William Randle A-Light-in-the-Dark

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.
A Light in the Dark
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
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
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.
June 2008