From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Connecting the Generations

A cold drizzle was creating puddles around my feet as I made my way home from the Seattle Public Library. It was an afternoon in December 1940, soon after my arrival in the United States. Under my coat I was protecting a copy of Anne of Green Gables, which I had just checked out for the third time. Despite my limited English, I was determined to discover how Anne met the challenge of adapting to an unfamiliar environment, mirroring my own new life in America.

The dim, gloomy street reflected my mood as the faint lights from Christmas trees, already visible behind the windows, reminded me that tonight was the first night of Hanukkah. I stopped and leaned against a wet lamppost recalling images of past Hanukkah nights and of my now fragmented family.

I was back in our Vienna apartment. My parents, Grandfather Mendel with his dignified beard, Grandmother Tova in her blue silk dress and pearl necklace, and Cousin Bertha, her raven hair pulled into a bun, were all gathered around our silver Hanukkah menorah. My great-grandfather, a silversmith in Poland, had crafted it for the marriage of his eldest daughter. In every generation since, it had brightened my family’s Hanukkah celebrations. It symbolized not only the victory of the Maccabees, but also the invincible spirit of Judaism and the continuity of our family.

A hundred years later and six thousand miles away, I still delighted in the thought of its rich silver patina, with lovely rosebuds and exquisite leaves and stems engraved on its nine branches.

A dump truck pulled up and splashed me from the feet up, shattering my reverie. “Where did everything go?” I mumbled to myself.

But I knew where everything had gone. Grandfather had been arrested on Kristallnacht and taken to Dachau, where he was killed. Grandmother died of a heart attack soon after the Nazis had looted their apartment and destroyed their stationery store. Bertha, arrested by the British trying to escape to Palestine on an illegal boat, was interned in a detention camp. But the Hanukkah menorah? Since it was forbidden to take any valuable artifacts out of the country, its fate was a mystery.

It was dark by the time I arrived home. My father was already back from the synagogue, and my mother was peeling potatoes. She laid aside one large potato and began to grind the others for latkes. When I asked her what the extra potato was for, she answered, “That will be our Hanukkah menorah.

I shook my head in sorrow. With so many people and things vanished from my life, was our precious heirloom to be replaced by a potato? Was that to be another new custom in our new country? Mother hollowed out two shallow grooves on opposite ends of the potato and pressed a small candle into one. Father was about to light the second candle when there was a knock on the front door. When he opened it, a mailman thrust a package into Father’s hand. “Special delivery,” he said. “Sign here.”

The package was covered with foreign stamps, which turned out to be from Palestine. There was no return name or address anywhere on the box. We were dumbfounded. Who could have sent us a package from the Holy Land? With unsteady hands, we tore away the paper. The first thing we saw was a sealed envelope addressed to my parents. Father opened it and read the letter aloud in German.

Dear Cantor and Mrs. Schiffman,

After the Nazis looted Mrs. Schiffman’s mother’s apartment, she died from a heart attack. The concierge went into her apartment and found a package hidden in the closet. The concierge was a Christian woman who knew the family. She took the package to Bertha just before she left for Palestine. On the boat to Haifa, Bertha told me the story. She said if the British catch one of us, the other must mail the package to the address inside. I was lucky to escape after we landed, helped by the Hagganah. I had plenty of trouble in the beginning and I am sorry to say, I forgot about the package. Yesterday, I found it. Please excuse me for this long wait.

Bertha’s Chavarah

The three of us pried open the box. Inside, wrapped in torn tissue paper, lay a black and white horsehair cushion. As Mother lifted it out of the box, we all wondered, What was so important about this cushion that Bertha had risked so much to ensure its safety? Father examined it from all angles, even sniffed it, and pressed his hands into the bristly cloth. He stopped suddenly.

“Quick, Marta. Get me some scissors.” Mother found her sewing basket and handed him her small scissors. Father carefully began to snip open the stitches along one side of the cushion. With a mass of straw littering the floor, he reached in and pulled out the still shining, so familiar, silver Hanukkah menorah!

I could barely contain myself. Our beautiful menorah had returned just in time for the first night of Hanukkah in our new home. For a moment, we were stunned, and then we all started talking at once. How did it get out of Austria? Who would have risked smuggling it out of the country? We assumed Bertha had hidden it in the cushion, taken it on the train across the border and onto the boat. Then she made sure that, in the event she could not carry out her intentions, someone else would.

Father put the menorah on the table and transferred the candle from the potato into its rightful place. He lit the shammas, which he held up high, and recited the b’rakhah over the Hanukkah candles. When he began to sing Sheheheyanu in honor of the first night, mother and I joined in with fervor. For me, the blessing that night applied to more than just the beginning of Hanukkah. It also acknowledged the miracle that had reconnected me with my roots. I felt a surge of hope and optimism. For the first time in a long time, things did not look quite so bleak; something precious had come back to me. The fact that it had arrived when it did was a special omen.

Today, the silver Hanukkah menorah stands on the sideboard in our dining room. My older son, David, knows that one day it will stand in his home, and later, in that of his daughter, Anna, and then in that of one of her children, and down the generations. Its flickering candles will symbolize the continuity of our family, as well as the inextinguishable flame of Judaism.

Gina Klonoff

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