Two lives touched by the same nightmare
Ovadya ben Malka endured more than a year in Birkenau as a cog in the wheels of destruction. Unable to speak of what he witnessed and endured, he was trapped between the living and the dead. Now, more than 60 years later, he is ready to face his past at last … but his past is only part of his secret.
The Business Card
The business card was faded and tattered around the edges. For over a year, it had sat all but forgotten in her desk drawer. She turned it over a few times, as if the answer to a dilemma 65 years old might suddenly pop out of it. “Rabbi David Ish-Shalom. Weddings, counseling, religious services.” Nowhere did it say: “Judge and jury for a people betrayed by one of its own”. But that was seemingly what was needed—a formal rabbinic judgment with all its finality. She didn’t envy any rabbi who had to deal with this particular case.
Well, she didn’t envy anyone who had to deal with it, full stop. Including herself. By what right was she about to dump this problem onto someone she had never met? She wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with rabbis. Or with God, for that matter.
Yael heard a click as someone picked up the phone on the other end. A deep, rather mellow voice said, “Good evening.”
“May I speak with Rav Ish-Shalom?”
Is having a soothing voice a prerequisite for being a rabbi? she wondered.
“My name is Yael.” There was an awkward pause as she fished around for something else to say. “I’m not sure what the procedure is for this, but…I need to request a psak din. It has to do with a question of y’hareg v’al ya’avor….”
Did she sense his ears perk up? Y’hareg v’al ya’avor means “to be killed rather than transgress” and refers to extreme situations in which one should not transgress a commandment even to save one’s life.
“It’s about something that happened about 65 years ago.” Would he make the correct inference? “I don’t want to try to explain on the phone. It’s complicated…. Would it be all right if I explain it to you in writing? Send you a file via email?”
“Yes. That will be fine,” he said, and then, with audible sadness, “I look forward with trepidation to reading that file.”
Yes, he had understood.
She sat in stunned bemusement for a while after closing the phone.
“Well, I’ve done it,” she said. “You’ll get your Psak Din.”
“Are you relieved?” she asked.
“I am resigned,” he said.
Understandable. And yet, was there a note of relief in there too? Perhaps she only wanted it to be there. Who am I doing this for, she wondered, you or me? Nothing new there; she had been asking herself that question for years. She wondered whether the process that she had set in motion would bring him closure or only open old wounds. And which outcome was he hoping for? Was it closure he sought, or self-punishment? Did he even know?
“I need you to find a rav,” he had said. “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.”
She sighed as she sat down to write a letter introducing Alex to the judge who would in all likelihood find him guilty of treason.
To Preserve Memory
Let me begin by saying that “Alex” is not my real name. It is a nickname by which the Greek Jews were inevitably called by the Polish and Hungarian Jews. Names were not important to us, for the simple but paradoxical reason that they were too important. They were a connection to what we had been, which had been forcibly taken from us. Why keep the reminder? Why grasp at a nostalgic memory that brings only pain? Far easier to make do with nicknames. Nicknames have an air of impermanence, just as we do. They are empty of any pretense, just as we are.
In any case, we had some trouble pronouncing one another’s names.
I will tell what I am able. I am done with hiding. What I will not do is soften the reality. I will not compromise the truth as I have lived it. I will not make it more palatable for the reader. Yes, I am a difficult person. I freely admit it. I will not make myself more congenial or easier to take. You don’t like what I have to say? Fine, don’t read further. My retelling brings nightmares? Welcome to my world. I will not accommodate myself, any more than the world has accommodated itself to me.
I was not always like this. I don’t know where he has gone, that young poet who wrote love songs to God and was in love with all the world. There was nothing that he could not accomplish. He trusted. He knew his place in the world and was content. He was at home in his tradition. It was the air he breathed. He was a son of Israel and lived to serve the God of Israel and could hope for no greater glory. He would marry a virtuous and loving woman of Saloniki, and would raise his children to love their heritage and to live wholly in the present for the sake of the future, just as he did.
