A Light in the Dark
By Bill Randle
This is a true story. I have changed some names to preserve the anonymity of some people who are still alive. The rest, although from recall, is essentially factual. Ruth and I live in the Midlands. We have been married for over forty years and have six children. All of them know this story too.
The weak winter sun of that March afternoon was ineffective against the icy wind which blasted across from the East, scything through my thick winter coat, chilling me to the bone. I had taken the last few steps on a long journey, a pilgrimage even, which had begun more than sixty years ago when I was a young child barely five years old. Now I stood at the end of the single railway track. Someone had laid a wreath there. I raised my eyes and looked at the archway through which the track vanished. The images of that arched entrance with its tower had beckoned me across the years, - taunting, me, daring me to come and enter. I had always shrunk from the thought and shivered with apprehension at the notion of ever passing through it. Yet now here I stood looking at it from the inside, that gateway to hell, the arched entrance over the railway track at Auswitch -Birkenau.
To my right, a few feet away, I could see the ruins of the satanic showers, the gas chambers, blown up by the S.S as they ran from the advancing allied troops at the end of the war. It had been a vain and pitiful attempt to destroy the evidence of the state controlled production line for genocide. This act seemed to me to be an act of cowardice in the face of the certain understanding of their own guilt and undeniable responsibility, individual and collective, for acts of indescribable inhumanity and murder.
Huge waves of emotions engulfed me as I stood there. Mixtures of anger, disbelief, disgust, despair and utter desolation racked my mind and my soul.
I focused on a group of young Israeli students and their teachers, assembled in front of the memorial on my left. They were standing in a circle, holding hands. In the centre of the circle a single young figure held aloft the Israeli flag. Their heads were all bowed as they prayed softly. Then in unison they began to sing the Hatkiva with strong defiant voices. As the words of their Song of Hope soared above the death chambers of the holocaust their message was clear. “We are here. We are unbowed. We have a land where you can find us if you want to pick on us again. You slaughtered our parents and grandparents, but we are here now to honour and remember them....”
In that moment the walls of the dam which contained the dark waters of my emotions burst and I sobbed uncontrollably.
I had read somewhere that in the moments before death visions of a person's whole lifetime would flash before his eyes. As I sobbed and surveyed the camp, the vista of huts and buildings of depravity and death, a timeless sequence of memories of past events played in my head. They were the events that had led inexorably to this place and to this very moment in time.
In 1912 Albert Levy was born of a Jewish family in Leeds. He joined the R.A.F and became a flight sergeant. In his youthful twenties he was stationed in France where he met and married a young Jewish nurse called Yehuda. Yehuda's family originated in Kurdistan (or Northern Iraq as some would still insist on calling it). Yehuda worked as a nurse in a hospital in Lyon. The marriage did not work out. Albert and Yehuda separated. Yehuda remained in Lyon and Albert returned to England to live in Sheffield.
Albert remained in the RAF as the war approached. The Nazis rampaged across Europe. Shortly after the Germans invaded France the news came that Yehuda and her family had been taken by the SS and Yehuda herself had been shot dead.
Albert had met Barbara, a young and beautiful girl of about 21, in Sheffield. He courted her and they were married at the beginning of the war after the news of Yehuda's death. Albert was still in the RAF flying Lancasters for a brief spell, but he was unable to continue doing this due to an unspecified disability. He took a desk job with responsibilities in the area of codes and ciphers. The first child born to Albert and Barbara died shortly after he was born. Barbara entered a period of intense post natal depression superimposed over intense grief at the loss of their son. The conventional treatment then was electric shock therapy. This drastic therapy was used in cases of severe depression and destroyed brain cells. Barbara became endued with an enhanced ability to suppress and reconstruct undesirable memories of actual events. Naturally, this was immediately a blessing to her tortured mind at this time, but it was to prove also extremely significant both in the immediate and distant future.
As the Allies advanced across Europe in the last months of the war, the truth concerning the horrors of the death camps began to emerge. One death camp in particular became the focus of a sequence of events which would change Albert's and Barbara's lives for ever. The American troops were the liberators of Dachau, a notorious death camp near Munich. Not long after the liberation Albert learned that Yehuda had been amongst the survivors of Dachau. She had not been killed after all. Unwittingly and through no fault of his own, Albert had committed bigamy. There was more. During her internment Yehuda had given birth to twin girls in the autumn of 1944.
