A 1940’s Chanukah in the Catacombs of Odessa

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At the amazing Pacific Jewish Center Chanukah party yesterday, I spoke about using stories to keep our Judaism vibrant. After all, the Torah and Talmud are books of law but are replete with stories. Chanukah in particular is only told through stories as it is not mentioned in Tanach and the scant references in the Mishnah don’t inform us of the day’s obligations. Our knowledge of the day comes only thought stories. Even Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, which is devoid of storytelling for the most part, tells the story of Chanukah. So I urged everyone to tell Chanukah stories in their homes and add some warmth to the Mitzvahs of the day.

After the talk, Vladimir Skomarovsky told me his (true) Chanukah story.

From December 1941 to liberation in 1944, Vladimir and his mother were in hiding. They lived the catacombs of Odessa with other Jewish people who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to the caves with their lives.

The catacombs of Odessa are an extensive network of underground caves.They are about 200 years old and the catacombs were home to many refugees escaping the Nazis.

On Chanukah they had no oil or candles, or could simply ill afford to consume valuable fuel to kindle the Chanukah lights. When it came time to light Chanukah candles, everyone in the cave would pick up rocks. In concert, they would scratch the shape of a candle into the cave wall. The first night they would carve candle number one, on the second night they would carve candle number two, and so it would be for eight days.

They could not light Chanukah candles with fire but the fire in their souls inspired them to keep the flame of Chanukah alive with their Chanukah menorah carvings deep in the catacombs of Odessa.

Vladimir celebrates Chanukah with candles of wax and oil today. But the spirit of his experience in the catacombs of Odessa lives on in his soul.

  • Tikvah Ellis

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story! Can you please tell us about the picture? Is it the catacombs in the story?

    • It’s just an image I found from the catacombs.