Bringing Darkness to Light: Singing Hanukkah Songs Through the Holocaust

Rare recordings kept in the National Library's collection reveal the Chanukah songs that gave hope to Jewish children during WWII.


A Chanukah candle lighting ceremony in the Westerbork transit camp, Netherlands, December 1943. Photo: Yad Vashem.

In the summer of 1948, Ben Stonehill, a Jewish man of Polish descent and a lover of everything Yiddish with a keen historical awareness, made his way uptown on the New York City subway system carrying a bag filled with recording equipment. Word had reached him that Jewish refugees had been brought to a hotel on the Upper West Side, and he wanted to get there as quickly as possible.

When he arrived at the hotel, Stonehill found the lobby overrun; the place looked more like a crowded European train station filled with luggage and lost people rather than a modern American hotel. Every man, woman, and child in that lobby was a Holocaust survivor.

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Stonehill set up his equipment and asked the refugees to sing all the songs they knew from before the war. He recorded over 40 hours of music and most likely saved more than 1000 songs from being lost forever.

Men and women, young and old, sang in Hebrew, Russian, and Polish – but most of them sang in their mother-tongue – Yiddish. Children clamored around the music recorder, begging for a chance at the microphone. They wanted to hear their own voices, recorded by Stonehill. The technology delighted them and they were excited to sing the songs they heard at their parents’ knees, songs from their Hebrew school, from their youth movement, from the ghetto, from the camp, and even from where they remained hidden during the destruction. Those pieces of their culture, their voices, would now be alive forever, for future generations.

As we listen, other voices can be heard in the background, other survivors crying, laughing, and singing along.


Ben Stonehill (center) with his children, New York, 1948

Among the children that sang for Stonehill was a little boy named Meir, a 9-year-old who survived the war and had just set foot in New York. The song, Simu Shemen (“Put Oil On It”), is sung in Jewish households around the world to this day.

Hanukkah was celebrated and observed throughout the war, in the ghettos and even in the camps, as the survivors hoped beyond hope that the suffering would end and believed that they would be free once again. These were small glimmers of light in the endless darkness and Hanukkah was of specific symbolic importance during the Holocaust.


Hanukkah in Fuerstenfeldbruck DP Camp, Germany, 1945. Yad Vashem Archive 1486/582

These rare recordings that Ben Stonehill taped reveal a nearly lost world, barely kept alive as an entire generation and culture were almost completely wiped out.



Thankfully we are able to listen to those days long gone.


This article was written with the help of Dr. Gila Flam, head of the National Library’s Music Department.

The Ben Stonehill Collection of Jewish Folksongs in the Sound Archive was cataloged by Amy Simon, you can listen to more recordings from the collection, here.


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Our Man in Addis Ababa

In 1977 Farede Yazazao Aklum cooperated with the State of Israel to bring his people home, like the Ethiopian Moses.

The passport issued to Farede Yazazao Aklum in Sudan (From Shmuel Yalma's book "The Road to Jerusalem")

​New light is being shed on the history and courage of the Ethiopian, Beta-Israel, Jewish community on their journey towards Israel, including the journey of Farede Yazazao Aklum, who was a Beta Israel community leader in the 1970s.

Everything about the missions to bring the Ethiopian community to Israel is shrouded in mystery and secrecy, especially the work of the Beta Israel community leaders and activists who worked tirelessly in Ethiopia. Their efforts are often overshadowed by work of the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and even the Israel Defense Forces.

Farede Yazazao Aklum was one of the most prominent Zionist activists in Ethiopia in 1977 and after the Ethiopian government cut ties with Israel and proclaimed the Zionists in the country to be traitors, Aklum escaped to Sudan. Aklum’s ingenuity came out in full force while he was in exile in Sudan. He knew he had to work in order to get his community out of the country and to safety in a time of civil war and uncertainty in Ethiopia. In order to do this, he sent a telegram to the Israeli Consulate in Geneva with a simple request; to be sent home.

Aklum, of course, didn’t specify where “home” was. When the Israeli authorities, including the Mossad, caught wind of him and his work in Ethiopia, they realized a man of his esteem and with his connections would be invaluable for a rescue mission of this magnitude. Once Mossad made contact with Aklum, he decided to start working under the purview of Israel in order to get as many Beta Israel Jews out of Ethiopia and into Israel as quickly as possible and keep them from becoming casualties of the civil war raging in the country.


Farede Aklum along with Beta Israel refugees in Sudan, with the help of Mossad – The picture is taken from pamphlet “Groundbreaking Leadership – the heroic story of Farede Yazazao Aklum”

The plan had to be secret and slow- Aklum didn’t want to risk his people in a rash mission. He first smuggled his family out through Sudan under the guise of refugees, a white lie that was not very far from the truth. The success of that plan emboldened Aklum and the Mossad, and so more and more Beta Israel Jews were smuggled to Israel via Sudan.

That isn’t to say the journey was easy- it was fraught with dangers, and it’s estimated that approximately 4000 people died on their way from Ethiopia, through the Sudanese refugee camps, before finally arriving in Israel.

Farede and his wife Samira in 2006, (photo credit: Batia Makover), the picture is taken from pamphlet “Groundbreaking Leadership – the heroic story of Farede Yazazao Aklum”

Fareda Yazazao Aklum continued to work for the rest of his life towards the betterment of the Beta Israel community both in Ethiopia and in Israel, aiding in their absorption and integration into Israeli society. He died in 2009 during a visit to Ethiopia and was buried in the new cemetery of the city of Be’er Sheva in the south of Israel.

