A STORY OF RESISTANCE
Hanukkah, also known as the “festival of lights,” is a minor Jewish holiday celebrating the victorious Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Greek Empire occupying the Land of Israel.
In 200 BCE, the Land of Israel fell into the hands of the Seleucid Empire. While initially Jews were granted the right to live according to their ancestral customs, this quickly changed. The Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV sought to homogenize his kingdom as Greek, squashing all Indigenous cultural expression (a process known as “Hellenization”). Jewish law was suppressed, and the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) of the Jewish Temple was replaced with one that was sympathetic to the Greeks — twice. When the Greek-appointed High Priest murdered the original High Priest, the Jews rebelled, eventually coming under the leadership of a Jew named Judah the Maccabee.
Against all odds, the Jews defeated the Seleucid army of 40,000 soldiers. After the Jews liberated Jerusalem, they headed to the Temple, which had been badly looted. As such, the Jews had to construct a new menorah, which they did so out of cheap metals.
The legend of Hanukkah is that, in the aftermath of the rebellion, the Jews only had a little bit of kosher olive oil left to light the temple menorah. Miraculously, however, the oil continued to burn for eight days, which provided enough time for them to produce more oil.
Because Hanukkah is a story of Jewish resistance and survival against all odds, it’s no surprise that many Jews found comfort in celebrating the holiday during the Holocaust.
As soon as Hitler rose to power in 1933, the Nazis began passing antisemitic legislation. Among the earliest laws were the ban on Kosher slaughter and the burnings of Jewish books, which made observing Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah, difficult.
Jewish observance became more and more restricted with the outbreak of World War II. In some Nazi-occupied territories, Jewish culture was heavily controlled or banned altogether. In other areas, while Jewish observance wasn’t explicitly banned, Jews still found it near impossible to keep the holidays. Of course, observing the holidays in ghettos and concentration camps was a near impossibility simply due to lack of resources, but even so, Jews found ingenious ways to commemorate festivals such as Hanukkah.
Trigger warning (torture):
Sometimes, Nazis exploited Jewish holidays to torture Jews. For instance, Bart Stein, a Holocaust survivor imprisoned in Auschwitz death camp, described the following to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“So the Germans made a Hanukkah celebration: on the poles of the barracks, the outside poles, they hung up the prisoners who were chosen to be one of the ten, of the tens, on their feet, head down. We had to pour oil on them, and they had a bonfire, and we had to sing Christmas songs…I mean, we, they, we had to sing the songs while our brothers, our fathers, our, our cousins were burning. That same night, which we had prepared before, a little bit of oil was sneaked from here, a little bit of oil from there…And we were in small groups, with lookout posts, hundreds gathering to say the prayers and the blessing of Hanukkah, of the miracle of Hanukkah. We really did not give up…Future, there was none. But we didn't give up.”
A MAKESHIFT HANUKKIAH
As mentioned, Jews found ingenious ways to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah even in the most unimaginable circumstances. In 1942, a Jewish prisoner at Theresienstadt stole a large wooden block from the Nazis. Two Jewish prisoners named Arnold Zadikow and Leopold Hecht then carved an ornate Hanukkiah, with the phrase “Who is like you, O Lord, among the celestials” engraved on it.
Hecht survived the Holocaust. Zadikow did not; he was killed in 1943.
The story of the Theresienstadt Hanukkiah was hardly unique. For example, in 1943, prisoners at Bergen-Belsen created a makeshift Hanukkiah out of scraps of fat from their food, loose threads to be used as makeshift wicks, and a carved raw potato to work as a candle-holder. A wooden shoe was even fashioned into a dreidel.
Similarly, also in 1943, at Westerbork transit camp, Jews made a Hanukkiah out of recycled battery parts, wood, and aluminium foil. They then used grease and cotton wicks to replace the candles.
When Yechezkel Hershtik was deported at the age of 12, the Germans stopped the for a moment at a bridge. The Jews discreetly lit candles, said the prayers, and then went back on their way to the next concentration camp.
DISPLACED PERSONS CAMPS
After the Holocaust, some 250,000 Jewish refugees were held in refugee camps known as Displaced Persons Camps. Despite everything that they had been through and the conditions of the camps, they did their best to return to normalcy. As such, celebrating Jewish holidays — including Hanukkah — just as they had before the war took on extra significance.
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