Dec 16, 2009

1944: Chanukah came to Bergen-Belsen, but there was no oil nor any menorah in which to pour it. Instead they used one of the inmates' wooden clogs, a few threads
pulled from a concentration-camp uniform, and a bit of shoe polish. And in a crowded barrack, the Rabbi of Bluzhov made the customary first two blessings - his festive melody filled with sorrow and pain.

As he was about to recite the third, he stopped and looked around. Then turning back to the menorah - in a strong voice - he continued with the third blessing: "Blessed are You… Who has kept us alive and enabled us to reach this season." Among the people present at the kindling of the lights was Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund - a clever, sincere person who loved discussing matters of religion and truth, even in Bergen-Belsen.

As the Rebbe finished kindling the lights, Zamietchkowski elbowed his way forward and said, "Spira, you are a clever and honest person and I can understand your need to light Chanukah candles in these wretched times. But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say 'Blessed are You, Who has enabled us to reach this season"? How could you say it when Jews lie dead within the shadows of the Chanukah lights and when thousands more are living skeletons in the camp? For this you praise the Lord?

"You are 100% right," answered the rabbi. "When I reached the blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do? But as I turned round, I noticed that standing behind me, was a large crowd of Jews, their faces expressing faith. So I said to myself, that if at times like these, when death is lurking in every corner, they still endanger themselves to listen with devotion to the Chanukah blessing. If I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervour, then I am actually under a special obligation to recite the third blessing."

Some years after liberation, the Rabbi of Bluzhov, now in New York, received regards from Mr. Zamietchkowski, with a message that the answer he gave him that dark Chanukah night in Bergen-Belsen had stayed with him ever since, and was a constant source of inspiration during hard and troubled times.

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