To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. In today’s instalment, Eli Honig reflects on the miracle of survival.
There is perhaps nothing quite as beautiful as watching the radiant faces of children, lost in reverie, while they stare at the flickering flames of a Chanukah menorah. One wonders what they are thinking, especially if they are of elementary school age when they have been introduced to the story of Chanukah.
Perhaps they imagine being in the ragtag army of Matityahu and his five sons when they rebelled and eventually defeated the much larger and disciplined force of an empire that tried to suppress Jewish laws and customs. They might even be dreaming of taking on the role of the old priest or one of his sons. If they are old enough, they might have been introduced to the story of Hannah and her seven sons. The Talmud (Tractate Gittin 57b) recounts that she witnessed each of her seven children refusing to bow down to an idol, for which “offence”they were all killed. Before the youngest was executed, she told him to “tell Father Abraham” that “you bound one son to the altar, but I bound seven altars.” An older child staring at the burning wicks might be wondering what he or she would have done in those circumstances. And, of course, the flames surely conjure up in their minds an image of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days when there was only enough for one.
We might guess what is on their minds simply by the expressions on their faces, and more assuredly by the very questions that they ask. And it is up to us to relate to them in an age appropriate manner, a story that has so many strands that it can engage us through adulthood and our advancing years.
We are also left to ponder the meaning of the words we say during the blessings and those immediately following them: “We light these lights because of the miracles and wonders, deliverances and victories You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time …”
And if we pay close attention when we sing the song Maoz Tzur where we recount and give thanks for our salvation from physical and spiritual destruction over the course of our history, we might hear the faint echoes of our ancestors through their travails and triumphs.
The child that remains in me is fused with my aging adult mind when I light the wicks in the cups of my menorah. I wander from the ancient miracles, to some very personal harrowing ones. And if my menorah could talk, it might recount a haunting story whose outline I can only trace.
After the liberation in Chateau Gontier, France, in late 1944, my mother returned to the apartment where my paternal grandfather Be’er Henig and his second wife Deborah lived. They had been sent from there to Auschwitz in 1942 together with their eight-year-old grandson, my cousin, who was living with them after his parents were deported. Altogether, 10 family members, including my father, were deported from that town, and none of them came back.
I think it was the landlord who found my grandfather’s Chanukah menorah and a Chumash on the floor after my grandparents and their grandson were arrested and their apartment was ransacked. They were left there as worthless items, but the landlord kept them for safekeeping in case anyone came back. He or she, returned them to my mother. She gave the Chumash to a distant cousin who survived, but she kept the menorah.
I don’t remember if I used it before I left home, but she gave it to me when I was married, or perhaps even before that. Again I don’t remember the timing. But I have it at least since my marriage and I have been using it ever since. And whenever I use it, it brings haunting images of the shtetl in Galicia where my grandparents and our family came from – of their emigration from Poland to France before the war – and the occupation that saw them disappear together with other family members.
I am reminded of all the people – men, women, children and infants – who lost their lives over the generations because of their heritage and faith. And I am reminded of the miraculous survival of my mother, my two sisters and me, not to speak of the Jewish people – my people – over the millennia.