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.
Ovadya ben Malka endured more than a year in the Birkenau Sonderkommando. Unable to speak of what he had done to survive, he was locked in the silent prison of his guilt. But Ovadya got more than he bargained for when he brought his past to a rabbi for judgment…
“So. I’ve been thinking….”
“Keep it up. You’re good at it!” There was a glint of amusement in Rav Ish-Shalom’s eye as he deposited our volumes of the Rambam’s Hilkhot T’shuvah on the table and went back to the kitchen to bring coffee.
Our meetings were slowly developing a routine, and the routine was becoming the fulcrum of my life. There was a timeless quality to these meetings, a sense of deep familiarity, as if I had been spending every Monday morning in Rav Ish-Shalom’s study for as long as I remembered. And yet….
I stood at the window looking out onto the fields. In the distance, a tractor reached the end of one row and turned to plow the next. Surely this field belonged to the rav. Did he still farm this land? It occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about him. I knew that he had been a professor at one of the more prestigious universities, with doctorates in two completely unrelated subjects. That was impressive enough, but he had also served as the official rabbi of several communities, a position of authority and responsibility. From the photos lining every available shelf I knew he had a large and handsome family. But none of this explained why a man with such impressive credentials was spending Monday mornings teaching Torah to a disembodied dockworker with delusions of salvageability.
The sound of the sliding door interrupted my musings.
“I have some questions….” I said, as we settled down at the table.
“I may have some answers,” Rav Ish-Shalom quipped.
For a second, I entertained the notion of voicing the questions that had occupied my thoughts before he came in. But no, I could no more have asked him a personal question than I could have flown to the moon.
I took a deep breath and dove in. “First question: The case is clear-cut when an enemy tells us: ‘kill this person or you will be killed.’ There is no room for doubt about what is the correct action. But what if both are under sentence of death and there is a chance that one might survive if he obeys…? Is it still clear-cut? Especially if the one does not actively shed blood, but plays ‘merely’ a supporting role.”
I kept my eyes resolutely on the table in front of me. “You see, this is the way we saw it at the time: the victims are already dead. We too are under sentence of death, but it is a suspended sentence. Perhaps something will happen to save us before it is carried out. Why should all die when it will not save anyone?”
“It is indeed clear cut,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “Perhaps more clear than you realize. ‘Kill him or you will be killed” includes “Either you kill him and I will spare you, or I will kill you both.’”
I shook my head. “But what if the entire Jewish people is going to be wiped out, and this is the only way to save a single person? Shouldn’t that one person be saved?”
“And who exactly determines who that one person is to be?” asked Rav Ish-Shalom, “You? The esteemed kapo in charge of your team?” His voice dripped with sarcasm. “And how are you to determine that person’s worthiness to be saved, over all others?”
The unspoken conclusion was clear: those in a position to determine who is to live and who is to die are themselves the least worthy of life. And if they were not unworthy of life before they made that determination, they certainly are after it.
“It was all chance there anyway….” I murmured.
Rav Ish-Shalom looked away and closed his eyes, as if in pain. “Yes, life and death were in the hands of chance,” he said. “And that being the case, your best hope—no, your only hope—is to let it remain so!”
I looked up, startled. My teacher was looking at me intently. “Ovadya, it is not the end result that determines what is right or wrong. It is the process. One is not to take part in the murder of others at any price. What matters is not ‘what will have been done’, but rather ‘what will I have done?’”
“Then what are you suggesting? That we should simply offer to die like sheep?” My hands were clenched together so hard that my knuckles had gone white. I took a deep breath, but my voice still shook. “The choice we faced was to choose life on any terms at all or death on the enemy’s terms. Should we play into their hands by choosing death over life?”
Rav Ish-Shalom did not rise to my anger, but his reply was no less forceful. “They will kill us anyway. I stand by what I have said, what the Rambam has said. What kind of people do we want to be? What is the value of our lives if we help murderers?”
I scarcely heard him. The rage of unshed tears drowned out everything but my own shame. “And by making it easier for them to kill us—you don’t consider that helping them? Their intention is to wipe us out completely, so that not even a memory of us should remain on earth.”
