In addition, my father remarked, Chanukah was not only a religious holiday but one of Jewish heroism, and celebrating it would awaken the fighting conscience of the Jews in Buchenwald and be a morally uplifting event.
Eisler looked at Chaskel in dismay. Did he really think it would be possible to put together a Chanukah celebration in Buchenwald in December 1939, almost four months after the war had begun?
Eisler mulled over the idea and recalled Chaskel’s arguments about supporting any event that would keep the prisoners’ spirits from breaking. Later in the day he sought out my father and informed him he would turn a blind eye to any goings-on if several conditions could be met.
“First,” Eichler said, “you are responsible that the event will not be discovered by the guards. Second, none of the block functionaries will be involved. Third, the event has to be totally on your own initiative.” If it works, Chaskel should let him know how it went. In any case, Eisler would make sure not to be in the block at that time.
Chaskel and his friends went into action. Mobilizing the Jewish prisoners, they opened supply lines to the camp workshops. Prisoners in the carpentry commando constructed a wooden menorah; those from the cleaning department “organized” a tablecloth and paper towels. The shoemakers and tailors obtained candles and wax while those in the kitchen hid food that would round off the celebration: apples, cookies and even a bit of chocolate.
On the afternoon before Chanukah, the prisoners began preparing a wing of Block 29 for the event and word went out that after nightfall all Jewish inmates who wanted to celebrate Chanukah should gather discreetly in the block. Finally, the prisoners set up a warning system in the event that S.S. men would enter the area.
My father described the event in glowing terms. “The hall was filled and people were still climbing on each other and through the window to get in.” Before the candle-lighting ceremony Chaskel delivered encouraging words about the history and significance of Chanukah. Just as the Jews who were slaves in Egypt felt hopeless and only a minority held out, the Jews in camp should consider themselves such a minority and know that they will hold out in the exile of Buchenwald.
“This is the purpose of Chanukah and these lights,” Chaskel concluded. “A hope in the darkness giving us courage and strength to survive this gezeirah [evil decree].”
As the inmates in the packed block stared at the flickering lights in the makeshift menorah, some even with tears in their eyes, Eric Eisler’s face appeared in the doorway. The block elder looked around the room, taking in the prisoners’ faces, the food, the menorah, and then he disappeared once again. For a moment, everyone in the room dreamed they were free.
What did Chaskel think of as he looked around at the group gathered in Block 29? Could he even imagine that five years later he would still be a prisoner in a Nazi camp, secretly lighting Chanukah candles in a camp in Poland that did not yet even exist – Auschwitz-Buna?
The Jews in Block 29 continued eating fruit and cookies, encouraged for a few moments to believe that one day they would again be free. It was a most memorable Chanukah, one they would recall years later, both during and after the war. Even Eisler remarked to Chaskel that he had been brought up in an assimilated home and until then knew of Chanukah only by name as a “festival of lights,” which he imagined was like Christmas. But what he saw in the block made a deep impression on him and his communist friends as it reminded them of communist solidarity.