Lighting up the world

Until just a few years ago, children still had to attend school during the festival of Hannukah, which is never the case for the Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth. However, due to the holiday’s popularity, and the oil-based comfort-food frenzy, the government decided (to the horror of working parents) that for such a joyous holiday, children should also have the week off at Hannukah.  

Hannukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is thus one of the most beloved holidays in Israel. For Israelis, even though it is a totally different festival, Hannukah has the winter ambience of pretty lights and chilly evenings that sometimes coincides with the Christian festivities of Christmas. 

Being a Light to the Nations is he mission of Israel. Even during the Shoah when the penalty was death, many Jewish people insisted on lighting the 9-branched Hannukiah to celebrate the Jewish victory over pagan Greece.  

In 1948, just 2 months after the creation of the modern State of Israel, a light was lit in the person of Ben Stonehill, a Polish Jew living in the United States. Ben heard that survivors of the Shoah had been brought to New York. Carrying a bag of recording equipment, he set out to meet the survivors. He wanted to preserve the songs and music that the Nazis had tried to wipe out along with his people. 

When he got to New York he huddled around the survivors and asked them to sing the songs they knew before the Shoah. The old and the young, the emaciated and the down-trodden all sang in their mixed tongues of European Jews. Many songs were in Polish and Russian, some were in Hebrew but most were in Yiddish.  On that cold New York night, traumatised children who had never seen a tape recorder, clambered over each other to sing into the microphone just to hear their own voices – voices which had been silenced for years. 

Together the survivors sang the songs they had heard at home, or in Hebrew school, or in Jewish youth movements. One of the children, a 9-year old boy called Meir, sung a Yiddish song about Hannukah called “Simu Shemen”  (“Put Oil On It”). Until today it is sung at Hannukah by Jewish people throughout the world. These same Jewish songs they had also astonishingly heard in the ghettos and camps.

In what could have been just a meeting with those who had endured the most darkest of times, Stonehill brought them light and joy. Then and there, he recorded over 40 hours worth of songs and music and in doing so he saved more than 1000 Jewish songs from being erased from history. The songs he recorded over those few days, not only preserved the music of an annihilated European Jewry, they also serve as reminder that the Festival of Lights was celebrated in the darkest hour, and no matter how grim life can be, there is always hope.