A CHANUKAH STORY
Bergen Belsen. A heavy silence hung over the barrack, interrupted by a whispered conversation. “In a few minutes it will be twelve o’clock,“ whispered Yankel to Moshe, his neighbor on the plank of wood which served as their bed. “At twelve o’clock,“ continued Yankel in a voice choked with emotion, “we will assemle in the corner of the barrack to witness the Rebbe light the menorah.“
He was referring to the Bluzhever Rebbe zt“l, who was interned together with them in the infamous Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Somehow, the Rebbe had managed to keep a record of the Jewish dates, and knew that this night would be the first night of Chanukah.
For many weeks in advance, the Rebbe had been concerned about how he would perform the mitzva of lighting the Chanukah candles, and with Hashem’s help, he had succeeded in obtaining one small candle. Since then, he had gone around, surreptitiously calling Jews to unite with him in performing the mitzva, on the designated Sunday night at twelve o’clock, after the block overseer will have left.
The Rebbe succeeded in gathering a large group of people, who despite their broken spirits and bodies, weakened by malnutrition and forced labor, were ready to sacrifice their lives to be part of this mitzva. These Yidden were hoping that just like Hashem had performed a miracle then, He will perform a miracle for them now…
Mikel was an assimilated Jew, who had abandoned his religious lifestyle many years before the war. However, the Nazis ym“s didn’t distinguish between the religious and the irreligious, and thus, Mikel too, was transported to Bergen Belsen. After an interminable day of back-breaking labor, Mikel was attempting to fall asleep, when he heard a whispered conversation from the neighboring bunk.
“The overseer left already,“ came Moshe’s hushed voice, “I hope and pray that the candle-lighting will proceed undisturbed.“
“Hashem will help,“ Yankel answered, “Come, let us go.“
Mikel was shocked. “Could it be, that after all they’ve endured, there are still some believing Jews? I must see this with my own eyes,“ he resolved. Mikel stealthily crept off his bunk, and followed Moshe and Yankel to the corner of the barrack. Despite the heavy darkness, he was able to discern the Rebbe and the crowds surrounding him. All was still as the Rebbe ignited his match, and quietly, barely whispering, began to recite the blessings. Their emotions overwhelmed them, “Even here, during these darkest times, we are able to fulfill the mitzva of lighting the Chanukah candles!“ The Rebbe completed the first beracha, and the crowd responded with a hushed “Amein.“ Engulfed with passionate feelings, the Rebbe proceeded to recite the second blessing, followed by Shehechiyanu, and then lit the candle. The small flame danced defiantly, filling the hearts of the onlookers with an immense light.
Mikel couldn’t swallow it. After the crowd had sung a hushed Maoz Tzur, and most of the assembled had dispersed, he turned to the Rebbe with a burning question.
“I watched the entire procedure,“ Mikel began, “and I understand why the Rebbe made the first two blessings. But why the blessing of Shehechiyanu? How could the Rebbe be grateful that we have reached this time; a time when every day our brothers are murdered in cold blood, a time when we are wallowing in misery and are being treated so inhumanely?“
“Truthfully,“ the Bluzhever Rebbe answered, “I also thought the same difficult question. But when I glanced around me, and noticed the strong faith etched on the faces of the people who had gathered here tonight to perform the mitzva despite the dangers involved, I made the beracha of Shehechiyanu with them in mind. Shehechiyanu that I have witnessed Klal Yisroel on such an elevated spiritual level!“