Growing up, my mom lit candles or “benched lecht,” as she would say in Yiddish, 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. 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. I didn’t understand why at the time, but that thought never even crossed my mom’s mind. It just wasn’t an option.
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 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. 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, Ruzia, was 8 years old when the Holocaust started. Her father 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, where fortunately, my surviving family remained together. This small, one room within a building would now be their “home.” Ten people, including small children and elders, in one small room. They had to learn how to cook, clean and 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 Nazis could use for work. 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.
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.
One night when my uncles returned home, they told the family that if they wanted a chance to live, they must leave now. Sadly, my great-grandfather decided not to go. He felt that his age and lack of mobility would hold everyone back and endanger the rest of the family. But my grandmother left with all four children, along with a neighbor, Fradel, and her daughter, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Quickly, David and Leon lead everyone out of the building and loaded 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. No one made a sound.
When night finally arrived and the sky was dark, 8-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. 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, which 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 typhus. My uncle was able to get medicine and bring it back to the bunker and my mom thankfully survived. 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, to bench lecht, every Friday night. 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 U.S. And here, 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.
Eventually, my mother moved into an assisted living facility close 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. She would always light at least eight candles, just in case someone in the family forgot to do it on their own, taking such a long time that the residents behind her in line would all complain and urge her to hurry up.
Even once COVID took over and I could no longer visit her, I made sure my mom had battery-operated candles in her room so that the nurse aids could assist her to light and say her prayers.
Time went on and my mom’s 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, 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 heard the same “Good Shabbos” and felt the same feeling in my heart as I did my whole life.
My mom lit the Shabbat candles every Friday right up until the Friday before she died.
She died shortly after that last Shabbat, 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. Every time we light those candles, we feel her smile and hear her words.
The Shabbat 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.