A TALE OF MEMORY AND REDEMPTION
Modern Israel’s greatest philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, once wrote: “Literature, which pokes into every corner where there is poetry and life, has not penetrated at all into the marvelous treasure of life that is repentance.” Yael Shahar’s Returning, based on a true story but crafted with literary skill, seems meant to fit into that gap.
The Hebrew word for “repentance” is teshuvah, which means literally “returning.” Teshuvah means far more than regret for past actions; it means renewing oneself by reconnecting with the Creator.
The main protagonist of Returning – Ovadya ben Malka, whom we first meet as Alex – was a prisoner at Birkenau and a member of the Sonderkommando, the group of prisoners conscripted to help the Germans with their Satanic work of gassing or otherwise murdering the Jews of Europe and cremating their bodies. Alex/Ovadya acted under unimaginable duress, but he guesses that the acts he committed were of the kind a Jew is supposed to be killed rather than commit. Having found his way to Israel, he is seeking a path of atonement.
Much of the book consists of dialogue between Ovadya and his teacher, Rav David, who helps him face his past and counsels him in the light of the Jewish authorities on repentance, mainly Maimonides. For both of them, it is a struggle for truth. Ovadya knows he must be totally honest with himself about what he did and why; Rav David knows that if he is truly to help Ovadya find peace he cannot let compassion soften the judgment.
Like other Holocaust memoirs, Ovadya’s memories are full of hideously painful details. The emphasis, however, is on the experience of the soul under these extreme conditions. At moments Ovadya’s remembered struggles become those of the reader questioning how he/she would have done under such circumstances — and only too sure of the answer. Yet somehow, transformation does occur. Ovadya is able to get beyond the horrors to a memory of what he was before they happened, and also to a sense of who they other victims had been, and to find his relationship to G-d and Torah. In this process the Jewish sources which Rav David consults and which he introduces to Ovadya play a vital role.
It is all very real.
But there is something else going on beneath the surface. Ovadya’s fate is bound up with that of a woman born into a very different time and place. Born to a non-Jewish family in Texas, Yael found herself remembering things that could have nothing to do with her family background. On realizing that her soul was Jewish, she converted and moved to Israel – which is part of a greater return, the return of the exiled Jewish people to their land. It isYael who first seeks the help of Rav David on Ovadya’s behalf.
Yael’s case is not unique; there have been numerous testimonies by people who experienced themselves as reincarnated Holocaust victims. In an afterword Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo poses the question: is this phenomenon a fulfillment of the prophecy of redemption, in which the dead will come back to life?
At the very least, it is a sign of comfort. If here and there in this world someone can inherit the memories of someone who lived in a different body, then it is clear that – despite so many appearances – memory is not just a matter of neurons and synapses, electronic scratchings on the tablets of the brain. Somewhere, surely, even the lives of those who perished without a trace are not forgotten.
Returning is coming out on September 4, 2018 but can be pre-ordered from the Kasva Press at: https://www.kasvapress.com/
Or click here to purchase on Amazon.