by Rabbi M. D. Weinstock
Escape On Chanukah
Rabbi Gamliel was greatly beloved in his place of birth, the
town of Sz. in Hungary. He had brought up hundreds of pupils
with great selflessness. He prepared the children for the
yeshiva; he was the melamed of the twelve- to thirteen-
He watched strictly over their observance of the
commandments, never deviating by an iota from the law. He
himself steered clear of the ways of the Chassidim but he did
not protect his pupils with the same fierceness from the ways
of the Baal Shem. Whenever he heard that one or other dressed
in a chassidic way, he smiled with satisfaction and
tried to minimize the "sin" of the wayward child even to the
As far as he was concerned, he remained to the end a loyal
preserver of the traditions of the Chasam Sofer even during
the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews, during the Rakosi era.
After the grim days of servitude, came the revolution. Rabbi
Gamliel heard, more and more frequently, news about the
fortunate people who had succeeded in crossing the frontier,
and he too began to weave plans of escape
The party of escaping people he joined was not too pleased
with the presence among them of this old, white- bearded Jew.
They murmured to each other, shrugging their shoulders, that
such an ancient was a burden upon his companions until, at
last, one of them took the old man under his wing:
"How could we leave this pious old man to fend for himself?
We might need the merit of a good deed. Perhaps it will save
us at the hour of decision."
The escapees planned the crossing of the frontier for the
hours of the night. The guide assured them that there would
be no difficulty. The frontier guards would look in the other
direction, he repeated.
They left on the outskirts of the town. From there they had
to walk only 10-12 kilometers to the border, where they hid
in a deserted army camp. The camp was surrounded by a barbed
wire fence but the guide knew exactly where to get across and
they all came through unscathed. However, the frontier guards
were still vigilant and drove them back with fixed bayonets.
The group became desperate and nervous. Only Rabbi Gamliel
remained calm. He even made jokes. His wit sparkled and soon
he had them all laughing.
"You know," the old man said, "the Yom Kippur avoide
comes to an end only after three `ve'anachnu kor'im.'
" This reference to their two attempts to advance on all
fours, made the members of the company laugh but Rabbi
Gamliel said very seriously:
"You laugh and you don't care how distressed and tormented I
"What torments you, Uncle Gamliel?"
"Today is the first evening of Chanukah. Where shall I light
the Chanukah candles?"
It was getting on towards midnight. The smugglers succeeded
in bribing one of the frontier guards to lead them out of the
camp and they set out in the frosty night towards the
At last, they reached no-man's land. They found a wooden shed
and decided to spend the remaining part of the night within
it. Nobody was happier than Rabbi Gamliel. He quickly took
from his rucksack the silver menorah and the Chanukah
candles, and made his preparations to light the first flame
with the shehecheyonu blessing.
"What are doing, Rabbi Gamliel?" his companions asked him in
amazement. "You will attract the attention of the Russian
patrol and then all will be lost."
But Rabbi Gamliel bade them keep calm.
"Nothing can happen to him who observes the commandment," he
said quietly and began the ceremony.
Nobody protested any longer because they had all fallen under
his spell. Perhaps also because they had become aware of the
old man's exaltation. The whole group gathered around the
No sooner had the first benediction been recited to the end,
when the door of the hut was flung open from outside. A
Russian officer stood in the door with his gun pointed at
them. But in the next second, the officer's arm dropped and
his feet seemed nailed to the ground. He couldn't take a
single step forward. He stared at the rabbi standing before
the menorah in solemn ecstasy with wide eyes, as if he
were experiencing a vision.
"Ik ok Yid," he stammered in broken Yiddish, "Tatte
majne chabadnik Lubavitch."
Then he motioned to Rabbi Gamliel to go on with the prayer.
The old man recited the prayer at first in a hesitating voice
which, however, grew stronger and more ringing. He recited
the shehecheyonu that seemed that day more significant
than ever before in his life. Then he sang and his companions
accompanied the melody, humming softly.
Suddenly the door opened again. Another group of refugees was
seeking shelter in the hut. They had lost their way and were
wandering about aimlessly in the freezing cold November night
until they were led to the hut by the light showing through
the cracks. They noticed the Russian soldier only after they
had entered. They recoiled, scared, but the Russian smiled at
them reassuringly. "One of us" he said.
The song that arose into the air was a veritable hymn of
thankful hearts. "Nisim bayomim hoheim, bizman hazeh."
Finally, in honor of the guest, Rabbi Gamliel intoned the
melody known as "Tanya" to the Chabad Chassidim.
This song shook the Russian to the very core of his being.
Looking at the rabbi standing before him with his patriarchal
appearance, his face was transfigured as he remembered his
parents' home, his childhood, the Chanukah evenings as
celebrated in his youth. His eyes filled with tears. "The
Jewish spark had burst into flame," Rabbi Gamliel thought.
Dawn was breaking. In the meantime, the newcomers had brought
out thermos flasks and the refugees refreshed themselves with
hot tea. The Russian officer took a hip- flask filled with
vodka from his pocket and offered it around. It was a fiery,
warming drink that instilled new life into the tired
The Russian officer opened the door and peered out.
"The next patrol will be along soon. Get ready and leave
because they won't go easy on you if they catch you."
"Who knows, perhaps one day we shall meet in Jerusalem. That
is where the road to freedom leads."
All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.