Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
Chanukah occupies a special place in my life. First of all, because of the heroes of Israel who risked their lives for the sake of the Torah and succeeded. This was a big example for me. As a member of the Jewish underground I felt myself very close to the Maccabees.
My first encounter with the Jewish people was due to Chanukah.
And this is how it happened.
I was a student in the working youth high school in Riga. In our class there were quite a few Jews. Pini, who sat next to me in class, said to me: "Next Sunday Jewish youth will assemble for work in the cemetery in Romboly".
The news sounded strange in my ears. Jewish youth? Was this not a general term belonging to the whole of the Jewish people, whereas we were in the Galut in Riga. We were really, as it says in the Book of Esther "a people dispersed and disparate??" We had never been together, we did not know what "together" meant. And suddenly "Jewish youth"? And what did it mean "to assemble to work together?" Was it not forbidden for Jews to assemble? Nobody had the right to assembly, apart from the authorities themselves. And why in the cemetery? What could there be to do in a cemetery?
Yes, there were many questions, and they all had but one answer. In the heart of the young and excited Jew: "I must get there." Despite my father's warnings, who had not long ago been released from prison, I traveled there.
I got off the bus on the outskirts of the city. There were no cemeteries here and no Jews were to be seen. Just a simple gentile village. Broad fields. Houses. I hid behind the bushes near the ditch at the edge of the field, and examined the surroundings.
Suddenly - there they were! A group of people inside a field of nettles. My heart told me that they were here, the Jews. My heart told me: Here there is the beginning of something big in my life. My heart leapt within me. I vaulted over the ditch and ran to join the Jews. I joined them. I did what they did. I didn't yet understand why they collected the dirt on a slope of the hill and hurling??it in boxes into the field into a valley, and there poured it out. Where was the cemetery? I did not ask questions.
Slowly I understood everything. The terrible truth.
This field, and also the adjacent field, all of it was a cemetery or, more correctly, pits in which tens of thousands of Jews of Riga had been buried who had been murdered by the Nazis on one winter's night. It was on the eve of Chanukah 1942. In these fields the Jews had been shot and covered with clods of earth. Time had passed, the flesh had rotted, Heaven forefend!, and in the ground there remained fissures. A real vale of tears. These fissures we attempted to cover and give the form of a grave, without the express permission of the authorities, half clandestinely.
I began to frequent the place every Sunday. I was there on many Sundays, year after year, I became the work manager. A youth group formed. If at first Jewish of all ages had gathered together, a year later we had a solid group of young men and girls of the same age. As if the dead had chosen us one by one. A young man came to the edge of the surrounding wood and asked: "Is this with the permission of the government/" "What shall I tell you…" "Oh, no, no. I cannot endanger myself. I want to study in the university They will disqualify me if they know that I come here."
And there were those who did not ask. They came. They worked and returned. From them there arose our nucleus.
One day we organized a silent vigil in memory of the victims.
Among other things, I said:
"My friends. We have come here to help the dead. But in fact we were also dead, dry bones without the moistness of a Jew. Just look what a miracle has happened to us! Thanks to these dead we have got to know one another. We have become Jewish youth. We have discovered to ourselves that we belong to an oppressed people, but to a great people with a magnificent history.
"Can you hear what the dead are whispering to us? They are saying to us: Learn from our experience, don’t remain in the Galut. Escape from here to Eretz Israel. Lech lecha!"
Thus we rose from the dust. Really the vision of the dry bones!
Thus took place the miracle of the revival of the Jewish people in the Galut. In place of the holocaust which took place on the eve of the Festival of Lights.
On that same day we decided to establish a Jewish underground organization, and the aim – education. To educate as many as possible, that they should remember and know: We are Jews. This is not our place. We have Eretz Israel. I wrote in the program of the organization: "We believe that the day will come and we will be able to leave the Galut." Thus arose among us the belief in the redemption of Israel
As one of the first activities, we decided to light the Chanukah candles on the graves of the murdered. To light for them a light which they had been unable to see. We built glass boxes. We obtained a lot of paraffin oil to make candles which would light for the longest time possible, and we decided to light them around the clock – a Chanukah light, a Ner Tamid. The activity was also necessary for the organization. In this way we would be able to recruit many youth who would join the movement through their activity.
I arrive with my companion and alight from the bus straight into the freezing cold of the winter. Darkness, fields buried in snow. The dogs barking in the village. Exactly like on that night of the tragedy. My eyes search in the darkness?? Is the candle light burning?
There is something wonderful about a small candle in the darkness. It can be seen from a distance. And when I see the light I feel warmth in my heart, and I stride in the snow and my feet walk on the snow covered path. They were here also before you! If to look for symbols, what could be more symbolic of the whole history of the Jewish people? In the darkness you walk by the light of the candle which they lit before you, and you will also light for those who will come after you.
But sometimes…there is no light. Perhaps someone has failed to come, or else the wind has extinguished the light. And then I go down into the snow to light a candle for those who will come after me. And this, in my opinion, is an even more appropriate symbol for us. To walk not because of the hope, but by virtue of the belief and the need of the hour.
These were the first days of Chanukah. Meeting with the Hevre around a table, lighting the candles and conversation about Israel and Eretz Israel.
The time has come not to speak, but to get up and go home to our true Homeland. We got up and went. But, first, we fell into a pit without water.
[The book, “A Hero of Jewish Freedom” is available at Amazon Books.]