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Alex was only seventeen when he was torn from his home and deported to Auschwitz. There, he saw things that no one should ever see, and did things he would give anything to forget. Decades later, he still can't speak of his past - or even reveal his identity to those closest to him.

Now he's decided to put himself on trial for treason against his people. Approaching a local rabbi to serve as judge, he sets in motion a process that may let him rejoin the world of the living - if it doesn't destroy him first.

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.

496 pages, Hardcover

First published March 15, 2014

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About the author

Yael Shahar

5 books22 followers
After an adventurous and unattributable career in security and intelligence, Yael Shahar divides her time between writing and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough.

A dynamic and sought-after public speaker, Yael has lectured worldwide on subjects related to non-conventional and techno-terrorism, threat assessment, and asymmetric conflict.

Her research into the internet as an enabler of networked political and social change led her to a deeper study of Jewish society over the ages. She is currently working on her next book, a whimsical dip into the Sea of Talmud with her one-eyed cat as a study partner.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 42 reviews
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,285 reviews2,205 followers
November 29, 2018
I felt I had to stop reading this book at times, put it down for awhile to absorb what I had just read, but I couldn’t. It’s complex. It didn’t just evoke a visceral response, but it’s heady and philosophical and I found the nature of the narrative difficult to understand . I’ve read a lot of Holocaust fiction and a number of Holocaust survivor memoirs, and even after finishing it, I’m still trying to absorb what I have read. I didn’t understand Yael’s memories. Perhaps there’s something much deeper than I am capable of understanding or something specific to Jewish beliefs. I don’t know. In an interview at the end of the book, Yael is asked to categorize the book: “I’ve stayed close enough to the actual course of events that my first inclination was to classify Returning quite firmly as an non-fiction memoir. There’s one problem, though: The whole issue of how I became entangled with Ovadya’s memories is something I have no real explanation for, and it obviously doesn’t fit into any of our conventional understandings of how the world works. Some people are going to have a hard time accepting this aspect of Returning as true, and ultimately it’s not important that they do.” It’s not that I don’t accept it. I just don’t understand it. In spite of that, there’s no way to give this anything less than 5 stars. However one reads this, Ovadya’s journey from the depth of guilt is just too powerful for anything less. What I do understand is the importance of this affecting story.

This is so different from any Holocaust story I have read. Ovidaya who can’t bring himself to use his name calls himself Alex, as he tells how at 17, he was rounded up to Birkenau with his family from Greece. Certainly the pain and suffering endured as a result of the horrific physical conditions at the camp and the loss of his family were difficult to read about. The excruciating psychological burden of his experience in the camp as a Sonderkommando* was unbearable to read about.

*( “ work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed of prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust” Wiki)

Prior to this assignment, he was charged with herding his fellow Jews into the gas chamber and as he tells this, his guilt is palatable. This is not only a story of what it means to be a survivor, but a story of a survivor who bears the agony of feeling complicit in the deaths. What Ovadya saw inside the gas chambers is unspeakable, but yet he has to tell it and we have to read it, as horrific as it is because the memories have to survive. He has to tell it in order to heal and his correspondences with Masha, a woman who survived with giving her body to the Nazis and with Rav Ish-Shalom as he seeks judgment and healing are soul searching, disturbing, haunting, as he tries to salvage something of himself when so much was lost. This is a book that will remain with me and I highly recommend it to anyone who reads Holocaust literature, but you need to be prepared for what you will read here.

Thanks to my Goodreads friend Marialyce whose review led me to this book.

I received a copy of this book from Kasva Press LLC through NetGalley.
September 6, 2018
5 unimaginable stars

God must have been on leave during the Holocaust. (Simon Wiesenthal)

This was one of the most significant memoirs that I have ever read. It transcends the words written to put you, the reader, into the heart, mind, and soul of Alex, a man destined to survive the unendurable, to lack the ability to forgive himself, and to look for help through the religion that seemed to have abandoned him. This is a story of Alex, a man who will tell you his story, tell you his unbearable pain, and find in himself the way to see himself as a survivor no matter how the Nazis tried to take his very soul. This is the man of Returning.

It is so very hard for one to imagine being a survivor, being the one person who came through while millions of others perished. One bears the guilt, the knowledge of events so horrendous that reading of them turns one's heart and mind towards revulsion over the fact that men and women did this to other men and women simply to follow an ideology that was racist in its most heinous degree. We have to keep reminding ourselves that what Alex relates eventually, through the help of a Jewish teacher, is not some bizarre piece of fiction, it was reality. It was Alex's reality and his reality is the fact that each and everyday, Alex lived every second in a nightmare world worse than any that could be conceived by anyone.

This was a story of Alex's search for forgiveness. He was a part of the Sonderkommando, forced to work in the most abhorrent condition, that of watching his fellow Jews, men, women, children, and infants condemned to the gas chambers. Hearing their screams, cleaning up the chamber after the destruction of the gas, Alex witnessed daily the role of evil that men succumbed to. He saw cruelty that was unimaginable, death that was inevitable, and life that was so devalued wondering where in this hell was God? How could God have let this carnage happen?

