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Chanukah: Light in the Darkness

by | Nov 28, 2007

It was evident that within Reb Yitzchak’l there was an inner illumination, a burning flame of indomitable faith, that not all the hells of the Holocaust would quench, either in Skarszysko or afterward in Schlieben — not as long as he lived. And from the glow of his faith came a radiance that he could bestow on the men among whom he lived. In his actions, in his alertness and alacrity to keep the mitzvhas of the Torah, in his readiness to hallow the Divine name before all and everyone, there was always an extraordinary inner strength, a steady, steeled, open defiance of the tyrants who wanted to trample into the ground not only the body but also the spirit of the Jew — not only the specifically moral strength of the Jew but even his resoluteness, his capacity for stubborn determination.

In everything the Rebbe did in those sorely difficult days, he went clearly in direct opposition to the satanic wishes and intentions of the Nazis. It was a battle he fought against them and their edicts — a private battle — a war of holiness that he waged with absolute persistence and unflagging consistency. And every action he took, he did as something simply self-evident:

What was there to wonder at if a Jew like him put on teffillin (phylacteries) every day in a concentration camp; if he prayed; if he spared neither effort nor energy to keep both the regular, daily mitzvahs and the special ones that had to be observed at certain set times of the year? Why should it be a source of amazement if a man like him, or other devout, believing Jews, felt a powerful longing to pray together on Rosh Hashanah and hear the sound of the shofar; if their spirit yearned to keep the mitzvah of sukkah when the festival of Sukkos came? Why should anyone be surprised if he saw to it that Chanukah candles were lit at the proper time, or that matzahs were baked for Pesach–and so on? In all this, was there unusual, extraordinary bravery?

It was clear that Reb Yitzchak’l did not think so.

Being with him in Skarszysko the whole time, his two daughters once asked him: His “bizarre” actions in observance of his faith were no longer private matters, carried out discreetly, away from the eyes of the hostile strangers who ruled their lives. By now they were common knowledge. Was it not possible that he was thus incurring danger for himself? Were his bold actions of faith not likely to bring down upon him, one day, some sudden calamity?

Quietly, calmly, he answered them in perfect candor: “I know what mortal danger is all about. I know that where it will imperil a person’s life, the Torah forbids him to keep any of the mitzvahs, except for a very few. But I am also aware of the limits. I know how far I can go. Don’t worry: I won’t put myself in danger, and I won’t endanger others.”

And at the same time this tzaddik (righteous man) of Radoschitz wanted no one in the camp to see him as a superior figure, living on some special higher plane above all the others, and certainly not a leader seeking to impose his will or his authority on others. In that location, at that time, under those conditions, any such relationship to the other inmates was unthinkable.

It was an attitude that he put into words: Every Jew in the camp, he used to say, was suffering only, solely, because he was a Jew, because he was a member of the people of God. And this fact alone, by itself, was enough to make them equal in the sight of the Creator. It was no small matter — he would explain to the people close to him, who clung to him — to suffer, to be afflicted and tormented for being a Jew. And he would talk in the same vein to people who lacked the physical and spiritual stamina to withstand the trials and ordeals, and gave way on matters of Jewish faith and law.

They were all brothers now, he would say, sharing a common misfortune. And therefore they all had a duty to help one another. Everyone had to do what he could for his neighbor, so that he should not break down. And he would talk of this with his daughters as well, telling them that a relationship of mutuality among Jews, a sincere readiness to bond together and share help, was something of a unique characteristic of this people, and it was an important way of refusing to surrender to the ambition of the Germans to shatter the bonds of unity among their suffering captives, their sense of responsibility and care for one another.

People who were with him and survived the Holocaust could never forget how he spoke to them in this vein. They were to remember always the beacon of light that his words were in the infernal darkness — light which radiated outward from the profound faith that illuminated his being.

Thus, as he lived his life among them, he was able to drive off some of the shadows of hell that ever surged around them.