The Altalena Affair: When Israel was on the Brink of Civil War

The sinking of the Altalena was perhaps one of the most incredible and divisive affairs in the history of the State of Israel. What really happened during those tense days?

The Altalena burning after being shelled, from the GPO Archive

The Altalena Affair is perhaps one of the most incredible and heated affairs in the history of the Jewish state. Barely two months after its establishment, the young State of Israel found itself engaged in a cruel war of survival against the Arab armies, when an internal battle erupted inside the fledgling country and threatened to drag its people into civil war.

What really happened during those tense days?

Summer 1947: The USS LST 138, a U.S. Navy landing ship is purchased by a branch of the Irgun (a right wing Zionist paramilitary organization) in North America. The ship’s name is changed to Altalena. The name, which means seesaw in Italian, wass the pen-name used by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionist ideology..

Miniature Model of the “Altalena” by EST

Winter 1947: The ship is packed with close to one thousand immigrants and combatants (some of them Holocaust survivors), crew members, and tons of military equipment.

11 June 1948: After a nearly month-long delay, the Altalena sets sail from France to the shores of Israel. This delay seals its fate, since the ship sails after the signing of an agreement earlier in the month to incorporate the Irgun, which had been a militant faction active in the underground struggle against the British Mandate authorities, into the newly founded Israel Defense Forces.

The United Nations Security Council, which, throughout the entire period of the war had been engaged in the question of Palestine, stepped up its efforts to bring the fighting to an end, and instead of releasing a non-binding declaration, issued an order demanding that both sides agree to retreat, and that sanctions would be applied to the side that refused.

On June 10th, 1948 both sides agreed to the terms of the ceasefire devised by the UN-appointed mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. The ceasefire, which took effect the next day, lasted four weeks.

15 June 1948: The Irgun commander, Menachem Begin, meets with the representatives of the Israeli government to inform them that the ship had sailed from the port in Paris against his orders. Begin is insistent that a fifth of the arms on board the ship be transferred to independent Irgun units in Jerusalem and the rest to the IDF (with preference to Irgun units integrated into the IDF). David Ben-Gurion approves the transfer of some of the arms to Irgun units in the capitol, but commands the rest of the weapons to be transferred immediately and without any preconditions to the IDF. Differences of opinion and suspicion are rife on both sides.

20 June 1948: The Altalena docks at Kfar Vitkin and the crew starts to unload the cargo without permission, as goverment cabinet ministers hold heated discussions over the unfolding events. The government’s decision is: “To give the (IDF) headquarters the authority to launch a counter-attack, provided they coordinate enough manpower by the appointed time. The commander must try to control the situation without use of force, but if his command is not obeyed, then with the use of force.”

“Were it not for the policy of restraint, a terrible civil war would have broken out in the midst of the besieged homeland,” a poster from The Jabotinsky Institute Collection

21 June 1948: The Alexandroni brigade surrounds Kfar Vitkin. The commanding officer issues an ultimatum to Menachem Begin – to hand over the ship with all of its contents to the IDF. They are given ten minutes to respond.

With no response to the ultimatum, there is an exchange of fire in which six Irgun fighters and two IDF soldiers are killed. Menachem Begin boards the Altalena and it retreats, sailing south to the shores of Tel Aviv.

“Remember Altalena, Her Arms and Her Soldiers” – a poster from The Jabotinsky Institute Collection

22 June 1948: Ground forces under the command of Yigael Yadin are sent to overpower the Altalena.  Heavy fire is exchanged between Irgun forces on the ship and IDF forces on the shore. Fearing the outbreak of a civil war Begin calls on Irgun fighters not to return fire, raising a white flag aboard the ship.

An artillery gunner who receives the order to open fire on the ship refuses to do so claiming that he would rather be tried and even executed, than fire upon fellow Jews. A second gunner hesitates to fire but eventually is convinced and fires on the ship. During the exchange another ten Irgun fighters and one IDF soldier are killed.

With a fire spreading on deck, Monroe Fein, the captain of the Altalena, orders all aboard to abandon ship. Menachem Begin only agrees to leave after the last of the wounded is evacuated.


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Medical Treatment of Jewish Moroccan Children in the 1950’s

The treatment of North African immigrant children for ringworm and trachoma was a traumatic episode in the annals of Israel’s social history.

These treatments were not only administered in the fledgling State of Israel with the arrival of the immigrants. Various Jewish organizations traveled to North Africa, especially to Morocco, in order to administer treatment against ringworm and other diseases even before the children and their families left for Israel.

One of these organizations—acting out of the purest Zionist intentions, and perhaps herein is the tragedy of the matter—was the international Jewish organization OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants). Founded in St. Petersburg in 1912 as OZE (“Obschtestvo zdravookhraneniia evreev,” devoted to the promotion of health, hygiene and childcare among the Jews), its mission was to provide healthcare for Jews in places with inferior sanitary conditions. After WWII the organization headquarters moved to Paris and focused on offering healthcare to Holocaust survivors and mainly the children among them. The organization also later worked in North Africa, Iran, and the young State of Israel.

One of the organization’s activities was to establish well-baby clinics in Morocco. A photograph album documenting part of its activities in Morocco was preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (which was eventually incorporated into the NLI archive). Thus, photos of the organization’s volunteers have come to light showing them helping to provide milk to children, instructing parents, conducting various medical examinations, and treating ringworm and trachoma using those drastic measures, which, in retrospect, was the real tragedy.

The photographs were used by the organization for purposes of public relations and fundraising.