The Kaddish after Birkenau

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.

It is the key to memory, the Mourner’s Kaddish…. It is not really a prayer at all, but 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 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.

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 Emet,” 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 since Birkenau is summed up in this one short poem. It affirms that the Universe is just, that what happens is just.

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.

Now 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.

Even 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.

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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