At seventeen, Alex was torn from his home and deported to Auschwitz. He outlived his family, his faith, and his culture. 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. This unforgettable and breathtakingly powerful book follows Alex on his journey from the ames of Birkenau to atonement, transformation, and redemption. RETURNING is a haunting and compelling exploration of the choices we make in a choiceless time, the terrifying strength and burden of the will to survive, and the power of the human spirit to transcend even its own destruction. It will leave you changed forever.
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About the Author
She served as a reservist in the IDF’s hostage negotiation and rescue unit, and as a sniper in Israel’s Border Guard “Matmid” units.
A dynamic and sought-after public speaker, Ms. Shahar has lectured worldwide on subjects related to trends in terrorism, non-conventional and techno-terrorism, threat assessment, and asymmetric conflict. She has published numerous articles on these topics in books and refereed journals. She blogs on Jewish topics at www.yaelshahar.com
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem.
A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. He heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
Read an Excerpt
The museum and its associated facilities sprawled across a rugged hillside clad in pine trees. A handful of modest white buildings nestled among white limestone boulders that protruded from the earth like old bones. The image stayed with me as I walked the last few hundred meters from the bus stop to the back entrance of the library: old bones.
It had taken me months to work up my courage to come here. I had made inquiries with friends as to the proximity of the library to the museum, planning out my route. Was it possible to reach the archives without going through the museum? Did the library have its own separate entrance? I was relieved to find that I need not brave the exhibits to reach the archives. I'm not sure what I would have done had it been otherwise.
The scent of pines followed me through the door and stayed with me as I tried to explain my quest to the archivist behind the desk. Pine trees. ... I know this scent. Is it familiar to me from that place? Perhaps from before? Such questions had become the constant backdrop of my search for my vanished past.
I had been in Israel for more than four months now. From the moment I boarded the plane, the feeling had been growing in me that I had no idea who I really was.
My life was reflected back to me only in the shattered fragments of memory. Some things came back clearly; some not at all. And the things I remembered most clearly were those that I would have given almost anything to forget. Almost. But difficult or not, they were clues to who I was.
But did I really want to know who I was? Much of my early life was simply no longer accessible. Its passing had taken with it much of what I had been. But I did remember where I had lost it. More to the point, I knew when I had lost it. I knew the exact date, and that was what had brought me to the archives of Yad Vashem.
"All right, let's have that date again," the archivist said. "Is this a deportation date or an arrival date? The more information you have, the easier it will be to track down."
"Date of arrival: March 25th, 1943." A wave of dizziness washed over me. I pushed it back with the ease of long practice. I had been fighting such reactions for years.
What seemed like an age to me as I grappled with time and memory was only a few moments in the objective now.
"Well, I think we're going to have a problem with this one," she said, pushing a microfiche reader back into place under the screen. "There are only a few hundred major transport dates on microfiche, and this is not one of them. Do you have anything else to go on?"
"I have a number," I said.
The silence seemed to stretch out for many minutes.
"All right. ... Family name?"
"No. Only the number." I was suddenly embarrassed and ashamed. Only a number.
"I don't think that's going to be very helpful," she said.
No, I had not found it to be very helpful.
In the end, I did the search the hard way. I sat down at a desk with four large volumes of transport records in front of me. On one page was the German original and on the next the translation into English. Oddly, the German pages were crisper and less blurred than the type-written English translations, so I ignored the English ones. Pages and pages of photocopied records: town, date of deportation, date of arrival ... number of deportees.
This was not going to be easy.
I don't know how many days I searched. I settled into a routine, arriving each morning to retrieve the remaining books from behind the archivist's desk. I could go through only so many pages before my mind went numb and I stopped noticing anything at all. The lines of print blurred and became indistinguishable. I could no longer see them as individual transports. They were all the same — a steady stream of trains snaking across Europe toward a single destination. A tree with branching roots spread across the continent, ending in a barren stump.
March 25th, 1943 — a needle in a haystack; the records were organized by town, not by date, and the towns were not in any discernible order. There were thousands of them. The enormity was familiar to me. The numbness triggered by this enormity was familiar too.
