The practice of sending of Rosh Hashanah greeting cards remains popular, and as I discussed in “Shanah Tovah Cards and the First Zionist Congress” (front page essay, Sept. 4, 2015), accumulating such cards is one of the most popular areas of Jewish document collecting.
And while the practice has waned and few Jews send Chanukah cards anymore, the exchange of such cards was a very popular custom through the first half of the twentieth century. The cards all have voices yearning to be heard. Behind each is a tale of time and place that, framed against various religious, political, social, cultural, and artistic milieus, can provide deep insight into Jewish historical leitmotifs.
WWII Chanukah Greetings From Shanghai (1945)
Exhibited here is an exceedingly rare card issued by the Jewish Welfare Board depicting a Chinese figure with chanukiah and the Hebrew word “Maccabee.” Not shown is the inside of this two-ply card, which contains “Chanukah gelt” in the form of a banknote issued by The Central Bank of China.
Shanghai was an important safe-haven for Jewish refugees during the Holocaust because it was one of the few places in the world where a visa was not required. Some 23,000 European Jews found shelter there.
Shanghai was then an open city with no immigration restrictions, and several Chinese diplomats issued protective passports and transit visas to Jews and others fleeing the Holocaust. Later during the war, occupying Japanese forces relocated the Jewish “stateless refugees” to a small area (less than a square mile) in Shanghai’s Hongkew district, which included the community around the Ohel Moshe Synagogue.
Japanese authorities progressively adopted additional restrictions, but the ghetto was not walled, the local Chinese residents did not leave, and American Jewish charities – including the Jewish Welfare Board, which established a Shanghai office and issued this Chanukah card – were able to provide basic necessities to the Jews of the Shanghai Ghetto.
The Nazis pressured the Japanese army to develop a plan to exterminate Shanghai’s Jewish population but this attempt to bring the Holocaust to China became known to Jewish communal leaders and, with the intercession of the Amshenower Rebbe, the Japanese – who, in any case, had little motive to further antagonize America and the Allies after they had already invaded China – kept putting off the German request until the war ended, thereby keeping the Jews of Shanghai safe.
After the war, many of the Jews of Shanghai emigrated to Eretz Yisrael, but this Chanukah card, mailed shortly after the formal end of hostilities, stands as a historical testament to the important and generally unrecognized role that China played in saving Jews during the Shoah.
Al Hanisim (circa 1910s)
Shown here is an undated (but very early 20th century) card, Al Hanisim, which beautifully and graphically celebrates Jewish victories over great enemies throughout history. The unstated yet clear theme is the true story of Chanukah: that the Jewish people have survived all their mighty foes and will always do so.
The card, which shows an old Jew wearing a nes (miracle) robe, depicts various historical enemies of the Jews who have failed to destroy them, including Haman (shown at the lower right as a hungry alligator), Antiochus (shown under the menorah as a preying lion), and “romaiim” (Romans, rendered as a bird of prey at the lower left).
Though many Jews (and most of the secular world) understand Chanukah through the lens of the miracle of the oil, this card underscores that the religious and historical essence of the holiday is, as we recite in the Al Hanissim prayer, “the delivery of the many into the hands of the few” – the wholly improbable miracle of the victory of a handful of Chashmonaim prevailing against the Greek army, then the most powerful military force in the world.
Jewish Brigade Fighter (1942)
Displayed here is one of the most heart-tugging and beautiful Chanukah images I have ever seen. A young girl hugs her father, a soldier in the Jewish Brigade, a military formation of the British Army composed of Jews from the Yishuv commanded by British-Jewish officers serving in Europe during World War II.
Dressed in his smart military uniform with cap perfectly perched atop his head, he lights the candles on the eighth and final night of Chanukah during what is most likely a grant of temporary leave from the battlefield. He appears to be concentrating on accomplishing the lighting, but his daughter seems to be holding on to him for dear life; her eyes seem unfocused and dreamy and, whatever her limited degree of sophistication in the ways of the world, her face tells us she understands he may not return to her.
Echoing the theme of Jewish survival against a hated enemy, the Hebrew caption at the bottom is a verse from the Maoz Tzur (“Rock of Ages”) prayer describing the Jewish victory over Haman: Rosh Yemini nesaisah, v’oyev shmo machita – “you, God, raised up the head of the Yemini [Mordechai] and erased the name of the hated foe [Haman].” In context, “Yemini” can also refer to the Jewish people, and the “hated foe” to Hitler.
Jerusalem Liberated! (1918)
British field marshal Edmund Allenby (1861-1936) commanded the Egyptian Expeditionary Forces that decisively defeated the Turks and liberated Eretz Yisrael for the first time in four hundred years. The Jews of Eretz Yisrael had suffered horribly under the despotic rule of Kemal Pasha and under these circumstances it is not difficult to understand why Allenby was viewed by Jews as a liberator and hero when, on December 9, 1917, he victoriously entered Jerusalem not as a mighty conqueror astride a steed but rather, in a sign of great respect, as a humble man entering the Holy City on foot.
Exhibited here is a card issued on the first Chanukah after the liberation of Jerusalem which, under a photograph of Allenby and his troops in the city, is titled “In Commemoration of the Liberation of Jerusalem.” To the left is a depiction of Mattityahu, the kohen gadol (high priest), who led the Maccabean rebellion against the pagan Greek Seleucid Empire; at the top of the card, Hebrew letters on a banner spell out “Chanukah” around a Magen David.
This is one of the few Chanukah cards extant that contemporarily commemorate the Allenby liberation, a truly seminal event in Jewish history and, specifically, the history of Eretz Yisrael.
Betar Chanukah Celebration (1945)
The Betar movement, the name of which refers to both the last Jewish fort to fall in the Bar Kochba revolt (136 AD) and to the Hebrew acronym of “Brit Yosef Trumpeldor,” is a Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in 1923. A major source of recruits during World War II for Jewish regiments that fought the Nazis alongside the British and for the Jewish forces that waged war against the British Mandate, its philosophy reflected the Revisionist Zionist doctrine of its founder, Zev Jabotinsky, which included restoring the ancient Jewish nation of Israel across the entirety of Eretz Yisrael and Jordan, and training a new generation of Jews to embrace these nationalist ideals by taking up arms in support of all enemies of Judaism.
Saul Jay Singer