“No, Ovadya. Their intention is also to wipe out our souls from the World to Come, by turning us into accomplices to murder.”
It was like being hit in the face with a bucketful of cold water. The words, though spoken quietly, brought everything to a halt. I looked into my teacher’s eyes with shock.
“…however unwillingly….” he said gently.
The anger died, leaving behind an emptiness, like a gaping hole in a formerly solid wall. A breach in my defenses.
Rav Ish-Shalom’s words slipped easily into the gap. “It is not our aim to die. However, when we imbibe ‘willingness’ to die for our sacred principles, then there is some hope we will be driven to find meaning in living for our sacred principles.”
I took a deep breath. “So what the Rambam was trying to guard against is taking the easy way out? Letting our enemies set the terms of our survival and…the way we live the lives they have given back to us?”
Rav Ish-Shalom nodded.
“But if every time enemies rise up against us, we are supposed to elevate the smallest mitzvah to something to die for, then none of us would survive. We would simply be putting our necks into the noose voluntarily.”
“What you experienced was a different sort of persecution than what the Rambam had in mind. In the case he was referring to, one is given the option to convert and to live. No such offer was made by the Nazis.”
“You don’t say?” I fought down the bitterness. “But really—death is the easier choice….” I thought of that long slide into inhumanity. “To try to survive under those conditions is the harder thing. And of course, it’s what they expected us to do. They counted on the instinct to survive to drive us straight into their hands…. So perhaps choosing death would have after all been the better choice. It would have cheated them of our suffering. Certainly, had we not lived through that fruitless struggle to survive, we would not have bequeathed to the future such memories. Our experience would not now be darkening the lives of so many of Am Yisrael. No one would have survived to give birth to future victims….”
Was our survival worth these memories?
“But of course, we could not know the consequences of anything at the time—neither living nor dying.”
“Ovadya, I repeat: right and wrong are not determined by the consequences. Wrong acts may lead to desirable consequences, and right acts may lead to undesirable consequences.”
All this was easy to contemplate, sitting in Rav Ish-Shalom’s quiet study, surrounded by books of Torah. Quite another thing when looked at from inside the fences. “So you’re saying that the intentions of our enemies shouldn’t dictate our behavior…. ?” But that led to a different question. “But then, where do we draw the line? For example, there were some in our unit who did not work the furnaces at all. Their job was to sort through and bundle up the long hair of murdered Jewish women. There were others whose job it was to pull out gold teeth from the mouths of the dead, and still others who did something with these teeth in order to extract the gold.
“Should they also have refused to serve? What of those who built the kremas, or laid the tracks that eventually went almost to the gates of the kremas?”
“I cannot answer with certainty,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “It requires further study. A rabbi is given divine help when he has to answer a real, practical question, but less so when the question is theoretical. At first blush, it seems that any help given a murderer that will help him do his crime is forbidden, even at the cost of one’s life.”
“So I’ll give you a concrete case. You remember the rav that I mentioned to you once? The Dayan?”
Rav Ish-Shalom nodded.
“Well, he worked mostly upstairs, sorting hair….” I struggled to stay in the present, strove with all my might to keep the book-lined walls from turning into the red-brick walls of the furnace room.
“He seemed to think that we were in some sort of transition time, where the laws would be turned upside down. He told the kohanim that a time had come when even kohanim must serve as the Hevra Kaddisha for the Jewish People, so that the last of Am Yisrael would at least have a Jew present at their end….
“But surely he also knew this….” With a soot-begrimed hand, I pointed at the text on the page. “Why did he interpret it differently?”
“Ovadya, I don’t know. God only knows what goes on in the innermost depths of the soul, especially under such circumstances. We cannot judge a person for what he says or does under extreme duress, even when we have clear-cut halakhic principles and rulings.”
“Well, he was trying to make sense of the experience while in the midst of it, whereas you are trying to make sense of it afterward. He was living it and could not know that anyone would survive. But surely the halakhah cannot be one thing outside the fences and another thing inside.”
