Miraculous survival of menorah inspires Ukrainians in war-torn Mariupol

The five-foot tall metal candelabrum was discovered unharmed under the burnt remains of Mariupol’s only synagogue.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A menorah’s light thought to be lost forever is shining in Mariupol, Ukraine throughout Chanukah thanks to the non-Jewish landlord of the city’s only synagogue.

Russian forces destroyed almost all of this southern city when taking it over in the early months of their now ten-months’ long invasion.

Among the myriad buildings bombed and set on fire was the one that Rabbi Mendel Cohen, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mariupol, rented in the center of town and used as a synagogue and community center for some 1,500 local Jews.

Almost all of its Jewish inhabitants fled during the fighting, with some coming to Israel, including Cohen.

Last Saturday night, the day before the holiday was to begin, Chabad News reported that he received an astonishing message from Andrei Zherenko, the building’s owner – the community’s menorah had been found.

“As you probably know, only the walls of the building remain—everything else burned down and collapsed,” he wrote to the city’s only rabbi. “A layer of debris, ash and clay had formed on the ground floor almost 70 centimeters [2.3 feet] thick. We’ve just finished clearing everything and dug out the large Chanukah menorah. Mariupol’s menorah.”

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Zherenko deemed the discovery “a miracle.”

There had been an “inferno” when the bombs struck, he said. “I myself saw the molten metal there, and the fact that it did not collapse is really a miracle!”

It was not enough for the Eastern Orthodox Christian to just report on the five-foot tall iron candelabrum’s survival, however.

“It seems to me that it would be right for candles to be lighted on the menorah this holiday as well,” Andrei wrote to Cohen. “You tell us how to do it, we will do it.”

The candle-lighting ceremony had been an important part of the community’s public Chanukah celebrations for years. Cohen immediately agreed, and he taught his landlord how to light the menorah, albeit without saying the blessings since he is a non-Jew.

In a Saturday interview with the New York Post, Zherenko said he was concerned that it would be stolen by looters searching for scrap metal, so he took it to his in-laws’ house just outside Mariupol and has kindled it there every night of the holiday. Sunday night is the last night of Chanukah, when all eight flames will be lit.

“I very honestly believe that it’s a miracle and I acted in the way that I felt I had to. I didn’t think all that much about it. I felt it was an important thing to do,” he told the daily. He would save the candelabrum, he said, until the Jews return and a synagogue is rebuilt.

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The news of the menorah being found and lit has spread throughout the exiled Jews of the city, Cohen said.

“There’s a sense of great emotion in our community,” the rabbi noted. “The overall feeling is that we are witnessing the idea that ‘a little light dispels much darkness.’”

Cohen and his family, who weren’t in Mariupol during the invasion, are closely bound to the community they have encouraged and led for the last 18 years.

Even while the fighting was going on, he organized transports out for the Jews who wanted to flee, and then made arrangements to care for the sudden refugees. He prepared a special Chanukah program for Mariupol families like his who came to Israel, and is still trying to help the estimated 70 Jewish families left in the Russian-occupied city, regularly sending them food, aid and medicine.