Priorities and Charity: A Sonderkommando’s lesson in humanity

An excerpt from A Damaged Mirror

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. “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. 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 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.”

“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!”

And yet, having something to give can bring its own dilemmas. Yes, even there….

In the Krema, we have access to a large quantity of “treasure”—food and medicines that are very much needed. But to whom to give it? Those who need it most are also those least likely to survive. Does one give food only to those with good chances?

Things came to a head one night in autumn of ‘43 when some two hundred men were brought over from the main camp towards nightfall. They were veterans and knew what was going on. They had been dumped—quite literally dumped—in the courtyard, and some were injured by the fall. They had not eaten in three or four days. We had a pile of tins upstairs from the day before and wanted to share this with them. Because it was cold, we had to place heaters in the leichenkeller first in order to warm up the room. So we had something more than an hour to wait. Several of our group went to fetch some food that had been cached upstairs. An argument broke out up there with other team members about whether it was right to give food to those who would be dead in another few hours. Would it not be better to save it for the women’s camp across the road, where it might make the difference between life and death?

The argument might have become violent, had not someone decided to ask the Dayan. He said that according to halakhah, when food means life, it must go only to those whose life can be saved. Those downstairs could not be saved, but others could.

So in the end, the men who went upstairs returned empty handed. The rest of us took whatever we had on us and gave that instead. It was very little and simply caused a lot of ill feeling.

“Rav Ish-Shalom, this has haunted me for a long time. I understand the reasons for the Dayan’s decision. But still, we are also in the category of ‘already dead’. No one believes they will let us live, having seen what we have seen. Do we have the right not to give to others in the same situation? Can one weigh one life against another? For them the time is one hour and for us, a few months…. Perhaps this last hour is the most important hour of all to these people? Can one weigh one moment of life against another?

Rav Ish-Shalom gazed into the distance for some time, thinking.

Finally, he turned back to face me. “Ovadya, this is a fine question. It would seem, at first blush, to resemble the case argued by Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura about two men in a desert, with one possessing enough water for his own survival alone. Ben Petura ruled that he cannot let his friend die; they must share the water and both die. Rabbi Akiva ruled that one has the right—even the duty—to give precedence to one’s own life, as long as one does not actively end the other’s life—and the halakhah follows Rabbi Akiva.”

I started to say something, perhaps to object, but his hand was already up to forestall me.

“However, on further reflection, that is not the case here. In the situation you describe, it would seem a good case could be made for giving precedence to those who are present and whose life is in immediate danger over others who might or might not be able to benefit later. On the other hand, the rules change when death is certain and imminent.”

I nodded. “I suppose this is the heart of it for me—just because someone is already declared dead doesn’t mean that he deserves no consideration.” And I am a spokesman for the dead, more than the living.

Rav Ish-Shalom seemed not to hear. “The bottom line is that I am not going to answer this question, for it requires greater study, in depth, to arrive at a proper conclusion. Furthermore, it is a known principle of halakhic decision-making that God aids the person asked in resolving a real case, in ways He does not help someone facing a purely theoretical question. May God grant that this question always remain theoretical.”

“Rav Ish-Shalom, just to clarify: it isn’t so much a theoretical question, except in the sense that the outcome is already determined. But in another sense, it continues to affect all those who had to deal with it—”

Something occurred to me, a flash of insight that momentarily showed the entire incident in a new light.

“But the fact that I’m here, asking this question on behalf of those who did not survive—the fact that the question was asked at all in those circumstances, and the fact that it continues to cause so much inner turmoil—that says something about us; it says that we are still human.” Even there, in the midst of that inferno, having lost everything that linked us to the human race—even there, we remained human enough to ask this question.

“I would like for this to be remembered to the credit of the Sonderkommando—on both sides of the argument. It doesn’t offset the rest, but it does argue against those who say we are no longer human.”

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