“Indeed, it is not. But halakhah is not always what one or another of its representatives says. As you have insisted, one must see the source material, and use correct halakhic reasoning.”
I nodded absently. I felt worn out, as if I had just fought a long and hard boxing match, and been soundly defeated. Over the past few months, he had been chipping away at my excuses, bringing them down one after the other. It was like watching a siege wall crumble—from the inside.
Their intention is also to wipe out our souls from the world to come, by turning us into accomplices to murder. Well, they have succeeded in that, at least in my case, I thought. Only now was I beginning to understand the magnitude of what they had done to us. Had they studied all of our history to find the one thing that would scar us for generations and poison us all the way to our core, they could not have chosen better.
“So whether we can save another Jew by our deaths is not relevant?” I said. “Clearly we cannot. The question is whether we can save something in ourselves by our deaths. Perhaps we can even save something in Am Yisrael in dying. In any case, we can break the silence.”
“And also: let the Germans do their own dirty work. Let them be the ones to look inside that door. Let them be the ones to deal with the consequences now. I could wish upon them the nightmares that I now live with!”
“But you know, at the time, none of this was relevant. I don’t think we ever even discussed it, other than to consider suicide. That was as far as we could go. Refusing outright…well we never even considered it. I came to the SK after two months of a kind of slavery designed to break the spirit of anyone. If they told me to do something, I did it…. Still, if there was enough resistance left in me to provoke a beating that time, then there was enough willpower left to walk into the gas chamber before the door was closed.”
“Perhaps,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “It would have been the wrong thing, though. Remember, what the Rambam wrote is not that one should prefer suicide to helping a murderer, but rather that one should let the murderer carry out his threat to kill rather than assist him in murder.”
“Yes, I see that. But one thing I want to make clear: it is not simply a matter of saying, ‘I refuse to do this. Shoot me.’ They were not threatening us with death; they were threatening us with life. It was clear that we could not hope for anything as clean and uncomplicated as being shot. If a large number were to refuse all at once, then they would die by gas. It would have to be more than about two hundred, since less than that would not justify the ‘waste’ of poison. Fewer than that, but more than twenty, might expect to be shot. This is much to be preferred to gas as it is quicker. However, one alone, or even a dozen, would be made an example of.
“I am not telling you this to excuse what we did….” But it was an excuse and I knew it. I also knew how my teacher felt about excuses; he had made no secret of it. I was acutely aware that I had revealed more than I had intended, and very likely proved to him that I was too far gone to be worth his investment.
“…I just want you to be very clear what kind of death is entailed here. We are not talking about something that is over with quickly…. Isn’t it better to choose the manner of it ourselves—if even that much is possible—rather than leaving it up to the Germans to decide?”
I was setting myself up to be knocked flat, to see my last line of defense come down around my ears.
But my teacher surprised me. “Okay, you win,” he said.
“You win,” he repeated. “I have to concede your point. There are reliable halakhic authorities who justify Saul’s suicide, and the suicide at Massada, suicide and infanticide during the Crusades, and others, on the grounds that the people who committed suicide under those circumstances did it out of an objectively justifiable fear of the horrible tortures to which they would have been subjected had they remained alive.”
I nodded, a bit dazed. “Perhaps had the Rambam known the kind of scars that torture leaves on the soul, he might say that letting us choose the manner of our death is the lesser of two evils.”
Rav Ish-Shalom shook his head. “I don’t think so; he was not in the school of thought I mentioned, as I recall.”
His look told me I would do well not to get complacent at having won a round. “It is my understanding of the sources that this is a minority view, not to be acted on, yet it is sufficiently authoritative to justify such behavior after the fact.”
Rav Ish-Shalom smiled as he put away our books. “See! I always have surprises up my sleeve!” And as he ushered me out into the sunlight, he said, “May God be with you, Ovadya His servant.”
Excerpted from Returning (Kasva, 2018), the story of a former sonderkommando’s return from the abyss of memory. See also In a Time of Persecution: Moral and Religious Dilemmas in the Holocaust, a free resource for discussion groups and book clubs.