Jewish Journal

A Miracle Behind Bars

by Harry Langsam

Posted on Dec. 5, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Dark clouds covered the European skies, threatening the children of Israel in the fall of 1939. The Nazis had tightened their grip over Eastern Europe and, as it often happens, nature acted with unfriendliness toward the oppressed. A cold winter came upon us -- the refugees -- after the traumatic and dreadful fall, when the German occupation began.

Jewish refugees who barely escaped with their lives from the Nazi savage were not met with open arms by the Soviet authorities. The Soviets had recently invaded the eastern part of Poland. They turned every public building into a temporary prison where the refugees from the Nazis were incarcerated under the suspicion that there might be German spies among the wretched.

My older brother, Simcha, and I were lucky to be imprisoned in a real prison, the infamous "Brigidkes," in Lwow. This was a prison where political prisoners were kept during the reign of the Polish fascist regime till the outbreak of the Second World War. Fifty-eight people were deposited in one cell that could hardly hold 25. The majority of the prisoners were Jews who were detained during the crossing of the San River, which became the newly established border between the Soviets and Germany.

We suffered horribly, morally and physically. The Soviets stripped us naked while searching our belongings and confiscated every valuable item, including items that were close to our souls. They confiscated all our prayer books, prayer shawls and tefillin. This painful situation added to our depressive mood when our thoughts were with our beloved ones. The only happy moments that we were blessed with were the times we spent donning the tefillin one man had successfully managed to smuggle into the cell. The pleasure lasted only a minute or two because everyone was eager to partake in the mitzvah of donning tefillin daily. Most of the refugees were religious people, and it was very hard for everyone to digest the non-kosher food that we were served. There were a few holdouts that survived on bread and water only.

There was among us one unique personality. His name was Reb Shmuel Nachum Emmer, a pious, Chasidic person. He was not an ordinary person; he was an angel sent from heaven. He supported us spiritually, and consoled us not to despair, assuring us that our suffering was only temporary. His love for a fellow Jew was immeasurable. He never became angry with people who were not observant. He suffered for all of us, but he did not show it outwardly. On the contrary, whenever he talked someone into reciting a blessing over food, or not to smoke on the Sabbath, it made him the happiest man in the cell.

When Chanukah was upon us, suddenly, Reb Shmuel's face dropped and became filled with sadness.

"How in the world are we going to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles?" he lamented.

We all felt his pain but could not help him. We found no words to cheer him up. Unless another miracle occurred, people thought to themselves, what chance did we have to observe Chanukah in a Soviet jailhouse?

On the first night of Chanukah we recited the evening prayers in a depressed mood. Everyone was heartbroken, Reb Shmuel more than anyone else. After the sound of the whistle was heard that signaled to us that it was time to lie down on our uncomfortable beds, the lights in our cell were left burning, as it was customary around the world that in every prison the lights never go out.

Around midnight the lights did go out. A power failure occurred in the entire prison compound. Soon after, the guard ran from cell to cell distributing candles so that the prisoners should not be in the dark. When the guard opened our cell door, with a box of candles in his hands, someone sneaked behind his back and pulled the bottom flap of the box open and the candles spilled all over the floor. Needless to say, the guard never collected all the spilled candles. As soon as the guard left, we quietly gathered in a corner, and Reb Shmuel, with a radiant face, lit the first Chanukah candle with great devotion. We quietly sang Chanukah songs, and the stronger believers were convinced that it was a divine act, that a real miracle had occurred.

We managed to light a small candle each night during the eight days of the Festival of Lights. Believe it or not, in a certain way, we had a happy Chanukah.

Sadly, Reb Shmuel did not survive the harshness of the Soviet labor camps. However, he did leave a legacy, namely, a prayer book handwritten on small pieces of paper in the Zhitomir prison, which remains in the hands of my brother, Simcha. Reb Shmuel had a remarkable memory, and remembered all prayers by heart. The prayer book went through many searches and was never discovered. It is a work of art, which my brother cherishes to this day.

Harry Langsam is an 81-year-old writer living in Los Angeles.

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