year in Antwerp, Belgium, where the rabbi opened a small Judaica store while he worked on obtaining certificates to Israel. With the help of Chief Rabbi Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, family members in Israel managed to arrange certificates for the rabbi, his wife and their three children. The Posner family arrived in Israel in 1934.
Among the few valuable possessions they were able to take with them when they fled Germany were religious items, including their menorah. Decades after the passing of Rabbi Posner and his wife in the early 1980s, the menorah was given on loan to Yad Vashem by Yehuda Mansbach, the Posners’ eldest grandson. Mansbach imposed one condition: each Chanukah, the precious menorah is returned to his family by Yad Vashem so they can do hadlokas neiros with it.
As for the rebbetzin’s iconic photo taken 91 years ago, it became famous as one of the most arresting images of the Holocaust; a haunting symbol of the epic collision between two world orders—the depravity of Nazism bent on annihilation of the Jews, and the purity and indestructability of the Jewish people.