Peter, Paul and Mary in “Light One Candle”
NEW YORK — In late December 1948, my parents said a very special Shehecheyanu prayer as they lit the Chanuka candles in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany.
Barely five years after their entire families were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, they could not truly thank God for granting them life or for sustaining them as part of the small surviving remnant of European Jewry that emerged from the Holocaust. Too many faces were missing — their parents, their siblings, my mother’s first husband and her 5-and-a-half-year-old son, my father’s first wife and her daughter.
But for the first time, they were celebrating the Festival of Lights with their son — I was then almost 8 months old — and their focus must have been on this moment of rebirth, of renewal. Their Shehecheyanu, I suspect, was in large part for me seeing the burning Chanuka candles for the first time, with no memories of the past, of death and destruction, of other flames.
Fast forward 61 one years.
On the first night of Chanuka 2009, a display for a fragile Torah scroll that was brought from Hamburg, Germany, to the United States in 1939 by Rabbi Alfred Veis is dedicated at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, Tenn.
Two days later, my wife Jeanie and I attend a memorial service for Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, the long-time president and chancellor of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who died three months ago. Gottschalk had fled Nazi Germany as a 9-year-old boy.
On the sixth night of Chanuka, I stood in the Grand Foyer of the White House together with several hundred other American Jews as the children of Commander Scott Moran, a U.S. Navy officer presently deployed in Iraq, lit the candles on a 19th-century silver Chanuka menora on loan from the Jewish Museum in Prague .
Standing beside them were President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Chanuka, President Obama told us, “was a triumph of the few over the many; of right over might; of the light of freedom over the darkness of despair.”
He recalled how over the centuries “Jews have lit the Chanuka candles as symbols of resilience in times of peace, and in times of persecution — in concentration camps and ghettos; war zones and unfamiliar lands. Their light inspires us to hope beyond hope; to believe that miracles are possible even in the darkest of hours.”
During the few moments I was able to speak with President Obama afterward, he told me of his deep admiration and affection for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who accompanied him to Buchenwald earlier this year.
“Light one candle for the strength that we need to never become our own foe,” goes another verse from “Light One Candle.”
Following the ceremony, a group of us gathered in one of the adjoining rooms, surrounded by Christmas wreaths, for the evening Ma’ariv service.
Rabbi Avraham Shemtov, the head of the international umbrella organization of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, prayed alongside Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Elsewhere, members of the liberal, peace-oriented J Street advocacy group engaged in intense conversations with leaders of AIPAC, the more conservative pro-Israel lobby.
In the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp, the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, religious and secular, Yiddishists and Hebraists, lived and struggled together, as did Zionists covering the broad political spectrum from left to right who coexisted easily with non-Zionists. They understood that they suffered a shared fate and faced a common future.
In the White House this past week, Jewish leaders of all stripes and denominations seemed to let go of their differences, if only for a few hours, and revel in the freedom and dignity of America.
“Light one candle to find us together with peace as the song in our hearts.”
On the flight back to New York, I sat beside a stranger and we began talking. He was David Vise, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post reporter. His grandfather was Rabbi Alfred Veis of Nashville, Tenn. In 1939, David’s father came to the United States from Germany on the same boat as Alfred Gottschalk, and the two became good friends.
“Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.”
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is a New York-based columnist and attorney.)