“Every time I see it lit, I must admit that I stand in awe. It is such a miracle,” said Temple Beth-El rabbi David Baylinson. “You can talk about the miracle of the oil, but the miracle of the oil of this menorah is the miracle that it survived. It’s a symbol not only of freedom, but of survival.”
On Tuesday, the first of the menorah’s eight candles will be kindled, marking the beginning of the eight days of Hanukkah.
The holiday, considered a minor one in the Jewish faith, is a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.E.. In order to rededicate the Temple, they needed oil to light the menorah. They had enough to last one day, but through a miracle, the oil lasted eight days. Each year, Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is a chance to celebrate that victory, and to celebrate the miracle of the oil.
The history of the Emmerich menorah is tied to the history of the Jews that lived in Emmerich, Germany. Among them were the son of a wealthy Jewish family and his young bride. Their story is told in a book written by temple member Sherry Blanton, called “Survivor’s Stories: Anniston’s Temple Beth El and The Holocaust.”
Rudy Kempenich (later changed to Kemp after an American judge urged Rudy to “shorten the tail”) was born into affluence. His father Max, along with a business partner, owned the largest department store in Emmerich. Greta, born Margaret Sybilla Nathan, worked at the Kemps’ department store. The two were engaged to be married in 1935, and married a year later in the Emmerich synagogue.
That same year, Rudy received word that the Germans had confiscated their money. They were told they could only withdraw 500 marks a month from their own bank account, and so they began putting away as much as they could, smuggling money into Holland by rolling it up and stuffing it into a bicycle handlebar and the door panels of a car.
By that time, many of Greta’s family members had already fled to the United States. Her father and mother, Felix and Ina Nathan, her brothers and sister, Helen and Henry, and her uncle Lee Freibaum had settled in Anniston. Rudy’s family had fled in different directions to several countries, and so the young couple decided to keep at least one half of the family together. They chose Anniston as their new home.
After crossing into Holland, the couple traveled to France where they waited until their visas for their trip to the United States. The coupled arrived in the U.S. in December of 1937.
Along with Lee Freibaum and several other local businessmen, Kemp would go on to found Tapecraft Corporation, a manufacturer of narrow tape for zippers, clothing, labels and book bindings.
As the chairman and board member of the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County, Kemp helped the desegregation of Anniston’s public library in 1964, standing in the doorway of the library to make sure the blacks who entered could do so without harm.
Kemp served on 16 separate boards and committees and helped found the Anniston Soup Bowl, which helps feed the cities homeless and hungry.
The Kemps were among the 16 Holocaust survivors — all related — who found their way to Anniston in the days leading up to and during the Holocaust.
Twenty-seven members of Rudy’s family died in concentration camps.
Of the 100 Jews in Emmerich, only 32 escaped alive, Kemp once told The Anniston Star.
On Oct. 7, 1944, allied bombers destroyed 91 percent of the town of Emmerich, as part of a mission to disrupt the Third Reich’s oil production.
Rudy and Greta were the last couple to be married in the synagogue in Emmerich, two years before they fled across that bridge over the Rhine. Standing on a pedestal in front of them on their wedding day was the four-foot tall brass Emmerich menorah.
“It really wasn’t something my parents ever expected to recover,” Don Kemp said this month from his home in Anniston. Don is the son of Rudy and Greta. The Kemps had four children, Jeanne (now living in Texas), Don and Fred (both living in Anniston) and a fourth child who died as an infant in 1941.
“The menorah is a wonderful piece of history, and it does have a special meaning to our family,” Kemp said. The entire Kemp family had attended the synagogue in Emmerich.
The menorah had been in the Emmerich synagogue for a hundred years. Along with other ritual items, it was sold in 1938, just months before Hitler’s Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) sent storm troopers and Nazi-sympathizers into the streets to break the windows of synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses. More than 1,500 synagogues were ransacked and destroyed, their contents stolen or smashed.
An artist named Terhorst bought the Emmerich menorah for $150 when the synagogue, its congregation fleeing for their lives, found itself unable to pay its bills. The 126-year-old synagogue closed its doors in 1938, and was turned into a furniture warehouse.
Rudy Kemp spotted the menorah in 1982 in a photograph sent to him by a historian who was working on a history of the Jews from Emmerich. Kemp contacted the owner, who agreed to sell the menorah only after it was made clear it would be placed in a temple were Emmerich Jews worshipped. It arrived in Anniston in 1984.
“I call the menorah the 17th survivor,” said Sherry Blanton. “The menorah is an inanimate object, but it’s not really. To me it lives, and there is so much history behind it.”
Rudy died in 1999 and Greta in 2007. They are both buried in the Temple Beth El section of Hillside Cemetery.