By I.I. Cohen
One of the items I smuggled out of Auschwitz, when the Nazis moved me into
"Camp Number Eight" - a quarantine camp, for those suspected of carrying
typhus - was my spoon. It wasn't much, but it was mine - and it would come
to play an important role in my Jewish life and in those of some of the 500
or so other prisoners there.
There were no labor details in this new camp, but we inmates were ordered to
help in its construction, which was still underway. Having had some
experience in the Lodz ghetto as a mechanic, I helped the electrical
technician install the camp's lighting.
With my new access to tools, I brought my spoon to work and filed down its
handle, making it into a sharp knife. Now I could use it both to eat my
soup and to cut my bread. This was useful because we would often receive one
chunk of bread to divide among two or three people, and without a knife it
was difficult to apportion the bread fairly. Now I was regularly called
upon to use my spoon-knife to help avoid disputes and maintain relative
peace among the prisoners.
When winter came, though, my spoon became involved in an additional mitzvah.
By then, we had been transferred to "Camp Number Four" in Kaufering, a camp
more similar to Auschwitz in its daily ordeals. Despite the horrendous
hardships we suffered daily, however, we tried whenever possible to remember
to do a mitzvah and to maintain a self-image as G-d-fearing Jews, despite
all the dangers that involved.
Having always kept mental track of the calendar, I knew when Chanukah had
arrived. During a few minutes' rest break, a group of inmates and I began to
reminisce about how, back home before the war, our fathers would light their
menorahs with such fervor and joy. We remembered how we could never seem to
get our fill of watching the flames sparkling like stars, how we basked in
their warm, special glow, how they seemed to imbue us with a special
And then we got to thinking about the origins of Chanukah, about the war of
the Hasmoneans against their Seleucid Greek tormentors, who were intent on
erasing Judaism from Jewish hearts. We recalled the great heroism of the
Jews at the time who risked their lives in order to keep the Sabbath,
practice circumcision and study Torah. And we remembered how G-d helped
them resist and rout their enemy, enabling Jews to freely observe the Torah
and mitzvos once again.
And then we looked around ourselves. Here we were, in a camp where our
lives were constantly in danger, where we were considered sub-human and
where it was virtually impossible to observe the most basic practices of
Judaism. How happy we would be, we mused, if only we could light Chanukah
While we talked and dreamed, we were all suddenly struck, as if at once, by
the same resolution: We simply must discover a way of doing the seasonal
mitzvah. One fellow offered a small bit of margarine he had saved from his
daily ration. That could serve as our oil. And wicks? We began to unravel
threads from our uniforms...
What, though, could be our menorah? I took out my spoon, and within moments,
we were lighting the Chanukah "candle", reciting the blessings of "Lehadlik
ner", She'oso nissim" and "Shehecheyonu". We all stood around entranced,
transfixed, each immersed in his own thoughts...of Chanukahs gone by...of
latkes, of dreidels, of Chanukah gelt we had received as children.
And our unusual Chanukah menorah kindled in us a glimmer of hope. As we
recited the blessing about the miracles G-d had performed for our
forefathers "in those days", but also "at this time", we well understood
that the only thing that could save us would be a miracle. A "nes gadol" -
"great miracle" - like the one hinted at on the dreidle's acrostic.
Even non-religious Jews stood near us watching the flame of the Chanukah
candle. I am certain that none of us who survived will ever be able to
forget that luminous moment in the darkness of our concentration camp lives.
The celebrated Viennese psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl, who was himself,
incidentally, an inmate of Kaufering, asserted in his book "Man's Search
for a Meaning" that, to survive the concentration camps, a person had to
have something larger to live for. Those with goals had a better chance to
remain alive. We religious Jews in the camps were certainly good examples
of that phenomenon, living for our Sabbaths, our Jewish holidays and our
daily recognition that there is an Almighty, whether or not we could ever
fathom His ways. And I often felt that our convictions helped us cling to
life when others sank to the depths of despair.
And today, I am overwhelmed at times with gratitude to G-d for my personal
miracle, my survival, especially when I am surrounded by the children and
grandchildren He has granted me, all of whom are committed to the observance
and study of the Torah. And the gratitude comes rushing in as well every
winter, when I light my menorah - a real one today - and, as always I do, I
remember my Auschwitz spoon Chanukah.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
I.I. Cohen, a Polish-born survivor of three concentration camps, lives in
Toronto, where he is writing a book about his wartime experiences, from
which the above is excerpted.