One of the lessons of Parashat Balak is that things aren’t always what they seem, that human intentions don’t always pan out the way we imagine, and that there is an overall scheme of things invisible to the limited sight of a single generation.
Ovadya ben Malka's writings on the shoah and memory
What makes one decide to leave behind the comfort of familiar surroundings, one’s mother tongue, childhood friends and extended family… all to set up home in a faraway land? Each of us has our own story and our own reasons, but there are some things that we share. We’ve have built a thriving society out of the ashes of the worst that they could do to us, and whatever may come, we’re home.
A sonderkommando questions the absence of God, and finds an unexpected answer.
When does survival become a crime? What is the nature of Evil? Where was God during the Holocaust? What are the limits of human responsibility in the face of overwhelming coercion? These are just some of the question faced by Jews—particularly religious Jews—during the Shoah. This guide explores these questions and more through a series of dialogues between Ovadya ben Malka, a former member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando and the rabbi to whom he turned for judgment.
It may seem ironic that International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place on the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation, is not marked in Israel. And yet, considering the timing and character of the commemoration, Israel’s choice to pay tribute to the Shoah on a different anniversary is somehow appropriate.
We, in our age, are living through a miracle spelled out long ago. But, like most such miracles, those living through them very often don’t see them. Some of us have no choice but to see them; the miracle is bound up with our lives by an unremembered past.
Israel’s founders appeared to flout Jewish tradition by scheduling Yom Hashoah during a month reserved for celebration. Their decision may not have been as subversive as it seems.
Former Sonderkommando Ovadya ben Malka discusses the nature of evil with Rabbi Ish-Shalom: Was the Holocaust really the work of psychopathic monsters or of people like you and me, whose choices led them to inhuman actions?
One of the crucial lessons of the Holocaust is that both victims and perpetrators were ordinary people—people like ourselves. Film and literature help to bring this lesson home by engaging our empathy. One piece of advice the rabbi gave Ovadya ben Malka is this: “One cannot keep alive the memory of thousands. It just is not possible. Instead, call to mind individuals. Not their deaths, but their lives.” In learning to see the victims as individuals—people like himself—Ovadya was led to acknowledge his own humanity as well.
The UN’s official institution of Holocaust Remembrance Day is a step in the right direction, but can easily become an empty gesture disguised as meaningful commemoration. In order to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, we must see both victims and perpetrators as real people—people like ourselves. A more effective way of teaching the lessons of the Shoah is via art, film, and literature, which allow us not just to remember what happened but to be changed by it.