Alex loses everything, family, love, self respect, and the will to find God in his survival. He consoled himself for a time with the concept that he was alive to tell the story, to relate the atrocities, to be a bearer of the souls that were extinguished. However, for Alex and those like him, their survival took a horrendous toil. How could he possibly find his way once again in the world after the way he lived and what he bore witness to at seventeen years old during his time at Auschwitz?

“The fact that good people can be forced to do wrong doesn’t make them less good. But it also doesn’t make the wrong less wrong.”

It was an extremely difficult story to read, oftentimes requiring me to put aside the story as I thought of the heinousness of what Alex related. I can never understand how we, who consider ourselves members of the human race could ever have let this happen. This continues to be is unfathomable, that ability to do unto others what was done to these people.

I recommend this memoir most highly. Reading this memoir is a journey through the hell that met Alex and others everyday. It is a reminder to all that barbarity, wickedness, and monstrosities existed and still do to this very day.

Thank you to Yael Shofar, who has written a story that was passionately related, yet agonizing to read. Thank you also to Kasva Press LLC, and NetGalley for a copy of this emotionally heartrending story.

“It’s true that the hatred is still there. But it doesn’t change anything. Our obligations are the same—to live and sanctify all life with our own. To participate in the world the best we know how, leaving it a better place than we found it. To raise families and teach our children to value life. What more can we do? Should we refuse to live because of the threat of death hanging over us? We’ve always been under sentence of death. Every generation that lives out its days in peace is a victory. Every day we live is a victory.”

My reviews can be found here: https://yayareadslotsofbooks.wordpres...
Profile Image for ✨Bean's Books✨.
648 reviews2,918 followers
November 29, 2018
Wow! Powerful stuff!
Alex, a man who has lost more than just his given name is now in his senior years and is ready to speak out about his imprisonment in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Birkenau. He seeks the help of his good friend Yael and a judge rabbi to assist him in this endeavor.
I am battling with this book. Part of me thinks that if the book was shorter it would be much easier to read. But another part of me knows that, due to the content of the book, it would not be easy to read in any format. In this book Alex and his fellow prisoner Masha describe in great detail the horrors that they witnessed in two different parts of Auschwitz and the horrible things they were made to do.
This is not an easy read for anyone. Although written beautifully and simply in a play by play style that tells a definite story, the content is by far one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. And coming from a horror fanatic like me that is saying something. Alex does not hold anything back. His story is told in raw genuine form. Masha's story as well is told in a similar fashion through letters that she had written to Alex. This is a story that depicts humanity at its rock bottom, lowest point. WARNING: this book is not for the faint of heart or the week of stomach.
With all these factors aside, this book is very well written and follows a definite storyline through Alex's horrific tale. From the very beginning Alex takes you along his journey into the past to seek redemption for his eternal soul as he seeks out the help of a judge rabbi and corresponds with him through email and tells his story. The book is a mixture of both Alex telling from the first person point of view and from the emails written back and forth. Yael also writes portions in first person point of view but her story, in my opinion, only ads a little bit of character to the underlining story itself. Her story is not really necessary to convey what the book is about.
This book was a twisted relationship for me. I would set down the book crying and pick it back up again only to have my heart broken once more. I found myself forcing myself to read through this book and finish to the end. Even though I knew the ending, it didn't make the journey any easier.
Please don't get me wrong, this is a wonderful piece of literature and a great book! This is one that I think everybody should read. But I know in my heart there are a lot of people who will not read it and know even more so that there are some who cannot read it. And while that is very sad, I know it to be true. Please read this book if you have not already. It is a piece of human history captured perfectly in one volume.
Profile Image for Elise Unger.
1 review1 follower
February 16, 2014
One of the most profound memoirs I have read in relation to memories of the Holocaust. As a topic which I have studied academically for some years on the subject of transmission of memory, this brilliantly written book offers an amazing story of one who survived..... survived death and lived on through the memory of another. I am still processing so much of detail as it impacts today on so many younger people who continue to 'remember' a time they may never have actually lived through (including myself). Highly recommended as a powerful story, a factual memoir, historical and spiritual/religious document. It is book which once begun simply cannot be put down until it's conclusion.
Profile Image for Yael Unterman.
Author 6 books10 followers
April 10, 2014
Not an easy read. Much is revealed that one might prefer not to know about human nature and reality. On the other hand, much is also revealed about human nature and reality that it is important and inspiring to know. The rewards, for the reader who is not faint of heart, are there.

This well-written and highly unusual memoir takes us into the world of Ovadya, a young Greek Jew with wild ways and a poetic soul, who grew up in the Jewish community of Saloniki, one so traditional they closed the port on Shabbat. Ovadya was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943, never to see his mother and sister again.

This is his story, as well as that of a Texan convert to Judaism named Yael Shahar who is haunted by memories.

Some of the scenes are shocking and will remain etched in my mind for a long time. But I would not have missed meeting the compassionate rabbi and the supportive husband, the sensitive young Greek Jew, the struggling woman living in Israel, and the wounded beautiful young woman who serviced the Nazis against her will; not to mention, learning the eye-opening philosophical truths contained within.

A must read, if you can handle it.
Profile Image for Libi Astaire.
Author 34 books50 followers
July 6, 2014
I was once asked, "Why can't you Jews stop talking about the Holocaust? Why can't you move on?" A Damaged Mirror is one response to that question. In this memoir that is far from a traditional memoir, the authors return to Auschwitz-Birkenau and relive the tragic story of Ovadya ben Malka, who was only 17 when he and his mother and sister were taken from their home in Salonika and transported to the "Kingdom of Night." Ovadya's guilt about what he did to survive and his quest for forgiveness/closure are at the heart of this story. However, there are no easy answers as layer after layer are peeled away by the terrifying power of memory - a memory that refuses to be silenced even decades after the war's end, even when there is no "body" to contain it. The writing is compelling, and so even when I found a part of me crying "Enough!" I continued, hoping that Ovadya would at last find the redemption that he so desperately seeks.
327 reviews
June 24, 2014
A Damaged Mirror was a very difficult book to read: it was hard to continue and yet at the same time hard to put down. It is a story of terrible memories, unwittingly suppressed in the subconscious but ever struggling to reach the surface at great cost to the person holding these memories. How does one heal from PTSD when the memory can't be told? With the help of a compassionate rabbi, Ovadia slowly finds the answers.
The author grapples with serious ethical issues, such as taking responsible for unspeakable crimes committed against one’s own people rather than using the easy “they made me do it” excuse. And how does one make amends to those who were murdered decades ago? Moreover, can there be forgiveness from God? Ovadia is both comforted and challenged by the answers given by the Jewish sages over the past 1500 years.
This is a book that will not be forgotten, once read. Highly recommended!
February 9, 2014
The book is fascinating! A holocaust story with an unexpected twist! Very philosophical and thought provoking. Some parts were more difficult to read than others on an emotional level, though as expected considering the subject matter. Incredibly well written! There were a couple parts that I wasn't entirely sure who was doing the narrative. On the whole, amazing!!! Yesher Koakh!
Profile Image for Lorri.
552 reviews
September 24, 2018
Returning, by Yael Shahar, is a terrifying and horrifying story of the Holocaust, and one young man's (Alex) choices made under the eyes of the Nazis, in order to survive. The intense pages are difficult to read, never mind fathom the atrocities within them.

Alex was deported to Auschwitz, and within the barriers of the concentration camp, he becomes a Sonderkommando, forced to do the unimaginable in order to exist, remain alive. He lived minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day under circumstances so horrific and deplorable, that it is amazing that he came out a survivor.

But, did he really survive? Physically, yes, but emotionally and mentally, no. His silent guilt imprisoned him within his self, consuming him. His journey towards forgiveness and redemption was a long one, as his silence overtook his memories, in order for him to move forward. With the help of Rav Shalom, through emails, his journey begins to take hold, and begins to come to a defining reconciliation within himself, and one he can continue to live with.

The story weaves back and forth, from Alex, to Yael, a young woman, and her memories. She wasn't alive during WWII, but her memories are vivid and strong.

Returning is an intense memoir, filled with the extreme horrors of WWII, and filled with the transcendence of the will, and strength, to emotionally and mentally survive, throughout one's life, life after WWII.

I want to thank LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy.
Profile Image for Esther Cameron.
4 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2018
Of all the books I've read about the Holocaust, this one gives me the feeling of going deepest into the experience of those who went through it (or didn't get through it). For the protagonist, Ovadya, the central agony is the memory of wrong choices made under duress. For the reader his struggle to find atonement is a confrontation with vulnerability and a glimpse of what may lie beyond it. The book is also remarkable for the insight it gives into the way Jewish law comes to grips with the kind of dilemmas Ovadya has faced. The writing is starkly beautiful.
Profile Image for Shoshanah Shear.
Author 29 books9 followers
December 13, 2016
I have just completed reading the Damaged Mirror. It is a book that one can not put down and yet other responsibilities dictated that I had to limit the amount of time I would devote to reading it. In a certain sense, reading the book over a period of time rather than in one sitting, did enable a certain process to take place. Before I continue, I have to say that this book is not easy for a sensitive reader. There are details that are not easy to read and I can imagine must have been even harder to write.

The Damaged Mirror is a remarkable book. It is very well crafted, alternating information from the life of Ovadya ben Malka and that of Yael, gives the reader the opportunity to have a break from the enormity and very difficult material being presented by Ovadya to read of events of more recent times. The book also includes quotes from various sources that are very appropriately selected and also give the reader a breather from the difficult material and subject matter. I enjoyed the way that these verses helped to bring the reader back to focus on the bigger picture and the reality of truth from Torah and other writings.

The book reminds me of the work of Brian Weiss who discovered regression therapy or working with helping a patient to heal from a past life and how this work enabled his patient(s) to live their current life more effectively. Aside from the work of Brian Weiss, there are many alternative therapy techniques that teach that one's memory is stored in one's DNA and very often this memory requires healing in order for a person to achieve a specific goal in this life. This memory can be from earlier in the day, from yesterday, from a week ago, a month ago, a number of years ago or even a previous life time. Some alternative therapy techniques work with the actual details that hold the person trapped and others will use them as a symbol, becoming a stepping stone for other work to release the trapped energy.

Some of the content of the book and the types of experiences or exercises that Yael describes in her recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) very much confirm the teachings of these therapies. However, this is where the therapies end and the Damaged Mirror continues to address an area of healing that following Torah achieves that I do not believe other therapies can touch. This is the power of Torah learning, prayer (Tefillah) and Teshuvah, the path of return to G-d. The book has a very powerful message. That of the path of the Jewish nation, the fulfilment of certain prophecies and redemption or the promise of redemption combined with the need and power of Torah, Tefillah and complete Teshuvah.

This is a very lengthy book of, interestingly enough, 613 pages (in the Kindle version) including the Glossary. It's worth reading and the journey / transformation that goes with reading a book of this nature.

Having completed reading this book I feel a sense of wonderment at having been a witness in a certain sense to a certain part of history that I would rather had never taken place. It is a very humbling experience. The book helps to answer some questions of relatives or family friends of mine who either survived the horrors of the holocaust and even of Auschwitz or of those we knew of who had perished. The information is hard to digest but the power of Teshuvah stands as a reminder that healing is possible and that redemption is promised. The book also serves to attest to the fact that despite all kinds of terrible attempts to eliminate the Jewish people, G-d's promise that we (the Jewish nation) will survive is stronger than any plan of any group of people.
Profile Image for  ManOfLaBook.com.
1,161 reviews69 followers
September 27, 2018
For more reviews and bookish posts please visit: http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

Returning by Yael Shahar is a novel in which a former Jewish Sonderkommando (a person who worked in the gas chambers and crematoriums) in Auschwitz tells about his experiences to a rabbi, asking if he could be forgiven. Ms. Shahar is a former member of the Intelligence Community and a public speaker.

Alex, a Greek Jew from Saliniki, is sent to Auschwitz where his family is murdered and he is forced to help the Nazi murder machine by cleaning up the gas chambers, or burning bodies. In another time, another continent, a young convert woman named Yael is starting to remember Alex’s experiences, even though she has not been born at the time.

Yael helps Alex contact Rabbi Ish Shalom (man of peace) to both confess and receive punishment/forgiveness from his role in aiding the Nazis.

About two years ago I read an interesting article about unearthed documents buried by Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. The prisoner was a Greek member of the Sonderkommando who didn’t expect to live, but wanted to document the Nazi crimes. Unbelievably the man was still alive many years later to witness his testimony being found. When I read the synopsis for this book, it sounded like a similar story (maybe the article inspired the author?), which is fascinating.

Returning by Yael Shahar is not only a gripping read, but a very profound book and an introduction to Jewish mysticism. The aspect of implemented memories, was a great device to reflect upon past events with an active participant.

Alex, who is suffering from guilt of choosing life assisting the Nazi murder machine instead of death lacks the ability to forgive himself. In his quest he turns to the religion which abandoned him when he got to that forsaken place.

This is not an easy book to read, but it’s not meant to be and is not afraid to ask difficult questions – some of which have no answers. Both the memoir part, as well as the kabalistic aspects deserve attention and careful reading to be understood in context.
Author 7 books1 follower
June 28, 2018
I have always been intrigued by the notion of memory—lost memory, sacred memory, revealed memory…. This is probably related to my own background; I am a daughter of survivors. As I watched my mother’s face entreating the names of her lost family, the Kaddish prayers, the circular motion of her hands at candle lighting, it all seemed to say “bring them back, keep them from fading.”

Reading Yael Shahar’s Returning, and her journey into Ovadya’s past, I immediately knew this would go further than the many Holocaust accounts on my bookshelf. This experience of “returning” would become an unforgettable encounter.

Ovadya’s tragedy is that, after the last of the victims have entered the gas chambers, he is still there, remembering. He loses every vestige of a recognizable human being, becoming a fragmented soul, barely connected to its past.

But from this descent, he ascends through time, emerging at last on the pages of Talmudic discourse. In Rav Ish Shalom’s small study, we are all confronted by questions: “When does survival become a crime?” “When does choice become treason?”

That’s when I found myself yelling at all the holocaust books that line my walls, “I thought we were done with all of this. It’s been over 70 years, what more agony do I need to go through? We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the Shoah….”

It begins with Yael Shahar’s language. Its imagery and power is astounding. Invoking the jars of testimony buried by the Sonderkommando in Birkenau, Ovadya explains: “I am like those buried jars. The memory is buried inside and surfaces in an unpredictable manner. Some is blurred by time or willful forgetting. Some of it is as clear as if no time has passed. And sometimes it is not past at all, but present….”

Returning is about asking hard questions. Many of these questions have never been asked until now, perhaps, because we’ve been too frightened of learning the answers. But the time has come to ask those questions. And in the end, we all stand together as witnesses at the Viddu. Mourners, innocent and the broken, exhausted, fearful… and forgiving. For certain I would be less of who I am, had I not experienced this journey of redemption, this revival, this return.

