There was little room for light in Theresienstadt—especially in the darkness of early December. Some 140,000 Czech Jews came through the Nazi camp-ghetto and holding pen, with almost one in four eventually submitting to disease or starvation. Those who survived were almost always brought on to other, still more terrible places.
But even in Theresienstadt, surrounded by despair, the camp’s inhabitants found ways to extract joy. In late 1942, someone stole a large block of wood from the Nazis running the camp. Into it, they carved an ornate hanukkiah—the special kind of menorah lit at Hanukkah—with nine candle holders and a Star of David. A Hebrew inscription curves over the top: “Who is like you, O Lord, among the celestials?”
For most of the year, the menorah remained hidden. It was forbidden to celebrate Jewish holidays or to teach children about Judaism. But once a year, usually in the depths of December, it was brought forth and lit. The lamp was not recovered until after the war, and is now in the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum in New York.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. According to legend, Jews rose up during the second century B.C. after the ancient Greeks had banned Jewish religious practice. According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most central texts, the Temple was liberated and rededicated, with a new altar and new holy vessels. But there was only enough untainted oil to burn candles in the temple’s menorah for a single day. Somehow it burned brightly for eight days and eight nights, buying enough time to prepare a fresh supply of oil. The holiday commemorates this event.
For the most part, Hanukkah is a minor festival, with few specific obligations about what Jews can or cannot do over these eight days. But this story of tenacity and hope took on special significance for Jewish people during the Holocaust.
While few other Jews had a physical hanukkiah in the camps, many found ways to kindle a flame and celebrate the holiday. In 1943, amid the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, 11 survivors saved scraps of fat from their food and used loose threads to form makeshift wicks. A carved raw potato served as the candle-holder, while a wooden shoe was repurposed into a children’s dreidel.
In her book, Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach describes how Rabbi Israel Shapiro chanted the blessings to the assembled inmates: “On the third blessing, in which God is thanked for having ‘kept us in life and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time,’ the Rebbe’s voice broke into sobs, for he had already lost his wife, his only daughter, his son-in-law, and his only grandchild.”
All over Europe Jews found ways to celebrate the holiday. After arriving at Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands, in late 1943, the Elchanan family used recycled battery parts to make a menorah out of wood and aluminum foil. Grease and cotton wicks served as candles.
Holocaust survivor Yechezkel Hershtik, then a boy of about 12, remembers stopping on a bridge as they were transported on foot between the Romanian camps of Sacel and Iliora. They lit candles along the wall of the bridge, said the Hanukkah prayers, and then continued on their way.
After the Jews were liberated, many spent months or years in camps for displaced persons, before being rerouted to Israel or the United States, among other countries. Here, Hanukkah could be celebrated openly, with real candles replacing the makeshift grease or engine oil.
In the German Landsberg/Lech displaced persons camp, Jews fashioned a Hanukkah lamp out of cartridge scraps and shell casings, and dedicated it to U.S. commander-in-chief General Joseph T. McNarney. On this hanukkiah, a Hebrew inscription is hammered into the brass: “A great miracle happened there.”