Yael Shahar

Priorities and Charity: A lesson in humanity

On March 25th 1943, Ovadya ben Malka and his family arrived at Birkenau. His mother and his sister were killed on arrival. At seventeen, Ovadya had already outlived his world, but his survival was to cost him dearly. The following is an excerpt from his story, as told in A Damaged Mirror: a story of memory and redemption.

I arrived a few minutes late to my appointment with Rav Ish-Shalom. I had picked up a hitchhiker who needed to get to a particular place, and it had taken me a bit out of the way. “The problem with owning a car is that it entails responsibility,” I said. “One is obligated to provide transportation for those who don’t have one.”

Rav Ish-Shalom shook his head. “You have it backwards, Ovadya. The wonderful thing about owning a car is that one is given the ability to provide transportation to those who don’t have one. It entails opportunity!”

I smiled. “You know, you have an annoying habit of being right much of the time.”

He looked down modestly and said, “I know. What’s worse is that I do it intentionally!”

As we sat down at the table he said, “But it’s true—sometimes just being in the right place at the right time is the greatest opportunity of all. It is a gift.

“In fact, that’s the difference between a rabbi and a rebbe. The rebbe’s not there to impart knowledge, to teach facts, or to tell you what to do. He won’t be the one who tells you how to turn on the light in a dark room, or even where the switch is. The rebbe is the one who will hold your hand while you fumble around in the dark looking for the light switch!”

I thought of how much I owed to those who had simply been there for me in recent years. And yes, even back there…. Even there, in that inferno. Those who shared the little that they had with those who had even less. Those who used their ebbing strength to support a comrade. The kapo of the SK who risked his life to keep the two youngest members of the team–including me–off the elimination list time after time. So many acts of kindness that literally bought life for someone, if only for a little time.

And how can we measure life in terms of minutes lived? So much can happen in so short a time. Who knows but that those days or hours of life so dearly bought may have been the most important of all in the life of the one saved.

In those circumstances we are reduced to bare existence, bereft of all that we once believed to define us. Naked, we have no pockets in which to store the things that we once used in the natural trade of human interactions. Instead, we come to value a different currency—our humanity. It is this currency that truly defines us, and even death cannot entirely devalue it. The more is taken away, the more we value what is left.

Haltingly, I tried to convey something of this. “Such acts of kindness were not the exception; they were the rule. I don’t mean that people acted altruistically, without thought of their own interest. It was just that many realized that their own interest encompassed that of others. There was a saying: the unit of survival is two. It means that one alone has no chance.”

“It’s a lesson learned the hard way,” said Rav Ish-Shalom.

I nodded. “One of many. I also learned that there is no better answer to helplessness than to make a difference in someone else’s life. And it doesn’t take much to make a difference. A smile or a touch can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, because despair can kill.”

I thought of those times when one quiet smile lit up that impenetrable night, and gave me, if not joy in life, at least a reason to live. There was more power in one of those smiles than in all the weaponry of despair with which the enemy reduced us to silence. In rising above despair, the courage in that smile raised us all—if only for a moment—to the level of immortality.

“Also, sometimes the only way to preserve your self-respect is to give something to someone else. If I give food to another, I’ve preserved the humanity of two people. But at the same time, I learned never to refuse help from someone else, because the other person may also need that empowerment; we may be the means for saving someone else’s pride.”

Rav Ish-Shalom smiled. “So you do understand a little of why I am happy to be available to help you.”

I wanted to ask: Do you also feel so overwhelmed by it all that kindness is the only way to preserve sanity? Is helping me your own answer to what has happened to us?

It was not my place to ask him personal questions, but he answered the unspoken thought. “There is only one answer to what happened there: Give me the love for one human being for another. Give me social justice and an end to intolerance. Give me anything which helps to end the suffering of people living here and now. That is the only answer.”

It was a better answer than any I had found. “Of course, the trouble is that we don’t always have anything to give,” I said.

“That’s true when charity is done with food or money or other material things, and especially if it’s impersonal. But if what you do is help someone personally, then as long as you’re alive, you’re not broke!”

Yes, even there….

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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