How do we come to terms with past trauma and betrayal? What are the limits of human responsibility in the face of coercion? How can we accept the unacceptable, and still be who we were? Even if others are willing to forgive us, how can we forgive yourselves? How can we know we are truly forgiven? And more, is death really the end of memory?
This page is for book clubs and discussion groups. It includes questions to guide readers through some of the issues raised by Returning with regard to the the Holocaust in general, the Sonderkommando in particular, and the way in which Ovadya and Yael each deal with their memory of the past. If you have a question that you’d like to see here, please let us know! Book club administrators might also be interested in ideas for hosting a book club event via Facebook, Skype, or other communications media. See A New Venue for Book Club Discussions: A case study in using Facebook Events.
For in-depth discussion topics, see Moral Dilemmas in the Holocaust.
Part I – Adrift
- Alex describes his home in Saloniki (Thessaloniki) in glowing terms. Often the scenes of our youth seem unnaturally bright and idyllic compared with the events our later years. Do you think that is the case with Alex, or is something else involved?
- “We have more in common than you think,” Masha tells Alex. “We both made a wrong choice.” What was Masha’s “wrong choice”? Do you agree with her assessment that it was the wrong thing to do? What was Alex’s “wrong choice” Do you feel that it was really a choice?
- “What you’ve said, that you saw God standing behind the enemy, you are like a gangster about God,” Masha tells Alex. What is Masha referring to?
- In his first letter to the rabbi, Alex writes that he has resolved to tell it all. What might have brought about his resolve to finally face his past?
- In his first letter to Rabbi Ish-Shalom, Alex says, “I am like one of those buried jars hidden in the ground…” To what is he referring. Does this give a clue to his guilt?
- “Is Ovadya your father?” Rav Ish-Shalom asks Yael. Why do you think she is reticent about answering this question? What do you think is the relationship between Ovadya and Yael?
- Many survivors lost their faith after the Shoah, while others came out with their faith strengthened. What about Alex? Would becoming an atheist resolve his problems with God?
- Would you characterize Yael’s decision to immigrate to Israel as rational? Do you think many who make the same journey do so for the same reasons as Yael?
- For Yael, memory is a “locked door”. What do you think lies behind that door?
- Yael encounters a rabbi in Jerusalem who keeps an index card filled with stories like hers. What is the symbolism of these index cards? What is the symbolism of such cards for Alex?
- Rav Ish-Shalom asks, “Who do you identify with, with Ovadya…or with Alex?” What is the significance of the rabbi’s use of the two names: Alex and Ovadya?
- What might be behind Alex’s inability to remember the faces and voices of people in Birkenau?
- Why is Masha able to draw Alex out of his self-protective silence? What means does she use to accomplish this? Rav Ish-Shalom also tries to prod Ovadya into telling what he saw, using a very different method. If you were to interview a survivor of the Holocaust or of some other trauma, would you choose either of these means?
- How did you feel upon learning of Ovadya’s real relationship with Yael? Were you taken aback, or do you feel that this revelation supported your own feelings about life and death? How does it fit in with the teachings of your own religious tradition?
Part II – In Sight of Land
- 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?
- “The Yiddish speakers [in the lager] didn’t consider us Jewish,” Ovadya says. What were the consequences of this ostracism?
- “He did a lot of bad things…but never once did he say, ‘you aren’t Jewish, so I’m taking you off the list.” What list is Ovadya referring to here? How does Ovadya’s characterization of the capo in charge of the Sonderkommando tie into his current value system?
- Memory is often seen as a curse by those suffering from PTSD. Would you say that Alex regards it as such, or is his relationship to memory more complicated? How does Yael see it?
- Is Yael more like Alex or more like Ovadya?
- Ovadya argues that suicide is a valid choice for the men in the Sonderkommando. “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. But it also doesn’t make the wrong less wrong.” Do you think Ovadya is judging himself overly harshly? If so, what might account for this harshness in judgment?
- The rabbi tells Ovadya, “It is not what has been done that matters, but what I have done.” Do you agree with him? Do you think this statement should be qualified? If so, how would you phrase it?
- Why is Ovadya so averse to calling to mind the person he was before the camp? What causes him to change his mind?
- How would you describe the process of T’shuvah that Ovadya undertakes? Do you feel that one should, or can, do T’shuvah for acts committed under extreme coercion?
- A number of symbols appear in the book. What is the symbolism of the rope?
- What do you think the “Returning” of the book’s title refers to? Might the term refer to more than one concept? What does the phrase mean to you?
- Of the characters in the book, who would you most want to speak to, and why? What questions would you ask?