The Yellow Candle and the Sunflower Seed

Yellow Candle

Gloria Tessler reflects on the yellow candles, each bearing the name of a Holocaust victim, to commemorate Yom HaShoah.

I am thinking today of two German Jews, 60 years apart in age. I have no family history with either of them. And it is unlikely their paths ever crossed in life.

 But I am thinking of them because Maccabi UK sent me two yellow candles, each bearing their names, and I will light them on Yom Hashoah, Israel’s Day of Holocaust Memorial, or Day of Calamity, on April 17, to honour their memory.  The candles represent an elderly woman and a man barely out of his teens. Both died as victims of the Holocaust.

The woman Frieda Mina Mayer, 81, was born in Ettlingen, a charming, old town in Baden-Wurtemberg; the man, Abrahamer Max, 20, was from Korb, 15km northeast of Stuttgart, a place praised for its beauty and its wine.

Freida was murdered in Gurs in 1940; Abrahamer, in Mauthausen in 1945. They are among thousands Maccabi UK asks us to commemorate, as they do each year, making complete strangers familiar to us in a united tragedy.

The box with the candle includes mini sunflower seeds you can plant after the candles burn down, so their memories will continue to flourish. Golden life from grey ashes.

Maccabi GB says its Yellow Candle project enabled over 32,000 flames to be lit worldwide on Yom Hashoah last year, uniting individuals, communal bodies, care homes and international organisations in the UK and all over the world, with many sharing pictures of their lit candles on social media.

I wondered about that yellow memorial candle.  I thought of the yellow star Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis. The sunflower seeds also suddenly evoked van Gogh in his yellow house in Arles, where painting sunflowers had a special significance for him: they communicated ‘gratitude’, he wrote.

Perhaps gratitude lies in the special moment just before you lift out the tin containing a pale, primrose candle engraved with a Magen David.  You unfold the tiny card and read the name. You might ask – is there a particular message for me?  Does that name have significance for an ancestor of mine? Will it bring me closer to my grandmother who was killed in Riga? Will it speak to you of your murdered family, too? Will it make you even more grateful for not having lived through the Holocaust?

I tried to find out what I could about Frieda and Abrahamer. For one there is a brief history, for the other, nothing. I discovered a stolpersteine (a commemorative stone) inserted into the pavement outside the Mayer home in Baden-Wuttemberg on November 9, 2009. It reads in bold caps: HIER WOHNTE FRIEDA MAYER. GEB LOB JG 1862. DEPORTIERT 1940.  GURS. TOT 21.12.1940.  So my Frieda was born on October 19, 1862, deported in 1940 and died on December 21, that same year at Camp Gurs, in Nouvelle-Aquitaine in France, The little error I found – that Frieda was not, in fact, 81, but 78, oddly intensified her mystery.

She was the daughter of Aron and Adelheid Loeb, wife of Berthold Isaac Mayer, and mother of eight children, including Melanie VollmerAlbrecht MayerKlara RosenbergBetty Breinle David and Bella Mayer. She had seven siblings.

It seemed her husband Berthold survived the Holocaust, dying in 1954. But two of her children predeceased her, Betty Brainle died in 1926, aged 31, and Matthilde in 1895, aged just 11. So long before the Holocaust was just the flicker of an evil impulse in Hitler’s corrupted brain, Frieda Mayer had known the worst tragedy that can happen to a parent. As for the rest of the family – there is only silence.

I stared at her stolpersteine, the brainchild of that exceptional German sculptor Gunter Demnig, who wanted to tell local people what happened to the former inhabitants of each house. The meaning of stolpersteine is literally stumbling stone – you are meant to notice the stone to avoid tripping over it. So far over 75,000 of them have been laid in 12 European countries from Trondheim, Norway in the north, Thessaloniki, Greece in the south, Orel, Russia to the east, and l’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, France to the west.  And some even further afield. Between Frieda’s stone and the pavement, you can see a tiny dead twig which valiantly tried to force its way through and may have briefly seen the sun before dying.

I looked up Frieda’s home town of Ettlingen, where Jews had settled since the Middle Ages, give or take an expulsion or two. On the morning of November 10, 1938, the synagogue was set on fire by workers led by an SA-Sturmfuhrer. The fire brigade did nothing apart from protecting nearby buildings. The smoke-blackened ruins on Pforzheimer Strasse remained standing for a year after which the Jewish community had to pay for its demolition at a cost of 88.88 marks. The local Albgau Museum has a painted wooden panel from the destroyed synagogue, and a fragment of a Torah scroll salvaged from the flames. 

I found this shocking article in the magazine Der Fuhrer from that time: 

November 10, 1938 will always have a special place in Ettlingen’s history. On the morning of that day, the sirens announced to the population that National Socialism as a fanatical and believing idea could no longer be challenged by cowardly Judaism in the long run. When smoke and flames rose from the hotbed of all Jewish depravity, from the synagogue in Pforzheimer Strasse, in the morning hours, when German workers drove through the streets and chanted against the Jewish insolence and the criminal murder attempt, a German national and party comrade unequivocally took a position, then this was the voice of the people, which also made itself felt here and the dark powers raised accusations again.
If, as a result of these spontaneous demonstrations, the Ettlingen Jews had to be taken into protective custody without anything happening to them, then this is a sign of the discipline of the workers, who would have had enough reason to give their inner outrage even more air. When it became known that our Reich Minister Dr.Goebbels asked for the understandable demonstrations to stop, the order was immediately followed and thus National Socialist discipline was demonstrated.

There are several photos of Frieda on various websites, but look again and you can’t be sure it’s really her. Other stolpersteines commemorate deported Jews bearing her name; one to Auschwitz, another to Chelmno, another to Theresienstadt. But about young Abrahamer Max, I could still find nothing.

But perhaps this is the point.  To know nothing. To light the candle and illuminate someone we never knew – from the youngest to the oldest – and just reflect on the enormity of what happened. The swallowing of a whole people, like a natural disaster, an earthquake, a flood or a hurricane – except that it is none of those things, but a determination of will – of pure evil forged in fire.

They will never rise from the ashes. If the little sunflower seeds I will plant on Yom Hashoah bloom, it will feel like a personal epiphany. But I am not blessed with green fingers; last year no sunflower grew. There was simply a tiny mound of dusty earth in the yellow tin. But that’s ok, too.

An abridged version of this piece appeared in The Jewish Chronicle as a news story. Yellow candles can be bought here and Yom HaShoah is on 17 April.


Gloria Tessler is a journalist, author, playwright and poet. She is the biographer of Lady Amelie Jakobovits, and her two plays, The Windmill and Unveiling Hagar, both on Jewish themes, have been performed on the London fringe. She is presently obituaries editor at the Jewish Chronicle and art correspondent at AJR Journal. 
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