322 (s5764-13/ 22 Kislev)
Warden who Counted
"While he's reading the roll
call, run in and throw the candles in the snow."
Warden who Counted
For being a Jew and wanting
to live like one, Reb Asher Sossonkin, a devoted Lubavitcher chasid, was sentenced
to ten years imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp. There, he and other "political"
prisoners lived, cut off from the outside world, in the harshest conditions, together
with prisoners who were fearsome criminals.
One day, Reb Asher was approached
by another prisoner who asked him about his observance of Shabbat, which had become
somewhat of a legend in the camp. This Jew, whose name was Nachman Rozman, was
born into a traditional family, but at an early age abandoned Judaism and became
a staunch Communist. Now he decided that he also wanted to observe Shabbat.
Asher encouraged him, but with fear and trepidation, for disobedience to camp
regulations was punished severely. Rozman, however, would not be discouraged.
He began to staunchly observe the Shabbat using ruses which were sometimes successful,
and often not.
Once, another Jew said to him, "You can't copy Sossonkin!
Why, he doesn't even eat non-kosher food, but you eat anything!"
he heard this unfamiliar idea, Nachman came to Reb Asher to find out what was
this "kosher" food. Reb Asher explained to him that Jews eat only animals
which are designated in the Torah as "kosher," and then, only when they
are slaughtered in a prescribed manner. From then on, Nachman resolved to eat
only kosher, too. To think that this scenario was being played out in the grim
setting of a Communist labor camp, where a scrap of meat was a coveted delicacy,
is almost unbelievable, and yet it happened.
How did this totally
assimilated Jew find the strength of character to maintain his beliefs? He had
served in the army and attained a high rank, but nevertheless, he was sentenced
to fifteen years at hard labor. Now, in the camp, he resolved to return to Judaism.
After a day of ceaseless labor, he would come to Reb Asher to discuss Torah and
to learn how to perform mitzvot. He longed to learn how to pray from a
real prayer book, but alas there were none in the camp. Reb Asher transcribed
the Hebrew prayers phonetically into Russian for the man and his joy was boundless.
Thereafter, he recited the prayers with great happiness and devotion every day.
The friendship between the two men was a true blessing, giving them someone
with whom to share their pain and even find a bit of joy in observing Torah together.
When Chanuka approached, Reb Asher taught his friend the story of the festival.
Reb Asher suggested that they find some discarded sardine cans in the kitchen,
and try to construct some kind of menora from them, but his friend wouldn't
hear of it.
"How can we celebrate such a great festival using old
cans? I have a friend who is a tinsmith and for a few rubles, I'm sure he'll make
us a Chanuka menora!"
Reb Asher was uneasy lest their plan become
known, but seeing his friend's enthusiasm, he didn't have the heart to discourage
When Chanuka arrived, the shining tin menora was completed.
They set it up in a small room adjacent to their barracks and lit it each night,
reciting the blessings in front of Jews and gentiles alike. All seemed to bask
in its light and take courage from the Chanuka story which Reb Asher would tell
But, unfortunately, every group has a troublemaker, and the
peace of the Chanuka lights wasn't to last. On the fifth night, as they were about
to light the menora, a man in a warden's uniform walked into the room to
take roll. This was a departure from the usual schedule, for ordinarily, after
ten at night, the prisoners were free to do as they wished. For some reason, on
this night, they had to line up and be counted.
As the names were being
called out, one of the prisoners whispered to Reb Asher that he had been informed
on, and the roll call was just a pretense to arrest him. The rule against practicing
religion in the camp was matched by an equally severe prohibition against lighting
a fire anywhere in the camp buildings. All the buildings were constructed of wood,
and it was feared that they could easily go up in flames.
he's reading the roll, run in and throw the candles in the snow. Then you can
say you don't know anything about it," suggested the man to Reb Asher. But
Reb Asher could not bear to do that to the holy lights which he had worked so
hard to obtain and had lit with such sacrifice these five nights!
call seemed to go on interminably. When the warden came to Reb Asher's name, he
paused, and stared at the lights in the menora. Then he called out, "P'yat?
"P'yat!" Reb Asher replied in a loud voice.
The warden then continued calling out the rest of the names as if nothing unusual
The prisoners were shocked. Not only had Reb Asher lit a
prohibited fire, but to compound the crime, it was a "religious" fire.
No one could conceive how two obviously Jewish men had lit a menora for
five nights of Chanuka, and now, when they were discovered, nothing happened!
This was truly a Chanuka miracle!
Reb Asher never understood what happened
that night. Who was that warden? Why had he mentioned the number of candles? Was
he a fellow Jew who was drawn to the sight of a menora? Was he Elijah the
Prophet? The Chanuka miracle remained a mystery to the end of Reb Asher's life.
May his memory be blessed.
[Adapted from Kfar Chabad Magazine,
L'Chaim #498, and Sichat HaShavuah]
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of
Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He
has hundreds of published stories to his credit.