There is a place of silence. It is a refuge, a hiding place, and sometimes a pit that I cannot escape. There are no words in that place, no sound of human laughter or tears, no expression of any kind, not even thought. There seems to be no time there, but perhaps it is only that no means exist there to mark the passage of time.
I had been staring off into space for so long that my muscles had cramped up. I stretched, and heard an audible "crack" as my back un-kinked. I surreptitiously looked around to see if I had attracted any attention.
Looking down, I saw my empty cup in front of me — something to do. I got up and poured hot water from the kettle in the librarians' kitchen over the twice-used tea bag. Should be good for at least one more cup.
As I sat down again, my gaze fell on the open book of transport records. "City of origin: Saloniki, Greece; Date of Departure: March 17, 1943; Date of Arrival: March 25, 1943. Destination: Birkenau; 1,901 deportees of whom 695 were registered on arrival."
City of Origin: Saloniki, Greece....CHAPTER 2
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?
"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 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 ownlife.
"It's about something that happened around 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 connection.
"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 just 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, who will not 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.CHAPTER 3
Alex – At Sea
You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood. ... back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
— Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home AgainCHAPTER 4
To Preserve Memory
Let me begin by saying that "Alex" is not my real name. It is a nickname by which the Greek Jews were inevitably called by the Polish and Hungarian Jews. Names were not important to us, for the simple but paradoxical reason that they were too important. They were a connection to what we had been, which had been forcibly taken from us. Why keep the reminder? Why grasp at a nostalgic memory that brings only pain? Far easier to make do with nicknames. Nicknames have an air of impermanence, just as we do. They are empty of any pretense, just as we are.
In any case, we had some trouble pronouncing one another's names.
I will tell what I am able. I am done with hiding. What I will not do is soften the reality. I will not compromise the truth as I have lived it. I will not make it more palatable for the reader. Yes, I am a difficult person. I freely admit it. I will not make myself more congenial or easier to take. You don't like what I have to say? Fine, don't read further. My retelling brings nightmares? Welcome to my world. I will not accommodate myself, any more than the world has accommodated itself to me.
I was not always like this. I don't know where he has gone, that young poet who wrote love songs to God and was in love with all the world. There was nothing that he could not accomplish. He trusted. He knew his place in the world and was content. He was at home in his tradition; it was the air he breathed. He was a son of Israel and lived to serve the God of Israel, and could hope for no greater glory. He would eventually marry a virtuous and loving woman of Saloniki, and would raise his children to love their heritage and to live wholly in the present for the sake of the future, just as he did.
Perhaps someday he would visit the Land of Israel ... maybe even live there. For now, that was a dream to be set beside the dreams of shipping out on a freighter to visit foreign lands. One day his dreams of adventure on foreign shores would be put in their place — fond memories of youth. For now, he was content to dream, knowing that dreams were the stuff of which his songs were made....
But I am not that youth. He is dead and I have neither the strength nor the leisure to mourn his passing. It is with me, Alex, that you deal now, and you will have to accept me as I am, or stop reading now. I will not forget and I will not spare you the details. If you want to open this buried jar of memory and read its contents, you will have to face what I have seen.
I will be writing from a very sketchy memory. Well, it is a very clear and precise memory in some cases. Trouble is, there isn't a lot of it. Things happened, and I said, "I will never forget this." But then the next thing happened, and the next. ... So I have forgotten many things, though they come up again under the odd stimulus. Little things. They come up again and if I write them down or tell someone, then the memory remains. But if not, then it's all gone again as quickly as it came.
So my writing will be not only from memory, but about memory — about how it was formed by experience, and how it was obliterated by that same experience. But above all, my task is to preserve memory.
So I will start with a memory....
Our city, Saloniki, was built around the port, where ships of almost any size can be accommodated either by solid berths or by portable ones that can be moved about by towing vessels. The ships bring trade, a potpourri of cultures and languages, and a colorful assortment of perceptions to ponder. To a child, it is an environment rich in stimulation.