The twins were brought across to England and placed separately for adoption with different parents one in Bath and the other in Sheffield, to the home of Albert and Barbara. Because of her recent therapy Barbara was able immediately to make a complete substitution of this baby girl from a death camp for her dead son, completely repressing the circumstances and memories of all events which did not support the certain knowledge that this child was truly her own. The memories of the birth pangs and the birth itself became interwoven with this constructed reality. Even the gender difference was swept aside although subconscious residues of the memory of the boy who lived so briefly would condition her behaviour towards her daughter in future years. This behaviour often reflected deep rooted anger and resentment, sometimes tinged with cruelty and disdain. Nevertheless there was formed a new family outwardly like any other. This child of the Holocaust was, to all intents and purposes, the only daughter of a working/middle class couple born and raised in a midland city.
As for Yehuda she was deranged and mentally unstable after her death camp experiences. She was cared for in one of the Sue Ryder homes in the south of England. She died in 1978.
My own child hood was pretty ordinary. I was born in Lancashire but within a week of my birth moved to a cathedral city in the south of England. I was born at the beginning of the war and lived through the war years reasonably protected from bombs, though like everyone else was subject to rationing, propaganda, the blackout and shortages. My memories of that time are fairly hazy except that I do remember sunny days happy times and plenty of T.L.C. from my dear mother. My father I saw only rarely during this time. He was on active service as a sergeant cook in field kitchens across Europe. I learned about the war in snatches of exchanges between people my mother talked to and later from the stories related by various relatives and friends. My mother once said to one of her brothers who had returned from a Japanese POW camp, “My God, you look like something out of Belsen”. I wanted to know what Belsen was. My mother told me it was a concentration camp for Jews. It was only later that its true nature became clear to me. As I grew up I read more about the war. I learned about the Holocaust, one or two accounts of some events were virtually first hand from survivors of the war. Mostly I read about the Holocaust in newspapers and books. Often the forbidding archway of Auswitch would loom large as one of the photographs in an article. It seemed to burn into my mind and draw me with a macabre fascination to its portals. I was frequently repulsed and unsettled by the accounts of the horrors of the inhumanity enacted in those dreadful camps.
I passed my eleven plus and attended a grammar school with a reputation for excellence. I received a sound classical education and the time I spent there has had a profound effect on my life ever since. I remember those times with great affection.
I left school and went to Sheffield to study for my degree. It was the beginning of that remarkable decade known as the “swinging sixties”. I had been there for barely one term when I met Ruth just before Christmas. Ruth was a stunning young girl with red hair and wide set blue eyes. It was almost a case of love at first sight. We fell in love and the love grew over the next four years as I graduated and then studied for a diploma in Education. Ruth worked briefly in a local pharmacy and then in a laboratory. She had been persuaded by her mother to leave school when her father died in his forties after suffering a cerebral haemorrhage. The money she earned was needed to help feed and clothe Ruth and her mother, as well as pay the mortgage. Ruth told me about her baby brother who had died when she was about ten years old. He had died from Leukaemia aged 18 months. Ruth and I were married in December almost exactly four years after we had met. Our first child was born in November of the following year. Ruth was just twenty one.
Then Ruth learned the truth about herself. The family solicitor had been instructed in her late father's will to tell her about her true origins when she became of age at twenty one. She was, as you may have already guessed, the adopted daughter of Albert and Barbara Levy. Ruth was the twin sister of Rachel liberated from Dachau in the spring of 1945. It was a secret we had to guard with care since Barbara would not ever accept the truth. Her mind had totally accepted Ruth as her own.
Shortly afterwards, during the war between Israel and its Arab neighbours (known as the Six Day War), Ruth spoke to her sister Rachel on the telephone. Rachel was on active service in Israel. Ruth has never spoken to her nor heard of her since. Somewhere in Israel is Rachel's son. All efforts to trace the two of them have failed.
Ruth was never able to piece together the full story of Yehuda and Albert. She is not sure she wants to discover who her real father was. She has yet to learn how Yehuda survived extermination. Ruth's great fear was that Yehuda and her twins were somehow the object of the sinister attentions of the “Angel of Death”-Josef Mengele.
The years slipped away. Only after I finally retired and we started to travel did the idea of visiting Auswitch become more than a passing mention in idle musings. We planned a trip to Krakow and decided to make the journey to visit the notorious death camp while we were there. That is how I came to be standing and weeping that March afternoon at the end of the railway track next to the chamber of extermination. I was, I am, intrinsically part of the Holocaust. We both knew it would be a difficult day, but nothing had prepared me for the desolation and horror of that dreaded place.
There is one more twist in the tale. That morning we had started the day with a visit to the camp known as Auswitch 1. I shivered a little as we passed under the infamous motto written over the gates, the epitaph to so many unfortunate inmates of that hell-camp, “Arbeit Macht Frei”. From the windows in the rows of deserted blocks the pale and haunting faces of hundreds of wretched internees seemed to peer and plead. We managed to run the gauntlet of the gallery where row upon row of photographs hung. Each one had underneath it the date of the start of his/her imprisonment.
