Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hanukkah in the Soviet Gulag

Camp Fire - by Natan Sharansky; Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life
What follows are a few excerpts from Natan Sharansky's moving story of lighting the Hanukkah menorah when he was a Soviet dissident and was imprisoned in the gulag.  Read the story in its entirety by following the above link.

On the sixth night of Hanukkah the authorities confiscated my menorah with all my candles. I ran to the duty officer to find out what had happened.  “The candlesticks were made from state materials; this is illegal. You could be punished for this alone and the other prisoners are complaining. They’re afraid you’ll start a fire.”  I began to insist. “In two days Hanukkah will be over and then I’ll return this ‘state property’ to you. Now, however, this looks like an attempt to deny me the opportunity of celebrating Jewish holidays.”  The duty officer began hesitating. Then he phoned his superior and got his answer: “A camp is not a synagogue. We won’t permit Sharansky to pray here.”  I was surprised by the bluntness of that remark, and immediately declared a hunger strike. In a statement to the procurator general I protested against the violation of my national and religious rights, and against KGB interference in my personal life....

“Listen,” I said, “I’m sure you have the menorah somewhere. It’s very important to me to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah. Why not let me do it here and now, together with you? You’ll give me the menorah, I’ll light the candles and say the prayer, and if all goes well I’ll end the hunger strike.”  Osin [the camp commander] thought it over and promptly the confiscated menorah appeared from his desk. He summoned Gavriliuk, who was on duty in the office, to bring in a large candle.  “I need eight candles,” I said. (In fact I needed nine, but when it came to Jewish rituals I was still a novice.) Gavriliuk took out a knife and began to cut the candle into several smaller ones. But it didn’t come out right; apparently the knife was too dull. Then Osin took out a handsome inlaid pocketknife and deftly cut me eight candles.... 

I arranged the candles and went to the coat rack for my hat, explaining to Osin that “during the prayer you must stand with your head covered and at the end say ‘Amen.’ ” He put on his major’s hat and stood. I lit the candles and recited my own prayer in Hebrew, which went something like this: “Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to rejoice on this day of Hanukkah, the holiday of our liberation, the holiday of our return to the way of our fathers. Blessed are You, God, for allowing me to light these candles. May you allow me to light the Hanukkah candles many times in Your city, Jerusalem, with my wife, Avital, and my family and friends.”  This time, however, inspired by the sight of Osin standing meekly at attention, I added in Hebrew: “And may the day come when all our enemies, who today are planning our destruction, will stand before us and hear our prayers and say ‘Amen.’ ”

“Amen,” Osin echoed back.

No comments: