Menorah with local ties lit in White House ceremony

Erwin Thieberger, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States after World War II and settled in Silver Spring, made hundreds of menorahs in his life. One is to be lit Wednesday at a White House celebration hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Erwin Thieberger, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States after World War II and settled in Silver Spring, made hundreds of menorahs in his life. One is to be lit Wednesday at a White House celebration hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. (The White House)

It was 11:30 p.m. on Monday night when Julie Rosenthal, of Marriottsville, received a call from the White House. A stranger had submitted to the administration a menorah made by her now-deceased father, and it was to be lit by President Obama and the first lady on Wednesday evening — and she was invited.

By 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, she was on a train bound for Washington.


Erwin Thieberger, Rosenthal's father, was a skilled mechanic and a holocaust survivor. He kept his spirits up by making menorahs, the candelabras central to the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. And he settled in Silver Spring with his wife, Hilda, after the war.

Theiberger 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.

Six family members, including 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."

Officials chose Thieberger's menorah from among dozens submitted by members of 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, who lives in the Carroll County side of Marriottsville, said no one in her family knew her father's work had been submitted until a White House official contacted her family with the news late Monday night.

"Talk about freaking out!" she said Wednesday afternoon as she and her husband, Leonard, prepared for their trip to Washington. "We are super-excited."

Thieberger rarely talked about his imprisonment in a sub-camp at Auschwitz, Rosenthal said. But he did let his family know that many of his 13 siblings were also 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.

Erwin Thieberger, who spent the war working on engines in a Nazi machine shop, made a hobby out of crafting menorahs. His materials: discarded cement nails and solder.

"The story goes that he found cut nails, which are … flat, long nails, about 2-3 inches long, and he brazed them together to make menorahs for Hannukkah," Rosenthal said. "When he came to this country, after he could start making a living, he started making [menorahs] again here."


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

He made hundreds, Rosenthal said. He sold some but gave most away to friends, acquaintances, "everyone he happened to meet."

Thieberger, a longtime member of Club Shalom, an organization for Holocaust survivors, gave one menorah to the Jimmy 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.

"My dad's life was surrounded by light; his heart and soul and craft was channelled through his gift of creating lamps and menorahs," Rosenthal said. "Each year at Chanukah not only do we light the candles to remember our ancestors but also the legacy of my father. He died on January 1, 1987 which happened to fall during Chanukah that year. It's a special time for our family."

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; 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, a White House spokesman.

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.

Rosenthal's sister, Hanna Blair, of Damascus; Blair's husband, Lindsey, and their grown children, Dan and Keri, were also to attend the ceremony.

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