ON THE seventh night of Hanukkah in 1944, my father was in Auschwitz. He had been deported with his parents and four of his five siblings to the Nazi extermination camp eight months earlier; by Hanukkah, only my father was still alive. That year, he kindled no Hanukkah lights. In Auschwitz, where anything and everything was punishable by death, any Jew caught practicing his religion could expect to be sent to the gas chambers, or shot on the spot.
Like other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah was often chosen deliberately by the Nazis as an occasion for murdering Jews. In Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, the historian Yaffa Eliach recounts one such slaughter:
"The men selected were marched outside. SS men with rubber truncheons and iron prods awaited them. They kicked, beat, and tortured the innocent victims. When the tortured body no longer responded, the revolver was used. . . . The brutal massacre continued outside of the barracks until sundown. When the [Nazis] departed, they left behind heaps of hundreds of tortured and twisted bodies."
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On the seventh night of Hanukkah in 2007, I was in the White House. President and Mrs. Bush have made it an annual tradition to host a Hanukkah celebration in addition to the customary White House Christmas parties, and my wife and I were honored to receive an invitation to this year's reception.
It was in every way a beautiful and festive event. It was also an undeniably Jewish one, from the lavish buffet dinner prepared in a carefully "koshered" White House kitchen, to the Hebrew songs performed by the Zamir Chorale, to the several hundred guests drawn from every segment of the American Jewish community. There was even a spontaneous worship service in the Green Room, where at one point about two dozen guests assembled for Maa'riv, the Jewish evening prayers. All this in a White House richly decorated for Christmas and occupied by a president who is devoutly Christian. It is hard to imagine a more compelling illustration of the American culture of religious tolerance and freedom. . . .