LIGHT ONE CANDLE
Germany. Late March 1996, early spring. I had come on a long train ride from Bonn to Munich, pulled to the concentrationcamp at Dachau as though by an invisible string.
The day was intermittently sunny but the place, despite an occasional spot of green, was grey, ll grey: concrete, gravel, photos,, ghosts. The barracks had been destroyed “because they were too infested” the guide notes said. Instead, there remained a vast field of graveled ground, crossed by concrete dividers where the barracks had been. A prototype barrack had been built on the site of an old one, to show us, with new wood, and old fixtures, the stacked bunks, the open toilettes, the bones of how it was.
Walking though, behind a group of school children who laughed and took pictures of each other sitting on the toilets, I felt suffocated in silence, as though my ears and eyes were covered with plastic wrapping. I heard the muffled moans and cries, saw and smelled the skeletal “infested” human beings stuffed into what was now an open, empty structure filled with tourists and memories.
The children and their guide moved on. I stayed to look at the way the light came through the door casting angled shadows on the floor. Guiltily I interposed my camera between my eye and mind, taking pictures as though I too were exploiting these agonies instead of simply being present.
Later, when I developed the film and saw what I had let my camera see, I understood that turning inward had allowed me to be more present, to witness, perhaps in the only way I could bear it, the horror co-existent with the whitewashed site: the curve of the path to the crematorium, the spring-swelled stream that ran along the barbed fenceline, the flowers growing from the bloodied earth by the execution wall. Protected by my camera’s eye, my mind had found some small way to see: this sun rose daily where the people stood in the dark to hear if they would live or die that day, birds like this sang then in the spring, in those trees by the ovens, on the roofs of those houses over the wall.
The memorials built by world’s religions stand as stark and cold as the camp itself. The Jewish Memorial is shaped like a great grey whale. One enters down a ramp into darkness and there, the only source of light is a chimney –a chimney!– rising straight up, bleeding a fragile line of light across the stone floor. Along the walls were small protruding stones pooled with wax where visitors’ candles had burned down. Someone ahead of me was kneeling lighting a candle on the ground near the narrow rectangle of light..
I waited, confused. In my mind I wanted to do something. Needed to do something: to pray out loud,,to move,to wail, to mourn . I wanted to say Kadddish for the dead but I did not know the words. My mind was exploding with all I did not know and could not understand. What could I offer? What light, what song?…. I had no candle. I had no song.
Then I remembered that, back in Bonn, emptying my purse to prepare for the long train trip to Dachau, improbably, I had found a small white candle from the Christmas Eve service in the little church in Charlemont many months and another country ago. Yearly, people gather in that sanctuary in the dark to sing the old German hymn “Silent Night” passing the flame, candle by candle until the circle is rewoven with light. Packing my bag for the train, I was going to leave this momento behind – why would I want a candle? – when something had moved me to bring it along.
So, trembling, with tears running down my face,with grief choking my voice, I offered whatever fragments I could remember of Hebrew prayer: Baruch atah adanoi, elohainu melek ha, alam …. and kneeling, I lit the little white stub of candle from the flame of the person who had been there in the dark before me.
I left it there, in the valley of the shadow, a fragile light burning in the belly of the beast.
Copyright: Molly Scott, Sumitra, 2004