If you are a child of survivors yearning to connect to your parents’ unspoken past, if you simply want to try to unravel the mystery of human evil, or if you want to understand how it was possible, then Returning is the book to read. But be warned: it may make you understand too much.
595 reviews2 followers
April 14, 2020
Good book

This book at times for me was very hard to understand, for maybe several reasons. It is very deep and dark. But, I do believe in its truth. It is so beautiful that a second person was able to give this testimony. Even through it has been very, very difficult for Yael. I believe God wanted very much for this to be known. God bless these poor people who were murdered in the holocaust may they find eternal rest with the God of their fathers which I have faith that they have.
Profile Image for Grady.
Author 49 books1,505 followers
April 9, 2014
Waking dreams

Yael Shahar has been involved in work in security and intelligence, the details of which of course cannot be shared. Now she divides her time between researching trends in terrorism and learning Talmud, and she lectures both in Israel and abroad. Ovadya ben Malka is Yael's father and co-author and was born in 1926 in Saloniki, Greece. He serves as the primary author of this memoir that in power and brilliance of writing is on a level with that of other Auschwitz- Birkinau - Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel.

The quality of writing in this book is so excellent, both in style and in content as well as in the design of the method of revealing the story (emails, letters, online communications, etc) that it not only demands our attention but also makes it visually easier to read. The book covers the time from WW II to the present and is an exploration of the boundaries between right and wrong, choices and choicelessness, and the consequences of crossing those boundaries. It challenges notions of black and white, and calls into question the sovereignty of death itself.

At the age of seventeen Ovadya ben Malka (known as Alex) was deported, together with his mother and younger sister, to Auschwitz- Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland. His family was killed on arrival. He survived nearly two months in the quarantine camp, outlasting most of those who arrived with him, but his survival was to cost him dearly. The manner in which he describes the 9-day transfer to the camps is harrowing, as is the description of the camps and the day-to-day existence in a world where he no longer felt like a person. Throughout the book the challenges to Alex's memories of the experience after his escape are shared with a Rabbi and gradually the character of Yael is introduced and becomes an integral part of the redemption of a Alex who felling there is no God comes to face the atrocities he bore in the camps and the permanent damage to his psyche.

Writing of this quality is so infrequently encountered that it seems as though this book is destined for major awards. Example, `"We know now where grief untold goes: it goes on to haunt future generations. It gets left behind on the grating; it passes unscathed through temperatures that can melt iron and reduce human bone to ash. And somewhere far removed in space and decades into the future, a stranger wakes out of a sound sleep with an inexplicable nightmare and a despair so deep as to negate life itself." Whether or not that happens, this book opens our eyes even further as to the heinous crimes of Hitler's Final Solution. The message belongs in the hearts of every person who cares about humanity. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Alice Langholt.
Author 31 books24 followers
October 24, 2015
A Damaged Mirror takes the reader deeply into difficult questions of accountability, choice, judgement, forgiveness, humanity, worthiness, and faith. Through the weaving of detailed memory, spoken through letters, writing, and finally dialogue, ancient Jewish texts are called upon to answer questions that few have been able to even explore, let alone answer. This book is illuminating, boldly demonstrating the concept of a "living memory," and the eternal aspects of a soul powerfully affected by the most devastating of experiences, decades after the passing of the body that housed the soul. The detail in the writing captures a vivid picture of the workings of Birkenau concentration camp from an intimately personal perspective. Moving, thought-provoking, and haunting, the lessons this book brought me will remain with me always, imprinted in my consciousness like a number tattoo.

Deep questions are explored in this book through the Jewish concepts of T'shuvah (steps to forgiveness), as well as what is or isn't a forgivable offense. Ovadaya's study sessions with Rav Ish-Shalom are complex as they are enriching for the reader who is already a scholar. They may be difficult for someone new to Jewish text study, however, well worth the effort and careful contemplation.

The story challenges the reader to consider new perspectives on the eternal aspects of the soul, and the concept of inheriting a memory.

I believe this book deserves the highest reward possible for Holocaust literature. It is truly exceptional.

May the memories of all who perished in the Holocaust, and those who venture to tell their stories, serve for a blessing.

~Alice Langholt, author of the biblical fiction book First Family
Profile Image for Dindy.
255 reviews2 followers
November 26, 2016
This was a very difficult book to read, because it went below the surface of the horror of the Holocaust and examined the guilt of the universally reviewed Sonderkommandoes- the Jews who were forced to aid the Nazis by assisting in gassing the victims and delivering their bodies to the crematorium.

The book follows the journey of Alex, 60 years after the Holocaust, and his torment for his part in the Holocaust after he was forced to be a Sonderkommando at Birkenau.

Through conversations with a Jewish scholar, Alex seeks to relieve his burden of guilt. He denies his culpability, saying he had no choice but to assist.

The reason the book was difficult was because it was very deep, and I frequently had to go back and re-read passages to make sure I understood them.

This is NOT light, summer break reading, but is extremely worthwhile. In examining the question of Alex's guilt or innocence, the reader is forced to consider his/her own guilt or innocence. Through the internal struggle of someone who aided in one of the most heinous deeds in history, we learn a lot about our own guilt or innocence in lesser deeds.