The winter was at its height in Skarszysko when Chanukah came. Nothing had been planned, nothing said or discussed. Of themselves people came into the Rebbe’s barrack, one after another, and went to his corner. Each one knew why he and the others had come: They wanted to be there when the Rebbe lit the first Chanukah candle.

The scene was the same as at all the other occasions when they gathered there: People stood grouped near his wooden pallet, near the poor, meager bed on which he sat, and they waited. Silence reigned. A bit further off, on the other side of the bed, stood his two daughters.

How well the two remembered the joy that had filled their home in Piotrkov when their father used to light the first Chanukah candle in his study, as devoted followers surrounded him on all sides. Back went their minds into the past, on a track of clear memory. They saw the house again, suffused with light, suffused with happiness. All had been in such a heightened, happy mood there. Just as the two were standing here, watching and waiting, so there they had stood in a corner near the door, at the end of the room, never taking their eyes off their father’s shining face as he made his steady, careful preparations for the candle-lighting — preparations which had always seemed to go on and on, while he seemed so altogether out of this world, divested of physical, earthly existence, wholly unaware of his surroundings.

Suddenly their father’s voice pulled them out of the past with a wrench. The sounds rose from his comer, through the people crowded together there to watch, as he chanted the benedictions.

First he declared the Almighty blessed for hallowing His people with His mitzvahs, commanding them “to kindle the light of Chanukah.” Then came the blessing to the Almighty “who wrought miracles for our forefathers in those days [of old] at this time [of the year].” A snowstorm was raging outside. The gale almost shook the barrack on its foundations. People watching held their breath, intent on fulfilling their obligation to light Chanukah candles through the agency of the Rebbe–till a groan escaped somewhere, opening the way for another and yet another, out of Jewish hearts under unremitting Nazi duress.

Now came the third benediction, declaring the Almighty blessed “that He has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.” The little flame flickered as the Rebbe lit the candle, and took to swaying here and there, swooping down, quivering, writhing, till it began to give a fairly steady light. He sat down on his pallet, and all leaned forward and closed their eyes to concentrate and pay attention.

His words of Torah were linked to the miracle of Chanukah. In that phenomenon of Jewish history the Rebbe found a clear message that the enemies of the Jews would never be able to put out the light of God which has accompanied this people in all times, through all the generations: For the Divine Presence, went into exile with its human children, and would stay with them through thick and thin, through good and evil, until the final redemption.

From time to time someone cast a glance at the door of the barrack, that was not locked. Somewhere in the heart loomed the fear that an unwelcome guest might suddenly thrust in his nose–a German, or a Jewish security man. Of such a problem, however, Reb Yitzchak’l remained totally unaware. He went on about the triumph of the Hasmoneans over the dominion of wickedness, the victory of good over evil, the ultimate vanquishment of Satan and all his minions, that had to emerge, that had to become manifest.

In the years afterward people remembered how they stood there pressed together, packed in, leaning close, as if to form a human fortress wall that had to contain the words of the Rebbe and prevent them at all costs from escaping outside, from reaching ears that must never hear them. For these words were balm for the people pressed close about the Rebbe, a healing salve on their open, running sores of misery.

A good while later they emerged from the barrack one by one, the men who had been with the Rebbe from the beginning of the evening, and dispersed to their own lodgings. Only Reb Yitzchak’l and his neighbors remained, fellow lodgers in his barrack who lay down now on their own pallets to find some rest from their hours of backbreaking toil.

The Rebbe remained alone before the flickering flame. After a bit, he began humming softly some old nigun that he had been accustomed to sing in his study back home, after lighting the Chanukah candles. The electric light in the barrack went out, but the candle in the corner where he sat went on burning. Its small light spread through the darkness, climbed to the upper levels of the wooden pallets, to bring the glow to eyes that would not close, to souls that could not sleep. So tired were their bodies that sleep would not come. Or perhaps it was a helpless nostalgia that kept them awake –memories upon memories of Chanukah evenings in their homes, with their families, with mother and father — in the years that had been and would never return…

Reprinted with permission from