When does survival become a crime? What is the nature of Evil? Where was God during the Holocaust? What are the limits of human responsibility in the face of overwhelming coercion? These are just some of the question faced by Jews—particularly religious Jews—during the Shoah. This guide explores these questions and more through a series of dialogues between Ovadya ben Malka, a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and the rabbi to whom he turned for judgment.
Some things should continue to awaken our sense of outrage, because not to be outraged is to cease to be human. We should not surrender our humanity without a fight, even if we know we will lose that fight in the end.
Our first guest post is by Irris Makler, a foreign correspondent and author based in Jerusalem. For more than three years she’s been gathering the life stories and recipes of Holocaust Survivors and photographing them with their grandchildren. Now, she’s collecting all of these together in a book, Just Add Love – Holocaust Survivors Share their Stories and Recipes. Here, she shares one story that unfolded while she was writing it, a meditation on memory, involving the family on the book’s cover.
Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the description of the ritual whereby the Israelite farmer is to offer the first fruits of the harvest at the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the second half of the parasha describes the horrendous fate that will befall the nation of Israel in the future. The juxtaposition of these two discordant descriptions is no coincidence. Parashat Ki Tavo is a lesson in learning from history.
Returning explores the questions 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? Can we do T’shuvah for acts committed under coercion? These are the questions that Ovadya still wrestles with decades later.
It is ironic, and somehow appropriate that Holocaust Remembrance Day is not commemorated in Israel. At least not on the same day as the rest of the world commemorates it. Truly, we are “a people that dwells alone.” How to commemorate Yom HaShoah is a dilemma that we still grapple with. Here, it’s personal; not a historical event to be commemorated, but a memory to be endured. There are a large number of Israelis who know first-hand “how bad it got”. And even the children and grandchildren know to some extent, just because of the the things that their parents and grandparents can’t speak of. And yet, even here, the survivors were at first afraid to speak of it for fear of not being understood. Either you were there, in which case no words are necessary, or you weren’t, in which case no words are enough.