Ernest Levy and “The Single Light”

Ernest with lamp

“I was having a crisis of faith. It was the bleakest of periods of the year and though we were out of the camp, we were out into permanent cold, albeit holed up in a barn while the blizzards raged. We were Belsen bound. Some of us felt that our death by massacre at the hands of our captors was a likelihood if fear took them over the edge, beyond their discipline For me, my winter depression caused me to look God accusingly in the eye and demand revelation, or my back would turn in shame against this unchecked crime that he had allowed to spawn, grow and consequently consume us, his children of the covenant. I could not square it.My body, like the others, was losing muscle dramatically. I was losing my belief as I was losing my body mass. I was young. At 19, what future? Despair had to have a scapegoat. It had to be God.

Then there was the sardine tin.

During the day we were let out of the barn, out into the intense cold, so we didn’t hang around outside for too long. This particular morning, I watched enviously as a young guard forked his way through a tin of sardines. When he had finished, he dropped the tin to the yard floor, almost completely sheet ice, and kicked it away. The tin skittered and skidded in my direction. He lit up a cigarette, looked me over, then strolled off elsewhere in the yard. The tin lay on the ground, topside up. Maybe there was something left in it, maybe. When no one was looking, I gathered it up and took it into the barn. I checked it. No fish, but a fair amount of oil; still good, still good. I was about to sup it down, when an idea struck. I had some string that I found in the ice. By now it had dried in my pockets, so by inserting the string as a wick into the oil, I made a little lamp. I found Helmut in the yard. When we were able to speak, I asked him for some matches:

“Don’t tell me, you are going to torch the barn”

I gave him a look, he laughed.

“We are going to celebrate Chanukkah a little late”

He handed me a few matches from his own box.

“If the barn burns down I’ll know where to look.”

Later that evening in the darkened barn, the little lamp was lit. A group of us sat around the small, sputtering flame, spontaneously breaking into the Chanukkah tune, ‘Maoz Tzur’. It felt good to gather.I thought back to Wustegiersdorf and the prayers that reunited me with cousin Leo but somehow, this far down the decline, my prayers had a hollowness; a lack of conviction. Looking at the pathetically makeshift lamp, our single light, I saw suddenly that it was just a reminder of a childlike belief, a faith to which I could never return. Since November 1938, my relationship with God had withstood challenge after challenge but now, with more to come, my alienation was almost total.”

An extract from “The Single Light ” By Ernest Levy.

This explains a turning point in Ernest’s faith. In the epilogue he describes his eventual  and renewed understanding of his God.

“The tenets of the Jewish faith for me, are true and enduring; a way of life not a religious straitjacket. It is written in the Torah: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” God is in man, as man rests in the bosom of his maker. The service of God lies in the service one provides to that neighbour. Was God there in Belsen? God is ever-present, in principle and in person, sharing the dust and the degradation, the joys and the triumphs. He is the single light that will not go out in the darkest hour.

That single light of divinity within remained when all was deepest nightmare. It did not diminish with the events of the Holocaust, but remained alive as intolerable memories haunted me. I was able, through its grace, to retain some measure of hope that a healing process might develop in me. At times I did not acknowledge the presence – even denied it – but it remained faithfully there, waiting for my understanding to see it and realize the healing was already underway.”

The Rev Ernest Levy, OBE, was born on January 13, 1925. He died on August 22, 2009, aged 84

Obituary in the Times

I thought I would repost this for Hanukkah. It’s a story I will never forget.I met Ernest in 2007. I was asked to paint his portrait back then and we also worked together on a cover for his autobiography “The Single Light”

Ernest told me the story of the sardine tin, and I immediately thought it would have made a good pic for the cover. He then produced the very tin in the story!


~ by David Reid on December 20, 2011.

7 Responses to “Ernest Levy and “The Single Light””

  1. My goodness, what a powerful story! And the photograph with the story! In the darkest of day even a tin of sardines that has a little oil and no sardines can light our human path to light. Thank you for this. Thank you.

    http://fourwindowspress.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/auschwitz-e-poland-january-27-1945-a-poem-by-ethel-mortenson-davis

  2. I looked in my thesaurus, so that I might comment on this post with a word that equals its intensity. Powerful is what came to mind, like the comment above. It is indeed a powerful story.

  3. A moving testament to the depths and breadths to which hope is willing to follow us, if we will allow it. Thank you for sharing this beautiful man and his story with us.

  4. Ethel and I have nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award. You’ll have to go to fourwindowspress if you don’t know about it, and if you follow the instructions you’re a winner. We are mainly trying to let you know how much we honor you and your work, so you may or may not chose to accept the award. That’s up to you, but we certainly think you are worthy of more than this one gesture of thanks for you and your art.

    • Thank you so much, Thomas and Ethel. It is really great that you think I deserve this. I started blogging for fun and to keep an online record of my work progress, whether in my classes or my painting. I tend towards procrastination and the blog reminds me to produce some work. Latterly, I have been making more and more connections with the blog and it is giving an added incentive to post. I am very much enjoying the feedback and also having a great time reading other blogs such as your own.
      You are extremely kind hearted to show your appreciation in this way. I wont accept the award though as I dont know enough bloggers to fairly distribute my own awards, I hope you understand.
      Thanks again to you both, I look forward to more blogging!

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