Former Sonderkommando Ovadya ben Malka discusses the nature of evil with Rabbi Ish-Shalom: Was the Holocaust really the work of psychopathic monsters or of people like you and me — people whose choices led them to abandon their humanity, one act of cruelty at a time? Perhaps the single most important statement we can make regarding evil is: “That could have been me”. And that leads to the next stage: Let me act and think and feel in such a way that that will not be me.
Excerpts from Returning
Returning explores the boundaries between right and wrong, choice and choicelessness—and what happens when we cross those boundaries. It challenges notions of black and white, and calls into question the sovereignty of death itself. Here you can find excerpts and out-takes, as well as related materials that influenced the writing.
A tribute to Zalman Gradowski and others among the Birkenau Sonderkommando who worked to get word out of what was happening in Birkenau-Auschwitz.
Ovadya ben Malka, a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando has approached Rabbi Ish-Shalom in search of atonement and absolution. Instead, the rabbi has told him that no atonement is possible; he must tell all that he remembers and pay his debt to the dead. In this excerpt, Ovadya finally breaches the silence that has engulfed him since Birkenau.
When does survival become a crime? When does choice become treason? And what must happen before we are forgiven? A survivor of the Birkenau sonderkommando gets more than he bargained for when he brings his past to a rabbi for judgment.
Even when all that defines us is stripped away, one thing remains–the ability to help others. In extending a hand to another we save ourselves as well.
It is a strange thing, to be a memory…. I write from a moment in my own past—from within my memories. In fact, I realize that I am my memories. I am everything that I remember up to this point in my life. I drift between the past and the future—living and dreaming and thinking in the past, but writing in my own future.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo speculates on the implications of resurgent memory in our day. Could it be that we are witnessing the revival of the dead without even recognizing it? “Isaiah’s words, ‘the earth will reveal her bloodshed and will no longer cover her slain,’ are eerily appropriate to the phenomenon described in this book: a memory from beyond the grave takes form and substance, and stands in accusation against the murderers. … Could this phenomenon be the fulfillment of the prophetic vision?”
On March 25th 1943, Ovadya and his family arrived at Birkenau. His mother Malka and his sister Miryam were gassed on arrival. At seventeen, Ovadya had already outlived his world, though he was as yet unaware of it. His survival was to cost him dearly. On March 25th 2014, his story was officially released into the world. His promises to the dead were fulfilled and he had witnessed their fulfillment.
Miracles do happen, sometimes, to some people. But we still have to be fast on our feet to make any use of them. Shmuel the Glazier points the way.
T’chiat HaMetim means being reborn to see death for what it is, and to know that those things are most precious that can be taken from us in the blink of an eye