On Thursday, December 10, 1942 Anne Frank wrote about the “comical sight” of sausages — that she watched be ground, seasoned, and squeezed into casings by Mr. Van Dann — dangling from the ceiling that made everyone who saw them burst into laughter. She also wrote about the dirty state of their kitchen and how Dussel had an eye infection he was dabbing with a chamomile tea bag. She then went on to describe what it was like to watch Dussel work on his first dental patient’s mouth at his practice. “The whole scene resembled one of those engravings from the Middle Ages entitled Quack at Work,” she explained. She didn’t know that less than two years later she’d be transported to Auschwitz.
Tonight, as I watched the flame of the shamash give life to the first night’s candle, I thought back to the entries in Anne’s diary that referenced flickers or beams of light. From Anne catching Pim sitting “in the one ray of sunshine coming through the window” while she peeled boiled potatoes on Thursday, December 10, 1942 to the comfort she found in candlelight on Wednesday, March 10, 1943 when the sound of planes and shooting became too much to bear. But light was also a source of fear and distress for Anne. The light from the fire used to burn their waste in the Annex and the flames from German air strikes were constant reminders that they were in danger. Darkness and light were both blessing and curse.
Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, wrote about how he’d encourage people during collective psychotherapy sessions in the concentration camp; moments during which he was responsible for “medical care of their souls.” Surrounded by death and overwhelmed with suffering, he’d mention the joy of the past and “how its light shone even in the present darkness” in an effort to inspire hope, courage, and dignity. Elsewhere, while working in an icy trench under the eye of an abusive guard, he looked to nature, to the image of his wife, as he thought to himself, “. . . and the light shineth in the darkness.”
So, too, does the light of starry nights, flashing sirens, and windowsill menorahs shine. I watch them all glow through the glass to the sound of speeding police cruisers and ambulances, the pulse of the evening in the city. Hear iamb, cries reality. The reflection of the candle flames on my window showcases a trick of light that my mind registers as six, flickering elongated orbs of fire dancing on the air.
Suddenly I feel the privilege of being able to watch the lifecycle of the candles on my menorah, particularly on my windowsill. Even in a state of ongoing global crisis and chaos, where the death and suffering of millions are preconditions for the countless forms of so-called advancements and progress, there are moments experienced by many that lead one to think, “I’m alive.”
I started to type “I’m thankful to be alive,” then I replaced “thankful” with “lucky,” then I thought about the privilege of senescence and the inequities of death. Open-air sidewalk sepulchers that serve as hunting grounds for the exemplars of state violence. Freezer trucks on the Brooklyn waterfront functioning as icy tombs for victims of a global pandemic whose deaths were preventable. The constant threat of war that lingers thick and heavy in the atmosphere, a pugnacious pollutant.
And yet here I am, typing these words as I nurse my child to sleep. I feel numbness and nausea as the candlelight disappears and the flashing blue lights of a passing NYPD cruiser drown out the darkness. Probably a hybrid.
The shadows on my wall remind me of the cave in Buchanan, Michigan on the campground my grandparents took me and my cousins to when we were kids. I remember the smell and the echo of water droplets making their way from stalactite to ground. Years later I learned that that cave was a hiding place along the Underground Railroad.
The blue lights shine from the window to the walls again. Hear iamb.