Throughout your life, there are things that are just a part of you that can’t really be explained. Some things that you are born knowing are important but you aren’t exactly sure why. It is sometimes only years later, as an adult, that you are able to look back in time and truly understand the reasons for things.
Growing up, my mom lit candles or “Benched Lecht” every Friday night at sundown. She would have us look across the street into our neighbor Rozzie’s window to make sure she was lighting and therefore, it was the correct time. Each week, it was the same exact routine. My mom would quickly run to put the paper kitchen napkin on her head (in lieu of a head covering), light the candles and recite the prayer. The same way each week, except on Yom Tov, she would tightly cover her eyes as she quietly whispered her own special prayers. Once she finished, she would look up with the same smile and say, “Good Shabbos!” to my sister and I. Then it was time for challah followed by chicken soup with noodles, boiled chicken, a vegetable and some kind of potato. A little later on, we would all enjoy a small slice of marble cake for dessert. Whether it was this weekly Shabbat ritual, or the high holidays, candle lighting was mandatory and was never missed.
My mother was so obsessed with lighting the candles that as a child, I sometimes wondered what would actually happen if we didn’t Bench Lecht, just one week. That thought never even crossed my mom’s mind. It just wasn’t an option.
Just like in many families, a time that you find yourselves all together is at weddings, holidays…and unfortunately, at funerals. So fast forward to many years later, as an adult, I found myself surrounded by my mom, my aunt and my uncles at my grandmother’s Shiva following her funeral. With a new appreciation for stories and my family's history, I was taking in the stories that they shared a little more deeply than I had in the past.
You see, my mom, my grandmother, my two uncles and one aunt were all Holocaust Survivors. So naturally, whenever they were all together, they would share stories of the past. Unlike my friends, mostly everybody in my family was murdered during The Holocaust - so this kind of storytelling was just part of the norm. While being so unimaginable and scary, I did love listening to their stories. They described it all so realistically that I felt as though I was there.
My mom, “Rouzia” in Polish, was eight years old when the Holocaust started. Her father, my grandfather, was a furrier and their family lived a somewhat comfortable life. Everyone went to school and attended synagogue regularly. Their family lived in a village of many faiths and everyone got along.
When the war began, life as they once knew it was over. Almost immediately, Hitler’s troops took my grandfather away to a concentration camp and he was never to be seen again. Of course, the details and events of what they all went through up until that point is another story in itself. But now, my grandmother was left with her aging father and four children ranging in age from 8 to 17, all alone. After only a short amount of time, the entire Jewish community of the village was taken to different ghettos around Poland and Germany. From this point on, my family tree was broken. Fortunately, my surviving family remained together when they were taken to their ghetto. This small, one room within a building would now be their “home.” Ten people, including small children and elders, in one small room. They all had to learn to cook, clean and how to survive. No one could leave the ghetto. If they tried, they would be killed.
The only exception to this was for my two uncles, David and Leon. They were young, strong boys that The Nazi’s could use for work in the ghetto. Their job was to drive a wagon in and out of the ghetto to pick up and deliver whatever they were told. They would never attempt to escape because if they did, there was no doubt that the rest of the family would end up being killed as a result. The groups of people that lived together in these ghettos became very close. They would comfort each other with funny stories and jokes, and be there for eachother during the scariest moments. Anything to distract from the nightmare they were living through.
When my uncles were out doing their deliveries, they would sometimes hear the chit chat around the village. The rumors were spreading that they were rounding up groups of Jews and shoving them into trucks and freight trains. They were sending them to concentration camps where they would be gassed, shot and ultimately buried dead or alive. My uncles both heard the rumors during their work day but didn’t dare to repeat them, not even to each other. They continued to do their work until the end of the day.
When they finally returned, they told the family that if they wanted a chance to live, they must leave now. There was no time to think. My grandmother and all four kids were leaving. Sadly, my great-grandfather, Minachem Mendal decided not to go. He felt that his age and lack of mobility would hold everyone back and endanger the rest of the family. A neighbor, Fradel and her daughter also joined them. They left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Quickly, David and Leon lead everyone out of the building and load them into the wagon that they used for Nazi work. They covered them under thick planks, wood and piles of straw, got on the wagon and drove out of the ghetto.
Leaving behind, not only my great-grandfather but everyone else in the ghetto. My uncles rode the wagon for hours into the woods and through unused paths. My grandmother prayed the entire time, as she always did. My mother, Ruzia and her sister, Klara were terrified. They were all under the straw and slats of wood that supported the wagon. When I think of this story, I have such a clear visual of my mom and my aunt laying like this in the wagon. Fradel, the neighbor, cradled her daughter and prayed silently. No one made a sound.
