In 1969, the Forverts, then still one of America’s leading Jewish newspapers, published a story by Elie Wiesel about celebrating the Festival of Lights in the darkness of the Holocaust. The story concerns the author’s bunkmate, formerly the head of a small yeshivah, who one winter tried desperately to obtain a few potatoes and some oil. Herewith, an excerpt from a new translation by Myra Mniewski and Chana Pollack:
If it was impossible to get eight [potatoes], four would do. The four could be cut in half to kindle eight Hanukkah lights. I thought he had lost his mind. He had to be crazy to attempt such a thing in the harrowing hell of Auschwitz. But he was strong willed: one mustn’t leave a mitzvah unfulfilled, especially in Auschwitz. Once we neglect observing one, even a small one, there will soon be a second even bigger one. So don’t even start.
The teacher in him explained his approach. Doesn’t Hanukkah symbolize Jewish sacrifice? For the past twenty generations, haven’t Jews lit candles to remember the heroism of Judah Maccabee, who was ready to die rather than betray the Torah? Was this really the moment to abandon those teachings? No, no! A thousand times no! It was especially important in our current circumstances to follow their path—to kindle the Jewish people’s flames of faith.
In vain I pleaded with him—lighting Hanukkah candles was not a mitzvah for which you needed to sacrifice your life. But he kept to his response: these times require us to sacrifice ourselves for every mitzvah. Later, quietly, on our pallet, before falling asleep, he said: I’m convinced my point of view is correct. Especially since we don’t have any prospects of remaining alive. If I thought that any one of us would survive this enemy, I might have a different opinion. Unfortunately we can’t believe in that. So my question is simple: if we’re going to die anyway, why not die for a mitzvah, and not just because the murderer wants us to? . . .
If Jews had the fortitude to believe in victory over the Greeks, then we could not now surrender our trust in defeating our enemy. Whether my bunkmate lasted till the end, till liberation—I do not know. I lost sight of him during the January evacuation.