How a chanukiah defied the Nazis
Many of us are familiar with the iconic black and white photograph of a chanukiah on a windowsill with an ominous Swastika banner flying above the street behind it, but how many of us know its story?
Rabbi Yehuda Stern, the associate rabbi of Sydenham Shul, was determined to uncover the truth behind the iconic image. To his amazement, he discovered that the chanukiah not only still exists, but it remains in the possession of the same Jewish family who took the photograph almost 100 years ago.
This miraculous story was recounted last Thursday in a webinar hosted by Sydenham Shul, with Stern interviewing Rabbi Yehuda Mansbach, a 69-year-old resident of Beit Shemesh, Israel, the grandson of the man who originally owned the chanukiah.
It is with Mansbach’s grandfather that the story began.
“My grandfather, Rabbi Akiva Baruch Posner, was born in 1890 in a town on the border of Germany and Poland,” Mansbach explained in Hebrew. “As a boy, he moved to Berlin with his parents where he joined a training programme for rabbis, going on to join the German army as a chaplain to serve in World War I.”
After the war, Posner attended university, earning a doctorate on first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, before going on to be appointed the rabbi of Kiel, a port city in the north of Germany. In 1922, he met his future wife, Rachel, and the couple married soon thereafter.
Said Mansbach, “At the time, there were 500 Jews in total in Kiel (ranging from Orthodox to completely secular) but Rav Akiva was insistent that there should be only one shul in the city and one community. He spoke in German at shul, his sermons drawing even non-Jews and priests.”
Three children were born to the couple (among them Mansbach’s mother), and they were all enrolled in Sunday classes where they learnt Hebrew, Torah, and a love of Israel. It’s at this point that the chanukiah made its first appearance.
“On Chanukah in 1931, grandmother put the chanukiah on the windowsill in her home,” said Mansbach. “Across the road was a Nazi party headquarters, the flag with the Swastika flying above, but the Nazis weren’t yet in control.
“On the final night of Chanukah, grandmother took out a box camera and took a photo of the chanukiah with its eight candles. She finished taking the photos, removed the film, and sent it away for development.”
The famed photograph was developed in January 1932, and mindful of the conflicting Swastika and chanukiah (with a Magen David on its stem), Rachel inscribed the back of the image: “’Death to Judea,’ so the flag says. ‘Judea will live forever,’ so the light answers.”
The Nazi party came to power the following year, and amid the closure of shuls and Jewish shops across the country, the Posner family decided to leave Kiel in June 1933.
Said Mansbach, “Grandfather spoke to his congregation one final time, telling them that there was no future for Jews in Germany. He told them that whoever could flee must do so, and that wherever they should end up, they must always remain together.”
“Until today, there are communities around the world that stemmed from Kiel because their founders stuck together at the instructions of their rabbi.”
Mansbach said that when the shul was razed in 1938, only 250 Jews remain in Kiel, and by the time the Nazis were rounding up Jews for extermination in 1939, a mere nine Jews were left in the city.
“Not all of them could flee Germany, but almost all of them left Kiel,” he said.
After stopping in Belgium, the Posner family left for Israel in 1934 with the help of Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who arranged the necessary certificates for their immigration. The Posners arrived in Jaffa in November that year, before traveling to Jerusalem. In that same week, Mansbach’s father’s family also arrived in the Holy Land, and settled in Haifa.
Of course, the famed chanukiah had come with the Posner family to Israel and was used annually at Chanukah.
Said Mansbach, “In 1960, when grandfather turned 70, the family bought him a silver oil menorah, but he passed away two years later. Granny Rachel moved to Haifa, and when she passed away, my mother passed the chanukiah on to my son, Akiva, named after his grandfather.”
This wasn’t the end of the story, however.
Mansbach explained that in 1932, Rachel had sent a copy of her photograph to a local Jewish newspaper in Kiel.
“When the Nazis took over, they took ownership of all Jewish possessions [the photograph among them],” he said. “When Yad Vashem was established in Israel, it purchased the picture from the Germans and designed a window exhibition to house it.
“No one knew where the picture was from, who took it, when it was taken, where the chanukiah was, or what happened to the photographer. They knew nothing.”
The truth emerged years later during the construction of the Holocaust museum in Washington.
Said Mansbach, “They heard that the chanukiah was still around, and was in my mother’s possession. They visited her in Haifa, took photos to Washington, and notified Yad Vashem that the chanukiah was still being used and that the family had survived.
“Yad Vashem came to my mother and said it wanted to place the chanukiah in the museum so that people could learn about what had happened. She refused, saying it belonged to her grandson who lighted it annually and continued the legacy of the family.”
