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Maryland-made menorah lit in White House ceremony

When Julie Rosenthal's father was still alive, she said, he rarely talked about his life in a concentration camp during World War II.

Erwin Thieberger, then a mechanic, survived those years by doing slave labor. He kept his spirits up by making menorahs, the candelabra central to the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. After the war, he settled in Silver Spring with his wife, Hilda.

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Thieberger died in 1987. But in at least one important way, his legacy continues.

Thieberger created the menorah that was lit Wednesday night as part of a White House Hanukkah celebration. The piece, made from nails and other scrap, is a large round half-circle with nine candles on a Star of David base.

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Six family members, including Julie Rosenthal, were present as President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted the candle-lighting ceremony on the fourth night of Hanukkah.

"During one of humanity's darkest hours, he never lost faith," Obama said of Thieberger. "Tonight, the light of one of Erwin's menorahs will burn brightly at the White House."

Rosenthal called the experience "surreal."

"It was amazing," she said after the ceremony.

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Officials chose Thieberger's menorah from among dozens submitted by the public in a nationwide contest announced by the White House last month.

Applicants were asked to submit photos along with an answer to the question, "What's the story behind your menorah?"

The piece, one of hundreds Thieberger fashioned by hand, signed, and gave to friends after emigrating to the United States, is owned by Mary Beth Leidman and David Golub of Silver Spring.

Rosenthal, a Marriottsville resident, said no one in her family knew her father's work had been submitted until a White House official contacted her family late Monday night.

Thieberger was imprisoned in a sub-camp at Auschwitz, Rosenthal said. Many of his 13 siblings were sent to camps and never returned.

Hilda Thieberger was also sent to a work camp, where she labored as a seamstress for the SS — and managed to keep one of their daughters alive by hiding her.

Thieberger worked on engines in a Nazi machine shop and made a hobby out of crafting menorahs. His materials: discarded concrete nails and solder.

After the war, Rosenthal said, he found work as a roofer, among other jobs, and eventually resumed making versions of the menorahs, usually with materials similar to the ones he'd used as a prisoner.

Thieberger, a longtime member of Club Shalom, an organization for Holocaust survivors, gave one menorah to the Carter White House in 1980 — it's now at the Carter Library in Georgia — and created a wire menorah that was long used in Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol.

This is the first year the White House has sponsored a contest to select the ceremonial menorah. Submissions included a Sephardic menorah from the 14th century; the oldest American menorah, a work made of tin; a menorah holding cans of food to donate to the homeless; and "several menorahs with incredible stories of how they had been buried or hidden during the Holocaust, survived, and passed down through generations of families," according to Matt Nosanchuk, the White House liaison to the Jewish community

The other winning selection — a menorah from the Judaic Art Gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Art — was lit by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a guest of the Obamas.

Manfred Lindenbaum, a Holocaust survivor who returned to Auschwitz last year, helped light Thieberger's menorah, a piece the White House says the Leidman-Golub family has long cherished.

The family's tradition is to "light the menorah each year and retell its story," and the Leidman-Golubs "have passed along the sense of responsibility and service that the story evokes to their son, Matty Golub, who is currently a lieutenant in the Navy," according to Nosanchuk.

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