This book is a must read not just for people who are interested in the Holocaust, but for anyone who is interested in the question of free will. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.
1 review
November 5, 2019
How does a young boy come to terms with being a part of, and witnessing one of the most horrific tragedy known to mankind?

Ripped from his childhood in Salonica, he and his family are sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps.

Ovadya is the only survivor in his family. Forced by the Nazis to do, one of the most heinous acts of all, disposing of the bodies from the crematorium ovens to burn and turn into ashes.

Ovadya wanted to live. He'd rather live in hell than die.

It became a tormenting experience for him, to burn his fellow Jews' bodies. Excruciating guilt follows Ovadya, and so the journey of healing begins....

Ovadya desperately searches for answers. Can he ever be forgiven by G-d. Can the Neshamas (souls) of the people he put in the ovens, ever forgive him? These were people, who once were alive with dreams and aspirations of their own.

The horrific question Ovadya now faces is how does one continue to live, at the expense of those souls?

The unbearable guilt and pain he lives with, day in and day out, forces him to come to terms with all he had lived through.

Yael Shahar's brilliant way of writing and her own first hand experience will gently hold your hand as she walks with Ovadya and you the reader, through the revelation that the soul lives on forever.

Three words, A must read!
Profile Image for Nicole.
220 reviews3 followers
October 12, 2018
Returning was a powerful tale of forgiveness, even of those who believe they are beyond the point of being able to be forgiven. I must admit to being glad that the author addressed the point of how to classify this book in the Q&A in the back - even with that help I struggle with how to think of the tale - although it is most definitely historical, is it a memoir or fiction? I suppose at this point that is splitting hairs; the characters were simply so intertwined that the story became difficult to follow here and there. Either way, that intertwining made the story unique, and the perspective was so vivid that it really brought to life the horrors of Birkenau.

I found the character of Masha to be extremely confusing, more so as the story progressed - although it is somewhat explained, I wish Shahar had been clearer about Masha's role in Ovadya's life.

Overall, I found Returning to be well written, albeit horrifying. I would recommend it as a read for anyone interested in Jewish history, especially the happenings in Birkenau-Auschwitz.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for free from LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.
Author 7 books1 follower
September 4, 2014
A Damaged Mirror is truly unforgettable. Not only does this book present a riveting account of the horrors of Birkenau, it also reaches into matters of repentance, redemption and repair. I am a daughter of survivors, and as such, I am a prolific reader of the Holocaust. In A Damaged Mirror, the author poses questions too terrible to ask; confronts issues secretly etched in many of our hearts, and takes us through Talmudic discourse from the ancient rabbinic teachings. In the end, we are inspired to examine ourselves, and the strength of our convictions, tested in a world gone mad. A Damaged Mirror echoes with voices the likes of Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi...and it reaches even further. I was fascinated enough to read this book twice and felt compelled to contact Kasva Press, to inquire about a study guide that could be used for a book club selection or as a source for Holocaust study in the classroom. To me, this book is a must-read. I am convinced its a one of a kind masterpiece.
Profile Image for Kathe Coleman.
505 reviews19 followers
July 6, 2016
A Damaged Mirror: A Story of Memory and Redemption by Ovadya ben Malka and Yael Shahar
In 1941 seventeen -year old Jewish Ovadya was deported from his home in Greece to Birkenau. Upon arrival he was sent to the Sonderkommando (SK), the group of prisoners responsible for running the machinery of murder. Because his Greek name too hard to say he become known as Alex. Ovadya feels his death at this point and all of the atrocities that he was forced to was now assigned to. Alex.
Twenty years later, Yael (the author) is born in Texas but is haunted by a mystery she could not have lived. A connection with Ovadya was the only key to fitting all the pieces together.
The second part of the book follows Ovadya’s spiritual; quest.
Needing to release the guilt he sent Yael to seek out rabbi Rav-Ish Shalom to ask for rabbinical judgement.
It took me till the middle of the book to figure out what was happening and not being Jewish spent a lot of time checking the glossary. It was so insightful, spiritual and mystical. No holes barred of what really happened at the crematoriums. Excellent. 5+
November 3, 2017
A heartbreaking true story of survival and "resurrection" of a soul tested relentlessly under conditions that no person should ever had to endure.

Ovadya Ben Malka and all his unfortunate SK companions were NOT Guilty in my eyes. Under such extreme conditions of constant terror, grieving and dehumanisation normal humans simply go into survival mode where the instinct of survival, every day and hour, takes over.
No human Court could ever indict these humans, let alone condemn them!
May HaShem be with all that that hell on earth could never happen again!
Profile Image for Joshua Grant.
Author 23 books237 followers
December 17, 2019
Yael Shahar enthralls us in a heartwrenching drama with Returning! Alex is haunted by his days interred at Auschwitz and the things he had to do to survive there. Now he seeks forgiveness years later so he can build a new life. Returning is super emotional and made me cry. Shahar’s writing is powerful and never shies away from the truth, no matter how brutal it can be! If you’re looking for a meaningful dive into one of history’s darkest periods, look no further than Returning!
September 16, 2018
Returning, by Yael Shahar
Afterword by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo

There were moments in Yael Shahar’s book, Returning, that resonated deeply with me, certainly with a me of the past. One such moment was when she “took advantage of the many eighteen-wheelers that plied I-35 on their way south. She would single out a truck, throttle the bike up to its full speed to get into the giant vehicle’s slipstream, and ease off the throttle as they were carried behind the truck.” After reading this passage, I knew I could connect with this very down-to-earth author. We already shared a common history.
But very quickly, Ms. Shahar and her characters took me beyond myself, into an excruciatingly different time in history, and to a wondrously different focus on the meaning of reality.
The trip through Returning is an excursion between times, foreign countries, and extremely foreign concepts. Alex, the main character, was a 17-year-old boy caught in the horror machine of the Holocaust. His primal need to survive caused him to accept a role in the hated and feared Sonderkommando in the Birkenau death camp. Sixty years later, he struggles to find a way to atone for his choices. God blesses him with a handful of rare individuals willing to hold his hand and heart through this painful process.
I like all five of the principle characters very much, and find myself thoroughly caught up in their ordeal, hoping desperately that they find the answers they are seeking, and absolution. This is difficult writing at its best, allowing us to feel sympathy for the plight of the historically unlovable and seemingly unforgiveable. Ms. Shahar causes the reader to care about two people broken as much by their desire for survival as by the Nazis and their campaign of wanton evil.
The wisdom of the man who is Alex is by turns painfully poignant and inspiring. In his own voice, he allows us to travel inside the tragedy of the Holocaust that stole his family, friends and identity, as well as his relationship with his Creator:
“Will God torture us forever for being Jews?”
“Is this how we’re to be a light unto the nations, as fuel for the fire?”
“The foundation of my existence has been cut from beneath me, leaving me hanging in emptiness. Where once was a vibrant web of ties to others and to God, I find only singed and blackened threads leading into nothingness.”
These poetic words convey for the reader the abject emptiness of spirit wrought by daily life in the camps, especially for those manipulated into being “partners” in crime against their brethren.
Returning also carries with it the terrifying aspect that reality isn’t as we imagine it. Is the apparent time- and space-travel in this story true? Ms. Shahar certainly renders it believable, even for someone like me. I have never had a “spiritual” or “supernormal” experience. No one has ever reached out to me from the beyond. Unlike some of my dearest friends, my dreams have never been touched by visions of angels or demons or predictions of the World to Come. Returning makes me want to believe that such “touching the beyond” is possible, that there is always time to fix what we’ve damaged.
There is so much life-wisdom in this book:
“...beauty is to be found in working within the constraints imposed on us by life.”
“...when we imbibe ‘willingness’ to die for our sacred principles, then there is some hope we will be driven to find meaning in living for our sacred principles.”
“Sometimes the answer to our prayer is the ability to pray at all. Fortunate is he who can see his personal deliverance when it finally comes.”
And more, from wise Alex, who found a miraculous way to carry his story and life-lessons into the future:
“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.”
“These are my heroes.... Not those who take up arms against the Germans in a hopeless battle, but those who take up words against silence.”
“How could one remain resolute in despair when even the act of returning a lost hair pin was a form of communion with God? How could one remain distant from life when the act of biting into a piece of fruit was a motion toward holiness? Judaism is not so much a religion as a civilization. It has inherited some great wisdom and outstanding morals that have stood the test of time, honed down through centuries of caring for one another through hardship and exile.”
Returning is not for the faint of heart – but if empathy for the lives of some of our most misunderstood brethren is important to you, it is a very significant work. One leaves this journey with as many questions as answers, perhaps the most haunting a question to the self: What choices would I have made, in the “choiceless time” of the Shoah? And what should be my opinion of my brothers and sisters and the choices they made? This powerful telling of a terrible tale has the potential to silence earthly judgment – and replace it with compassion.

–Ruti Eastman, 30 August 2018

Profile Image for Courtney Giraldo.
158 reviews1 follower
February 12, 2019
This is an unusual memoir to say the least. The first half switches back and forth between Alex (written in first person) and Yael (written in third person). Alex is recounting his tale of having been imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp of Birkenau. Alex is deeply troubled about his time spent in the camp and the things he had to do to survive. His memories are painful and he feels much guilt about some of the things he had to do to survive, mainly working in the crematorium leading down the weary and frightened Jews to their deaths, then collecting the dead bodies and feeding them into the fires. Yael is plagued with intrusive thoughts about a time in which she could not possibly have experienced. Memories of being held in a concentration camp, filled with fear and pain. Alex begins correspondence with a rabbi in order to sort through his feelings and emotions surrounding his time at Birkenau and submit to a final judgement on this actions within the camp/ He is wracked with guilt and knows that while it will be hard, it is the only way to achieve peace in his soul.

This emotional memoir really hooked me for the beginning half. The journey back in time as Alex relives his time at a German concentration camp is heartbreaking. It was descriptive and vivid and I found myself needing breaks in between especially disturbing passages, it was a lot to digest.

