Hanukkah: A Survivor’s Way of Finding Hope in Tradition
Recently, someone asked me what part of Hanukkah held the biggest significance for me as a child. It was with some embarrassment that I began to answer: it was the presents (oy). And then I realized, looking back now, I can’t remember a single gift I got.
So even though that conversation soon ended amidst a flurry of happy holiday wishes, the question remained with me throughout the day. What aspects of Hanukkah really held the most significance for me, all these years later? How have my experiences as an adult affected my memories during this, the season of miracles?
The answers to these questions began with basics: I remembered the smell of frying oil and latkes. The sound of dreidel being played. The meals. The family.
And then it came to me – my mother. Always, my mother. Sometimes, when I think about her back then, I see her face framed by the flickering candlelight as she lit the Hanukiah. Other times I see her measuring ingredients for latkes while I grate potatoes standing on a stool by the stove, my annual job that I took great pride in. I can still remember the smell of the crackling oil, drops splashing all over the kitchen, as we scooped the mixture out of the bowl and into the frying pan.
I would never have asked my mother what her memories of Hanukkah were growing up, though. She was 16 years old when she was taken from a schoolyard and placed in a ghetto, then a labor camp, and finally a concentration camp during World War II. It was four years before she walked out of that place forever at the war’s end, 50 pounds lighter, with lice and a reoccurring illness. At 20 years old, she was the only one out of her family who survived the Nazis. When my mother walked through the gates of that camp, she closed the door on those memories and locked it, forever.
And yet, Hanukkah in our household growing up was the one time of year my mom went all out. Maybe it was because the holiday recognizes the miraculous victory for the Jews over the Greeks. Maybe it was because as the only one left of all her family, she felt it was up to her to keep the traditions passed down through centuries of German Jewry. Maybe, just maybe, it was the only way she could – without articulating it – feel she had defeated the Nazis. A small victory in history, to be sure, but a huge one for us. We celebrated not only for us, but for all the Jews who could not be present at our dinner table. Who knows how much it cost my mother to willfully remember the time before she lost everything, when everyone she knew and loved was gone? It was those traditions, I think, that sustained her when she had nothing.
Perhaps that is why Hanukkah in our family became more than just a time for nostalgia, food, and customs. It also was a time of learning. It was around the Hanukkah dinner table that I learned my most important lessons: How to clean up after myself, how to respect others, how to make sure you don’t waste a thing. Now, I wonder: Did they know they were teaching us how to raise our own children one day? Because that’s what they did.
Hanukkah is a little bit different in our family these days. My father passed away in 2011 and dementia came like a wolf at the door for my mother about ten years ago. Now, at 90 years old and with few memories left, she doesn’t do the cooking. And I no longer have to grate the potatoes – my wife uses a blender. But my mom still prepares the table with my help, and watches as we light the candles. I still see that reflection of the light on her face – a glimmer, really. And we still play dreidel. That, she remembers. I, in turn, remember how she taught me the Yiddish version of the game with the words, nit, gantzz, halb, and shtell. Music also triggers something deep within her brain. She may not remember a lot about the holiday, such as why it’s celebrated or how much matzo meal to use with the latkes, but hearing Ma’or Tzur sung by her four grandkids brings tears to her eyes.
We have a few new traditions now, too, including a Jewish ‘Yankee Swap,’ a present game where someone can choose any gift they want. In all the years we’ve played this game during Hanukkah, my mother has only taken one gift: a warm blanket.
In 2000, when I had kids of my own, I traveled with my parents to Europe and together, we stepped onto painful ground. It wasn’t the camp where they were held in Germany, but the barbed wire looked the same, the horror nearly identical. After walking alone through one of the camps, I went through an exit and turned around to check on mom and dad. There they were, holding hands. We continued to walk through the torture chambers and by the mass graves, shaking our heads – they, at the memories, me, at the enormous pride and admiration for the life they built for themselves – after their first was stolen.
Ralph Fern is Managing Partner of Homewatch CareGivers, Phoenix. Homewatch CareGivers is a leading international home care franchise, which provides home care services to help elders age in their homes. He lives in Phoenix with his wife Judy, a preschool teacher at the Jewish Community Center in Scottsdale, and their five children.