An excerpt from Returning
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.
But what could I tell? I had measured them by weight, not by name and not by who they were. They were voiceless, simply because I had deafened myself to their cries. I could not, would not, see them as individuals. Just a blur of faceless bodies, all destined for oblivion. Just something to get through to the end of our shift.
And yet, we saw them before also, when they came down the stairs. We may even have helped them undress their children; or maybe we guided them to the back of the room to make room for those coming in. Maybe they asked us questions, to which we gave non-committal replies. But we watched as they passed out of sight into the leichenkeller. And we heard their screams and the frantic pounding on the door and the prayers that we knew would not be answered. And those sounds will stay with us until the end because they are too terrible to die.
So yes, afterward, they are just something to get through to the end of our shift. But we know what’s just happened before our eyes. And nothing in the world will make us forget it and nothing will ever be the same again.
So now, at this remove, what do I remember? Only those that stood out in some way. What remains is only the exceptional, or things that happened very early on, before everything went dead in me.
I remember a girl in a white dress, simply because she was dressed for a formal occasion—perhaps a wedding. But it is the incongruousness that I remember, not the person.
I remember a man with a very loud voice who kept trying to make some kind of oration outside in the yard, until a German guard told him to shut up.
And once, some time during that first week or two, among the people in the undressing room there was a crazy man. Well, I don’t know if he was crazy or was just impaired in his development somehow. He was about thirty years old, but had very little hair. His motions were abrupt. He seemed like the type of person who would need looking after, but he was on his own. That happened a lot. The system separates people from everything they’ve ever known, including themselves.
People were intent on their own worries, frightened and exhausted. They were so anxious and afraid, and here was this odd man who was untouched by it all. He stumbled around the room, poking at people to get their attention. He tried to go through their clothes where they had put them. They pushed him away in distaste.
He was in his own world, but his world was more sane than ours. In the insane world we were living in, he seemed almost to inject an air of normality, of a world where such things as we were witnessing cannot happen.
And yes, I remember people calling each other’s names. It was often very noisy, as everyone tried to stay with loved ones and not get separated. Usually it was parents calling for their children, who had gotten lost in the crowd. I felt relieved when the children were once more with their parents, but the relief was instantly crushed by the despair of knowing. Other times, it was very quiet, because the people had already lost their families and they had no hope left for themselves.
Here is something I remember.
There was an elderly couple who came in together. I first saw them as they descended the stairs. He turned and helped her down the last steps. He was clutching her handbag under one arm as he turned to take her arm. There was a grace and dignity in his action, and a great love which could be seen even at a distance. They had lived a long life together and they breathed as one organism. She was wearing a threadbare dress, which had once been very colorful. He was also stylishly dressed—dark trousers, a light gray shirt and a darker blue-gray vest over it. It was clear that they had lived their last years in poverty, but that it had not always been so. They did not hold themselves like paupers. They each saw their own worth reflected in the other’s eyes.
No tears can ever be enough.
In these days, the Germans made everyone line up outside and descend in rows, men and women together. Later, someone must have explained to them that in our culture women do not undress before men who are not their husbands. So then they had the women and children descend first, and the men after, when the women had already entered the leichenkeller. By that time, when the men also entered, it was too late for any acts of resistance.
The Germans stayed outside in the courtyard and often were not even present in the auskleideraum. Once the people passed through the double doors leading to the vestibule and from there to the leichenkeller, there were German guards who made sure they did not give trouble. By that time, it was too late. The guards mostly kept their weapons less obvious as well, so as not to scare people. It was all deception. In the auskleideraum, we were their surrogates. We could not tell what we knew. Our silence was part of the deceit. That silence haunts me.
But it ends now. It ends now!
The elderly couple came into the room and were urged to go all the way to the end (it was a long room). I was not far from the double doors. The people were told to undress. I don’t know where they were from, but I think their language was Yiddish. The old man and his wife looked bewildered. They looked at each other for a moment. Then she slowly began undressing. He immediately took off his coat and made a screen for her, so that no one else would see her. Only after, as she stood looking both shamed and also with a kind of dignity, did he turn his back to the rest of the room and undress himself. Then he reached out and took her hand.
I did not watch as they went through the doors.
No tears can ever be enough. I would have liked to throw myself at their feet and ask their forgiveness. But nothing can ever be enough.
I have not forgotten.
