Among its main themes of memory, faith, and healing, Returning explores the dilemmas faced by the Jewish Sonderkommando in Birkenau: When does death becomes a moral obligation? What is the nature of responsibility when all choices are taken from us? How can we accept the unacceptable, and still be who we were? These are the questions that Ovadya still wrestles with decades later.
This page is for book clubs and other discussion groups. It looks at some of these questions through the prism of Jewish Law, psychology, and simple morality.
Each discussion topic begins with an excerpt from the book, followed by some questions for discussion. At the end, you’ll find a few sources from Halakhah (Jewish Law) that show how past generations tried to deal with these issues.
Note: Some of the topics below also feature in the free booklet, In a Time of Persecution: Moral & Religious Dilemmas in the Holocaust, which includes additional resources.
I will open with a question to put all of what follows in context. At the very beginning of Returning, Ovadya tells Yael:
I need you to find a rav. My only stipulation is that it be someone who knows the law inside and out and also not someone who will be blinded by my tears—someone who will judge fairly, applying the Law, not an emotional interpretation of it. I need to see the sources and how they are interpreted. Otherwise it will not help. I do not believe in miracles.
However, it later becomes clear that Ovadya’s transgression is a purely civil matter: whether his work in the Sonderkommando brands him a traitor to the Jewish People. But if this is a civil matter, why does he chose to have his case judged by a rabbinic judge, rather than a civil judge? The question is sharpened by the fact that Ovadya describes himself as “no longer on speaking terms with God”.
The topics below show how Ovadya’s battle with God is partly a battle with himself.
At what price life?
From: “A Conversation with the Dead”—Correspondence between Ovadya and Masha, a women forced to work in a nazi brothel
Imagine yourself there, in that situation [in the undressing room with the victims about to be gassed], forgetting everything you know now. How would you judge me?
And what could I say to you in my defense? Would it carry any weight with you to know what it’s doing to me to have to be here? Would it really matter to you that I’m here under duress, and that any material gain—extra food, warm clothing—I may obtain from being here is far outweighed by the anguish of seeing you here? Would you see me any differently if you knew that several decades down the line I would still be paying for what I was forced to do?
I think the answer is obvious. People are only human. There is no question in my mind how you would answer. There is an unbridgeable chasm that separates those facing death from those who will live on—even if only for a short time. And in that place there was little enough compassion to spare on either side of that chasm.
Ovadya, I don’t think the chasm is as wide as you perceive it to be. I can understand why it felt that way, and still does, but I don’t see it in the same way. The chasm was not between men like you and the soon-to-be-dead. It was between the Nazis and everyone else. They were the ones who had lost their humanity, and that was not through having been forced into it, but through willing choice. Can’t you see that?
Maybe I was equally stained—having sex with the enemy, after all. It seems to me that there wasn’t much time to deliberate on one’s moral choices under those circumstances. You and I were still trying to decide whether to opt out or stay in right up until the end! Those kinds of decisions are major ones, and would take any sane person a good while to contemplate thoroughly before making the final call. Did we get a moment even to think straight, to gather our wits about us and ask for divine guidance? Hardly! That’s part of the problem, I think. You and I are both still carrying a sense of guilt for having co-operated with the enemy, even though in our hearts we were not actually co-operating, and every minute of every day was a debate about whether or not to go on, and every day was a desperate attempt to make the very best possible decision.
How do you feel about the other Sonderkommando members? Do you condemn them as harshly as you condemn yourself? This is a genuine question—I’d really like to know the honest truth. And how do you feel about women like myself? We, too, surely deserve exactly the same condemnation as you do?
What do you think?
- If you were one of the victims, would you see Ovadya as a traitor?
- Ovadya argues that suicide is a valid choice for the men in the Sonderkommando. Elsewhere he asks, “Isn’t it better to let us choose the manner of it?” Do you agree?
- “The fact that good people can be forced to do wrong doesn’t make them less good,” Ovadya says in a different conversation, “But it also doesn’t make the wrong less wrong.” Do you agree? Do you think Ovadya is judging himself overly harshly? If so, what might account for this harshness in judgment?
When is death legally mandated?
From Ovadya’s first learning session with Rav Ish-Shalom, the rabbi that he has contacted to judge his case.
The entire house of Israel are commanded regarding the sanctification of [God’s] great name, as it’s written: “And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.” Also, they are warned against desecrating [His holy name], as [the above verse] states: “And they shall not desecrate My holy name.”
–Yesodei HaTorah, Perek 5, Halakha 1
The words stared at me in mute accusation, and I stared stubbornly back at them: black Hebrew letters that threatened to squeeze through any chink in the armor that I had painstakingly built over decades of isolation.
