Guest Column by Niki Delson
“It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
I have been wrapped in a swirl of conflicting feelings: happily anticipating Chanukah, the eight-day-long Jewish Festival of Lights that began the evening of Dec. 18, while at the same time feeling a sense of impending darkness. These two conflicting emotions brought back a memory from my 11th year when my mother asked me to babysit for an unfamiliar family.
“The Posinskis are new in our neighborhood,” she said. They lived a few blocks away, on Mentone Ave., where our tree-lined suburban streets were divided by a small commercial corridor. “They live in an apartment in the back of an abandoned store,” Mom explained. “It is between the candy store and the shoemaker. Knock on the storefront door and he will come to get you.” Then she added, almost casually, “Oh, and maybe I should tell you, he and his wife are Holocaust survivors.”
I walked two blocks to a dimly-lit street. The store’s large windows were covered with butcher-block paper. A dirty window blind covered the front door. I knocked, and Mr. Posinski opened the door, but he did not turn on the light.
The old store, empty, dark and musty, seemed cavernous. I felt a sense of dread. In the far back corner, a dim sliver of light came from under a door. I focused my eyes on the sliver, trying not to stumble as I followed him through the darkness into a dimly-lit kitchen, its walls covered with old, yellowing wallpaper.
Mrs. Posinski, with her coat already on, pointed to the bedroom and told me their daughter was asleep and wouldn’t wake up. “We won’t be gone long,” she said in broken English. When Mr. Posinski slipped on his jacket, I saw the number tattooed on his arm. They disappeared into the darkness to the front of the store and locked the door behind them.
Years later, I learned that Nazis, with swastikas on their uniforms, carrying the swastika emblazed Nazi flag marched into their Polish village, lined up all the children, and murdered them in front of their parents. Mr. Posinski ’s son and daughter were among the slaughtered. When the Nazis left, Mr. and Mrs. Posinski helped bury the children and fled to the forest, where Mrs. Posinski died. Mr. Posinski was discovered and arrested. He survived the concentration camps and remarried another camp survivor. I met his second family.
Once I knew this, my experience at age 11 made more sense: the dark, abandoned store with the sliver of light in the distance, the lifeless kitchen, the feeling of dread that came over me in a familiar neighborhood so close to home. The Posinskis, past with all its terrors and sorrows, lived in that empty store with its dismal rear apartment.
The eight-day Jewish celebration known as Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Around 200 B.C., Judea — now a part of modern Israel — was controlled by the king of Syria. He allowed the resident Jews to continue practicing their religion unimpeded, but his son, Antiochus IV, was less benevolent: he outlawed Judaism and ordered all Jews to worship Greek gods.
Many resisted and, in 168 B.C., his soldiers descended on Jerusalem, massacring thousands and desecrating the Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its sacred walls. A rebellion led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons broke out. When Mattathias died, his son, known as Judah Maccabee (“Judah, the Hammer”), assumed leadership.
Within two years, the Jewish guerillas drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem. The victorious Jews cleansed the Temple, rebuilt its altar, and lit its menorah — the gold candelabrum whose seven branches still represent knowledge and creation.
Then, victorious Jews witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. The menorah meant to always be aflame had only enough untainted oil to burn a single day. They lit it anyway and the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply and inspiring Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.
Chanukah calls us to think about the light of freedom, and for what we are willing to fight. It is one of the Jewish holidays on which we jokingly say, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” We live in a glorious mountain town in the Roaring Fork Valley in the United States of America. Here, Jewish people do not have to worry about religious freedom. Here, we are safe.
But are we?
Several weeks ago, in an email string, a friend shared an article about swastikas being found on lockers and car hoods at Steamboat Springs High School. Another person wrote, “Yes, and at Aspen High School, too.” And another responded, “Yes, and right here in Carbondale.”
Swastikas were found in the bathroom at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS). There it is… that old feeling of dread in the dark store that Chanukah brought to mind.
It would be easy to pass this off as stupid, isolated, adolescent incidents. Perhaps it’s more comfortable to think that whoever graffitied the walls did not know what swastikas stand for, didn’t know that in the minds and hearts of Jewish people they represent an existential threat. And that may well be the case at RFHS. But shouldn’t every American child old enough to enter high school know what people brandishing swastikas did and why the United States spent its treasure and blood to stop the carnage?
When the swastikas at RFHS were discovered, Principal Megan Baiardo acted quickly. She sent a letter to the RFHS Community. “I regret to inform you that recently our school community experienced multiple incidents of hate speech vandalized onto our boys’ bathroom stalls. Swastikas, a long-standing symbol of the worst kind of hate, were drawn, in multiple cases, in pencil. Hate speech is hurtful and harmful and we will not tolerate it in our school.”
She informed the school community — including RFHS students, staff, and families. She alerted law enforcement and leaders of the Jewish community. She sought guidance from the Anti-Defamation League. She used the incident as a teaching opportunity with the high school community. But both the school and Jewish leaders kept the larger community in the dark. When I spoke to the school resource officer, he knew that the school was handling it, but little about how it was being handled. No mention was made on the Carbondale Police Facebook page. When I spoke to our town manager, she was surprised; no one had informed her. This article will likely be the first time you hear about it. No one thought it wise to make our public media aware of it.
The swastikas appearing on school property were considered a school issue rather than a community one. That is too bad. Families without children at RFHS were deprived of an educational opportunity, deprived of the opportunity to be part of a community response to a community problem. They missed an opportunity to show their children images of hate symbols, ask if they had ever seen them, and tell them what they symbolized.
So often we hear of a tragic incident that could have been stopped had we recognized the nascent signs of growing hate. When we closet hate speech, we give it space to fester.
When you read this, Jewish people in the Roaring Fork Valley and all over the world will be celebrating Chanukah with menorahs in their windows. But some, fearing the growing wave of antisemitism in our country, will feel the dread I felt when I was 11, and keep their windows as dark as the Posinskis storefront. Shalom.
On Saturday evening, Dec. 17, around 70 people gathered at the Third Street Center for a community celebration of Chanukah (Hanukkah) with an early lighting of the menorahs that were brought by the families in attendance. Photo by Sue Rollyson