I remember Chanukah well from when I was a child. The six of us, my parents and us four sisters sitting around the table spinning the dreidel, winning lots of sweets or, if I kept losing, one of my parents would quietly add a few to my dwindling collection. Eight happy days of candles, latkes, dreidel-spinning and singing.

Over the years I married, moved to Israel and settled in Jerusalem with my family. My father passed away and my mother later remarried. She and her husband came to visit us in our Jerusalem home and celebrated many happy family occasions and festivals with us. We have photo albums full of us all lighting Chanukah candles together, and playing dreidel with our children, their grandchildren, who often had faces full of the oozing jam of the Israeli sufganiyot (greasy fried jam-filled doughnuts) which had been added to our family traditions.

I rapidly searched my memory for something that could have happened that I had forgottenBut at some point all that changed for my mother.

In retrospect I can see that it was probably the first Chanukah after her second husband had died. By that time her health didn’t allow her to still visit us in Israel, although I often traveled to England to see her.

One day I rang her up from our home in Jerusalem to wish her Happy Chanukah, and I could feel the tension at the other end of the line.

“Happy Chanukah,” she replied quietly.
“What’s the matter Mum? Has something happened?”
“No, but Chanukah has never been a happy time for me.”

I was confused. What did she mean? Since when was Chanukah not a happy time for her. In the few seconds’ break in the conversation I rapidly searched my memory for something that could have happened that I had forgotten. But nothing came to mind.

I decided that I had misunderstood, so I put it out of my mind, but when I called her up during the rest of the week I never actually said Happy Chanukah to her—just in case it upset her.

The following year when Chanukah rolled around again there was the same reticence. The same unwillingness to recognize that this week was different from last week.

“I can’t celebrate Chanukah. I can’t enjoy it.”

But when I asked why, I never received an answer.

I was really confused. Some time during the following year I had the idea of asking my aunt, my mother’s sister, if she had any idea what caused this sudden uncharacteristic dislike of Chanukah.

My aunt was silent for a minute. “Yes, of course I know. We have some terrible memories of Chanukah. When we three sisters escaped from Germany on the kindertransport, a week or two before Chanukah, we left our parents back in Nazi Germany with no idea if we would ever see them again.

“But that wasn’t the only terrible thing. They separated the three of us. Once we got off the train in London, each one of us was sent to a different family. Each one of us was alone. It wasn’t enough that we didn’t know if we’d ever see our parents again. We didn’t even know if we’d ever see each other again.”

My aunt sighed as she continued.

“Can you imagine how we felt that Chanukah? I think we all cried most of the time.”

We didn’t even know if we’d ever see each other againI tried to imagine how they must have felt, these three little girls torn away from their parents and sent to a country whose language they didn’t know, to families they’d never met, and to also be separated one from the other. Under those circumstances, how could they be expected to smile, sing and be happy through eight days of Chanukah?

It’s sad that our memory plays such unpleasant tricks on us. As we get older our distant memories become clearer and more real to us. Gone were the memories of all my mother’s happy years of Chanukahs celebrated together as a growing family, and they were now permanently replaced by the one indelible memory of her first Chanukah in England, alone, torn from her parents and sisters, while the Nazi inferno raged in Europe.

Once we realized that there was no simple way to change Mum’s feelings about Chanukah, we decided that we’d have to try and put the joy of Chanukah back into her life. So we tried to make sure that at least one of us four daughters was with her for part of the week of Chanukah. It wasn’t so simple as we live on three different continents, in the UK, Israel and the USA, and none of us were closer than four hours away from her home.

But we tried. Sometimes we saw her cry as she lit the candles, obviously still thinking back to that terrible time seventy years ago when, as a little girl, shortly after her own Bat Mitzvah, she was sent away from her family. I tried to picture my own granddaughter, of the same age, having to undergo the same trauma and I couldn’t bear it.

Last year was my mother’s last Chanukah in this world. She was in a rehabilitation home, after breaking her leg, supposedly soon to be allowed to leave. To my surprise when I called her up she straight away said, “Happy Chanukah. I do hope the rabbi comes round again tonight to light the candles.”

I was very happily surprised to hear her sound so positive about lighting the candles, an event which had been so traumatic for her over the last few years.

I was comforted that just before she died, she had once again found happiness in ChanukahThe next day, on the fifth day of Chanukah, without any sign or warning, my mother passed away quietly of heart failure as she sat in her chair. Some people who knew her and her ambivalent feelings towards Chanukah felt it was appropriate that she passed away on this holiday, thus turning it into a time of sadness for all of us.

But I felt differently. I was comforted that just before she died, she had once again found happiness in Chanukah. She had died, not at a time of sadness for her, but at a time of joy and celebration.

Just as at the original Chanukah we rededicated the Temple with pure oil found at just the right moment—so my mother rekindled her love for Chanukah at just the right time before she left us.