The Sonderkommando and the Rabbi: A conversation on the nature of evil

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As I gazed out the window of Rav Ish-Shalom’s study, a cloud passed before the sun. The effect on the landscape was dramatic: details became clear that had previously been hidden in the glare. Light and shade… If only human decisions were always so clear. If only we could easily classify our actions as right and wrong, good and evil.

And yet, the author of the book, Good and Evil in Jewish Thought argues that the root of all evil is precisely the sort of dichotomous thinking that leads us to divide the world into good and evil, and then to extend that dichotomy to human beings.

I decided to raise this idea with Rav Ish-Shalom. Could one really call any human being, in totality, an “evil person”?

“You know, in all that time at the Krema, there was only one person that I met there who I would describe as a psychopath.”

Rav Ish-Shalom passed me my copy of Orot HaT’shuvah and gestured for me to continue.

“Of all of them, only that one officer was truly insane,” I said. “The others… Well, had they never come to that place, it seems likely that they would have been upstanding, caring people.”

I was remembering the absurd situation of seeing members of the SK sitting down at a table outside the Krema and casually chatting with the German guards. I tried to describe it to Rav Ish-Shalom, that feeling of the utter unreality of it all.

“It was surreal,” I said. “There is this interaction, as if between normal people who happened to meet in a park. The Germans don’t seem so different from any one else. Just the situation. But then, a moment later, they can get up from the table and…”

Rav Ish-Shalom cut me off. He raised a hand as if to ward off what I was about to say. “Don’t say it,” he said in a voice that was almost a whisper.

I apologized, and we carefully took a few steps back from the edge of the precipice.

“The children of Himmler and Goebels,” said Rav Ish-Shalom, “God bless them! They had themselves sterilized. God bless them for doing the right thing. They wanted it to stop with them.”

“But was it a good thing, that they did?” I asked. “Did they do it for the sake of the future, or was it just their own reaction to the horrors of the past? What if one of their children were destined to convert, and perhaps even to be the Mashiach?”

Rav Ish-Shalom was silent for a moment. “What you say is the right answer,” he said. “It’s the Jewish answer, to hope for T’shuvahThe process of returning to one’s better self after having made mistakes. Often translated as “repentance”.….”

We sat in silence for some time. Finally, the rav said, “But there’s also the answer that gives vent to the desire for revenge…. That just wants it to end….” He sighed. “Your answer is the right one.”

“It’s understandable, what they did,” I said, “That desire for oblivion as a reaction to the past…. By having themselves sterilized, they cut off their future. I’m familiar with that need. There was a time when I was always putting myself in harm’s way out of that same need to court oblivion. I would take on the most dangerous assignments in the army. I would ride my motorcycle far too fast, scraping the pegs on the asphalt around turns. That too was a way of courting oblivion.”

“In their case, it was the right thing to do,” said Rav Ish-Shalom. “In your case it wasn’t.”

“Wasn’t it?” I asked, with more bitterness than I had intended.

“You were on opposite sides of the fence,” he said. I didn’t answer. Rav Ish-Shalom held my eyes as all the answers I could have made seethed inside me. Finally I lowered my gaze.

“I hear your question,” Rav Ish-Shalom said. “But it isn’t the same. You were on opposite sides of the fence.

“And in any case, you’re here now!”


But I was not in the same “here” or “now”; the book-lined walls of Rav Ish-Shalom’s study had become transparent, letting the past show through.

My teacher very deliberately flipped back to the beginning of Orot HaT’shuvah, and read aloud the first page, which details the gradually increasing consciousness—from physical, to emotional, to mental—as an indication of returning balance and wholeness. “I think maybe you needed the reminder,” he said.

I nodded.

With the book open before me, Rav Ish-Shalom gently prompted me to tell something of what I was seeing. The words came out haltingly, with long pauses during which I was lost in the memory. He sat there the whole time with his eyes closed, never saying a word except sometimes to prod me into continuing aloud whatever was going on in the silence of memory.

“I worked at the pit during the summer…” I paused. Rav Ish-Shalom encouraged me to go on. “…trying not to feel or see anything. Couldn’t take my eyes off the pit. The whole mass of bodies was writhing. Too many still alive. At my feet, a skeletal hand was poking up from the pit. All the flesh had been burned away, only tendons and scorched bones remained. It was a very small hand, like that of a little girl. About my sister’s age. It was still moving, I think only because the contents of the pit were moving. I could not take my eyes away. My gaze kept coming back to that small hand, writhing feebly. I see it even now, that hand, so small….