A compromise was eventually reached in 2016, and the family agreed to have the chanukiah housed at the museum throughout the year. Come Chanukah, however, they collect it and take it home for lighting.
This remains the arrangement today, and on every night of Chanukah, the chanukiah sits in the Mansbach’s window, looking out over a Beit Shemesh skyline instead of a Nazi office.
“The chanukiah remains ours,” Mansbach said. “It remains a part of our family.”
How to create room to breathe while being constricted
There is no doubt that our community and wider country are starting 2021 in a meitzar, a narrow place, filled with fear and anxiety. Caught in a second wave which we hoped would never come, we are waiting with trepidation for schools to start, for numbers to drop, for vaccines to arrive. Would it help us to reflect that in Parshat Vayeira this week, we find the Israelites caught in their narrow place, the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim!
While the parsha this week describes the unfolding of the larger-scale events of the plagues, it opens with insight into the state of mind of “the people”, b’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure enslaved people by telling them that He has heard their cries, and is going to save them. The people will be taken out of Mitzrayim, and will be allowed to pursue their destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, “The people of Israel would not listen to Moses, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage. (Ex, ch. 6, v 9).” Commenting on the words “they would not listen”, Rashi creates an equivalence between “to listen” and “to receive”, saying, lo kiblu tanchumin (the people weren’t able to receive words of comfort). It’s a deep place of despair where a person isn’t able to receive words of soothing and hope.
What stopped people from being able to be comforted? The avodah kashah describes the cruel bondage of slavery in which our people’s individual liberties and freedom were removed. Indeed, it may feel as if there is little agency or room to move when large forces of power are manipulating one’s life, such as in a pandemic.
However, we are also told that the people weren’t able to listen because of kotzer ru’ach (shortness of breath). The Midrash Aggadah plays on the words kotzer ru’ach, and claims that the people were “short on spirit” meaning emunah, and thus became involved in idol worship.
The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of this midrash, suggesting that the Israelites weren’t actually worshipping idols, but rather were so distanced from themselves and filled with the vanities of the world that they had no inner space to receive this message of hope. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root “tzar”. He links the two, saying anyone who is in constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of constriction that freezes a person, conjuring up Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of The Scream. When we are put under undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths. Thus, two factors prevent the people from receiving Moshe’s tanchumim: external factors linked to oppression and enslavement (avodah kashah); and an inner state of mind linked to alienation, distancing from G-d, and distressing anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).
Like b’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and all sorts of circumstances over which we have very little control. This is our avodah kashah, the larger forces which play out across our world. However, according to the parsha, our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the way in which we work with our own kotzer ru’ach. As we begin 2021 gripped by second waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to feel hopeless. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism, negative projections onto the year, and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our mind is filled with kotzer ru’ach, it won’t have the emptiness to be open to receive the whispers and ripples of hope when they come our way.
In the words of the Sefat Emet, “Hearing requires being empty of everything so that we can hear the voice of G-d.” In times like these, if we are sufficiently attuned, we might be able to receive comfort, connect to feelings of hope, or even feel moments of faith and upliftment. These moments may come as calm, as perspective, as wisdom, as kindness, in the form of poetry, Torah learning, or prayer. Perhaps, quite simply, we will feel less constricted by “shortness of breath”, and more open to neshimah, breath, and expansiveness.
This is a hard time in our world, but we have a tradition of people going through very difficult times and being redeemed from them. We learn from b’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting and is subject to forces beyond our control. However, we aren’t mere victims of circumstance. By working to heal our kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places. It might even be that our expanded ability to receive can help usher in the larger-scale transformation and redemption for which we hope and pray.
- Adina Roth is a Jewish educator at B’tocham Education, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is studying online at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.
Don’t lose your spirit
Imagine you’ve been working on the job for years and years. It’s hard, manual labour and you’re not simply tired but exhausted, demoralised, drained, and frustrated. And then, one fine day, some new fellow on the floor stands up and promises a whole new world of equality, rewards, and ultimate freedom. Do you believe him, or are you beyond hope? Do you dare hold out for a better tomorrow and risk being disillusioned, devastated, and cast into despair yet again, or do you simply accept your fate and give up dreaming?
So it was with our ancestors in Egypt. They were slaving away all those years, when a new face appeared and began making promises. Moses brought a message from G-d that they were about to be redeemed. There is a Promised Land ahead. All is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Jews’ response? They didn’t listen to Moses as a result of shortness of breath and from hard labour.
