"You must cross the river in the winter when it is frozen. When you reach the other side of the river you'll be entering no-man's land."
The Light in the Window
During World War II there was a group of fighting partisans who had broken out of the Nazi camps in Poland. The group comprised a few Jews and some former Polish army officers. They organized a resistance force that used to harass the Germans.
On one of their missions, they found an old, starving rabbi who had been left for dead by the Nazi murderers. One of the Catholic partisans took mercy on the man and nursed him back to health. The rabbi was of no real use to the partisans, so he was given the job of cooking and praying for the safety of the fighting men. Remarkably, this group of partisans suffered no casualties for the rest of the war.
When the war was over the group broke up. Some went back to Poland; others traveled to Latvia. Others became wandering people with no homeland. As the Russian government clamped down on the people, depriving them of their freedom, those of the group that were still in Russia decided to flee together.
A plan was made to leave the Russian territories by night. An informant helping these escaping partisans told them, "You must cross the river in the winter when it is frozen. When you reach the other side of the river you'll be entering no-man's land. There you will find a hut. This hut is used by a Russian soldier who is in charge of preventing border crossings by all unauthorized people. His job is to shoot anything that moves. However, at one o'clock in the morning he leaves his hut and walks a few miles to the next hut, where he meets another soldier. There the soldiers exchange reports and supplies. Then he returns to his watch. The complete trip takes him approximately two hours. During that time, you can warm yourselves in his hut but you must be out of there by the time he returns."
This group of brave men consisted only of the younger people. Most of the older people had given up hope, deciding to remain behind in the Russian territories. The only old man willing to travel with them was the rabbi. A heated argument broke out: "Let's leave him," said one. "After all, he can find food in one of the towns. We really do not need to be slowed down by a frail, old man. We have done our share."
But then, a religious Christian partisan exclaimed, "If we leave him, we are all doomed. I will not leave without him." So, reluctantly, they included the rabbi.
It was a cold and miserable night. A blizzard broke out. Sure enough, the leader was correct: the old man could not keep up with the rigorous climbing and running. The blizzard increased and more than once they had to stop to carry the old rabbi. As light as he was, he was now a big burden, slowing down the entire group. More than once, they argued if they should just leave him.
It was one o'clock in the morning when they arrived at the hut which, by now, was half buried in the snow. They could smell the fire and warmth coming from the hut. They waited and waited for the soldier to leave. It seemed like forever. It wasn't a moment too soon that the soldier left. Almost frozen to death, the fleeing group fell into the hut, each one trying to get his icy hands and frostbitten feet closer and closer to the fire.
The old rabbi moved away from the group. He opened a small bag and took out an old and rusty menorah. Then he took a small piece of string, rolled it into a wick and proceeded to fill the menorah with some oil from a small tin bottle that he somehow had managed to bring with him. The act taking place put everyone into a trance. Not a word was uttered nor a sound heard. Spellbound, everyone watched the rabbi.
In a barely audible voice, the rabbi recited the blessings for the lighting of the menorah, picked up the menorah, and placed it by the window of the hut. Then he lit the menorah and began to sing an old Jewish song traditionally sung after lighting the Chanuka candles: "Maoz Tzur" - "Rock of Ages," which speaks of G-d's miracles for his people through the generations.
Like an erupting volcano, the leader was jolted out of his stupor and yelled, "Put out that light!" You will bring the Russian soldier back here. We will all be caught and shot."
The rabbi tried to explain that it was the first night of Chanuka and that he had kindled the light in order to keep the commandment of remembering the miracle of Chanuka. "No," said the rabbi. He would not extinguish the flame. "It must burn for half an hour. This is according to the ancient Hebrew law."
Suddenly the door of the hut flew open. A tall soldier holding a machine gun yelled at the startled group to put their hands up into the air. The Russian soldier approached the old rabbi, looked at the menorah, and said to him in Russian, "I, too, am a Jew. I have not seen a menorah in six years." He kissed the rabbi's beard and broke into tears.
The soldier proceeded to tell the group, "After I left the hut I suddenly remembered that I had left some reports in a drawer. As I was returning I saw a light coming from the hut. I couldn't believe my eyes-a menorah in no-man's land, in the middle of a blizzard, right in my hut."
The soldier told the group that they were safe and proceeded to take out a large bottle of vodka, giving each one a drink. He said, "It's good that I was on guard. Another guard would have killed all of you! Come, I will show you how to cross the border. Remember me, Rabbi. Pray that I have a Chanuka miracle and will be able to leave the army safely and be with my family."
The very shaken but relieved little group followed the soldier out across the border. Somehow they made their way to freedom and then they all went their separate ways. The old rabbi went to Israel. He told his story to fellow survivors. One of them, in turn, told it to me as a small boy.
[Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from an article by Rabbi Eli Hecht written
for //LchaimWeekly.org, and then reprinted by "Living Jewish"
(a Jerusalem weekly).]
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