When the night was finally here and the sky was dark, eight year old Ruzia was sent to a neighbor across town, who was a friend of my grandparents. They were a Christian, Polish family. She was told exactly what to say by my uncles. She asked the neighbor if they could pay them weekly to allow them to hide below their barn in a bunker. A bunker is described as a small dug out area, about a 12 foot square. The bunker was covered by wood planks and straw, just as the rest of the barn was. Thank goodness, the neighbor was brave and caring and therefore agreed to the deal.
Leaving the wagon in the woods, the group carefully and quickly walked to the barn and down into the bunker. As crazy as it sounds, this bunker became their new home for years. I never asked too many questions, but always wondered so much. How did they go to the bathroom? How did they wash? They ate whatever food was given to them except meat because it was not kosher. They ate mostly soup, old fruit and onions to survive. My mom and Fradel’s daughter both ended up contracting the disease, Typhus. My uncle was able to get medicine and bring it back to the bunker and my mom thankfully survived. However, Fradel’s daughter did not.
One would think that when you are living in conditions like these that everything you once believed in would go out the window. That any faith, religious traditions or happy memories would be gone. However despite living underground, with limited essentials and absolute horror going on around them, my grandmother did not forgo her faith. She, without exception, needed to light the candles “Bench Lecht”every Friday night on Shabbos. She would ask the neighbor when she delivered food and drink to tell her when it was Friday night and to please bring her two matches. She would cover her head with a cloth and while my uncle, David held the lit matches, my grandmother chanted the Shabbat prayers. She would take so long to finish her benching that the matches burned my uncle's fingers, week after week. But that didn’t stop them. While sharing these stories, my uncle would show me the scars on his thumbs that still remained all these years later. It was almost as if the scars on his fingers were his constant reminder to keep the memories and the faith alive in his heart.
Ultimately, my family was one of the fortunate ones to survive this horrific war and settle in the US. Of course, my grandmother continued to light the Shabbat candles every Friday night. My mom continued the tradition in our home. How could she not? It was as though the candles were the light at the end of the tunnel all those years. A little bit of hope for a future. Without any thought, candle lighting has become a continued tradition for me and my daughters as well.
As the years went on, Benching Lecht remained an important ritual for my mom. As her circumstances changed, she moved to an Assisted living close distance to my home. Shabbat was one of the most important times to visit her. The facility followed jewish traditions and lit candles every Friday in the main dining room. My mom would line up, with her walker, behind other residents in wheelchairs and their walkers. She always had a silk scarf tied to her walker, ready to put on her head. The Rebitson would assist her with the candles to light. She would always light at least eight candles. Just in case someone in the family forgot to do it on their own. She would take such a long time lighting and saying her prayers that the residents behind her in line would all complain and urge her to hurry up. As time went on, the Rabbi, his wife and many of the facility employees would make sure she got to the candles…as they too had learned how important this was to her.
As Covid began, and the world seemingly shut down, it became impossible for me to visit my mom. However, I made sure she had battery operated candles in her room so that the nurse aids could always assist her to light and say her prayers.
After several years passed my moms health weakened and I was forced to move her to a Jewish nursing home. Shortly after moving in, The resident Rabbi noticed the shabbos candles on her dresser and made sure to also stop by her room on Shabbos to light them and pray with her.
Time went on and my moms health weakened. Her arthritic hands got shakier, her memory was disappearing and her once long stories were a distant memory. As the pandemic lightened up, we began to visit her once again on Fridays. We decided that no matter what time of the day it was, we would make sure she lit her candles. And almost as though it was an out of body, involuntary action, I would put the napkin on her head and hold the candles so she could see them through her barely opened eyes. She would raise her hands slowly and cover her eyes and, like magic, she would chant the prayer and quietly say her own extra prayers, just as she always did. She didn't miss a word. And even though the smile was smaller, and the words were quieter, I still saw that same smile, heard the same “Good Shabbos” and felt the same feeling in my heart as I did my whole life.
My mom lit the shabbos candles every Friday right up until the Friday before she died.
She died shortly after that last Shabbos, leaving me with a giant hole in my heart. However, her memory remains in all of our hearts. Her stories, her traditions, her smiles and recipes remain with all that knew her. Lighting the candles has become a symbol for everything that she was and all of these things she left with my family. Everytime we light those candles, we feel her smile and hear her words. We all hear her saying, “remember who you are, remember you are Jewish, remember you are a mother and remember to listen and accept your children and all people for who they are. Always remember to love and be kind, give Tzedakah and be generous to those in need. And of course, don’t forget to light the candles. The shabbos candles, for us, will forever symbolize love, survival, faith and that no matter what you are struggling with at the moment - there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Or in her case, at the top of the bunker.
This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.