Jewish History Blog


Founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, Masaryk was a friend of the Jews at a dark time, and offered an enlightening insight into the Chanuka candles.

A friend of mine sent me an article published in an English synagogue bulletin 30 years ago, that I feel has interest and relevance to us at all times of the year. Here is that article:

The year was 1934. Adolf Hitler had been in power for a year in Germany and the beloved leader of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk was reelected for the third time as President of the small country neighboring Germany. The 84 year old Masaryk was a great friend to Czech Jewry and the Jewish people the world over.

On the last day of Chanuka, he visited the synagogue in Brno, the Moravian capitol. Masaryk inspected carefully the treasured ritual objects in the synagogue, some of them dating back many centuries. The tall menorah was aglow with a warm, golden light. He listened intently to the story of Chanuka and the symbolic significance of the lights. Then, turning to the rabbi, he asked: “Why is it, my friend, that eight of the candles are standing in one row, side by side, while the ninth stands alone, as if cast aside by the others?”

“This candle, Mr. President,” explained the rabbi, “has no real part in the actual celebration. It only serves to light the Chanuka candles. That is why it is called the ‘Shamash’ or servant candle.”

The answer left the President visibly puzzled and for a while he remained silent.

He finally remarked: “This ‘servant candle’ strikes me as the symbol of the Jewish people itself; and the other candles are the nations to whom your people have brought the worship of one God and the precepts of morality and justice. These nations now shine with your light that they now call their own, but they give you no thanks. Instead, you are treated as strangers, spurned and rejected, as if you had no claim to the gift of light that you have brought to this world.” He was again silent for a long moment and when he spoke again, there was a faraway look in his eyes. “You must stop being ‘servants,’” he said musingly, as if talking to himself.

A sudden hush fell over the congregation.

“Yes,” the old President said, “you must become masters in your own right, masters of your own destiny.” His eyes had lost their dreamlike expression and his voice was firm and strong.

“But, Mr. President… How?” ventured a young community leader, stuttering with emotion and some embarrassment.

Masaryk replied: “By helping rebuild the Land of Israel – the Land of the Bible which is a sacred heritage from your forefathers when it was an independent Hebrew state…”

An even deeper silence followed. The congregation was mute with shock and emotion. The Jews were just as deeply rooted in Czechoslovakia as were the Czechs and the Slovaks. And now the President was saying that they should leave, that they did not belong. They did not speak, but their eyes expressed their hurt and confusion as they furtively exchanged glances.

Masaryk, visibly distressed at the unhappiness his words had created, spoke once again with great kindness: “You are, my dear friends, among our best citizens, always willing to do your share, contributing to the country’s greatness and prosperity… But, with Hitler at our borders, you will be ever more exposed to hatred and persecution. Everywhere, even here in our own country, the anti-Jewish poison is an instrument of subversion and conquest. It is instilled everywhere and corrupts even the most generous souls… Terrible times may be in store for you and for us and it is with a heavy heart, my friends, that I must say to you: Go, leave Czechoslovakia before it is too late!”

Four years later, Czechoslovakia was abandoned by the Allies and dismembered by Germany. Unfortunately only a handful of Jews had followed Masaryk’s fatherly advice. The vast majority of Czech Jewry still clung desperately to the hope that the evil scourge raging in Germany would by some miracle bypass Czechoslovakia. The Jews stayed on and they hoped and then it was too late.

It is true that the function of the ‘servant candle’ has not changed – it still passes its flame to the other candles. It still remains bound to the task of passing the flame of Godliness to the nations of the world through our Book of Books, our love of justice and morality and our thirst for cultural, scientific and educational progress. But the ‘shamash’ candle, the ‘servant candle,’ is no longer limited to kindling the light of other nations and other peoples. It now also lights the road of its own destiny.

Modern Jewry has had a weakness for placing certain current societal ideals – democracy, pacificism, environmentalism, social activism, etc. – above the necessity for Jewish survival. It is a mistake that has proved very costly for us in the last terrible century.

Masaryk was a true friend of the Jewish people. Would that Czech Jewry would have listened to him and not have been deluded by bad leadership and false illusions. Our ‘shamash’ candle needs tending now as never before, not as a ‘servant candle’ alone but as a source of identity, pride and tenacity.

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Posted in:
Modern Jewish History
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • December 9, 2010

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