December 19, 2011 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Haggim, News

Hanukkah: In Praise Of The Righteous Gentile

By Irwin Huberman

Often at this time of the year, it feels as if the entire world is enveloped in darkness. Daylight is at a premium. Cold air chills our bones. And especially during these times of economic challenge, there is no shortage of cynicism in the world. Many Americans have lost faith in their leaders and institutions. True heroes are so hard to come by.

Indeed, where can true hope and light be found?

But as the story of Hanukkah teaches us, sometimes in life our greatest sources of light can come from everyday people performing remarkable miracles with extraordinary grace.

The second blessing over the Hanukkah candles not only praises God for performing miracles during times of the Maccabees, but also thanks God for continuing these remarkable feats to this day.

The story of Mary Katz Erlich and her rescuers Egle and Aurimas Ruzgys is such a miracle.

For at the height of World War II, a Lithuanian widow, Leokadjia Ruzgiene and her son and two daughters performed an act of remarkable courage. In a hole below their tiny home, under a cabinet used to smoke meat, the Ruzgys family hid their Jewish friends, Israel and Bertha Katz, along with daughter Mary. And following their capture by the pro-Nazi militia, the Ruzgys family continued to pay off Lithuanian jailers to keep the Katz family alive until their liberation in 1945.

This past November 29, the lone surviving member of the Katz family, Mary Katz Erlich, and her two remaining rescuers Egle and Aurimas Ruzgys were re-united after sixty-six years, on stage in front of six hundred guests and supporters of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

The Foundation provides pensions and other assistance to more than eight hundred Righteous Gentiles living in Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania and other countries who during the Holocaust hid Jews in barns, concealed rooms, under floor boards, and like the Katz’s, in secret holes and crevices.

The punishment at the hands of the Nazis or militia, was usually instant death. Yet, the Ruzgys family, and more than twenty three thousand seven hundred and eighty six other Righteous Gentiles identified by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority, chose to sustain life at their risk of their own.

They did, as many have described, “What any decent person would do.”

The story of Hanukkah revolves around events which occurred thousands of years ago, and perhaps continues to inspire us because during a period of darkness, one source of light survived against the odds.

The Talmud tells us:

“The Hasmoneans searched and found only one flask of oil that was lying with the (official) seal intact, and it contained only enough oil to kindle the Menorah for one day. However, a miracle was performed with this oil and they kindled the Menorah for eight days”(Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b).

Indeed, that was then, and this is now.

For on November 29, a new miracle was observed. While on stage, as the survivor and her rescuers tearfully embraced, Mrs. Katz Erlich’s grandchildren joined in the standing ovation.

One by one they rose. First the oldest, and then the additional eight, forming a brilliant Menorah which lit up the entire room.

Hanukkah teaches that we don’t need much in life to make a difference. As the Talmud reminds us, “whoever preserves a single soul…. it is as though they had preserved a complete world” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a).

More than twenty one hundred years ago, a passionate and persistent group of rebels known as the Maccabees displayed the courage to stand up for what was right; to liberate the Holy Temple from materialism and self centered worship. And millennia later, tens of thousands of Christians during humanity’s darkest time, exhibited the courage to preserve thousands of sources of light, so that they and their descendants could shine into the future.

At the close of the dinner, Egle and Aurimas Ruzgys were presented with a simple memento of the evening; a photo of Mary Katz Erlich and her son, daughters, grandchildren and spouses. It was a simple but remarkable statement that light exists within each of us, and that one vial of oil is all we need.

Perhaps one of the lessons of Hanukkah is that although we may not be able to save an entire world which these days seems so troubled, we can spread light within our little corner of it. For from one vial of oil, we can create a universe.


Rabbi Irwin Huberman serves Congregation Tifereth Israel, a Conservative congregation in Glen Cove, New York.