Chassidic Story #217
(s5762-13 /posted 26 Kislev 5762)
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CHANUKAH IN BERGEN-BELSEN
In one of the last groups to arrive in Bergen-Belsen towards the tail end of World War II was a Jew of charismatic appearance who became known to all the other inmates as Reb Shmelke. His full name was Shmuel-Shmelke Shnitzler, a chassid and Torah scholar from somewhere in Hungary. He was very tall and distinguished looking, with strikingly warm and penetrating eyes. Most amazingly, he maintained a mood of genuine cheerfulness, a rare disposition to find in the hellish environment of the camp.
He underwent the harsh terrors and the suffering, the hunger and the abuse, that was the daily portion for the Jew's in the camp, just as all the other prisoners. But, somehow, his demeanor and behavior seemed to indicate that he wasn't affected the same way as everyone else, almost as if he weren't really there.
How was he able to live in such a manner under such conditions? Nobody knew. But it was clear, nevertheless, that he was he drawing immeasurable fortitude and inspiration from some unlimited source.
He even was able to be a fountain of encouragement for his fellow prisoners. He would say to his companions at every opportunity, "A Jew and despair are contradictory in essence; they cannot co-exist." Whenever possible he would organize a minyan for prayer, especially on Shabbat. At nights he would enliven all those around him with stories of the great Chassidic rebbes, momentarily transporting them to other worlds and places, enabling them to temporarily forget their sufferings of body and soul.
To the amazement of all, Reb Shmelke even found favor in the eyes of a few of the cruelest S.S. guards in the camp. Through these connections he was able to aid a number of the inmates.
He was assigned the job of removing from the barracks the dead bodies of the many who died from starvation. He would try to treat them with as much respect as possible, considering this to be the ultimate of holy work that he could do under the circumstances.
In addition to the prevailing conditions of horror in the camp under which the Jews barely managed to survive, Reb Shmelke was nagged by another compelling problem, one that was increasing in urgency with each day that went past: how could he possibly obtain oil with which to kindle the lights of Chanukah. The holiday was only a few short days away.
He consulted everyone with whom he came into contact that he thought might be able to help, but no one had any oil or even anything that could be substituted for it. All said that to obtain anything flammable in the concentration camp was unimaginable as well as impossible.
Still, Reb Shmelke did not give in to despair. The mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights was much too important to him. He also realized how much encouragement and hope it would offer the Jews in the camp-to shine light into the deepest of darknesses, to celebrate the victory of few over the many, the pure over the impure .
On the day before Chanukah, Reb Shmelke had to hurry to one of the barracks near the end of the camp, where someone had died just that day. Not far from the fence at the edge of the camp, he stumbled when his foot sunk into a patch of red earth that turned out to be covering a small hole. It was clear that someone had dug this hole on purpose.
He gazed at the shallow depression, and after a moment perceived the sun reflecting off something in it. He looked closer and saw there was a solid object buried there, now slightly revealed. He knelt down and scooped out some dirt with his hands. It was a small jar, half-filled with congealed liquid! Could it be? Could it possibly be!
He removed its cover as quickly as he could and dipped his finger in gingerly. It was oil! He thoughts immediately flashed to the original Chanukah miracle of the finding of the single flask of oil. How could this be happening? Was he dreaming?
Then he noticed that the jar had been concealing other objects beneath it. He dug some more with his hands and uncovered a small package wrapped in a swatch of cloth. In it were eight small cups and eight thin strands of cotton!
Now convinced that someone had intentionally buried this Chanukah stash, Reb Shmelke quickly replaced everything back into the hole and filled it in with the dirt he had removed, carefully smoothing the surface. It would be too dangerous to keep the materials in his possession until Chanukah began the next day in the evening. Besides, perhaps it belonged to someone.
After he completed he job he had been sent upon, Reb Shmelke circulated among as many of the inmates he could during the rest of the day and the, casually asking with an air of innocence if anyone had concealed a quantity of oil in a hiding place. Everyone stared at him as if he were out of his senses.
The next night, all the Jews of Reb Shmelke's barrack crowded around him as he stood poised to light the first candle of Chanukah. He struck the match, and then recited the blessings with great emotion before touching the tiny flame to the thin strands of wick projecting out of the little cups. It was a scene from a storybook in stark contrast to the dour, harsh environment of the concentration camp, a ray of hope that repeated itself for a total of eight nights.
The elderly Reb Shmelke managed to survive the next few months until finally the conquering Allied forces liberated the camp. His faith and hope had proven victorious. After the official conclusion of the war, he returned to his town in Hungary, to try to reassemble the pieces of his broken life.
Several years later, he was able to make the journey to the United States of America. One important stop for him there was to visit the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who lived in Brooklyn. The Rebbe, it turned out, already knew of Reb Shmelke and his deeds, and welcomed him with great warmth.
After they conversed for a while the Rebbe suddenly switched subjects and said to him, "I hear that you had the great honor of lighting Chanukah candles in Bergen-Belsen."
"How does the Rebbe know that?" sputtered Reb Shmelke in wonderment.
"I heard, I heard," replied the Rebbe, smiling mysteriously.
A few moments later the Rebbe bent over to his astonished visitor and whispered in his ear, "I am the one who hid the oil, the cups and the wicks in that hole next to the fence. I did it when I was imprisoned in the camp the year before you, before my miraculous escape.
"At the moment I did it," the Rebbe added, "I believed with all my heart that at the right time it would be found by the right person who would know exactly what to do with it."
[Translated and adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from Sichat HaShavua #468. You may pass on this email rendition to whomever you wish as long as you give full credit, including Ascent's email and internet addresses, but PLEASE DO NOT PUBLISH THIS STORY IN PRINT OR ELECTRONIC FORM WITHOUT EXPLICIT PERMISSION.]
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