The approach of Chanukah sparks memories of other Chanukah seasons in recent history when miracles wrought victories that continue to send sparks of inspiration across the generations.
75 years ago, in the days leading up Chanukah, Jews in Nazi captivity in the forests around Vienna experienced a string of extraordinary events as they strove to find the means to perform the mitzvah of hadlokas ner Chanukah.
Played out against a backdrop of terror and backbreaking labor, theirs were not victories of the battlefield, but of magnificent weapons of the spirit.
Some of these events were recorded by a key participant, Rav Moshe Nosson Nota Lemberger, a rav in pre-war Mako, Hungary, who chronicled his wartime experiences in the preface to his sefer, Klei Golah. These memoirs were reprinted as part of a collection of similar autobiographical sketches that appear in hakdomos to various seforim, authored by rabbonim who survived the war.
In their hakdomos, the rabbonim wrote about their ordeals in the ghettos and death camps, paying tribute to supernatural events that enabled them to survive, in addition to memorializing loved ones who perished.
These intimate chronicles were collected and annotated by Esther Farbstein, and published in Forgotten Memoirs; Moving Personal Accounts From Rabbis Who Survived the Holocaust.
A Pach Shemen For Chanukah Licht
In his preface, 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, large cupboards and weighty ovens down several stories and lifted them into cars. After they were transported to their new location, we had to haul them into the new apartments– backbreaking work for people already exhausted by hard labor and deprived of adequate food and sleep. Descending stairs with heavy loads hung around our necks, we often felt our life’s force about to expire before we reached the landing.”
Rav Lemberger 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. Paintings, canvases and paint jars all had to be carefully carried down the stairs. The men climbed up and down the five stories more than 40 times that day.
“Our legs swelled up until each step was excruciating,” the rov recalls. “But how great was our joy, and how all pain was forgotten, when we suddenly came across a tin of oil, just like in the Chanukah miracle!”
“Someone carefully hid it under his armpit, knowing that the punishment for anyone who took any item from the house was an immediate death sentence. But in our situation, we felt a powerful inner impulse to perform a mitzvah and did not ponder whether halacha required us to endanger ourselves.
“The issue for us was the status of the oil. Was it stolen property, in which case we could not use it for a mitzvah? Or was it like the Gemara’s example of an object lost at sea, where the owner naturally gives up hope of ever retrieving it?”
[They ruled that buried in the ruins of the bombed out houses, the oil was hefker. What bitter irony. Plundered and stripped of all their possessions, robbed of their loved ones, these Jews were concerned about improperly laying hands on a tiny container of oil.]
“For the few weeks preceding this incident, most of the Jews in our camp had been saving the tiny margarine ration distributed every Sunday, hoping to use it to light Chanukah licht. Each man tried to obtain additional oil in any possible manner. Those who were working in factories took risks 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.
“I told the group that because of sakonas nefoshos, it was enough for each head of a household to light one candle for the whole family. Another option, according to the less stringent approach, was that we could all light together; there was no need to light additional candles for each night which would expose everyone to great danger.
But who heeded these words? Who among us was willing to renounce any part of this mitzvah? Not a one.
Every Moment We Remained Alive Was A Miracle
“We kindled Chanukah licht in great joy, reciting the brocha she’osa nissim on each night of the yom tov, knowing that every moment we remained alive in this situation was a miracle.
The author seeks to capture the spiritual exhilaration of the moment, and the feeling that the words of Maoz Tzur spoke directly to the hearts of the prisoners.
“How can I describe how we sang Maoz Tzur?” he effuses.“Who can find words to convey the aliyah we felt during those moments? When we came to the verse, Chasof zeroa kodshecha vekoreiv kaitz layeshua, “Hashem bare Your holy arm and hasten our redemption,” we shouted it; we prayed fervently for it to happen at any moment.
“Watching the learned chosid, Reb Kasriel Sholom Weiss, Hashem yinkom domo, as he kindled the Chanukah lights” was unforgettable. 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 author goes on to relate a miracle that happened to the girls that day. Fearful of being caught and killed, they had raced back to their workplace; a Nazi gun factory hidden in the forest. There they were met with an astounding sight. Allied bombers had sighted the factory through the trees and had scored a direct hit, bombing it to smithereens. Their SS tormentors and many others had been killed, granting the girls a miraculous reprieve.
Shabbos Chanukah Redemption
The memoir continues with the saga of another Chanukah miracle that saved the rov’s own life a few days later, on Shabbos Chanukah.
“We were driven in a transport with three others of our group, one of whom was my dear student Avrohom Boruch Shalaman, Hy”d. We were taken to train tracks far from our camp that had been bombed, rendering it impossible for freight cars to approach and unload coal for the war industry. [Allied bombings increased as the Red Army approached Vienna.]
“Our job was to load the coal from the freight cars and pack it onto trucks. 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 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 as they strolled back and forth. I whispered to my companions to beware, these fellows looked as if they had malicious intentions. The hostile expressions… they way they winked at each other gave them away.
As the sun set, they davened mincha on the train cars where they were unloading coal. They could see the Vienna cemetery in the distance as they prayed.
