When does survival become a crime? When does choice become treason? And what choice do we have when all choices are wrong? These are the questions faced by the Sonderkommando—the Jews who were forced to burn the bodies of the dead.
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.
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.
One of the crucial lessons of the Holocaust is that both victims and perpetrators were ordinary people—people like ourselves. Film and literature help to bring this lesson home by engaging our empathy. One piece of advice the rabbi gave Ovadya ben Malka is this: “One cannot keep alive the memory of thousands. It just is not possible. Instead, call to mind individuals. Not their deaths, but their lives.” In learning to see the victims as individuals—people like himself—Ovadya was led to acknowledge his own humanity as well.
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.