Perhaps someday he would visit the Land of Israel…maybe even live there. For now, that was a dream to be set beside the dreams of shipping out on a freighter to visit foreign lands. One day his dreams of adventure on foreign shores would be put in their place—fond memories of youth. For now, he was content to dream, knowing that dreams were the stuff of which his songs were made….
But I am not that youth. He is dead and I have neither the strength nor the leisure to mourn his passing. It is with me, Alex, that you deal now, and you will have to accept me as I am, or stop reading now. I will not forget and I will not spare you the details. If you want to open this buried jar of memory and read its contents, you will have to face what I have seen.
I will be writing from a very sketchy memory. Well, it is a very clear and precise memory in some cases. Trouble is, there isn’t a lot of it. Things happened, and I said, “I will never forget this.” But then the next thing happened, and the next…. So I have forgotten many things, though they come up again under the odd stimulus. Little things. They come up again and if I write them down or tell someone, then the memory remains. But if not, then it’s all gone again as quickly as it came.
So this work will not only be from memory, but about memory—about how it was formed by experience, and how it was obliterated by that same experience. But above all, my task is to preserve memory.
So I will start with a memory….
Our city, Saloniki, was built round the port, where ships of almost any size can be accommodated either by solid berths or by portable ones that can be moved about by towing vessels. The ships bring trade, a potpourri of cultures and languages, and a colorful assortment of perceptions to ponder. To a child, it is an environment rich in stimulation.
The marketplace is all of this and more, but condensed into a smaller space. Someone recently asked me to describe my city and I found myself once more among those colorful market stalls. But it wasn’t the weekly shopping that I recalled—the sights, the smells, and the sounds. Rather, I saw myself as a small boy running among the stalls with friends, hiding between the legs of the adults; attempting to steal a date from the cart without getting caught. I felt again the panic as the feared Turkish shopkeeper grabbed hold of my wrist when I didn’t move fast enough. I recalled how he scolded me with the voice of a lion whose den has been invaded…before pressing a date into my hand.
A child’s memory. The bright fabrics of youth, now overlaid by the fine dust of old age.
A child’s memory? A strange thing that. I was nineteen years old when that colorful and vibrant world came to an end, but it is the childhood memories that remain—colorful fabrics, the fragrance of spices and rich foods. And the music…. We made songs of everything.
I remember the little Bet Knesset in our neighborhood, whose lovely stained glass windows were decorated with birds and flowers from floor to ceiling. The Torah was chanted from a circular reading stand in the middle of the room, reached by three stairs. The Reader’s melodious voice would fill that small building and lift everyone who heard it up to a level where song became pure being. On Shabbat and holidays, that place became a gateway into the other world and our prayers opened all doors.
We had lived in a bubble of safety for five hundred years, since the Expulsion from Spain. Our language reflected our origins—ironic that those who were most faithful in preserving the language and music of Renaissance Spain were the Jews who had been sent into exile by that same culture with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Saloniki had been part of the Ottoman Empire, but became part of Greece in 1912. And, as is usual in such cases, a population exchange ensued; many of the Muslims moved out, to be replaced by Greek Christians. While the Muslims were culturally very close to us, the Christian newcomers were not.
All that was before I was born, of course. But it was still a society in transition. A city that had hosted three great cultures for generations had changed its character almost overnight, but the change had not yet been assimilated. If you had told us that we were living in the last days of Saloniki’s glory, we would have said you were crazy.
Did I say I was nineteen? No, that is incorrect. It is what I told the German officer, who let me live on the basis of that lie. I was seventeen.
I drift in a haze of fever. The door at the end of the building is propped open to let in some air—an attempt to combat the smell of hundreds of sick and dying men stacked, sometimes eight deep, on the wooden bunks. In my delirium, the open door takes on the shape of the windows of the Bet Knesset with their colorful designs and fanciful scrollwork. As I watch, the colors begin to fade. A harsh network of black lines begins to creep over the glass, forming the shape of a thorn bush with long spikes. The thorns snake upwards, crawling slowly over the glass to consume the colorful birds and flowers. Soon only the thorns remain—black lines over empty space.
So has my past vanished into the hole in the world that is Birkenau.