What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on Israeli Independence Day?
What do you get when St. Jordi’s Day falls on the first day of Passover? I answered that on LtJ’s Facebook page last year:
(That’s matzah ball soup, for the record.)
So what do you get when St. Jordi’s Day dovetails with Holocaust Remembrance Day (which begins tonight)…?
How about my thoughts on a mind-blowing Holocaust book?
I met author & publisher Yael Shahar because of another book her company published, in which a poem of mine appears: Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. She contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy, and we ended up meeting at Jerusalem’s First Station complex, chatting over a couple of fruit shakes and exchanging books. (This fateful meeting eventually resulted in a publishing contract for my upcoming novel. But that’s another story. 😉 )
Yael handed me A Damaged Mirror with a warning: “I brought this for you, but I’m going to let you decide whether to take it. It’s uplifting in the end, but the first half… it really… really brings you to Auschwitz, in a way not many other Holocaust books do. ”
I wondered how much worse this book could be from all the other books I’d read and movies I’d seen.
“Is it… graphic?” I asked.
She chewed on that. “Not… exactly. It’s just very… vivid. I couldn’t bear to look back over it myself after compiling it.” She said that Don–her husband and our trusty editor–edited and polished it for her.
But I’m a brave soul, and I took it home and after a while of preparing myself emotionally, I read the book.
Suffice to say, it lived up to her warning.
I wrote last year about the gradual structure of my Holocaust education, from a gentle story in first grade to my standing in the gas chamber at Majdanek at age 17. I wrote then that my trip to Poland was the climax of my Holocaust education. I didn’t think another level could possibly exist.
Well, it did, and this book is it.
A Damaged Mirror is a “novelized” memoir that tells the story of Ovadya ben Malka, a Jew from Salonika, Greece, who was forced to serve in the Sonderkommando at Birkenau; and Yael herself, who was born with memories she could not have lived. Her quest to learn what and how she remembers intersects with Ovadya’s quest for forgiveness and atonement for the unspeakable things he was forced to do under the Nazis. It reads like a thriller and offers a deep and very raw exploration of the unfathomable moral dilemmas of the Holocaust; of free choice & responsibility, forgiveness & repentance, memory & destiny. It’s such an important book, for so many different reasons. When I thought about writing a post about it I was overwhelmed by the task because there’s just so much to say. I’m going to limit myself to two of the main things I took away from the book.
A Brutal Reality Check on What Really Happened at Auschwitz
Many of us know, in theory, what happened on the trains and in the camps. But there are things we gloss over just because they are too awful to think about; things I think most Holocaust survivors never even saw, and those who did couldn’t bring themselves to describe them in detail.
For example… it seems naive when I think about it now, but before I read A Damaged Mirror, I had this image in my head that at least the Jews who were gassed died the way people die from carbon monoxide poisoning: slowly drifting into sleep. I didn’t realize it, but I’d been holding on to that image as a tiny glimmer of solace in the face of the unfathomable fact that millions of Jews died this way.
Ovadya’s descriptions of what he saw while clearing away the bodies shattered my illusions. I didn’t think it was possible to be any more horrified and devastated about the Holocaust than I previously was. I was wrong.
And that’s just the gas chambers. There was more. Some of the images he describes literally kept me up at night. In the days and weeks after reading the book, I’d be in the middle of some mundane activity and suddenly one of those images would come back to me and I would need to breathe and ground myself, reminding myself that I am safe and my family is safe… as though it were my own trauma I was reliving.
And you thought Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal. :-/
Difficult as it was, I think people need to know those details. Especially these days when people compare everything from Syria to Trump’s election to the Nazi regime. Reading the book gives you a very healthy, if difficult to swallow, dose of perspective.
Questions of Agency & Responsibility Under the Worst Possible Conditions
Without giving too much away: Ovadya struggles to reconcile with the things he was forced to do under the Nazis. He feels culpable; complicit in the atrocities. Many would jump in here to say: but he can’t blame himself for the things he did. He did them under the worst compulsion imaginable.
Nonetheless, the book presents some very deep and difficult questions: is it really true that he didn’t have a choice? Couldn’t he have chosen to die rather than do the bidding of the Nazis? Would that have been the better choice?
If we say that he didn’t have a choice–that means he was completely helpless and had no agency. It means that the Nazis won, in that they completely stripped him of his humanity–the power of free choice, which, according to Jewish tradition, is what differentiates us from other living beings. We would rather believe that we always have a choice; that the Nazis could take away our rights, our freedom, and our lives, but they could never take away our humanity. I, for one, don’t want to accept that they could. I refuse to grant them that victory.
But if we say that Ovadya did have a choice–that makes him at least somewhat complicit in what the Nazis forced him to do.
Reading the book, I not only wanted to forgive Ovadya, I wanted desperately for him to forgive himself. I wanted to know that he could find some semblance of peace and resolution, not just for him, but for me; because who knows how I would have acted under those same circumstances? Would I have had the strength of will to walk into the gas chamber willingly rather than have to clear it out fifteen minutes later?
And who knows if that really would have been the right thing to do? What about the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who would never have been born?
Moreover, I wanted Ovadya to forgive himself because I felt that would be his one final triumph over the Nazis.
The book doesn’t offer easy answers or tidy conclusions. It really makes you think.
Kasva Press produced an excellent discussion guide called Moral & Religious Dilemmas in the Holocaust which brings excerpts from the book along with questions for people to think about and discuss. You don’t need to have read the book; it stands on its own. You can download it for free on their website here.
Yael informs me that Kasva plans to re-release A Damaged Mirror under a new title in the next year or so. In the meantime, it’s available through their website and all the major distributors, including Amazon (Amazon.es too 😉 ). Yael also blogs at https://www.damaged-mirror.com/blog/.
Happy St. Jordi’s Day… and a meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Day.
2 thoughts on “A Damaged Mirror: A Holocaust Memoir Unlike Anything You’ve Ever Seen”
I remember reading Primo Levi’s book If this is a Man, and finding myself disgusted of being part of a humanity that made possible for some humans to do that harm to other fellow humans. But moreover, I have not been able to forgive the Nazis and their heirs for that. I remember being sad for some days. And since that, I have not been able to read more about the Shoa… It would make a lot of damage to me. I do not understand how humans want to hurt other humans. Why? I do not get it. Anyway, happy Sant Jordi 🙂
Don’t forget that you are also part of a humanity that sends aid to foreign countries stricken by natural disasters, donates billions of dollars to help complete strangers on other continents, has developed insane technology and techniques to save and improve human and animal lives, and established the State of Israel where Jews can now protect ourselves and determine our own destiny after 2,000 years of wandering. God lets us choose what kind of human to be. Some people choose badly. Most people, the vast majority of people, choose well.
Part of the issue is the belief that humanist morality is innate, so how could people ignore their conscience like that? But it’s not true. Hitler was right about this one thing: the Western sense of morality was adopted from Judaism. We have always been hated because we are the world’s conscience. That’s why the Nazis tried to destroy us. They believed that the very fact that you are so disgusted by what they did is because you have been “contaminated” with the Jewish conscience. They believed that any pangs of conscience they had were a result of Jewish brainwashing and that the world needed to be restored to its natural order. There’s no rational explanation for why our way is better; it’s just become so deeply ingrained in Western culture that it seems instinctive. So, basically, you feel that way because you have been brainwashed by me and my ancestors. 😉