One commentary explains that “shortness of breath” shouldn’t be understood only literally. The Hebrew for breath is ruach, which can also mean “spirit”. In other words, they weren’t able to heed Moses’ call not only from physical breathlessness, but because they lacked the spirit. Having suffered in bondage for so long, they no longer had the faith or hope to believe that freedom was still in the realm of the possible. It was simply beyond them. They had lost their spirit.
In the history of Egypt, no slave ever escaped. How could an entire nation ever walk free? Moses is a dreamer, they must have thought. It’s just not realistic to hold out such high hopes only to have them dashed yet again. And so, the people were utterly despondent and spiritless and therefore, they couldn’t hear – absorb – Moses’ message.
It happens all too often. People become so set in their mediocrity that they give up hope of ever achieving breakthrough. Marriages get stuck in the rut of routine, and the tedious treadmill keeps rolling along until we lose even the desire to dream. It takes an extraordinary degree of faith and courage not to.
I have often quoted a wise proverb in the name of legendary Chasid Reb Mendel Futerfas. “If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing. Money comes and money goes. If you lose your health, you’ve lost half. You are not the person you were before. But if you lose your resolve, you’ve lost it all.”
Moses brought new hope to a depressed, dreamless nation. He gave it back the spirit it had lost, and eventually, through the miracles of G-d, the promise was fulfilled, and the dream became destiny.
To be out of breath is normal. To be out of spirit is something the Jewish people can never afford. May we never lose our spirit.
From small flicker to giant flash of illumination
One of the most memorable Chanukah holidays of my life was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Walking through the narrow lanes and alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, just after dark, I was deeply moved by the sight of the little candles shining in the doorways. Special recesses had been carved in the Jerusalem stone of the doorposts, where the chanukiah was placed, protected from the winter winds and rains by a glass covering. This enabled the literal fulfilment of the Talmudic instruction: “Chanukah candles must be placed on the outside of the doors of our home.”
There was an interesting architectural anomaly in King Solomon’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Windows are usually built to maximise the penetration of light into a building. As described in the Book of Kings, the windows of the sanctuary were shaped by design so that light would shine out, rather than in. According to Talmud Menachot, this was meant to convey the message that G-d doesn’t need outside illumination. On the contrary, the spiritual light of the Menorah, with everything it symbolises, must spill out and brighten the world.
Since March, we have each been transforming our homes into sanctuaries. Our personal dwellings have always been hallowed: places of sanctity and purity which serve as mini-homes for G-d. Confined as we have been for the past eight months, this exercise has intensified.
For months, synagogues were closed for worship and prayer relocated to our flats and houses. Our rabbis, previously preaching from towering pulpits, arrived right into our living rooms on the screens of iPhones, iPads, and iMacs.
Our homes also became beacons of kindness, caring, and giving. Physical hospitality was of course severely curtailed by lockdown limitations. But chesed doesn’t only happen in the home, it also emanates from the home. In counterpoint to the numerous stories of corruption, graft, and theft that dominated our headlines were thousands of acts of selfless attention to the lonely, the elderly, and others needing assistance.
Fortunately, this pandemic is playing out in an age when communication technology is extremely advanced. This made it so much easier to be connected with the rest of world even without stepping out. Today, we can reach out to show care via a telephone call or a WhatsApp message. We can wish each other a good Shabbos through cute little graphics sent out to broadcasts lists. We can help friends shop online even if they aren’t technologically adept. All of these advances became tools for kindness and chesed.
I have seen the inside of many more of my congregants’ homes in the course of 2020 than in any single calendar year in more than three decades as a pulpit rabbi. Zoom Torah classes and virtual services propelled me right into studies, dining rooms, kitchens, and family rooms of hundreds of residences. In spite of the physical distance there was a sense of presence and home-to-home connection that cannot be achieved by gathering in a lecture room at shul or in the rabbi’s house.
Our sages tell us that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah (prayer), and gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness). While we worked, played, prayed, and studied in our homes, we were busy consolidating the spiritual pillars that are the real foundations holding up a Jewish home.
Here’s the powerful message of Chanukah 2020: we have had eight months to strengthen the structure of our personal home sanctuary. To renovate it, redecorate it, and spruce it up. If it’s to be G-d’s Temple in a true sense, then its glow must shine out into the outside world, a lighthouse radiating sanctity, serenity, and shalom.
The darkness out there may be thick and appear impenetrable. The miracle of Chanukah was the victory of the few over the many. A small light can dispel a lot of obscurity.
We will start with one little candle, in our doorframe or window, solitary but valiantly radiating the warmth and purity from our home to the world out there. That light will increase, night after night, and combine with literally millions of other little Chanukah flames from Jewish homes around the world, to illuminate the entire planet with a giant flash of goodness and purity.
- Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul and the chairman of the SA Rabbinical Association.
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