Rev Ernest Levy

Share this article

Holocaust survivor who led Scottish Jewish community

Born: 13 January, 1925, in Bratislava.

Died: 22 August, 2009, in Glasgow, aged 84.

AS A young man of 19 and 20, Ernest Levy lived through the Holocaust, surviving seven Nazi concentration camps and losing half his family, including his father, a brother and a sister, before settling in what would become his beloved Glasgow for the latter 48 years of his life. He became a leading figure in the Scottish Jewish community – and, ultimately, among non-Jews – a synagogue cantor, a teacher, notably about the Holocaust, a passionate humanist and an advocate of inter-faith dialogue.

Levy was 19 when he peered from a narrow grate on his goods train's carriage and saw the word "Auschwitz" in giant letters outside the camp. The sign heralded "a world of evilness beyond description". He said: "We poured out like a sack of potatoes, one on top of another. The reality was that we had arrived in Hell. There you ceased to be a person, you were reduced to a number, totally dehumanised. The stench was lying on your chest and tore your lungs apart."

Shipped by train and cattle truck or forced to march on foot, he passed through five other camps as the Germans retreated until, after what became known as the "death march", he found himself in the infamous Belsen camp, near Bergen in Lower Saxony, in January 1945. Although the allies were closing in, Hitler's "Final Solution" – the extermination of Jews – was in full swing. Levy once hid for several hours beneath dead and dying inmates in an open mass grave, the size of an Olympic swimming pool but much deeper.

He recalled his relief at seeing soldiers of the British 11th Armoured Division enter the camp on 15 April, 1945, their faces pale with shock at what they found – 13,000 unburied corpses and 60,000 seriously ill survivors, including Levy. In a famous broadcast, BBC correspondent Richard Dimbleby, with the liberating forces, said: "This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life." Levy and his fellow inmates had lived through such days for months, if not years.

Suffering from typhoid, the surviving inmates had to be quarantined and treated before they could be freed. Levy was repatriated to his native Bratislava, but after regaining his health and weight, he moved to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, where he lived for 15 years under the communist regime.

Having studied light engineering before the war, he worked as a mechanic and crafted fountain pens and propelling pencils to pay the bills while attending Jewish College, singing in the choir of Budapest's big Dohany synagogue and training his voice at the Goldmark School of Music. After the trauma of the Holocaust, which had threatened to extinguish his faith in his fellow man, he saw singing as his "salvation" and graduated as a professional cantor in 1960 before leaving Hungary for good.

After 18 months in Tel Aviv, again as a light engineer and part-time cantor, he decided to come to Scotland to join a brother and a sister who had told him of its welcoming nature and Jews' freedom to worship in peace. There was, they said, anti-Semitism, but it came from ignorance, not hate. They felt he could help Scots alter that, and he spent his life doing so, with success best illustrated by the outpourings of grief and respect he received from leaders of all faiths after his passing.

Levy arrived in Glasgow in 1961 and became chazzan, or cantor of the Pollokshields synagogue – an important role directing the congregation in singing and prayers, assisting the rabbi, teaching and overseeing the bar mitzvah programme and leading singing at weddings and funerals. On the banks of the Clyde, by a twist of fate, he recognised a fellow survivor of the concentration camps, Kathy Freeman, who had emigrated to Glasgow, and they wed in 1965.

Levy became more widely known among the Jewish community as cantor, from 1965 until his retirement, of the Giffnock and Newlands synagogue in Renfrewshire, the largest in Scotland. He came to love Glasgow and its people and, after he died at his home in Giffnock, politicians including Gordon Brown expressed their condolences.

Ernest Levy was born in Bratislava, in what was then Czechoslovakia but is now the capital of Slovakia, youngest of eight children of orthodox but cosmopolitan Jewish parents. His father, Leopold, a businessman and cantor, was Hungarian, his mother, Tirtza, an migre from the Netherlands.

On the night of Friday, 4 November, 1938, when he was 13, Slovakian fascists, supporting Hitler's policies, threw his terrified family out of their home along with several hundred other Jewish families and sent them to a niemans (no-man's land) area on the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border.

Because Ernest's father was Hungarian, the family was eventually allowed across the border and lived there until Hitler's troops occupied Hungary in 1944. "Then there was no more hiding place," Levy later recalled, and thus began his journey through the Holocaust, from Auschwitz to Belsen and ultimately to his adopted homeland, Scotland.

Already in his seventies, in Glasgow, Levy wrote two books about his Holocaust experiences – Just One More Dance (1998) and The Single Light (2007). The latter took its title from a story he liked to tell about a sardine tin thrown away by a Nazi camp guard around the time of Hanukkah. Levy picked up the tin and used the little oil left, adding a wick to make a small light for his fellow inmates amid pitch blackness while they sang Maoz Tzur, the Hanukkah hymn. He brought, and lit, the very same sardine tin to the Scottish Parliament in 2007 at the launch of the book, a touching moment but one that brought ostensible glances of unease from some Scottish MPs who feared it might touch off the parliament's fire alarm. His soft-spoken wisdom eased their concerns. He knew more than most what a single light could do.

"He used to say that even in the midst of terrible darkness, it was always possible to find a light of humanity that would shine out," said Levy's good friend Dr Kenneth Collins.

Levy was awarded the OBE in 2002. His wife, Kathy, died in 2007. He is survived by son Robert, daughter Judith, a sister, Lilly, and the four grandchildren in whom he put his trust for trying to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten, and, most important, never repeated.