Hope in Hell
We had been helped by God, even in this forsaken little camp at Nieder-Orschel.
Excerpted from The Yellow Star by S. B. Unsdorfer
After having survived the horrors of Auschwitz, Simche Unsdorfer was transported to Nieder-Orschel and put to work making aeroplane wings for the German Luftwaffe. It is in this camp that the following story took place.
When writing the little diary in which I entered the Hebrew dates and Festivals, I discovered with great delight that Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, the festival on which we commemorate the recapture of the Temple from the mighty Greeks by a handful of faithful Jews, was only a few days ahead. I decided that we should light a little Chanukah lamp even in Nieder-Orschel, and that this would go a long way towards restoring our morale.
Benzi was immediately consulted because he had become the most reliable and trusted person in the block. Even those at the other two tables came to Benzi to settle their quarrels, which were mostly about the distribution of their rations. Benzi would stand no arguments at his own table. He cut every loaf into eight portions and shared it out indiscriminately. He who complained, received the smallest portion. “If you are dissatisfied,” Benzi would shout angrily, “go and join another table, where they have scales and judges.” Nobody ever left our table.
Benzi was enthusiastic about my idea. “Yes, we should get a Chanukah light burning,” he said. “It will boost our morale and lighten the atmosphere. Work on a plan, but be careful.”
Two problems had to be overcome: oil had to be “organised” and a place had to be found where the lighted wick would not be seen. The was no lack of oil in the factory, but how could we smuggle even a few drops into our barrack in time for Monday evening, December 11, the first night of Chanukah?
We knew, of course, that Jewish law did not compel us to risk our lives for the sake of fulfilling a commandment. But there was an urge in many of us to reveal the spirit of sacrifice implanted in our ancestors throughout the ages. We who were in such great spiritual as well as physical distress felt that a little Chanukah light would warm our starving souls and inspire us with hope, faith and courage to keep us going through this long, grim and icy winter.
Benzi, Grunwald, Stern, Fischof and I were in the plot. We decided to draw lots. The first name drawn would have to steal the oil; the third would be responsible for it and hide it until Monday evening; the fifth would have to light it under his bunk. I was drawn fifth.
Grunwald, who was to “organise” the oil, did his part magnificently. He persuaded the hated Meister Meyer that his machine would work better if oiled regularly every morning, and that his could best be arranged if a small can of fine machine oil was allotted to us to be kept in our toolbox. Meister Meyer agreed, so there was no longer the problem of having to hide it.
On Monday evening after Appell, everyone else sat down to his much awaited portion of tasteless but hot soup, while I busied myself under the bunk to prepare my Menorah. I put the oil in the empty half of a shoe-polish tin, took a few threads from my thin blanket and made them into a wick. When everything was ready I hastily joined the table to eat my dinner before I invited all our friends to the Chanukah Light Kindling ceremony. Suddenly, as I was eating my soup, I remembered we had forgotten about matches. I whispered to Benzi. “Everyone must leave a little soup,“ Benzi ordered his hungry table guests, and told them why. Within five minutes, five portions of soup were exchanged in the next room for a cigarette. The cigarette was “presented” to the chef, Joseph, for lending us a box of matches without questions.
And so, as soon as dinner was over I made the three traditional blessings, and a little Chanukah light flickered away slowly under my bunk. Not only my friends were there with us, but also many others from the room joined us in humming the traditional Chanukah songs. These songs carried us into the past. As if on a panoramic screen, we saw our homes, with our parents, brothers, sisters, wives, and children gathered round the beautiful silver candelabras, singing happily the Maoz Tzur. That tiny little light under my bunk set our hearts ablaze. Tears poured down our haggard cheeks. By now, every single inmate in the room sat silently on his bunk, or near mine, deeply meditating. For a moment, nothing else mattered. We were celebrating the first night of Chanukah as we had done in all the years previous to our imprisonment and torture. We were a group of Jewish people fulfilling our religious duties, and dreaming of home and of bygone years.
But alas! Our dream ended much too soon. A roar of “Achtung” brought our minds back to reality, and our legs to stiff attention. “The Dog” - that skinny little Unterschaarfuehrer - stood silently at the door, as he so often did on his surprise visits, looking anxiously for some excuse, even the slightest, to wield his dog-whip. Suddenly he sniffed as loudly as his Alsatian and yelled “Hier stinkts ja von Oehl!” (“It stinks of oil in here!”).
My heart missed a few beats as I stared down at the little Chanukah light flickering away, while “The Dog” and his Alsatian began to parade along the bunks in search of the burning oil.
The Unterschaarfuehrer silently began his search. I did not dare bend down or stamp out the light with my shoes for fear the Alsatian would notice my movements and leap at me. I gave a quick glance at the death-pale faces round me, and so indeed did “The Dog”. Within a minute or two he would reach our row of bunks. Nothing could save us…but suddenly…
Suddenly a roar of sirens, sounding an air raid, brought “The Dog” to a stop and within seconds all lights in the entire camp were switched off from outside. “Fliegeralarm! Fliegeralarm!” echoed throughout the camp! Like lightning I snuffed out the light with my shoes and following a strict camp rule, we all ran to the open ground, brushing “The Dog” contemptuously aside. “There will be an investigation…There will be an investigation,” he screamed above the clatter of rushing prisoners who fled out into the Appell ground. But I did not worry. In delight I grabbed my little Menorah and ran out with it. This was the sign, the miracle of Chanukah, the recognition of our struggle against the temptations of our affliction. We had been helped by God, even in this forsaken little camp at Nieder-Orschel.
Outside, in the ice-cold, star-studded night, with the heavy drone of Allied bombers over our heads, I kept on muttering the traditional blessing to the God who wrought miracles for His people in past days and in our own time. The bombers seemed to be spreading these words over the host of heaven.