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Jewish Journal

Germany’s First Lights

by Chava Tombosky

December 28, 2011 | 11:05 pm

Every year I spend one night of Chanukah with my grandmother who is eighty-nine years old. And every year it seems that I manage to leave this poor woman in tears. The last time I showed up at my Bubby’s house for Chanukah I forgot to close the oven door when I took out the latkes, which caused her to accidentally trip and fall in the kitchen leaving her with a bruised face in a shade of blue not entirely dissimilar to those little blue candles we had just lit on our Menorah. 

This year I was extra cautious in the kitchen and we made through dinner, draidel playing, and even the X-Factor without incident.

And just as I thought I had cleared through all the hurtles, it happened.  As if this holiday season of Chava blunders should be any different than the last.

Bubby handed me the matches and said “You are the oldest, here you light.”  I lit the match and touched the blue wick that stood in the tall silver menorah.  In the corner of my eye, I noticed a second smaller menorah with orange candles set up and proceeded to light it as well.  Just as the flame hit the orange wick, my grandmother shouted “NO NO, NOT THAT ONE!”  With fear and intimidation, I immediately blew it out, trying my best to clean up the candle that now had the black scar of a charred fragile wick.

“Chava, those candles are fifty years old! I never light that menorah!  That is the one we leave unlit!”

Oh the shame and guilt I felt for lighting my grandmother’s coveted antique fifty-year-old candles, which she had managed to display so flawlessly for an entire jubilee of time.

My Bubby is an amazing person who has weathered the storms of burying two husbands and a son, yet she still remains incredibly steadfast in her faith, despite it all. Almost every visit I have with Bubby is spent reminiscing about my grandfather, their tremendous love affair and the times she spent as a United State’s Lieutenant’s wife, a role she is most proud of.

As I gazed at my grandmother now welling with tears, it became evident that this menorah and those precious candles I almost singed to oblivion had a unique and precious story attached to her past.

The year was 1952, just seven short years after the holocaust, when my grandparents were stationed in an American army base in Germany. When the winter holiday season rolled around, the American soldiers were given the opportunity to choose gifts that were collected for the officers and their families.  My grandfather sifted through the donated items and found one lonely small brass Menorah amongst the pile of holiday toys and presents. Upon seeing this precious menorah, my grandmother called her cousin back home in the states requesting her to send Chanukah candles from the U.S so they would be able to light their newly found treasure.

The orange candles that arrived from Newburgh, New York were clearly the perfect choice. My grandmother placed the orange candles inside the Menorah and observed them to be the perfect fit as if the Menorah was made especially for them. With the joy of their Jewish pride brimming, my grandparents lit their menorah in the window that year.  To their surprise, several German townspeople began lingering outside my grandparent’s front lawn.  With less than a decade separating my Jewish grandparents from the ashes of Auschwitz that still permeated the German soil, fear began to creep inside them. Just to be safe, an officer was called to stand guard of their home as the lights burned.  Men and women from all across the town came to view the lights. When asked by the officer why they insisted on lingering in front of my Bubby’s home, a German neighbor replied – “It has been at least fifteen years since our small town has seen the lights. It’s nice to have them back.”  Fifteen hundred Jews were killed in this small village of Germany, and yet less than seven years later, this little unassuming Menorah became the first Chanukiah to illuminate the vast darkness the Nazis left in their aftermath.

A few short years later my grandfather died leaving my grandmother a widow at the tender age of thirty-six.  Ironically, that same year the candle company that manufactured those little orange candles that fit so perfectly inside that small unassuming Menorah went under. With only one last box of orange candles in my grandmother’s possession, she decided to set that Menorah in the window next to the menorah that she lights each year as a reminder of what she lost and the miracle her and my grandfather witnessed together.

So now there are two menorahs in my grandmother’s window, one tall silver one that she kindles each night boasting their colors and luminous light, and a small humble brass menorah with fifty-year-old orange candles perfectly staged, except for the shamash that is now slightly singed.

Maybe I was meant to light that ancient wick, for had I left it alone this beautiful story would have never been recovered, reminding us that sometimes things get broken in order for new light and new lessons to emerge. Maybe now when my grandmother stares at those imperfect orange candles she will not only think of her painful past but of her beautiful bright legacy she has so valiantly managed to create. Even if her future and legacy lies in the hands of a clutzy granddaughter who manages to torment the hell out of her.

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