The Light They Can’t Put Out
A Chanukah Story by Chana Klein
Did you ever do the right thing and no one stood up for it with you?
Should we stand up for the truth anyway?
OR – Is it just an act of futility?
Especially, if we haven’t won?
A Chanukah Story from Auschwitz (Recreated from a story I heard)
In the barracks of the Nazi camps – Auschwitz to be specific, the sweetness and kindness of Shraga was appreciated. Shraga was loved by his fellow sufferers.
And Shraga knew the entire Shas (Talmud). He had learned from his holy father.
Even as a prisoner in Auschwitz, each day, Shraga repeated in his mind pages of various masechtas (volumes) of the Talmud, while he carried out the horrific feats of labor required in the camp. That’s how he counted the days.
To look at Shraga you would first notice his hunched-over posture. But what a contrast to his indomitable spirit and to his determination to continue in the ways of his fathers.
Despite terrible pain and old-age, Shraga fasted on Yom Kippur by giving up the one ration he was to receive during that 24-hour period.
Shraga also celebrated Shabbat and holidays in whatever way he could manage.
Now it was the Hebrew date of the 20th of Kislev. That meant Chanukah was approaching in five days.
How could he let Chanukah come in without lighting Chanukah candles in some way? Shrugs thought hard. He knew that Moishe was doing hard labor in the kitchen.
“Moishe, can you get me some oil?”
Moishe did not know where his six children were. He got word from several that his wife had been in line for the gas chambers. Too horrifying to even think! He had not seen her in a long time.
At this point, Moishe did not know or want to know God.
He certainly was not yearning to celebrate one of His holidays.
He, too, realized that it was almost Chanukah. But he didn’t want to be a part of anything that might get him in trouble. It just was not worth it.
Besides, it was freezing all the time, and he had to use all of his resources to try to warm up..
“Moishe,” Shraga told him, “If you get me oil, I will give you my winter boots. They will help to protect you from the cold ground.”
This was an offer that Moishe could not refuse.
Moishe later brought the oil to Shraga, and Shraga gladly gave up his warm boots for the gift of the oil. Lighting candles on Chanukah meant so much to him.
Next, Shraga went to Shmulie, who was assigned to clean up the mess hall following the parties of the Nazi soldiers.
Shraga asked “When I get back from my hard labor, could you help me?
There in the mess hall, Shraga found shot-glasses to hold the oil for his candles.
He took pieces of rope that he found there from some packaging to use as wicks.
It was the first night of Chanukah.
Shraga was beaming as he lit his homemade candles — the shamash, and one more.
The door burst open!!!
Nazi soldiers barged in, slamming down the door.
Everyone in the barracks froze.
“Who lit the candles?” the broad, hard-faced Nazi officer demanded.
“Tell us who lit the candles, or each and every one of you will be our target at shooting practice tonight.”
Shraga’s hunched-up posture became as straight as when he was a teenager.
He stepped forward. “I lit the candles. It was me!”
Four Nazi soldiers grabbed Shraga and brought him outside, where he met his fate.
But the Nazi officers, in their fervor to dispose of Shraga, did not look back.
They did not see that the candles were still glimmering.
No one put the candles out.
The next morning, those candles were still burning. And they continued to burn the whole next night, and the next, and the next.
The candles that Shraga lit burned for the rest ofChanukah.
For eight days, in the midst of the hideous atmosphere of Auschwitz, the light that Shraga lit was not extinguished.
No Nazi soldier went back to look, or passed by to see, or even gave it a thought.
The Nazis murdered Shraga.
But they could not put out his light.
They did not fathom that a light could continue in the abyss of darkness they had created.
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Mexican Proverb
When we live our truth, our light cannot be put out.
The person who lives his truth never really dies.
His truth lives beyond him.
My Own Story
It was the year 1973. I sat in the lecture hall of the Queens College Master of Science required class known as School and Community. We were listening to the professor’s instructions for our class project.
One of the students stood up and mentioned a New York City Board of Education rule that any teacher who does not complete a master’s degree within five years from taking the licensing exam will have her New York City teaching license revoked.
I could not believe my ears. Even though I was graduating this semester, that would mean it took me 5½ years to obtain my master’s degree rather than the required 5 years from the date that I took my NYC license exam. Did that mean that I would be losing my teaching license and thereby my beloved career teaching in the New York City Public Schools?
When I got home and made calls, I found out that it was true. I was a sixth grade teacher. Teaching was never a job for me. It was my life, my purpose, my meaning in life, my fun.
Part of me panicked, and the other part just got to work on it.
My class project would be getting this law changed.
I went to my supervisors. While they supported me, they really did not have recourse for me.
Shortly after that, I received the dreaded letter. I brought it to my principal, who referred me to the superintendent.
Fortunately, the superintendent himself had recently portrayed my classroom as a model in several curriculum areas. Just a few weeks before that day, he had me demonstrate my drug abuse prevention program to the State Education Department.
When I met with him about the letter, he told me that he had not received any notice about my license and that, therefore, I should just keep working. I followed his directions and kept on getting paid for the rest of the year.
But still I had to get this law changed.
Actions I Took
I wrote to EVERY Senator and Congressman in the United States. I sent each a letter under the letterhead of the organization that I formed. (In fact, I was the only active member.)
The heading of my letters read: “The Citywide Committee for Equal Licensing Practices for Women Teachers.”
You see, there was an exception made for men in the military about when they had to complete their Masters degree. But no extension was allowed for pregnancy and female issues, or even for illness. Thus, I argued that the rule discriminated against a particular group, that is – women.
