A Hanukkah Tale Of Two Survivors
Two Jewish men endure the Holocaust and change the world
NEW YORK — This week, as for the last 20 centuries, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah as a festival commemorating survival and rededication.
Here is a modern-day Hanuk-kah story.
The time is 1944. The place is Sighet, a small town in Hungary. The Nazi Army and its SS Corps have taken control.
A pair of 15-year old Jewish boys, David Weiss and Elie Wiesel, are growing up, learning the Talmud, going to temple. Their world is shattered that spring when the Nazis start to herd the Jews into a ghetto.
Both boys are initially shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp with their families, which are immediately split up.
Young Mr. Wiesel and his father are sent to Buna, another German concentration camp. The teenager never sees his mother and sister again. He and his father survive in the concentration camp on bread, soup, and their faith.
The young Rabbi Weiss as well is separated from his family upon arriving at Auschwitz. On the first day his mother, grandmother, and grandfather are killed by the Nazis. His father, captured in Warsaw, dies after being attacked by SS dogs. His sister dies at another concentration camp.
From Auschwitz, Weiss is sent to the Mathausen camp where the Nazis are trying to build an underground munitions works. Since he is small, Weiss is given the job of carrying the drill bits from the bunkers to the tunnels.
He survives by working only when the SS is watching. It is a grisly existence and only 10 percent of the prisoners survive the camp. In the tunnels, Weiss spies a guard eating a snack wrapped in a page torn from an edition of the Code of Jewish Law, one of the central Jewish legal codes dating from the Middle Ages.
Although the Nazi guards forbid Jews from carrying any religious articles, Weiss, who had received rabbinical ordination at the age of 15, begs for the scrap, called in Yiddish a bletel. Surprisingly, the guard obliges.
The bletel becomes a symbol.
``It was a visible sign of home. It was a sign of connection, of tradition, of belonging,'' recalls Weiss. ``It was almost symbolic of the Jewish people in general.''
The Germans force the Jews to work every day. But, during their one hour off on Sundays, they huddle together and review the page. They know that if the Nazis find the scrap, they will all be killed. So one man, a Mr. Finkelstein, volunteers to keep it on his body all the time. He eventually collapses from the nonstop work and the page is lost when he is put to death by the Nazis.
At the same time, Wiesel is questioning his faith as inhumanities heap atop inhumanities. The SS murders a child, a son kills his father for a scrap of bread, and the German workers amuse themselves by throwing bread scraps to starving men. His father dies within days of the Allied liberation of the camp. Wiesel survives and chronicles the horror of the Holocaust in a book, ``Night.'' Today, he says his survival was the result of ``pure chance.''
But, like the menorah lit for Hanukkah, the men's lives become brighter with the passage of time.
Weiss immigrates to America where he enters elementary school. He completes high school and college and earns a master's degree. He becomes a Talmudic scholar (becoming Rabbi Professor David Weiss Halivni), piecing together scraps of the Jewish laws found in libraries around the world. He studies the inconsistencies of the Talmud, trying to give it new meaning.
Weiss writes scholarly works and teaches religion at Columbia University in New York. He founds the Institute for Traditional Judaism (ITJ), an institute of higher Jewish learning. He influences thousands of Jews with his writings.
Wiesel goes to Paris, where he ultimately becomes a journalist and author. In 1976 he is named the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities, teaching religion and philosophy at Boston University. He writes over 20 books and is awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Weiss and Wiesel are reunited in 1954 in New York. They become close friends, speaking to each other almost every day. ``I just feel happy around David,'' says Wiesel. ``He is a source of great joy.''
This is not the normal Hanukkah story, which commemorates a military event. Hanuk-kah, which means dedication in Hebrew, celebrates the successful revolt of the Jews against the Greeks who made it a capital crime to teach the Torah.
Jewish rebels recaptured Jerusalem and began eight days of purifying and rededicating the Temple. According to legend, there was only enough oil to light the candelabrum for one day. However, the oil burned for eight days -- thus the eight Hanukkah candles to be lighted every year. Today, Jewish parents also use the festival as a time to give their children gifts, the same way Christians exchange Christmas gifts.
The eighth Hanukkah candle will be lit this Sunday, including one at a fund-raising dinner at the New York Hilton where Weiss and Wiesel will be honored by the Union for Traditional Judaism and the ITJ. ``They survived to contribute so much to the Jewish world and the world at large,'' says Rabbi Ronald Price, one of the organizers.