Hanukkah in a Soviet Concentration Camp: Remembering, and Defeating, the Evil of Communism

My paternal grandfather’s cousin, Yechezkel Pulerevitch, was imprisoned in a Soviet concentration camp for seventeen years for the “crime” of being a Zionist.

After his release, he was eventually alloweed to emigrate to Israel, where he organized former Soviet prisoners to oppose the communist regime and, specifically, its treatment of Jews. That helped create a broader human rights movement that eventually posed a serious threat to the Soviet system.

Yechezkel Pulerevitch (Source: Jerusalem Post)

In 1973, he came to Washington to meet Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA) and advocate for the passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment–which former dissident Natan Sharansky has called the “first nail in the coffin of the Soviet dictatorship.”

In 1974, Pulerevitch published a memoir of his experiences in the Gulag, entitled Short Stories of the Long Death. The foreword was written by future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and the book appeared in several languages.

One story in particular recalls a Hanukkah celebrated in the concentration camp, in the most difficult of circumstances. Its message of resistance is appropriate to the themes of the holiday–now on its eighth and final night–and for a generation that has yet to understand the folly of socialism or to memorialize the horrors of the communist system.

***

A Hanukkah Candle in the Concentration Camp

by

Yechezkel Pulerevitch

Where have I seen that face? – I wondered, staring at the old man opposite me, a prisoner with gaunt features and blue-green eyes with a dreamy faraway expression. All around us – Russian prisoners in tattered clothing, bickering at the top of their voices and swearing a blue streak. The old man’s clothing was also in rags. But the face, the face…

He had come with the new prison transport, the etappe as they call it. He was only going to sleep over in our camp, to rest en route, and would be sent on next day. I went to the etapists’ hut in the hope of coming across someone I knew or just anyone Jewish, or hearing something new from the itinerant prisoners. The craving to know what is going on outside, where people are free, is an overpowering one. It is rooted in the heart of every prisoner. His thoughts are constantly straying over the electrified barbed-wire fence to the wide open world beyond the taiga.

Outside, it was a bitterly cold December day. The snow crunched noisily beneath the prisoners’ feet, as if rebelling, protesting that any living soul should dare to violate the frozen pall that lay upon the world. Inside, within the hut, young Russian prisoners quarreled noisily and with mounting violence over a portion of bread stolen from somebody.

And there I saw him. The old man was sitting quietly on his bunk, sunk in thought, and seemed extremely tired. He finished nibbling his bread ration with the few teeth he still had, but he did not eat the balanda or the gruel. These stood steaming beside him. Opposite him stood a thin, young Russian prisoner. He didn’t take his eyes off the old man, staring fixedly into his mouth as he chewed, like a hungry dog watching his master eat. The old man signed to him to help himself. In a flash the young man grabbed the dishes and gulped their contents down, using the spoon he had ready in his hand just for scraping out the bottoms. When the old man finished eating his bread, he began to move his lips as if whispering something. I assumed he was saying Grace after the meal. And as I stood there, a little distance away, staring intently at the familiar face of the old man, just skin and bones under [a] large winter hat, I suddenly remembered…

It was in the first weeks after the outbreak of the [Second World] war. The front was moving closer to Murmansk and the authorities decided to evacuate the gigantic Be-Be-Ka (Belomurski-Baltiski-Kanal) concentration camp complex in Karelo-Finland with its tens of thousands of prisoners, who were digging the famous canal between the White Sea in the North and the Baltic Sea. Thousands of prisoners lost their lives there in landslides and work accidents. There were days when dozens failed to return from work. The prisoners maintained, without exaggeration, that the canal was built entirely on human bones.

Then came the big evacuation. From the thick, jungle-like forests of Karelo-Finland, they drove out the prisoners and led them group by group to the primeval forests of the taiga, east and north-east of Archangelsk. They moved them on foot. An escort of infantry and cavalry surrounded the columns of prisoners and did not let a single person step out of line. They walked by night for fear of enemy aircraft, but that was pointless, because the nights were white and bathed in light. And the roads, mere tracks inside the taiga, gave off clouds of dust that filled the nostrils, the mouths, the eyes and the throat. The tongue lay dry as a board in the mouth, which was parched and burning with thirst. Anyone who was too exhausted to go on and fell behind the advancing company, was summarily shot by the escort. Between parades at the halts, the commander of the escort would warn the prisoners that such and such were killed while “attempting to escape”…