A second date noted of the “end” of the internment, sometimes the time between the two was but a few days. Here and there a relative or friend had stuck a single red rose across one of the photographs. I had already heard about the macabre exhibitions in museum cases. I shuddered at the mounds of human hair, the prosthetic limbs, pots and pans. I wept at the sight of children's clothes. The piles of suitcases, many personalized with the names and dates of birth of their owners, were particularly pitiful in my eyes. The Jews had seemed so easily persuaded to hope for a new and better life in these “special camps”, packing into their suitcases all manner of personal items such as jewellery together with kitchen utensils and cleaning tools. The cache of empty canisters of Zyklon B disturbed me beyond all reason. Later I was to find myself standing almost without warning in the very gas chamber where some of these must have been deployed to rid the Third Reich of its Jews. The ovens there, too, gave extra weight to the feelings of utter disbelief and disgust. I was almost sick then.
I tried to assimilate the contents of part of a document from the Wannasee Protocol. The document listed the numbers of Jews in all the countries of Europe, altogether over 11 million. The Third Reich managed to exterminate over half of these.
As usual on such occasions I did not always pay strict attention to everything that our guide was saying as we passed through the museum with its gruesome photographs and exhibits. I remember falling behind the main party every so often, engrossed in my own thoughts and reveries. At one point we were waiting to enter one of the blocks for the next stage of the visit. We had just seen the notorious “wall of death” where prisoners were executed by a firing squad. I was appalled that I very briefly entertained the passing thought that this seemed a curiously humane practice in the context of that dreadful place.
I returned to tune in to what the guide was saying. “Austwitch”, she was informing us, “was the only camp to use tattoos on the arms of its inmates in order to identify and catalogue them.” I stiffened and looked at Ruth, the colour suddenly drained from her face. Later she told me that at that instant she had wanted to run as far away as possible. The guide must be mistaken. I reran the words in my head. “Auswitch was the only camp to use tattoos on the arms of its inmates ......”
We had known for years that the marks on Ruth's forearm were the remains of tattooed numbers which had been surgically removed during her infancy. We had always believed that the practice of using tattoos in this way was a widespread and common practice throughout all the concentration camps. If what the Guide said was true then it seemed that Ruth and her twin sister Rachel were born not in Dachau but here, in Auswitch. At some point then we must surely stand close to the very spot where Ruth was born. It was difficult enough for me to absorb this. It was almost too much to bear for Ruth. This new revelation hung over us all the way through the rest of the tour. Ruth told me later of the strong feelings “déjà vu “she had tried to shrug off throughout the tour. That afternoon, in Birkenau, she had an overwhelming wave of it near to where Mengele had been known to practice his black form of medicine. We knew that in the final months of the War the SS had moved many of the prisoners from various camps, including Auswitch, away from the advancing allies. This was also recorded in the museum at Auswitch 1. It seems, then, that Yehuda and her two newly born girls must have been moved from Auswitch to Dachau. This would explain the mystery of Ruth's Polish origins as recorded on her entry visa in the spring of 1945. Dachau is a few miles north of Munich in Germany.
So here I stood, as close as I would ever get to the birthplace of my dear wife Ruth. Such an extraordinary chain of events had finally brought me to the place of my nightmares and I wondered if the full story would ever be known.
After seeing inside some of the wooden huts, learning of the “three minutes” allowed for a visit to the rows of communal latrines and other degradations inflicted on those poor people, the tour was suddenly over.
I walked out of Auswitch, through that iconic archway- a free citizen. Ruth, almost certainly passed through that archway for a second time...this time also free... but not free; the macabre fetters of that chamber of horrors still imprison us both, it seems. I took one last look at the archway and its single tower. It chilled me again as ever it had for over sixty years. The single railway track transported me once again, through the gateway and into hell..... I resolved never to return to this place even though it would taunt and beckon me for ever.
The journey back to Krakow was a silent one as we tried to take in the experiences of the day. Words would have been totally inadequate and inappropriate. We both got very drunk that evening before returning to our hotel.
Every single day at some point I see that archway etched vividly in my mind's eye. I try to come to terms with all that I feel and the dark horror of those dreadful days engulfs me and drags me back there to the wartime abyss of death that is still Auswitch.
Darkness shrinks from the smallest light. A small candle can be seen from afar in the darkness. More than sixty years ago a small flame was lit in the dark of man's bestiality when he abandoned his God. That light still burns as brightly today. I look at Ruth and she lights up my dark places.
Ruth is a daughter of the Holocaust, a true light in the dark.
from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine