A Coney Island synagogue lit a candle this Hanukkah, not only to celebrate the Festival of Light, but to remember one of the darkest episodes of Jewish history.
The Warbasse Jewish Heritage Congregation inaugurated its enormous new menorah and the beginning of the Jewish holiday on Nov. 27 with a special ceremony by a 96-year-old survivor of the Holocaust.
Jack Eisenstein — who endured the horrors of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps — kindled the first festival lights on the 22-foot-high, 16-foot-wide candelabrum, displayed for the first time this year at the corner of Neptune Avenue and W. Fifth Street. Eisenstein, the senior-most member of the Warbasse Congregation, expressed awe and pride at the sight of the stately sconce.
“I never saw something like it before,” Eisenstein said.
Eisenstein was born in modern-day Belarus in 1917, and was 26 when German troops invaded his village. The soldiers killed his father and three sisters and deported Eisenstein, his mother, and his older brother to the infamous Auschwitz extermination facility in Poland. Eisenstein was separated from the two of them at the camp and never saw them again.
The young man stayed alive until the Germans evacuated the installation in Jan. 1945, fleeing from advancing Soviet troops. The Nazis sent Eisenstein and some 20,000 others to the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany. The survivor recalled having to sit in the cold day and night at the second camp, and each morning discovering others had succumbed to exposure.
“You woke up and found everywhere was a dead person, a dead person, a dead person, every single day,” said Eisenstein, unsure of how he survived. “I saw so many other men die like flies, like flies, I do not know how I pulled through.”
Allied forces liberated Bergen-Belsen in April of that year, and Eisenstein travelled to Sweden after the war, where he lived before moving to Brooklyn in 1949 at the urging of relatives, first settling at 68th Street and Bay Parkway, and then moving into the Warbasse Houses when they opened in 1965.
The leaders of the Warbasse Congregation said they wanted Eisenstein to lead the lighting ceremony out of respect for his age and experiences, and a desire to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
“It has an added weight because of what he has endured. He is very dear to us,” said Rabbi David Okunov. “I want him to be a bridge for the next generation.”
Okunov said he commissioned the huge outdoor menorah as a symbol of the religious liberties allowed in the United States — liberties that Jewish people have not always enjoyed. The rabbi noted that Hanukkah celebrates the overthrow of pagan tyranny in Judea in the second century, B.C., and hoped that the new memorial of the holiday would draw people from across the borough and across the world.
“Hanukkah is a celebration of Jewish freedom, and we wanted something that resonates with the residents of Warbasse and the greater Coney Island community,” said Okunov. “The White House has the National Menorah, the Brooklyn courthouse has the Brooklyn Menorah, this will be the Coney Island Menorah.”