An Appreciation: Ernest Levy, OBE, 84: My extraordinary uncle

Telling his story of courage and hope, he educated thousands about the dangers of intolerance.

ernest levy (photo credit: )
ernest levy
(photo credit: )
The BBC's obituary called him "one of Scotland's most prominent Jewish leaders," detailing the personal history that has become public knowledge especially since the appearance of his two autobiographical books Just One More Dance (1998) and The Single Light (2007), and the OBE he received in 2002 for interfaith outreach and Holocaust education. But to me, he was my Uncle Ernest. And when I received the SMS from my brother at 2 a.m. on August 23 telling me that he had died the day before, over Shabbat, I could only picture his finely drawn features over which a symphony of expressions would play, chief among them humor and compassion and good fellowship - with a backdrop of something darker throwing these into greater relief. The youngest of eight children, just 19 when Nazism reached Slovakia, he was expelled across the border together with other Jews of Hungarian origin. A succession of horrors followed: deportation to Auschwitz, internment in a series of forced labor camps and Bergen-Belsen - from where he escaped twice, once crawling out from under a pile of bodies. Here was a man who survived no less than seven concentration camps and yet retained enough emotional strength and belief in the essential goodness of mankind to devote a great part of his life to engaging his fellow man about the dangers of intolerance and fascism. HE TRIED to escape postwar Hungary in 1956, but was turned back by the communists. He made it to Scotland in 1961, where his beautiful singing voice and Orthodox background led him to begin cantorial studies. Eventually he served two Glasgow congregations. As his English improved, the "little refugee boy," as he liked to call himself, began reaching out to Jew and non-Jew, teaching them in his temperate yet compelling way the lessons of the Shoah. Over the decades, he became Scotland's address for non-Jews needing information about Jews and Jewish life. When Schindler's List opened, one of Glasgow's main cinemas gave Ernest and his wife, Kathy, a private screening. Ernest had himself been helped by a Schindler-like figure, and The Scotsman ran a full-page interview about it. The government of Gordon Brown consulted Ernest when it drew up the Holocaust education program that is a compulsory part of the Scottish school system. In this framework, 60 non-Jewish high-school pupils visit Auschwitz every year; and Ernest would travel out to the airport before each departure to talk to the youngsters before they boarded the plane to Poland. "You are going on a mission," he would tell them, and your mission is to tell the world and the next generations what happened at Auschwitz, so that the Holocaust is never forgotten." "He must have spoken to tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people over the years," his son Robert said. "What was remarkable about his story," wrote Sir Harry Secombe in his Foreword to Just One More Dance, "was his lack of bitterness about what had happened to him, and his forgiveness for those who had been his persecutors. A man of infinite compassion in these days of gathering hatreds and prejudices... his shining sincerity made a lasting impression on me." Scots Secretary Jim Murphy, speaking to The Scotsman after Ernest died, said: "I felt honored just to know him." WHAT I remember most about Ernest, though, was his personal charm. A dictionary I have defines the word as "an indescribable quality giving pleasure," and it well describes Ernest's effect on others. Men, women, children - all succumbed, drinking in whatever he told them with that slight lisp of his. Even in his 80s, his nieces - barely out of their teens - would call him "cute." One of his favorite responses was, "That's really great!" From my childhood in the '50s and '60s, I recall his visits to our home in London, where he would sit for hours with my father, his elder by 10 years, reminiscing over their own early years, laughing often. When he tired of that, he would entertain me with a whole opera - so he said; he never told me its name - that he could sing in one breath. He also possessed an uncanny ability to jabber away, seemingly authentically, in a language he had no real knowledge of. His "French" was magnificent. "He really lived several lifetimes in one," my brother, Leonard, reflected after the funeral." And he lived them well. I'd call him a Jewish phoenix, risen from the ashes.