Two lives touched by the same nightmare
An embittered survivor cannot speak of what he was forced to do to survive the horrors of Birkenau. A young girl in Texas is haunted by a memory of something she could not have lived. Their meeting will bring them face to face with themselves, and with the hope that lies on the other side of despair.
We stand on the edge of the abyss, across whose unknowable face we paint meaning so as not to see into it. It is always there. But we’re here too, and we are no less real than the abyss. We are no less meaningful for being transient creatures caught up in something too big for us. There is still value to our lives. I’ve learned that those things that are most fragile are also the most precious.
Alex was seventeen years-old when he was deported together with his family to Birkenau. His mother and younger sister were gassed on arrival. Alex lived on past the end of his world, his memory filled with the death of a people. Unable to speak of what he had done to survive, he was locked in the silent prison of his guilt.
Yael, born and raised in Texas, has no connection with Alex or with the world he has lost. And yet her seemingly idyllic life is haunted by a dark memory of something she could not have lived. Her search for the source of the memory will lead her on a quest spanning three continents, and eventually to a new life in Israel. But her true journey will lead into memory itself, as she helps Alex to keep his promises to the dead.
The Business Card
The business card was faded and tattered around the edges. For over a year, it had sat all but forgotten in her desk drawer. She turned it over a few times, as if the answer to a dilemma 65 years old might suddenly pop out of it. “Rabbi David Ish-Shalom. Weddings, counseling, religious services.” Nowhere did it say: “Judge and jury for a people betrayed by one of its own”. But that was seemingly what was needed—a formal rabbinic judgment with all its finality. She didn’t envy any rabbi who had to deal with this particular case.
Well, she didn’t envy anyone who had to deal with it, full stop. Including herself. By what right was she about to dump this problem onto someone she had never met? She wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with rabbis. Or with God, for that matter.
Yael heard a click as someone picked up the phone on the other end. A deep, rather mellow voice said, “Good evening.”
“May I speak with Rav Ish-Shalom?”
Is having a soothing voice a prerequisite for being a rabbi? she wondered.
“My name is Yael.” There was an awkward pause as she fished around for something else to say. “I’m not sure what the procedure is for this, but…I need to request a psak din. It has to do with a question of y’hareg v’al ya’avor….”
Did she sense his ears perk up? Y’hareg v’al ya’avor means “to be killed rather than transgress” and refers to extreme situations in which one should not transgress a commandment even to save one’s life.
“It’s about something that happened about 65 years ago.” Would he make the correct inference? “I don’t want to try to explain on the phone. It’s complicated…. Would it be all right if I explain it to you in writing? Send you a file via email?”
“Yes. That will be fine,” he said, and then, with audible sadness, “I look forward with trepidation to reading that file.”
Yes, he had understood.
She sat in stunned bemusement for a while after closing the phone.
“Well, I’ve done it,” she said. “You’ll get your Psak Din.”
“Are you relieved?” she asked.
“I am resigned,” he said.
Understandable. And yet, was there a note of relief in there too? Perhaps she only wanted it to be there. Who am I doing this for, she wondered, you or me? Nothing new there; she had been asking herself that question for years. She wondered whether the process that she had set in motion would bring him closure or only open old wounds. And which outcome was he hoping for? Was it closure he sought, or self-punishment? Did he even know?
“I need you to find a rav,” he had said. “My only stipulation is that it be someone who knows the law inside and out and also not someone who will be blinded by my tears—someone who will judge fairly, applying the law, not an emotional interpretation of it. I need to see the sources and how they are interpreted. Otherwise it will not help. I do not believe in miracles.”
She sighed as she sat down to write a letter introducing Alex to the judge who would in all likelihood find him guilty of treason.
By Ovadya ben Malka & Yael Shahar
Kasva Press • $16.95
Discount available for booksellers—write us at firstname.lastname@example.org