I was really not as invested in the story of Yael and her journey of self discovery, and when the two characters story lines came together it was shocking and not anything remotely close to what I had been anticipating. The second half of the book dragged quite a bit to me; it was very repetitive and clinical with reading of sacred texts and discussing at length and in multitude, Alexs actions in the concentration camp.

Overall it was a very different sort of memoir (no spoilers but trust me on this one) one that I really am not sure was my cup of tea. Had it been wrapped up shortly after that halfway point twist, I think it would have been a much more enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Jennifer Shanahan.
894 reviews12 followers
August 31, 2018
This is different than any other book I have ever read. It is the story of Ovadya ben Malka (who now goes by Alex), who was just 17 when he and his mother and sister were taken from their home in Salonika and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland where his family was killed immediately. Somehow he managed to survive there and eventually became a worker for the Germans at the camp, helping to kill thousands and thousands of Jewish people in the gas chambers. What he was brutally forced to do to stay alive has haunted him throughout his entire life and he seeks forgiveness and peace in his soul. I am not a scholar nor am I Jewish, so much of this book was foreign to me except the historical memories that Alex shared--which from his point of view were practically unbearable to read and imagine. I did have a hard time figuring out who was who outside of Alex and the Rabbi he did extensive study with in order to achieve forgiveness and understand all that he had lived through. I am guessing that Yael, the author is his daughter but I didn't ever read that clearly anywhere. I am SO glad that I read Alex's story because it was not only honest and sometimes graphic, but heart-breakingly sad as he looks to his Rabbi for guidance in relieving the guilt he has carried so long, and it will be etched in my mind for a long time coming. The writing is beautiful even though the story is so complicated and extensive, it is also very spiritual and enlightening. Definitely an epic book, not to be missed. MUCH thanks to NG for the ARC!!!!
Profile Image for Teresa.
644 reviews11 followers
September 16, 2018
I found this book confusing to read, we switch back and forth between Alex, his correspondence with Masha, and Yael. It was hard to figure out who was talking or what timeframe you were in, past or present and who was writing the letters if you didn’t know the type of “font” that was appearing at that time. But I did truly enjoy Yael’s character the most, with her visions and descriptions of what she was experiencing and feeling. I would get lost in Alex. I also struggled in the very beginning, the story did not catch or hold my attention until it once got to Yael’s chapters, and I found Alex’s chapters deeply philosophical and hard to understand.
This is a very deep, haunting, dark story. Of all the holocaust books I have read, this was the most difficult one. I would have to lay it down and come back to it. Not that I feel the story didn’t need told, it is a real haunting story of guilt, and actions performed due to choices beyond your own control. How do you ask for forgiveness or live with yourself knowing what you have seen or done, but the choices made would possibly designate whether you lived or died. Certainly not a pleasure read.
I was given the opportunity to read and review this book from Kasva Press through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. This one gets 3***’s.
56 reviews
September 12, 2018
Would you have been able to send your fellow jews into a burning furnace and later shovel out their ashes to save your life? Alex at only 17 and his family were forced on a cramped, train, little food or water and no toilets on a journey to Auschwitz, a place most of us cannot imagine. He was forced to perform vile and vicious acts to save his life. Millions of Jews were killed in the most cruel way possible. He, but no other members of his family survived.

He could not tell anyone about what he had done, but later in life wanted some sort of atonement and redemption.. He told his story through emails to Rav Shalom. You will also meet Yael, she was not old enough to have been in the war, but was also looking for some redemption, from her acts of prostition, which she performed to save her life. The book is not for everyone as it details some of the horrific acts at Auschwitz, but one that should be read in the hope that we never treat any group of people in such a discusting, obscene way. Really there are no words to describe the atrocities.
An excellently written book. Read it if you can.
Profile Image for Karen.
658 reviews9 followers
September 20, 2018
This story was gut wrenching and raw. It was not an easy read and I had to take a break from it multiple times. Its not for the faint of heart.
The main character is a kid (and adult depending on the time period) who now goes by the name of Alex. He was forced to do things during the Holocaust to stay alive that has made him feel guilty ever since. This story is about him seeking forgiveness and redemption for things he considers unforgivable. Does he still have faith in the God he feels abandoned him?
It is harrowing and heavy, but if you like Holocaust books, its a must read. *Slow clap, with tears in my eyes*
Although this was a sad and graphic read, it is one I will never forget.
This book was a little hard to get into and understand. The story is constantly flipping back and forth between characters, letters, emails, memories, and different time periods. That is the only reason I deducted a star.
Thanks to Net Gallery and the publisher (Kaaba Press, LLC) for the chance to read this memoir.
Profile Image for Yehudis Litvak.
Author 11 books11 followers
July 21, 2017
This is a unique book. If I had to describe it on one foot, I'd say that it's a stormy love affair between a Jew and his G-d during one of the darkest times in Jewish history, when G-d hid His face from His people.
Well-written and poignant, Damaged Mirror takes us to the depths of despair, to the lowest point of humanity, and at the same time, gives us a glimpse of a much bigger picture - of the nature of reality, the physical world, and the human soul.
The book is heavy yet uplifting at the same time, as it portrays the indestructible bond between a Jew and his Creator.
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