Shahar, Yael. “Returning”, Kasva Press, 2018.
I have a very difficult time reading about the Holocaust. I have a very hard time with anything about the Holocaust even though it is I am well aware of its importance to history. Like many others, I went through a period during which I read as many books about it as possible and saw as many movies. But I soon had enough and found that thinking about the Holocaust was holding me back from doing many other things so I stopped. Yes, my religion and my ethnicity are important to me, perhaps the most important things about me but I was tired of reading about death and the levels to which one could sink.
Then because of renewed interest in Hannah Arendt, I found myself back reading about the Holocaust and trying to understand it. As a Jew, I understood that the Holocaust is part of our collective memory and we simply cannot avoid it. It is a memory yet it is part of who we are.
I have read so much and yet I was not prepared for a new way of reading about the most terrible period in the history of the world. Yael Shahar comes at the Holocaust differently. She relates a true and haunting story that is unforgettable even after we close the covers of the book.
We meet a 17 year-old–Jewish/Greek male who is sent to Auschwitz where he is known as Alex and is sent to work in the crematoriums after first directing other Jews to the gas chambers. Sixty years pass and we meet him again but now his name is Ovadya and he is dealing with grief and remorse about his time at the camp. He needs to face what he did and now feels ready to do so. He has questions that are basically unanswerable (the same kinds of questions Jews everywhere have had about the Holocaust). He asks for help from a rabbi knowing that his questions deal with faith and wondering at what point one’s death becomes a moral obligation. He has questions about responsibility and if we still have it when there are no choices left. How do we accept that which is unacceptable and can we forgive someone who has committed acts so terrible that we cannot speak about them?
We are now moving toward a time in which all of the survivors of the Holocaust will soon be gone. We will no longer have first person accounts of what happened. Shahar asks, “What happens to memory when there is no one left to remember and to tell it forward? How will we now learn about the Holocaust?
We know that it can happen again and that it has, to a lesser extent, happened. The questions are both philosophical and based in reality.
At seventeen, Alex was taken from his family and sent to Auschwitz. He managed to outlive his family, his faith, and his culture. His memories will never leave him as they filled with those who are no longer here and who met their ends much too soon. Alex cannot speak of what he did to survive and he has lived out the rest of his years in silence. We can imagine what he thought and we stay with him. He is a noble soul.
“Returning” is about memory and it shares a descent into hell and then a return to life. It looks at the choices we make in a time when there is no choice. I doubt I will ever be the same after reading this. As I read I joined the 6,000,000 already dead at the hands of the Nazis and those who died in more recent times because of anti-Semitism. I will never understand and I will never have answers to my questions as often happens when I read about the Holocaust, I begin to question what kind of God could have let this happen? Where did the strength come from to survive? How do the survivors deal with their pasts and the burdens they carry? Should we all not carry what they do?
I may never be the same after reading “Returning”. I do not have to return because I never left. My religion is who I am and it gives me to right to question and to argue. It gives me the right to look for answers and it allows me to chose which answers to believe. Any journey we take is not as significant as the memories that come out of it. If I seem to ramble it is because I am stunned by the impact that this book has had on me.