The Hebrew month of Kislev has a special, albeit bittersweet, significance in my family, as it is the month my father was born and passed away. A ben zakeinim, no doubt unexpected by his older parents but very welcome, (in a family of 11 children, there were eight girls) Chaim ben Aaron Yosef HaKohen was born either on the 13th or 14th of Kislev (we don’t know if he made his appearance in the morning or evening of November 17, 1918).
He was niftar 14 years ago on Rosh Chodesh Kislev. Only he and an older brother who was already living in Canada survived the Holocaust. His other brother and all of his sisters lived in Poland and were married with children ranging from infants to teens/young adults when the malignant Nazis invaded. I estimate that my Chassidishe paternal grandparents must have had at least 50 grandchildren – if not more.
Only four of the grandchildren who were in their late teens when they were sent to labor/concentration camps emerged alive from the ashes. (I recently wrote of my cousin Rujah who passed away in Israel several months ago – she was one of them.)
The 1st of Kislev is not only a day of mourning for my family. It is a day of tragedy and loss for the Chabad community in particular, and the Jewish people as a whole, for it was on the first of Kislev five years ago that Indian troops entered the besieged Chabad House in Mumbai, and discovered the tortured bodies of 29-year-old Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, 28, as well as four other Jews, all of whom were butchered because they were Jewish. Theirs was the ultimate Kiddush Hashem and no doubt the gates of Shamayim opened immediately as their pure neshamas approached. Only their son, Moshe, 2 survived this virulent act of Jew-hatred perpetrated on his parents and their guests.
When my father passed away the English date was November 10. How ironic that on that date sixty-one years earlier, the Jews of Germany and Austria were terrorized by gangs of brutes and thugs in what many consider the seminal event that ultimately launched the Holocaust – and the eventual murder of over six million Jews and millions of others of various religions, political belief and nationalities.
Kristallnacht – the Night of the Shattered Glass – began on November 9. By the time it ended on November 10 over 1000 synagogues in Germany and Austria had been burned down; dozens upon dozens of Jews were killed, and too many to count Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked and demolished as authorities and law enforcement officers looked away.
But as I wrote earlier, while elements of Kislev are bitter, they are also sweet. My father has a granddaughter who was born on his yahrzeit. He also has a great-grandson born the day after his yahrzeit on the second of Kislev who carries his exact name. Another Chaim ben Aaron Yosef HaKohen has taken the place of his great grandfather. Baby Chaim is the physical and spiritual continuation of my father who very possibly was a continuation of another Chaim, the son of a kohen named Aaron.
Perhaps this is what the term Eitz Chaim – the tree of life – is all about. Leaves fall or entire branches break and are permanently ruined due to destructive forces, but the tree replenishes and renews itself: there are new sprigs, new growth, and continuation. The tree stands proud, defiant and firm.
Kislev is also the month during which we celebrate the Festival of Chanukah. While those who lived through the Shoah are symbols of the physical survival of the Jewish people against all odds, Chanukah is the story of the Jewish nation’s spiritual survival. It revolves around a family of Kohanim and their rag-tag group of supporters who successfully overthrew the Greek occupiers of the land of Israel who tried to impose their pagan, hedonist culture on the Jews and make them disappear through assimilation. Yiddishkeit is restored through the lighting of the Temple’s menorah by a single flask of oil (whose seal was unbroken and therefore kosher) that miraculously lasted for eight days until it could be replenished.
There are human versions of this flask of oil – the Survivors.
Earlier this month I attended a conference sponsored by two organizations whose members are adult and child survivors of the Holocaust. Initially, when a friend of mine, also the daughter of survivors, asked me to accompany her to this gathering, I was reluctant to go. We are a unique group, having been raised by mothers and fathers who experienced hell on earth and who were initially discouraged from talking about it and told to “get over it” and go on with their lives. Our parents’ pain and trauma were rarely validated or given a voice until decades later, and it is not for nothing that many of the “2nd generation” (as the children of survivors are referred to) feel that we should get reparations from Germany for the suffering and trauma we experienced being raised by mentally-fragile individuals who suffered from what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
I felt it would be too upsetting to mingle with traumatized souls. Another reason for my reluctance is my ever-present awareness that Jew hatred is flourishing and embraced all over the world and, as a mother and grandmother, I did not want to be starkly reminded for three days of the mind-boggling evil that humans are capable of inflicting on one another. I can only absorb that in small doses in order to stay functional.
I did eventually let her persuade me (the gathering was taking place in the Las Vegas area and visiting there at least once was on my to do list). And to my great surprise, I was swept up by an unexpected surge of optimism, exhilaration and hope! These men and women of the Shoah, now in there twilight years, had truly survived and thrived.
They came from the four corners of the globe: North, Central and South America, Europe, Israel, Australia, and Africa, many with spouses, adult children and grandchildren.
These Yidden, who had known starvation, brutality, exposure to extreme cold or stifling heat, as well as dehumanizing humiliation and degradation were now in an opulent, luxurious resort, with delicious feasts to indulge in, clean comfortable rooms to rest in, a spa to be pampered in and were surrounded by men and women ready to cater to their every needs.
I looked at these survivors and realized that each was like the flask of holy oil that had been found by the Maccabees amidst the ruins and destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and Jerusalem.
This one “earthen survivor” found amidst the multitude of broken flasks that littered the Temple floor was viewed as being inadequate, not viable, unlikely to be productive and useful – which meant lasting long enough to keep the Menorah of the Holy Temple lit until more kosher oil could be produced. Yet it defied all the “expert” opinions and succeeded beyond reasonable expectations.
This flask became a symbol of miraculous continuity.
These survivors of the Shoah, of the pogroms, of the Inquisition, of every massacre and act of violence and terror, are breathing versions of this holy flask of oil. Am Yisrael chai vekayum. The nation of Israel lives and exists.
Happy Chanukah and continuity to us all!