R’ Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen is my beloved father-in-law. He is a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, and y lives in Toronto. His book,”Destined to Survive,” from which the below is adapted, is published by ArtScroll/Mesorah – mesorah.com
One of the items I smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved me into “Camp Number Eight” – a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying typhus – was my spoon. It wasn’t much, but it was mine – and it would come to play an important role in my Jewish life and in those of some of the 500 or so other prisoners there.
There were no labor details in this new camp, but we inmates were ordered to help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, I helped the electrical technician install the camp’s lighting.
With my new access to tools, I brought my spoon to work and filed down its handle, making it into a sharp knife. Now I could use it both to eat my soup and to cut my bread. This was useful because we would often receive one chunk of bread to divide among two or three people, and without a knife it was difficult to apportion the bread fairly. Now I was regularly called upon to use my spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative peace among the prisoners.
When winter came, though, my spoon became involved in an additional mitzvah. By then, we had been transferred to “Camp Number Four” in Kaufering, a camp more similar to Auschwitz in its daily ordeals. Despite the horrendous hardships we suffered daily, however, we tried whenever possible to remember to do a mitzvah and to maintain a self-image as G-d-fearing Jews, despite all the dangers that involved.
Having always kept mental track of the calendar, I knew when Chanukah had arrived. During a few minutes’ rest break, a group of inmates and I began to reminisce about how, back home before the war, our fathers would light their menorahs with such fervor and joy. We remembered how we could never seem to get our fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, how we basked in their warm, special glow, how they seemed to imbue us with a special sanctity.
And then we got to thinking about the origins of Chanukah, about the war of the Hasmoneans against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. We recalled the great heroism of the Jews at the time who risked their lives in order to keep the Sabbath, practice circumcision and study Torah. And we remembered how G-d helped them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah and mitzvos once again.
And then we looked around ourselves. Here we were, in a camp where our lives were constantly in danger, where we were considered sub-human and where it was virtually impossible to observe the most basic practices of Judaism. How happy we would be, we mused, if only we could light Chanukah candles.
While we talked and dreamed, we were all suddenly struck, as if at once, by the same resolution: We simply must discover a way of doing the seasonal mitzvah. One fellow offered a small bit of margarine he had saved from his daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? We began to unravel threads from our uniforms…
What, though, could be our menorah? I took out my spoon, and within moments, we were lighting the Chanukah “candle”, reciting the blessings of “Lehadlik ner”, She’oso nissim” and “Shehecheyonu”. We all stood around entranced, transfixed, each immersed in his own thoughts…of Chanukahs gone by…of latkes, of dreidels, of Chanukah gelt we had received as children.
And our unusual Chanukah menorah kindled in us a glimmer of hope. As we recited the blessing about the miracles G-d had performed for our forefathers “in those days”, but also “at this time”, we well understood that the only thing that could save us would be a miracle. A “nes gadol” – “great miracle” – like the one hinted at on the dreidle’s acrostic.
Even non-religious Jews stood near us watching the flame of the Chanukah candle. I am certain that none of us who survived will ever be able to forget that luminous moment in the darkness of our concentration camp lives.
The celebrated Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was himself, incidentally, an inmate of Kaufering, asserted in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that, to survive the concentration camps, a person had to have something larger to live for. Those with goals had a better chance to remain alive. We religious Jews in the camps were certainly good examples of that phenomenon, living for our Sabbaths, our Jewish holidays and our daily recognition that there is an Almighty, whether or not we could ever fathom His ways. And I often felt that our convictions helped us cling to life when others sank to the depths of despair.
And today, I am overwhelmed at times with gratitude to G-d for my personal miracle, my survival, especially when I am surrounded by the children and grandchildren He has granted me, all of whom are committed to the observance and study of the Torah. And the gratitude comes rushing in as well every winter, when I light my menorah – a real one today – and, as always I do, I remember my Auschwitz spoon Chanukah.