The marketplace is all of this and more, but condensed into a smaller space. Someone recently asked me to describe my city and I found myself once more among those colorful market stalls. But it wasn't the weekly shopping that I recalled — the sights, the smells, and the sounds. Rather, I saw myself as a small boy running among the stalls with friends, hiding between the legs of the adults; attempting to steal a date from the cart without getting caught. I felt again the panic as the feared Turkish shopkeeper grabbed hold of my wrist when I didn't move fast enough. I recalled how he scolded me with the voice of a lion whose den has been invaded ... before pressing a date into my hand.
A child's memory. The bright fabrics of youth, now overlaid by the fine dust of old age.
A child's memory? A strange thing that. I was nineteen years old when that colorful and vibrant world came to an end, but it is the childhood memories that remain — colorful fabrics, the fragrance of spices and rich foods. And the music. ... We made songs of everything.
I remember the little bet knesset in our neighborhood, whose lovely stained glass windows were decorated with birds and flowers from floor to ceiling. The Torah was chanted from a circular reading stand in the middle of the room, reached by three stairs. The reader's melodious voice would fill that small building and lift everyone who heard it up to a level where song became pure being. On Shabbat and holidays, that place became a gateway into the other world and our prayers opened all doors.
We had lived in a bubble of safety for five hundred years, since the Expulsion from Spain. Our language reflected our origins — ironic that those who were most faithful in preserving the language and music of Renaissance Spain were the Jews who had been sent into exile by that same culture with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Saloniki had long been part of the Ottoman Empire, but became part of Greece in 1912. And, as is usual in such cases, a population exchange followed: many of the Muslims moved out, to be replaced by Greek Christians. While the Muslims were culturally very close to us, the Christian newcomers were not.
All that was before I was born, of course. But it was still a society in transition. A city that had hosted three great cultures for generations had changed its character almost overnight, but the change had not yet been assimilated. If you had told us that we were living in the last days of Saloniki's glory, we would have said you were crazy.
Did I say I was nineteen? No, that is incorrect. It is what I told the German officer, who let me live on the basis of that lie. I was seventeen.
I drift in a haze of fever. The door at the end of the building is propped open to let in some air — an attempt to combat the smell of hundreds of sick and dying men stacked, sometimes eight deep, on the wooden bunks. In my delirium, the open door takes on the shape of the windows of the bet knesset with their colorful designs and fanciful scrollwork. As I watch, the colors begin to fade. A harsh network of black lines begins to creep over the glass, forming the shape of a thorn bush with long spikes. The thorns snake upwards, crawling slowly over the glass to consume the colorful birds and flowers. Soon only the thorns remain — black lines over empty space.
So has my past vanished into the hole in the world that is Birkenau.CHAPTER 5
I have never been able to speak of what I have seen. There just doesn't seem to be much to say, or any way to say it. I remember, but nothing emerges into the light of day. It rattles around in the darkness of my soul, making a hollow sound. But outside, there is only silence. What is there to say?
Words are inadequate, so we give up trying to express. Tears are inadequate, so we cease to weep. Our humanity itself is inadequate to respond. We lapse into numbed silence.
The things I need to say can only be written furtively on scraps of smuggled paper, in moments of time stolen from the dead for the sake of their memory. They can only be hidden away in tins and jars, carefully sealed with scraps of cloth and hidden with great fear and greater longing amid fragmented bones — buried in the uncaring ground soaked with our blood. We bury them as we could not bury our loved ones. These things can never be told.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Returning"
Copyright © 2018 Yael Shahar.
Excerpted by permission of Kasva Press LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Author's Preface ix
Book I Adrift
Alex - At Sea 11
Yael - An Unremembered Past 61
Alex - Shipwrecked 95
Yael - The Persistence of Memory 143
Alex - Out of the Depths 165
Yael - In Search of a Name 185
Alex - The Abyss 205
Yael - Shabbat Candles 227
Alex - Embers 233
Book II In Sight of Land
The Lighthouse 257
Hilkhot Tshuvah 271
Choiceless Choices 305
The Sound Barrier 327
Olam HaBa 359
A Window into the Soul 385
Opening Buried Jars 405
The Revival of the Dead 421
Afterword Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo 467
About the Author 474
Q & A with Yael Shahar 475