The Fifth Candle

I am Anya Klein from Vilna. I am 22 years old and I no longer remember why we light Hanukkah candles. When you’ve seen what I’ve seen, miracles don’t mean much. Some say experience teaches us, but for me the years from 1939 to 1945 not only took my childhood, my family and my dreams, it took away all that I had known.

Once I knew my future. I’d go to the university, I’d marry someone smart and handsome like papa, and I’d be a wonderful, giving mother like mama. Once I knew that civilized people didn’t kill one another like savages. Once I knew that there was a God who cared about human beings. Now I know that all the Nazis left me with is my life-and memories.

When I was 13, the Nazis invaded Poland. They broke Papa’s store windows and forced him to close his business. My little brother and I went to the Polish school, not the Jewish one, because they wanted us to know about the world. The principal of the school called all the Jewish children to his office and told us that they no longer accepted Jews. When I called him a coward under my breath, he didn’t say anything. So even though my grades were the best, I didn’t go to the gymnasium.

Once we lived in a fifteen room house, but when the Germans came they forced all the Jews to live in a few blocks. Three families shared a two room apartment. My parents sent me to the country where I could work in a laundry and not be crowded in the ghetto. I missed the family terribly, especially my little cat, Mootsie. After a few months I snuck home and-I’ve told this story many times, it never gets easier-when I got there, the building was empty, like a ghost town. In our apartment I found a toy truck of Jacob’s and father’s reading glasses. The Nazis had taken them hours before. I was too afraid to cry.

For four years, when I was hungry I ate the sleeve of my coat, when I was so cold I wept, when I was so weak I couldn’t speak, I always told myself to stay alive, because one day I’d see my family again. But no-no miracle happened here. The only way I see them is in my dreams.

I walked hundreds of miles in the winter of ’44 on the Death March. I made friends with a few girls and we kept each other alive with a crumb of food, with a smile, with our body’s warmth. Maybe the miracle was that we, who had lost everything, still found a way to help each other. They took the place of my family.

Before the war, Steffie was a young Zionist, so after the war she came right way to Israel and convinced me to come with her. Why not? I had no place and no one anymore. It’s a rough place here, I think of my poor mama with all her sets of china. She’d be lost here. I’m beginning to learn Hebrew. So many people here are like me. We look alive, we sound alive, but inside we are not in the world. I will marry Moshe in the spring. He is a Kibbutznik who was here for the war, he does not want me to talk about Europe. Even though he is older than I, I feel old and less innocent than he. I cannot laugh the way he does, I don’t tell him but I think of nothing but the war. My ears are filled with cries, marching boots, and songs the Resistance sang in the forest. My eyes see my parents, bodies piled in the street.

But-I see the children here in Israel and they are different. Darker, bigger, louder than we were. They are in their country. No one here will call them names, throw them out of school. This country is different, it belongs to us.

I once saw an old woman in Auschwitz make a menorah from a rotten potato, a drop of fat she’d saved, and a thread from her ragged coat. I don’t know why she did that or who she prayed to. But tonight I light a Hanukkah candle, my first since I was 13. Maybe I am doing this because mama would have done it and it makes me closer to her. Or maybe because Israel is like a new candle in the world. Once a light burned in me but now I feel it has been blown out. I don’t expect it to be rekindled-a candle burns but once-but maybe one day I will have children, brown from the sun and fearless in their country, and through them I will be warmed by the light again. Tonight I light a Hanukkah candle, my first since I was 13. I light a Hanukkah candle, my first
since I was 13.