“In our tefillos, we called on the kedoshim buried in the cemetery, including my own Asher Anshel, Hy”d, who died on 6 Mar Cheshvan…. We also called upon the merit of my ancestor, the Ohr Zaruah [Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, rebbi of the Maharam of Rothenburg], who was buried in one of the old cemeteries in Vienna.
“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 the whistling of that pack of devils? You have four or five minutes. If you can hide among the weeds, you’ll be saved.”
The old woman saved their lives.
“We dropped to the ground and crawled through the slush and mud, lying silently between bushes and the weeds. We were zocheh to yet another miracle; our transport was two hours late. Had it come on time, those devils would have still been in the area and who knows what would have happened to us. Instead, they tired of waiting for us to show up, and left.”
The rov’s 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 survived the march and was liberated shortly afterward.
After the war he returned to Mako, where he was active in rehabilitating the town’s religious life. He also established and directed a yeshiva there. He emigrated to Israel in 1951 and settled in Kiryat Ata, where he raised a family and led a kehilla until his death in 1982.
Roots of Supernatural Courage and Endurance
In his sefer, Rav Lemberger explains the Jews’ intense devotion to performing mitzvos like hadlokas ner Chanukah and eating matzoh on Pesach when they were exempt due to the higher priority of remaining alive.
Their courage to defy the enormous obstacles to perform mitzvos also flowed from the belief that a person’s actions, especially when they exceed the letter of the law, can generate a spiritual force that can bring 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]. They undoubtedly added force and vitality to the upper realms, causing Kiddush Shem Shomayim… sealing the mouths of the accusers.
In his view, the Jews’ extraordinary devotion to mitzvos and their spiritual courage in the valley of death also stemmed from another source: a deep inner need to feel connected to one’s past and to the previous generations. It generated a mystical force that pushed people past the boundaries of what was normally possible.
“Strength that comes from the Borei Olam who directs all,” he wrote, “together with the strength of our holy Ovos and the strength of the Jewish people, pushed one to superhuman actions…”
Surge of Faith At A Time Of Great Suffering
Other survivors have described this phenomenon—a surge of faith welling up in the Jewish soul at a time of great suffering. Mrs. Rivka Kuper, one of the witnesses at the 1961 Eichmann trial, described this experience in her testimony before the court.
Before quoting her remarks, here is a thumbnail sketch of Rivka, an “ordinary” Jewish girl, based on biographical information from the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a Yad Yashem interview:
Born in Krakow, Poland, Rivka was 19 when the war broke out. Interned in the Krakow ghetto in 1941, she and her husband Dolek Liebskind were members of the Krakow religious Zionist underground. Rivka helped to organize youth programs and study groups to strengthen Jewish prayer, practice and beliefs.
She also took part in operations that supplied forged papers permitting Jews to leave the ghetto on various pretexts. The Gestapo arrested her in November, 1942, tortured her and sent her to Auschwitz. There, Rivka was put to work in drainage operations; all day she stood in water up to her hips and dug canals.
From Terrible To Much Worse
While in Auschwitz, Rivka managed to maintain communication with the Jewish underground, but she was caught passing information out of the camp and transferred to the Auschwitz Strafkommando (penal detachment). Conditions in this unit were horrendous. Deprived of food and sleep, she was forced to perform hard labor in pouring rain and snow. While in prison, Kuper learned that her husband died in an underground operation to acquire arms.
Weakened and sick with typhus, she evaded the gas chambers only by a miracle. Friends managed to smuggle her onto a transport taking prisoners to a different labor camp. As the Russians approached, she and surviving inmates were marched from one labor camp to another, finally ending up in Hamburg where they were liberated, barely alive.
There Was Nothing To Eat … But Somehow We Managed To Get Candles
Below are excerpts from Rivka’s testimony at the Eichmann trial:
“When we arrived on the eighteenth of January, 1943 we were put into the barracks at Birkenau,” she told the courtroom. “They had previously been horse stables… Among the first things we sought were two remnants of candles. Friday night we gathered together on the top tier of our barrack. There were then about ten of twelve of us…We lit the candles and began quietly to sing zemiros…
“Suddenly we heard choked sobbing from the tiers of bunks all around us. At first we were frightened; then we understood. Jewish women who had been imprisoned months, some of them for years, gathered around us, listening to us sing. Some asked us if they might also recite the brocha over the candles…
“From then on while in Auschwitz, before every Shabbos we lit candles. We had no bread, there was nothing to eat—but somehow we managed to get the candles. And so it was on all moadim… We fasted on Yom Kippur…True, we ate no matzoh on Pesach, but we traded our rations with the other prisoners for potatoes, so that on Pesach we could at least fulfill the mitzvah of not eating chometz.”
After being liberated, Rivka was taken to Sweden where she slowly recovered. In 1947, she made the journey by ship to the shores of Palestine-Israel, hoping to evade the British, but she and her fellow passengers were arrested and interned in the island of Cyprus. In 1948, following the War of Independence, Rivka finally arrived in Israel. She married Sholom Kuper, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto; the couple had one son and two grandchildren.
Part 4 of Souls on Fire will discuss rabbinic leadership in the ghettos and death camps, and different approaches to physical resistance.