Rav Ish-Shalom read the next few paragraphs, commenting and adding context as he went. “Note that this touches on the foundation of our calling—what it means to be a Jew. We are meant to be a holy people, a Kingdom of Priests, and if we abrogate that calling, we abrogate our reason for existence. Jews are required to serve as an example in every walk of life, including—perhaps especially—in extreme circumstances. We are expected to choose death over wrong-doing in certain cases, to put love of God above love of life.”
I started to speak, but Rav Ish-Shalom held up a hand. “Wait. We’ll get to your question soon enough….”
When does the above apply? With regard to all mitzvot other than the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. However, with regard to these three sins, if one is ordered: “Transgress one of them or be killed,” one should sacrifice his life rather than transgress.
I had known this much already, but my mind was filled with angry questions. What did the Rambam know of Birkenau? What did he know of what we faced there? What if all of us are to be killed? What if by collaborating in one murder, we save ten people? What if—?
Rav Ish-Shalom cut through my unvoiced objections. “I repeat: What matters is not what will have been done, but what will I have done.”
I shook my head. “But had we all gone to the wire, then the memory of those who passed through would have died with us—or would have lived on in the minds of Germans or Poles, not Jews.”
I realized that I was twisting the rav’s tablecloth in knots, and forced myself to be still. “It wasn’t only our physical existence they wanted to destroy, but our culture and memory as well. Why give them that victory? They have defeated us in every way possible. At least this much we can hold back from them.”
“Ovadya, the value of our lives—of anyone’s life—is not to be found in giving or withholding victory from this or that evil person or culture to whom we stand in opposition. Shall we allow others to determine what our value is?”
What do you think?
- Are we giving the enemy a victory in defining ourselves in opposition to them? Is there another way to see it?
- The rav tells Ovadya, “It is not what has been done that matters, but what I have done.” Do you agree?
- Is there some higher standard upon which we can base our decisions?
- Do you feel that Rav Ish-Shalom is being overly harsh on Ovadya?
When chance is an ally
Rav Ish-Shalom suggests that sometimes all we can do is refrain from doing
“I have some questions….” I said, as we settled down at the table.
“I may have some answers,” Rav Ish-Shalom quipped.
I took a deep breath and dove in. “First question: The case is clear-cut when an enemy tells us: ‘kill this person or you will be killed.’ But what if both are under sentence of death and there is a chance that one might survive if he obeys…? You see, this is the way we saw it at the time: the victims are already dead. We also are under sentence of death, but it is a suspended sentence. Perhaps something will happen to save us before it is carried out. Why should all die when it will not save anyone?”
“It is indeed clear cut,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “Perhaps more clear than you realize. ‘Kill him or you will be killed” includes “Either you kill him and I will spare you, or I will kill you both.’”
I shook my head. “But what if the entire Jewish people is going to be wiped out, and this is the only way to save a single person? Shouldn’t that one person be saved?”
“And who exactly determines who that one person is to be?” asked Rav Ish-Shalom, “You? The esteemed kapo in charge of your team?” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “And how are you to determine that person’s worthiness to be saved, over all others?”
“It was all chance there anyway….” I murmured.
Rav Ish-Shalom looked away and closed his eyes, as if in pain. “Yes, life and death were in the hands of chance,” he said. “And that being the case, your best hope—no, your only hope—is to let it remain so!”
I looked up, startled. My teacher was looking at me intently. “Ovadya, it is not the end result that determines what is right or wrong. It is the process. One is not to take part in the murder of others at any price. Remember: what is at stake is not ‘what will have been done’, but rather ‘what will I have done?’”
“Then what are you suggesting? That we should simply offer to die like sheep?” My hands were clenched together so hard that my knuckles had gone white. I took a deep breath, but my voice still shook. “The choice we faced was to choose life on any terms at all or death on the enemy’s terms. Should we play into their hands by choosing death over life?”
Rav Ish-Shalom did not rise to my anger, but his reply was no less forceful. “They will kill us anyway. I stand by what I have said, what the Rambam has said. What kind of people do we want to be? What is the value of our lives if we help murderers?”
“And by making it easier for them to kill us—you don’t consider that helping them? After all, their intention is to wipe us out completely, so that not even a memory of us should remain on earth.”
“No, Ovadya. Their intention is also to wipe out our souls from the World to Come, by turning us into accomplices to murder.”
What do you think?