“We are not even worth the cost of a bullet that would let us die without pain. Cheaper to let us die by fire. Many, especially children, are not worth a bullet, so they are thrown into the flames alive. It could have been my little sister, there in the pit. It could have been any of us…” The words trailed off into silence.

“Ovadya, I’m here. I’m listening.”

“They saw what awaited them. You could see that they simply could not take it in or believe what was happening. They were like sleepwalkers, unseeing and uncomprehending.

“That was why the Germans forced us to do what we did—to lead them forward to the very brink. So they made us complicit in the act of killing and not only in the act of covering it up. And we did not refuse to obey.”

Rav Ish-Shalom sat with his eyes closed, but I could feel him praying for strength for me.

“But no, that pit was never still. They continued to writhe and make terrible sounds long past when the smoke had choked off anything intelligible. Only after it had burned down to nothing and all that was left was ash and skulls and a layer of grease coating everything…only then was it still. But it is all there inside of me”

“Tell me,” he whispered. “I will listen.”

“They made us dig a trench at one end of the pit, where the melted body fat would collect. We had to bring it up in buckets and then carry it along the edge of the pit and pour it over the burning. This was so the fires would keep burning. The body fuels itself. So we had to pour this burning fat over those in the pit, some still living and writhing in there. Our own, who could have been our own families we did this to.

“There can be no talk of forgiveness. I am as complicit as the Germans. More, because I knew I was doing wrong all the while. I could have stepped off the edge of it at any time and ended my role in it. I could have added my own worthless life to that pyre at any time and stopped serving those who did this. But I continued to obey the Germans and not God and not my own conscience and so the death that follows is the deserved death of a slave. There is no injustice here.

“I’ve told all I can tell for now. Please believe that these things did happen just as I’ve told them.”

“Ovadya, I believe you.”


The phone rang, startling me back into the present. The answering machine clicked and whirred. The voice on the other end was cheerful: “Shalom, your honour the Rav! I’m calling about Sarah’s wedding contract. There is no need for the Rav to call me back. I will phone the Rav again tomorrow.” Click.

Rav Ish-Shalom never moved. I was shaking so hard I’m sure it was noticeable. When I was able to speak again all I could say was, “It just goes on…”

“On and on, without end,” said Rav Ish-Shalom “Day after day, after day.”

The silence also went on and on.

When I was able to look up, he said, “Let’s start with Chapter 15. ‘Hayeush asher ba betoch halev…’ — ‘The despair that fills the heart is itself a sign of exquisite moral wholeness, of spiritual awakening… ’”

But I was still in the past. The words on the page spoke to both past and future selves.

“I never said the Shema,” I said. “Wasn’t able to say it for years. Even now I often can’t say it. Or I get through it but end up shaking like a leaf.”

Rav Ish-Shalom listened without a word.

Then: “Next chapter,” he said. “Chapter 16. ‘When the thought of t’shuvah enters one’s heart, let him not be paralyzed by his own perception of his faults, which is heightened by his spiritual awakening….’”

It seemed to have been written on the background of our conversation. When he’d read it through to the end, he started over. “Chapter 16…” All the way to the end.

And again.

Our time was up. Neither of us moved to close our books.

“Let’s just go over the last six lines again and then we’ll pause for now,” said Rav Ish-Shalom, and read again:

Because of the moral power that has awakened, the light of the soul shines forth, and he sees every blemish and his heart falters inside him at the lack of wholeness, at the depth to which he has fallen. But it is exactly this that he must take to heart, that this inner vision and this despair are the signs of deliverance and the repair of the soul. It is from this that he will draw great strength with Hashem his God.

It was hard to leave the safety of that room, but those words stayed with me. Perhaps the single most important statement we can make regarding evil is: “That could have been me”. And that leads to the next stage: Let me act and think and feel in such a way that that will not be me.

I was ready now. As ready as I would ever be. I had no answer to the questions that had brought me to Rav Ish-Shalom six years before, but I knew what my response would be. It was time to return to the Krema and face my past.

Ovadya’s story continues in A Damaged Mirror: A story of memory and redemption.

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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