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Tuesday
Dec202016

SIBERIAN CHANUKA LIGHTS

PART I

The Chassid R’ Mordechai Chanzin was arrested three times in his life. The first time he was imprisoned for ten years, the second time for five years, and the third time for six years. Altogether, he spent twenty-one years in prison, labor camps and various exiles, from 5695 until 5716. Then he was released.

It is hard to describe what he went through in the labor camps. He suffered tremendously but his spirit was strong. With the power of his faith and his great stubbornness, he managed to survive.

In one of his imprisonments, after the interrogations and trial, he was sent to a labor camp near the North Pole, to a place called novy lazima, meaning “new land.” People hadn’t been there before, and aside from birds, there was nothing.

There were times his life was in danger. Antisemitism prevailed even in these far-off places. One day, one of the jailers got angry at him and wanted to kill him. The man had already taken out his revolver but R’ Mordechai was not frightened. He went over to him, looked him in the eyes and pointed at his forehead and said, “Here, shoot here at my Jewish forehead.”

Amazingly, the jailer immediately lowered his gun and R’ Mordechai’s life was spared.

He had a special talent in finding ways to reach people’s hearts and he acquired many friends among the prisoners.

In one camp, a group of Moslem, anti-Semitic prisoners lay in ambush to kill him. However, another group of criminals heard about it, with whom he was friendly, and they protected him.

Throughout the years in the labor camps he kept Shabbos which entailed much hardship. Every Shabbos he found another excuse to get out of working while the jailers constantly tried to make his life miserable.

He also insisted on eating only kosher food. He was greatly helped in this by the food packages sent to him by his old, sick mother. They contained cigarettes which he sold for the food that saved his life.

For a few years he also had t’fillin which he had managed to smuggle into prison. The prisoners close to him knew of his secret and sometimes said to him, “Go ahead and put on those boxes of yours.”

PART II

R’ Mordechai loved to relate stories of his time in Russia. He considered it a sort of will and testament to bequeath to future generations. However, the following story he considered like a mitzva to tell, because of a promise that was made.

***

As Chanuka approached, a group of young bachurim in the Siberian labor camp met to come up with a plan. How would they light the menorah despite the danger involved? Someone promised margarine; threads were plucked from clothing for wicks, and a receptacle to put the margarine and wicks in was found somewhere.

R’ Mordechai was the oldest of the eighteen bachurim in that camp. They decided that in the middle of the night they would gather to secretly light the Chanuka lights. R’ Mordechai was honored with the lighting and in an emotion laden voice he recited the brachos. He remembered his father, the Chassid, R’ Menachem Mendel and his mother, Fraida, a home of Torah and Chassidus, and Chanuka in their home.

As he stood and looked at the flame through his tears, the door of the shack suddenly burst open and NKVD officers barged in. They roughly pushed the eighteen young men into a small, dark cell.

The first to be put on trial was the oldest of the group, R’ Mordechai. The “trial” was nothing but a sham, a performance, with the sentence determined beforehand.

Even though R’ Mordechai was familiar with the mendacities of the communist system, he was surprised to hear the judge announce that he was accused of planning a rebellion. The basis for the accusation was the kindling of lights in order to signal their location to the enemy.

The courthouse was not large. On one side of the room was the judge’s chair and the accused was seated facing the judge. In a severe tone, the judge read the accusation. He concluded by saying that the sentence for these crimes was death. Did R’ Mordechai want to defend himself?

R’ Mordechai got up. His heart was pounding. “Does the sentence apply only to me or also to the rest of the group?”

The judge gave him a withering look. “On the entire counter-revolutionary band,” he replied coldly.

R’ Mordechai looked around him in consternation. The room began to turn around him. Until now, he had tried to look indifferent but now he knew that not only his fate was on the scale, but also the fate of his fellow Jews.

He burst into tears. He felt that it was because of him that this happened since he was the oldest and had taken responsibility for all of them.

R’ Mordechai stood there and sobbed while the judge sat and looked at him. R’ Mordechai, who was emotional by nature, could not restrain himself. All the pain and disappointments that had been bottled up in him over the years, burst forth.

“Come here,” said the judge.

R’ Mordechai approached the judge’s desk. The judge began asking him about his family, their names and occupations and other personal details. R’ Mordechai answered all the questions while he continued to cry.

When the judge finished asking his questions he got up and began pacing. He repeated all the names he had just heard.

“What do you have to say in your defense?” asked the judge as he suddenly stopped his pacing.

R’ Mordechai mustered his courage and said, “We are Jews and we lit the lights to fulfill the mitzva of lighting Chanuka lights. That is why we gathered together.”

“You lit Chanuka lights?!” the judge asked in surprise. He seemed to be moved by this. “What do you say … Chanuka lights?” He asked this again and again. He looked very moved and seemed to be struggling internally.

After a moment, he motioned to the two soldiers who were in the room to step outside. After they left, he said, “If you lit Chanuka lights, then I will show you how Chanuka lights are really lit.”

The judge lit the oil lamp on his desk and began to burn all the prosecution’s files that were on his desk. His hands trembled and he seemed to be in a rush to put the papers in the fire as though he was afraid that he might reconsider. “Here, this is the way to light the Chanuka lights. See? This is the way to light Chanuka lights!” He did not stop until every last paper was consumed.

Then he took the ashes and threw them out the window. The Siberian wind scattered them. Very quickly, nothing remained of the files.

Then the judge pressed on a button and the door opened and the soldiers came back in.

“Take all the young men,” he said authoritatively, “and disperse them wherever you see fit so that they don’t encounter one another. They are despicable enemies. Don’t shoot them because they aren’t even worth a bullet.”

After the soldiers left, the judge said to R’ Mordechai in a tremulous voice, “I am a Jew and I ask you to tell future generations how I lit the Chanuka lights.”

In 5716, after Khrushchev rose to power, hundreds of thousands of prisoners were pardoned. R’ Mordechai Chanzin’s name was also cleared of all wrongdoing and he was allowed to return home.

***

R’ Mordechai told this story in the beis medrash of the Machnovka Rebbe zt”l in B’nei Brak after Shacharis, while drinking a l’chaim on the yahrtzait of his mother. Tears streamed from his eyes the entire time.

Among those present were R’ Tzvi Shtammer, a close chassid of the Machnovka Rebbe, and his son, R’ Dov Shtammer, who wrote down the story immediately. He later reworked the story and then presented it as a play at the tish of the Sanzer Rebbe, entitled, “Chanuka Lights in Siberia.”

That is how R’ Mordechai fulfilled the request of the judge so future generations would know that he was a Jew who saved his fellow Jews.

 

(I heard this from R’ Dov Shtammer)

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