- Ovadya first comes to Rav Ish-Shalom as a judge. Why does the rabbi step outside of this role? Is his reason his own or does he see himself as acting on behalf of Am Yisrael as a whole?
- What are the limits of our responsibility when all choices seem be wrong? How does Rav Ish-Shalom advise one to respond to these limits? Do you feel that his reasoning is selfish in some way?
- Do you think that what we do on earth has any impact on some other “heavenly” world?
Priorities and Charity
Who takes precedence when life and death are uncertain?
In the Krema, we have access to a large quantity of “treasure”—food and medicines that are very much needed. But to whom to give it? Those who need it most are also those least likely to survive. Does one give food only to those with good chances?
Things came to a head one night in autumn of ‘43 when some two hundred men were brought over from the main camp towards nightfall. They were veterans and knew what was going on. They had been dumped—quite literally dumped—in the courtyard, and some were injured by the fall. They had not eaten in three or four days. We had a pile of tins upstairs from the day before and wanted to share this with them. Because it was cold, we had to place heaters in the leichenkeller first in order to warm up the room. So we had something more than an hour to wait. Several of our group went to fetch some food that had been cached upstairs. An argument broke out up there with other team members about whether it was right to give food to those who would be dead in another few hours. Would it not be better to save it for the women’s camp across the road, where it might make the difference between life and death?
The argument might have become violent, had not someone decided to ask the Dayan. He said that according to halakhah, when food means life, it must go only to those whose life can be saved. Those downstairs could not be saved, but others could.
So in the end, the men who went upstairs returned empty handed. The rest of us took whatever we had on us and gave that instead. It was very little and simply caused a lot of ill feeling.
“Rav Ish-Shalom, this has haunted me for a long time. I understand the reasons for the Dayan’s decision. But still, we are also in the category of ‘already dead’. No one believes they will let us live, having seen what we have seen. Do we have the right not to give to others in the same situation? Can one weigh one life against another? For them the time is one hour and for us, a few months…. Perhaps this last hour is the most important hour of all to these people? Can one weigh one moment of life against another?”
Rav Ish-Shalom gazed into the distance for some time, thinking.
Finally, he turned back to face me. “Ovadya, this is a fine question. It would seem, at first blush, to resemble the case argued by Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura about two men in a desert, with one possessing enough water for his own survival alone. Ben Petura ruled that he cannot let his friend die; they must share the water and both die. Rabbi Akiva ruled that one has the right—even the duty—to give precedence to one’s own life, as long as one does not actively end the other’s life—and the halakhah follows Rabbi Akiva.”
I started to say something, perhaps to object, but his hand was already up to forestall me.
“However, on further reflection, that is not the case here. In the situation you describe, it would seem a good case could be made for giving precedence to those who are present and whose life is in immediate danger over others who might or might not be able to benefit later. On the other hand, the rules change when death is certain and imminent.”
I nodded. “I suppose this is the heart of it for me—just because someone is already declared dead doesn’t mean that he deserves no consideration.” And I am a spokesman for the dead, more than the living.
Rav Ish-Shalom seemed not to hear. “The bottom line is that I am not going to answer this question, for it requires greater study, in depth, to arrive at a proper conclusion. Furthermore, it is a known principle of halakhic decision-making that God aids the person asked in resolving a real case, in ways He does not help someone facing a purely theoretical question. May God grant that this question always remain theoretical.”
What do you think?
- Do you agree with the judgment of the Dayan? What would you have done in this circumstance?
When not to pray
Should one pray for salvation when salvation comes only through the death of someone else?
I wish to tell you something I have learned, and acted upon. I would like, one day when you are not too busy, to know your thoughts on this, and whether you agree or disagree.
It is that one must never, ever, plead with God before a Selekzia, and never praise God when it is over. To plead not to be taken is simply to ask that another be taken instead. The urge to do so is very strong, but you will have to live with yourself afterward—at least until the next one. And the same goes for thanking God for being spared. Should we praise God for someone else’s suffering?
I understand how you feel. This is similar to a position that used to be taken by Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I disagree strongly. Let me illustrate with some sources.
The Gemara says (and it’s part of the tefilla [prayer] on Yom Kippur) that the Kohen Gadol prayed to G-d, on Yom Kippur, as he stood at the entrance of the Holy of Holies, that G-d should not listen to the prayers of travelers when the world needs rain. One might wonder—would it not be preferable to instruct travelers not to pray that it should not rain? The answer seems to be that G-d expects and allows—nay, probably even desires, prefers and longs for—people to be natural, to be connected with their feelings and needs and preferences, and to express them naturally. Other people may pray for the opposite—that is all right, too. G-d wants us to be human beings, not angels.