I appealed to the teachers’ union, the UFT. To my dismay, they agreed with the Board of Education rule. One UFT representative told me that it is a competitive situation. If I was in the hospital with a difficult pregnancy and thus unable to attend classes regularly, then I did not meet the competitive requirements. The fact that there was an exception for men in the military was irrelevant, he said.
The Parents of My Students
That year, I had been meeting with the parents of my students once a month in one of their homes. This had been, for the school, a difficult parent group.
It was only October, yet, I was the eighth teacher assigned to this group of students. The parents had not been happy with any of the previous teachers and got each ousted.
Returning from my maternity leave in October, I was assigned to that class.
I found a note in my mailbox inviting me to a gathering of the parents of the class.
That Sunday, about 50 parents sat in front of me, in the living room of one of their homes. They proceeded to ask me lots of questions at that first meeting.
We got along great. I made them laugh a lot, and they loved my philosophy of teaching and how I work with their kids. And I appreciated how they cared about their kids’ education.
They requested that we do this again on a regular basis. I loved sharing with them on those Sundays.
So, by the third of these Sundays, I shared with them the letter which stated that my city teaching license was being revoked because it took me an extra semester to get my master’s degree.
The parents in this group were all professional African-Americans. Two of them were attorneys. When the meeting ended, they wrote up a petition to get my license back and went around the neighborhood getting everyone to sign it. The parents and the kids went door-to-door and got thousands of signatures.
Then they went to the Board of Education Board of Examiners’ office in downtown Brooklyn and met with one of the heads there. They also picketed the building — all this so that I could get back my license and remain their children’s teacher.
In the meantime, I heard from many legislators. Senator Frank Padavan, from Brooklyn, introduced a bill into the Senate to change the law which actually passed in the Senate but did not get out of committee in the Assembly.
I called the UFT, and so did my friends, trying to get them to lobby for Senator Padavan’s bill.
I created a huge oilcloth poster ”UFT – Unfair To Women Teachers” and held it up through an UFT uptown meeting.
No one even asked me about it.
The UFT remained opposed to the proposed change in the law.
That is, until I got a call from Sandra Feldman, the vice president (and future president) of the UFT. She told me the UFT agreed to lobby for the bill so I should “call off my people.”
My students and their parents went to the newspapers and the TV news shows, and so did I. The cause got a nice article in the New York Times.
Governor Wilson, who at the time was the interim governor, called me at home, personally, to tell me that he supported us. He sent me a news release from his office that stated his support for the women teachers in my group.
In reality, people thought that my group was composed of at least a thousand people — a whole political force. I signed my letters as “Corresponding Secretary,” and another woman said that I could put her name as President on the letterhead.
A lawyer from the office of William Kuntsler, Esq, the civil rights attorney who had just handled the Chicago Seven case agreed to take the case. She wrote an appeal on our behalf to the Commissioner of Education, Ewald Nyquist, based on an appeal I had previously prepared myself. My appeal was difficult for them to understand, and we did lose that one.
But looking back, I can’t believe that I even had the chutzpa to go to such a law firm and that they actually took the case.
There were so many more actions that I took that I cannot remember.
After years of fighting, I got some perspective. One day and I looked at my whole journey with this.
I realized that there was only one thing at this point that was left undone. There was only one more thing that I could try. That is — I had not yet gone to the White House to plead my case before the President of the United States.
Just before I was about to work at arranging that, I read about the concept of “letting go and letting God.” I had never really heard of that in reference to anything in my life. And I had certainly never done it, except in situations that had been acts of total victimization. What a new concept for me — to let go and let God and to not do another thing to change this law.
So I let go of the idea to meet with the President to plead my case. I let go of the whole thing. I even moved to Los Angeles, had another baby, and started a whole new life, which included teaching, of course.
Two years after living in Los Angeles, I received a letter from the New York City Board of Education. The law that took away my teaching license had been changed, and my New York City teaching license had been reinstated. They wanted me back.
The Fires Ignited
I believe that the correction happened because of all of the fires I started.
It happened because I brought out the truth of this rule, which took good teachers away from deserving students due to some technicality having nothing to do with classroom performance.
I had started many fires — in the legislature, in my school with parents, children, and administrators, with the Governor of New York, with the famous lawyer who appeared before the Commissioner.
It had been like riding a roller coaster. I got off the ride. I decided not to do another thing.
Sure, I still cared. It was terrible what they were doing. But I let go.
I read in the UFT paper that the UFT took credit for my work.
It didn’t matter. What I was fighting for was truth. Who received “credit” and whether it took a few extra months (or even longer) to obtain a master’s degree is not relevant to a teacher’s performance. What is important is how a teacher interacts with the students, how she makes them feel about themselves and how she instills in them the love of learning.
The Light They Can’t Put Out
I saw that a person fighting for the truth sets things in motion. That person lights fires. Those fires cannot be put out. They continue to burn until all is rectified. Today, that ridiculous law no longer exists. I was not there to see it happen. I did not get any credit (except from those who were with me while I was working on it.)
But the fire that I started certainly continued to burn.
That is the story of Chanukah. That one person can bring a change. That one person can overcome a whole city, a labor union, a legislature, for what s/he believes is right.
That is Chanukah.
We fought and we won.
It is never easy.
That is what Shraga did.
He lit the candles.
He, too, was not there to see them burn.
But they did burn, and they continued to burn.
That is the story of our people and of each person who fights for a truth..
We are the light they can’t put out!
Copyright © Chana Klein 2012