Monday, October 26, 2009

Ernest Levy: A Remarkable Man

Thanks to Barrie Hibbert for passing on this story.

In the October 2009 issue of the magazine Canonmills Baptist Church (Edinburgh), Tom Fleming shares the story of his friend, Ernest Levy

News reached me, while I was in hospital in August, of the death of a good friend of mine who had a special connection with Canonmills. He was a Slovakian Jew who, after the war, settled in Glasgow and became the Cantor of the Giffnock and Newlands Synagogue, the largest in this country. His name was the Rev Ernest Levy and he was 84.

Forced in 1938 at the age of 13, to flee with his family to Hungary, they were deported, after the German occupation of that country, to concentration camps where most of them perished. After the last year of the war in Europe, as the Red Army moved West, Ernest, then aged 19, was moved between seven different camps ending up, for a second time, in the notorious death camp at Bergen-Belsen, stripped of every vestige of humanity and suffering from starvation and typhoid. That he survived is something of a miracle.

When I first heard him tell his story, some twenty years ago, I was struck by the fact that here was a holocaust survivor talking without hatred and bitterness. Indeed, he said memorably, “I owe my life to three Germans. I only ever knew them by their first names.

One was Helmut, a guard who befriended me and brought me water and bread when his fellow guards were occupied.

The second was a German farmer called Max who took pity on the two hundred Jewish prisoners forced to shelter in his barn from the bitter winter snow-showers whilst on a forced march. Courageously, Max ignored orders to the contrary and supplied each prisoner with one boiled potato per day for three weeks.

The third was a nursing sister in the German hospital to which I was taken after the liberation of Belsen. Her name was Emma. ‘You must get your strength back and find your family’, she insisted. I replied, ‘They’re all dead’. ‘Well you are alive, and life is precious!’ said the formidable Sister Emma, and she kissed me on the forehead.”

When British soldiers liberated Belsen, one of them found Ernest, semi-conscious, lying face down in the dust by the perimeter fence. At the first talk which I heard Ernest give, the meeting was thrown open for questions at the end. An elderly lady asked him if the terrible things he had suffered had changed him in any way. There was a long pause. “Yes,” Ernest replied quite quietly, “I used to think that God was some Supreme Being who watched what happens in the world from an unsearchable distance. Now I know that God lay with me in the dust of Belsen…”

He came to Canonmills at my invitation on a weeknight about fifteen years ago. The place was packed with about a hundred people. He told his astonishing story, movingly, for about an hour. Then he said, “Tom has specially asked me to tell you about the story of the Sardine Tin.”

So he told the story. It was while they were sheltering in the barn belonging to Max, the German farmer, in the winter of 1944-45. The prisoners were allowed outside, briefly, in daylight hours. Ernest saw one of the S.S. Guards throw away an open tin of sardines. Unseen by his fellow prisoners, Ernest picked up the discarded tin, hoping to find a scrap of fish. The tin was empty apart from some sardine oil. He looked around and saw a piece of string lying in the ice on the ground. He placed one end of the string in the fish oil. After several attempts, he managed to light the other end of the string creating a lamp out of the sardine tin. He concealed the tin until later that night when he lit the makeshift lamp and, with his fellow prisoners gathered in the darkness of the barn around the flickering light, he led them in singing the ancient Chanukkah Hebrew hymn, sung since time immemorial at the midwinter Festival of Lights, the feast of the Re-Dedication of the Temple in the time of the Maccabees:

These lamps which now we light
are in remembrance of the wondrous deeds
that You performed for our fathers of old
and still perform for us today.
We cannot look upon them
without giving thanks that You stand beside
us in our time of trouble
and praising the glory of Your Holy Name, O Lord.

Then, to my complete surprise, Ernest opened a little attaché case which he had brought with him to Canonmills. From it he took a rusty sardine tin, a small bottle of oil, a piece of string and a box of matches. He lit ‘the lamp’, held it in his hands, and in his lovely tenor voice sang for us there and then the Chanukkah hymn. Then he said, “That ancient hymn may never reach the Top Ten on the Hit Parade, but it may well have been heard by Jesus himself, sung in the Temple in Jerusalem.”

None of us who were there will ever forget that very special moment, or the remarkable Ernest Levy who could, so eloquently, transform a story of degradation and unspeakable horror into a triumph of humanity, faith, courage and survival.

Dr Geoff Pound

Geoff can be contacted by email at geoffpound(at) on Facebook and Twitter.

Image: Ernest Levy; the Sardine Tin Lamp.