This Day In History: Kislev 21, 5705 – December 7, 1944

Rescue Of The Satmar Rebbe, Harav Yoel Teitelbaum Zt”l, The Divrei Yoel

On this day 74 years ago, the train carrying the Satmar Rebbe, HaRav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, (1887-1979) founder of the Satmar Chasidic dynasty, departed the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on the Kastner Transport. The train took him and 1368 passengers to Switzerland and safety. It had originally departed from Budapest in July 1944, but instead of heading directly to Switzerland as was expected, the Nazis diverted the train to Bergen-Belsen on July 9, where the Jews were forced to get off. They were held at Bergen-Belsen until December 7, 1944, but were kept in quarters separate from the other inmates, and given a subsistence diet. Some died, 17 were not permitted to leave Bergen-Belsen, but in all, about 1,670 passengers survived and left for Switzerland. To this day, Satmar Chassidim celebrate the 21st of Kislev for the miraculous rescue of their Rebbe.

An amazing story is told of that time. In one of the last transports to arrive in Bergen-Belsen towards the end of World War II, was a Jew by the name of Reb Shmelke Schnitzler z”l. He was a chasid and Torah scholar, with warm and penetrating eyes. Most amazingly, he maintained a mood of genuine cheerfulness, a rare disposition to find in the inhuman environment of the camp. He worked hard to encourage his fellow inmates at every turn and make their lives a bit brighter.

At the end of 1944, though, as winter approached, Reb Shmelke was nagged by a compelling problem, one that was increasing in urgency with each day: how could he possibly obtain oil with which to kindle the lights of Chanukah? The holiday was only a few short days away.

He consulted everyone with whom he came into contact, but no one had any oil or even anything that could be substituted for oil. Still, Reb Shmelke did not give in to despair. The mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lights was much too important to him and besides it would allow him to provide a surge of much-needed encouragement to the desperate Jews in the camp.

On the day before Chanukah, Reb Shmelke had to hurry to one of the barracks near the far end of the camp, where someone had died just that day. He was assigned the job of removing the dead bodies of the many who died from starvation. Not far from the fence at the edge of the camp, he stumbled when his foot sunk into a patch of red earth that turned out to be covering a small hole. It was clear that someone had dug this hole on purpose.

He gazed at the shallow depression and saw there was a solid object buried there, now slightly revealed. He knelt down and scooped out some dirt with his hands. It was a small jar, half-filled with congealed liquid! He removed its cover and dipped his finger in gingerly. It was oil! His thoughts immediately flashed to the original Chanukah miracle of finding a single flask of oil. How could this be happening? Was he dreaming? Then he noticed that the jar had been concealing other objects beneath it. He dug some more with his hands and uncovered a small package wrapped in a swatch of cloth. In it were eight small cups and eight thin strands of cotton! This was almost too impossible to believe!

Someone had intentionally buried this Chanukah stash, thought Reb Shmelke, as he quickly replaced everything back into the hole, filling it with dirt and carefully smoothing the surface. It would be too dangerous to keep the materials in his possession until Chanukah began the next evening. Besides, perhaps someone would come back for it.

Reb Shmelke circulated among as many of the inmates as he could during the next day and a half, casually asking if anyone had concealed a quantity of oil in a hiding place. Everyone stared at him as if he were out of his senses.

The next night, Reb Shmelke stealthily recovered the buried items and set up his menorah. All the Jews in his barrack crowded around as he lit the first candle. He struck the match, and recited the blessings with great emotion before touching the tiny flame to the thin strands of wick projecting out of the little cups. It was a scene from a storybook in stark contrast to the harsh environment of the concentration camp, a ray of hope that repeated itself for a total of eight nights.

The elderly Reb Shmelke managed to survive the next few months until the conquering Allied forces liberated the camp. His faith and hope had proven victorious. In time, he was able to make the journey to the United States of America, where he began the arduous task of picking up the pieces of his shattered life.

Not long after arriving on the shores of the U.S., Reb Shmelke made it a point of visiting various Rebbes and receiving blessings from them. On one of these visits, he found himself in the home of the Satmar Rebbe, HaRav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l, who lived then in Williamsburg.

The Rebbe welcomed him with great warmth. Reb Shmelke spoke to the Rebbe and poured out his heart to him. The Satmar Rebbe held his hand and delivered words of chizuk that inspired and enervated the elderly chasid. After conversing for a short while, the Rebbe suddenly said, “Reb Shmelke, I hear that you had the honor of lighting Chanukah candles in Bergen-Belsen.” Reb Shmelke was surprised! How had the Rebbe known? He nodded his head as he recalled that incredible miracle.

Rav Yoel bent over and quietly whispered in his astonished visitor’s ear, “Did you ever wonder who left all those materials for your chanukah lighting? I am the one who hid the oil, the cups and the wicks in that hole next to the fence when I was imprisoned in Bergen Belsen the year before you arrived, before my miraculous escape!”

Reb Shmelke was speechless. The Rebbe smiled. “I knew that Hashem would allow the right person to find it at the right time to do the right thing!”