…On my right in the line walked Dr. Levitan, from Kaunas. On my left – the old Jew now sitting here. A long, gray beard hung down his chest. He was short, even small, emaciated, light as a feather. He seemed to have no difficulty walking. He moved with a kind of nimble ease and was never among the laggards. Not so Dr. Levitan. He found the going very hard. One day, calamity fell. Unable to continue any further, Dr. Levitan began to beg us to let him stay behind. It was all the same to him. Let them finish him off at one go. The entreaties of the old man and myself were of no avail. So we all began to fall back. We were already in the last row of marchers. One of the escort cocked his rifle and warned us not to lag behind. But Dr. Levitan’s strength had given out completely. He crumpled up in a heap and couldn’t get up any more. I lifted him onto my shoulders and walked on. For the first few moments, I was amazed how light he was, but as I continued walking I began to feel the load and it wasn’t long before I too was one of the stragglers. I bent forward, eyes to the ground, and staggered on. Somehow, though I don’t understand how, the old man’s eyes met mine encouragingly. He walked at my side all the time. From time to time I would catch his eye, and his pleading look, silently eloquent in its anxiety, gave strength to my faltering legs. I broke into a run, with my burden on my shoulders. Again, I dropped back, and ran forward again. Back and forth, back and forth, like a man run amok, until I mercifully lost consciousness. How long I remained in this state, I don’t remember. But we were saved by a miracle: the group stopped to rest. For that night, the march was over.

When I came to myself again, I saw the old man throwing water over me and Dr. Levitan alternately. When he saw that Dr. Levitan had also come out of his faint, he turned aside with his little bag, took out his tallith and tefillin and stood up to pray, his face to the sun rising above the somnolent taiga trees. Only when he’d finished his prayers did he sit down to munch his meager portion of bread, without touching the balanda and the gruel.

- Rabbi, when a life is at stake through starvation, it is permissible to eat anything. There is no “unclean” food in times like these.

He heard me out quietly, but answered firmly.

- Not terrible! There’s bread and water. And treif – God forbid! On no account. It is written – And you shall sanctify My name. And I have managed to observe this in a small way. Happy am I to have had this privilege.

No one knew his name and no one presumed to ask. “Rabbi” – they called him. Someone said he was once the principal of the Mir Yeshiva. Others said – one of the principals of the Wolozhin Yeshiva. No one knew exactly until… he vanished one night with one of the groups of prisoners at the time of the etappes.

And there he is again, worn out and frail. But there is something different about his face. Suddenly I gave a start. My God! Where is his beard!?!

When I went up to him he recognized me immediately and was very pleased to see me. He interrupted me in the middle of my questions and appealed to me to go and find him a little oil for burning and a wick. It was the eve of Hanukkah and he must light the first candle. I certainly was familiar with the people and the conditions here, while he was a stranger in the place. In the meantime, he would say the evening prayer. “It’s already getting dark outside. We must hurry.”

I was astounded. The prisoner in a Soviet concentration-camp ceases to keep count of time. He has no calendar, nor any other reminder. And why should he count? It is the same to him what day it is today and what it will be tomorrow. The days are all alike. The prisoner in the concentration camp distinguishes only between summer and winter. As for spring and autumn, even the harsh nature of the north doesn’t differentiate between them.

And here was this frail man keeping exact count of the days, knowing not only when it was the Sabbath, holidays and the beginning of a new month, but even what time the Sabbath began and when it ended, although neaither he nor any other prisoner had a watch. Now he knows when to light the first Hanukkah candle! After trudging all day for kilometers on end, in such terrible cold in the etappes, he remembers that he has to light a Hanukkah candle!

But before going off to find a small bottle of oil, I couldn’t restrain myself any longer and asked:

- Rabbi, the beard? How did they dare!?!

- By force, Every time, they do this to me all over again. In the bath-house. Several of them hold me down and one shaves me. May the Good Lord forgive me.

He grew very sad and a look of sorrow and profound grief came over his face.

When I returned with the oil and the wick which I got for “half an hour” from the hut superintendent, the old Rabbi was standing and praying. He prayed intently, with his eyes closed. All the rest of the prisoners were already stretched out on their bunks, sleeping the sleep of the weary.

When he turned to me after the prayer, his eyes lit up with joy. I brought him a burning twig from the stove. He took it from me and recited the Blessing of the Kindling of the Hanukkah Light. His “Shehekhiyanu” was most impressive. “Maoz Tzur” we sang together.

I sat watching the tiny flame and ruminated on the heroic deeds of the Maccabees and the Maccabean spirit of the man who lit this candle in such circumstances. The snoring of the prisoners intensified the stillness and my thinking. It was cold inside, even though the hut was heated. I roused myself out of my reverie. How much time had passed? I glanced across at the old Rabbi. He had fallen across his bunk and was fast asleep. I covered him with his rags to warm him, and with great care took the “candelabra,” put out the light, and left the sleeping Rabbi, full of reverence and awe.

Next day, I rose early, hurried through my breakfast and ran to the hut of the etapists to take leave of the old Rabbi. I had decided to ask him his name and where he came from. But the etappe was no longer there. Early in the morning, even before the prisoners in the camp had risen, the prisoners of the etappe set out on their way in the darkness. With them went the old Rabbi. I have never seen him since.

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