There is a fundamental principle of Jewish belief at work here: G-d is a free agent, as human beings are free agents. Please permit me not to expand on this point just now.
Just in case you might argue that the above may be true for common people, but that great men of faith are expected to hold to a higher standard, let me give another illustration. The Gemara notes that when Yirmiyahu and Daniel prayed, they removed words of praise that Moshe had said about G-d in his prayer. Moshe had turned to G-d as HaEl haGadol haGibor v’haNora, but Yirmiyahu and Daniel had left out the last two words, after they saw the destruction of the Bet Mikdash and the oppression and murder of the Jewish people. The Gemara explains the answer to their question of faith, and that the Anshei Knesset Hagedola restored the use of the full phrase by Moshe Rabbenu, in our daily tefillat amida.
But then, the Gemara asks, did not Yirmiyahu and Daniel know that same answer that the Anshei Haknesset knew? Why did they leave those two words out of their prayers? And the Gemara answers: because they knew that G-d is a G-d of truth—and so they could not pray what they could not feel! Intellectual understanding is one thing, and having human emotions—and bringing them to G-d—is something else. And that’s how it should be!!
So, one can pray for G-d to save one’s life, even if the only way that might seem likely to happen is if someone else is taken (because there do exist other possibilities, even if they are unlikely). One doesn’t have to plan for G-d how He will work things out—it is sufficient to cry out to be saved, and let G-d work out the details. Not only that—one cries out to G-d, but G-d is free to decide how to respond. Similarly, if one has been saved—then it is right to be naturally grateful. It is only human. And one can do that simultaneously with feeling pain over the loss of someone else who was taken.
There is more. But let that suffice for now. Just be human. And know we are free. And that G-d is free, too.
What do you think?
- Would you feel comfortable praying for something that could only come at the expense of someone else?
- In a letter to Rav Ish-Shalom, Ovadya writes:
Something happens to one who is enslaved, especially if he is enslaved from a young age: he comes to distrust his own strength to do anything. But he also cannot trust anyone else. “After all,” he says, “if I cannot help myself, no one else will help me. I must do nothing to reveal my weakness, for the weak do not survive.” A free man may say, “God will help me.” But one who is enslaved feels himself enslaved at the will of God. He feels the hand of God in every blow and every cold blast of wind. He does not expect any mercy from God.
Someone in that position cannot undo by an act of faith what experience has beaten into him. He can be rescued and witness incredible wonders (the Parting of the Sea, Manna from heaven), but he will still be prone to distrust. There will be a tendency to see all this as just the raising of hopes in order to dash them when it is all taken away again. Perhaps he is being rescued only in order to make of him an example to others.
Do you think this sheds light on Ovadya’s difficulty in praying? What would you say to Ovadya if he brought this question to you?
Sources in Jewish Law
Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah Perek 5
The entire house of Israel are commanded regarding the sanctification of [God’s] great name, as [Leviticus 22:32] states: “And I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.” Also, they are warned against desecrating [His holy name], as [the above verse] states: “And they shall not desecrate My holy name.”
What is implied? Should a gentile arise and force a Jew to violate one of the Torah’s commandments at the pain of death, he should violate the commandment rather than be killed, because [Leviticus 18:5] states concerning the mitzvot: “which a man will perform and live by them.” [They were given so that] one may live by them and not die because of them. If a person dies rather than transgress, he is held accountable for his life.
When does the above apply? With regard to other mitzvot, with the exception of the worship of other gods, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. However, with regard to these three sins, if one is ordered: “Transgress one of them or be killed,” one should sacrifice his life rather than transgress.
All the above [distinctions] apply [only in times] other than times of a decree. However, in times of a decree – i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvot – one should sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvot, whether one is compelled [to transgress] amidst ten [Jews] or one is compelled [to transgress merely] amidst gentiles.
If anyone about whom it is said: “Transgress and do not sacrifice your life,” sacrifices his life and does not transgress, he is held accountable for his life.
When anyone about whom it is said: “Sacrifice your life and do not transgress,” sacrifices his life and does not transgress, he sanctifies [God’s] name. If he does so in the presence of ten Jews, he sanctifies [God’s] name in public….
When anyone about whom it is said: “Sacrifice your life and do not transgress,” transgresses instead of sacrificing his life, he desecrates [God’s] name. If he does so in the presence of ten Jews, he desecrates [God’s] name in public, nullifies [the fulfillment of] the positive commandment of the sanctification of [God’s] name, and violates the negative commandment against the desecration of God’s name.
Suicide in Self-Defense