“Thank you for this, Ovadya. No tears can ever be enough. But you have given life to their blessed memory, and so added blessing to yourself.
“Please continue, when you are able.”
Exhausted by the outpouring of words, I rested my elbows on my knees and tried to get my breathing under control. I stared at my hands. “We did not interact with them. Well that is not strictly true, but what interaction there was is not something to be proud of. It was an interaction that strove not to interact, not to engage.”
“And your colleagues, the other sonderkommandos?”
It is our hands that I remember. I see my own hands and those of my colleagues. I’m rarely able to recall their faces. But their hands I remember.
“Apart from a very few, I don’t remember their faces or their names. Only those that I was able to speak to. I was in shock at first. I didn’t speak. But a few of them went out of their way to be kind to me and I remember that with gratitude. So those few I remember.”
I ran a hand over my hair, not wanting to meet his eyes. “Once, a man came to me and pressed something into my hand. It was a small cardboard frame—the kind that folds over—which held two pictures. I could not understand him so I don’t know if he knew what would happen or whether he wanted me to hold onto it until after. They had been told by the Germans that there would be an “after”. But he was solemn, so perhaps he did know. He was about 40-45 years old, thin and disheveled. He had lived under the Germans. I did not see any family with him. I took the photograph.”
I shrugged. “I knew we would not survive and there was no one to hand it off to. So afterward, when I found it in my pocket, I put it into the pile with all the other things.”
Rav Ish-Shalom closed his eyes and sighed.
“It haunts me now. It is like these memories of individuals, which I could have saved, and did not. I wake up thinking, ‘there was nothing we could do’. But even what I could have done, I did not do. Just buried them somewhere inside me and kept working. I brought so much else with me out of that place. Could I not have saved some of them?”
Rav Ish-Shalom started to speak, then paused, seemingly weighing his words. Finally he said, “It would be cruel to point only to Kohelet, who said: ‘No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.’ So I will add a midrash on this same passage.”
“And even those yet to come….” But in the time to come, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will set apart a community of the righteous for Himself, and will seat them beside Himself in a great assembly.
The room seemed to spin, and yet again, the world momentarily became transparent. The solid foundation of the world showed through the threadbare reality around me. Even those yet to come, of whom there will be no memory…. Even so, they are not forgotten.
“They left no record,” I said. “The ones who passed through there…they left no record, other than the registry at the point of origin. For most, there were no records kept at the end of the journey, other than a notice of arrival of the transport and a note of so many to the left, and so many to the right.
“It applies to them then, this midrash?”
Rav Ish-Shalom nodded. “There is more, too, in just plain peshat.”
“I also left no record. My personal card is one of one hundred and fifty-five that are missing from the records. All that was left was a number on a list. Well, we know why. But when I first found that out, it hit me very hard. Very hard. And why? It’s not that anything very important was written on those cards. It was what they filled in when we arrived: place of origin, date of birth, occupation. It was written in a foreign language, but still, it was a record of who we had been before arrival. We don’t remember those things anymore. But whenever there is a decision to be made whether we live or die, we are given that card to hold onto. We give it to the one who decides, and he puts it either in the ‘to live’ pile, or the ‘to die’ pile. We come to identify with that card.”
A remembered voice: We are witnessing T’chiat HaMetim, and I am keeping a record.
“When I learned that my card was missing, I grieved. But it simply puts me where I belong, with those who left no record.”
Can it be that I also belong with them, even now? Am I not also among the faceless and forgotten?
But they are not forgotten. I have held these unremembered images in mind since then, and they have remained solid, long past my own burning. They can’t be recalled, save with the sorely abused muscles that remember the lift and the heave of them. But they were once living and they were once loved.
Now I want only to let them go. I reach out to them and my empty hands strive to forget the lift and the heave of them, and to remember their faces instead.
Voices silenced by my own flight from sorrow call for children in the crowd. A young woman laughs, despite everything, laughs as she removes a shoe and speaks to a friend. Her laughter is the voice of life itself, which, despite everything, clings to itself, when all voices fall silent, and all faces fade to ashes.
I will look into their faces at the end. I will stand in the courtyard of the Krema and I will look into their eyes, and I will carry their voices into my heart, and I will forget the lift and the heave, and the ashes.
Memory, this prison of sorrow, will yet become the key to my release.
* The Sonderkommando consisted of the Jewish prisoners forced by the Germans to empty the gas chambers and burn the bodies of the dead.