A menorah, a special candleholder for nine candles, is lit during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah – also known as the “the festival of lights” – as a reminder of the miraculous defeat of the tiny indigenous Jewish nation over their mighty Greek occupiers in 160 BCE. On entering the holy Temple, the victorious Jewish Maccabee army only found enough pure olive oil to light the sacred menorah for one night; however, the oil lasted a miraculous eight days, hence the eight-day celebration of lighting menorahs in Jewish homes during the winter festival.
Throughout the ages, menorahs have been commonly found in Jewish homes across the globe – in many different shapes, colors and materials. The Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection includes some 85 menorahs collected from throughout Europe and North Africa before, during and after the Holocaust. The vast majority of these precious items were donated by Jewish organizations that worked to return plundered property after the war, but some were handed to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center by survivors or their families for eternal safekeeping. Yad Vashem preserves and houses these lost and recovered menorahs, and strives to research and uncover the full story behind each and every one.
During the Holocaust, many personal items were confiscated from Jewish homes by the Nazis, in order to dispossess the Jews and erase their religion and culture. Many Jews tried to salvage any personal items they could by hiding them in various places. One such belonging housed in the Yad Vashem collections is a menorah created in the nineteenth century for the Jewish community in the city of Alphen in the Netherlands, used by the local synagogue. During WWII, the Alphen community was destroyed and its synagogue was turned into the Harmonist Church. During renovations, the menorah was found hidden under the floorboards of the former synagogue, wrapped carefully in newspaper. There was a dispute between Jewish institutions and the church over the ownership of the object, until it was finally decided that the menorah would be donated to Yad Vashem as a memorial to the Jewish members of the Alphen community who did not survive. The menorah was given to the Israeli Embassy in Hague and then transferred to Yad Vashem in October 1991, along with a special stand in the shape of a Star of David intended for its display.
Many years later, in 2015, Yad Vashem received an unexpected letter from a man by the name of Ron van Arkel, informing the institution that his father, Jan, was the person who had found the menorah in the Church. He also informed Yad Vashem that an article was published in the local Dutch newspaper about the menorah several years earlier. According to the article, it was clear that the menorah had been hidden in the synagogue by worshippers, who feared the looting of religious relics when the harassment and deportations of Jews began. Ron was a young boy (aged about five) at the time when Jan made the discovery. “My father was putting a new floor in what was then a church, and found this [menorah]. When he unwrapped it, looked at it and noticed the date on the newspaper, he immediately understood its significance," recalled Ron. "It was of course very special to find it, but the reason it was there in the first place is very sad.” Ron also included photographs of his father with the menorah in his hand, and a scan of the original newspaper article and sent it to Yad Vashem (pictured above).
Ron continued, “In our opinion the only right thing to do was to donate this treasure to Yad Vashem, in order to protect it and use it to never forget the horrors committed against the Jewish people during WWII. The fact that this represents an entire lost community is unbelievable. It truly hits you when you think of it that way." When asked what it meant for him and his father to donate such a precious object to Yad Vashem he responded, “I realized the importance of the Hanukkah Menorah in the Jewish religion, and this, combined with the tragedy that lay behind it, makes it a very strong symbol of light against darkness.”
To view additional menorahs recovered from the Holocaust era, visit Yad Vashem’s online exhibition, “Hanukkah – The Festival of Lights.”