This Thanksgiving marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Proclamation that established the national observance of the holiday. In a rare coincidence of the calendar, this Thanksgiving is also the first day of Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Jews over the Syrian-Greek army in 165 BCE and the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Grace Cohen Grossman shares the story of an object that recalls a message of hope and renewal, made by one American immigrant whose own life was scarred by war.
According to tradition, the single cruse of pure oil that kindled the Holy Temple menorah (seven-branched candelabrum) miraculously lasted for eight days, which is why Hanukkah is celebrated as the Festival of Lights. The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp in the National Museum of American History's collections represents the vision of Manfred Anson, whose creation unites the spirits of gratitude and freedom evoked by both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
A native of Germany, Anson described his idyllic childhood coming to an abrupt end with the Nazi rise to power in 1933. As conditions for Jews worsened, 14-year-old Manfred was enrolled at an agricultural school in the hope that he could secure a visa to emigrate to Palestine. However, just prior to the start of World War II, another opportunity presented itself and he was chosen as one of 20 boys rescued by the Jewish Welfare Guardian Society of Australia.
Anson's family was later deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic, where his mother and father survived. His younger brother Heinz was killed in Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, while his sister Sigrid survived in several camps before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in Germany. At the end of the war, while in a rehabilitation hospital in Sweden, and unaware that her parents were alive, Sigrid wrote a letter addressed to "Manfred Anson, Australia." Amazingly, he received it, and the siblings were in touch once again. During the war, Anson served in the Australian Army.
In 1963 Anson immigrated to the United States to join his sister; by then, unfotunately, both of their parents had passed away. An avid collector, he began to acquire memorabilia of his new country, ultimately amassing several thousand souvenirs of the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the U.S. Capitol. He designed his Hanukkah lamp for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986 and donated the original to the Statue of Liberty National Museum, which subsequently acquired many objects from his collection. Over the next twenty-five years, Anson had a number of the Hanukkah lamps cast; the one at the National Museum of American History was one of the first and one that he made for his family.
Anson used a souvenir figurine to cast the statuettes for the lamp, and the Statue of Liberty torch was transformed into a candle holder. As Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, a traditional seven-branched Polish menorah was reworked with an extra arm, with a ninth candleholder for the shamash, a servitor used to light the other candles, affixed at the front. The lamp is surmounted by an American eagle, and the base of each statuette is inscribed with significant dates in Jewish history.
Manfred Anson was proud to be an American and proud of his Jewish heritage. He was deeply honored that his personal tribute to both cultures received public recognition, and his lamp serves as a poignant reminder of what we celebrate on Thanksgiving and during Hanukkah.
The Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp is currently on view at the National Museum of American History. Grace Cohen Grossman was a senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles until 2012 and was recently a Goldman Sachs Fellow at the National Museum of American History.