Ovadya ben Malka, a former Sonderkommando, reflects on Kaddish and the dilemma of forgiving God.
What we call the Mourner’s Kaddish is not really a prayer at all. It is simply a love song—a song of acceptance and a plea that not only we, but the entire world, recognize the sanctity of God’s name. We wish upon ourselves, Beit Yisrael, and the rest of the world, that all will come to see the glory and beauty of the world and realize that it is all part of a single unified reality—that everything happens according to the will of God.
It is a very beautiful and eloquent poem, in and of itself. But it has grown beyond a simple affirmation; because it has become associated with the process of mourning, it has become a heartfelt cry for inner peace in the face of irreparable loss. When we are informed of the death of a loved one, we say “Baruch Dayan HaEmet”—Blessed is the True Judge. It is at those times when we are most inclined to rebel against fate, to murmur against God’s decrees, that we force ourselves to do the opposite. Our rebellion turns inward to become praise.
Everything I’ve been wrestling with my whole life is summed up in this one short poem. It affirms that the universe is just, that what happens is just. The Kaddish is an argument against despair, but the healing is bound up with the act itself. It cannot be observed from the outside or grasped by the intellect; it can only be felt in the doing, from the inside. The Kaddish is not for the dead, but for the living.
To which category do I belong? I have lived with death for so long that I’ve stopped seeing myself as really alive. I can’t accept healing, because I have no right to accept their deaths. And yet, what would they want me to do? This is at the heart of it for me. We are one family—the fate of one is the fate of all. What is the price of my refusal to accept comfort? If I refuse to reach out and grasp the peace that is offered me, am I not also refusing that peace for them as well?
But no, I have not been able to praise. Nor can I accept. I can accept the justice of what happened to me personally; my right extends this far but no further. I cannot accept judgment when faced with the sight of more than a thousand people dead one atop the other in that room. Nothing can prepare us for that sight.
I have never been able to say Kaddish for—or in memory of—any of those thousands of people. How can I affirm the “rightness” of their deaths? How can I see what happened to them as just?
How does one accept the death of as many as two thousand people at once, on a daily basis? It was routine. It went on for months. I know the process from beginning to end—where to be at what time; how long each step lasts, which part of the team is doing what and when. I have the routine down pat.
I would say that I could do it in my sleep, but of course, that’s exactly what I do. I go to bed each night and clean out gas chambers in my sleep, and wake each morning with the acrid smell of charred bone in my nostrils. I diligently clean the gratings and vents and fire bars. I keep to the routine: 15 minutes; 30 minutes; clear everything out for the next batch. I wake up and look at my hands and wonder why they are so clean.
The dead cry out from the depths of my soul to remember and be remembered. My memory of these people may be all that’s left of them. I have an obligation to them; I can’t let their memory die with me. I can’t go on with my life and leave them there, unburied, unremembered, and unmourned. Their loss has left a gaping hole in my soul. It is a loss that can never be made whole.
I think of Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life again. We have rebuilt our lives and resurrected our nation, and suddenly the loss is no loss? Well, my inability to forgive God probably puts me and Ezekiel on different sides.
But that is my choice—to side with God would be to betray my people. The sight of all those people coming down the stairs stands as a barrier that I cannot get over. They are my last link to the outside world. They still hope and dream. They remember their homes and their past before they arrived here. We’ve forgotten all of these things; we no longer have a past, and we certainly have no future. All we have is this eternal present and we do our best to forget each moment as it passes, to notice nothing around us. We’re no longer entirely real; no longer entirely human. But these people are real. They still love, they still pray. They come down these stairs in hope or in despair, knowing what’s in store or in total ignorance; they are our last link to what we were. And an hour from now, they will be merely a problem for us to solve—something to be gotten through for the rest of our shift. And by this time tomorrow, there will be no sign that they had ever been; just another load of silvery ash and bone fragments to be added to the growing pile in the courtyard. A month from now, even that will have been hauled away.
The prophet Ezekiel would have a hard time finding those remains today.
Is it guilt that keeps me from being able to recite Kaddish for them? If healing for me is possible, then this is where it will bring me: I will be able to go back to that same place, stand in the courtyard where our part of the process ended, and recite Kaddish. I can plainly see the end of that path, but I don’t at all see how to get there from where I am now.
It’s just possible that this writing is one step down that road. I sit down to write and memory flows out through my fingers on the keys; all these things that I haven’t been able to say or write for so many years. There is such a need to tell of this, and for so long, I wasn’t able to do so. Perhaps the walls are finally coming down.
Excerpted from the book, Returning (Kasva Press, 2018).