Where does memory go
when it cannot be spoken?
Now we know: It goes on to haunt future generations. It passes unscathed through temperatures that can melt iron and reduce 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.
Alex died in Auschwitz, having betrayed his faith and his people. Now he’s been given a single miraculous chance to put things right–but his fate is in the hands of a woman who only wants to forget, and a rabbi who isn’t sure whether to be Alex’s teacher or his judge.
Sixty years after the Holocaust, Alex is a silent prisoner of his memories, desperately seeking atonement for what he did to survive. But his destiny is entangled with the choices of a woman born into a different place and time—she alone can help him keep his promises to the dead. Yael, born and raised in Texas, has no connection with Alex’s lost world, yet she is haunted by dark memories of horrors she could not have lived. She holds the key to Alex’s future, if only she can summon the courage to confront his secrets.
Determined to put himself on trial, Alex approaches a local rabbi to serve as his judge. Rabbi Ish-Shalom quickly finds that this case goes beyond anything he has ever experienced—Alex’s story will challenge everything he thought he knew about death and the human soul. Now he must decide: Should he help Alex reach the oblivion he seeks? Or should he enlist the help of centuries of Jewish wisdom to bring Alex back into the world of the living? Two lives, inexplicably linked by dark memory, hang in the balance.
Based on a true story, Returning is a haunting exploration of trauma and healing, and of how memory shapes our identities. In exploring the choices we make in a choiceless time, this compelling story shows the power of the human spirit to transcend even its own destruction. It will leave you changed forever.
Advance Praise for Returning
Dazzling… Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels.
— Philip K. Jason, Washington Independent Review of Books
Intriguing! At times dark and haunting, at times lyrical and introspective. Returning will resonate long after ‘the end’.
— Dan Sofer, author of the Dry Bones Society trilogy
From the horrors of the Birkenau crematoria and the dilemmas of survival that are forever etched in our hearts, to the profound dialogues of Talmudic debate, Returning reaches from the past to the present, challenging us to examine ourselves as Jews, and our relation to God in a world gone mad…. Shahar’s writing echoes with the voices of Elie Wiesel, Viktor Frankl, and Primo Levi, and reaches even beyond—giving us a book of resounding impact that will surely continue to affect us for years to come.
— Chana Rosen, Jewish Press Book Supplement
A well written and highly unusual Holocaust memoir with a twist…. An absorbing and courageous book, Returning is a must-read for those wishing to embark on a profound, painful, but ultimately hopeful journey into the human soul. By its end, the reader cannot help but be a changed person.
— Yael Unterman, author of Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar
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)…. The book is also remarkable for the insight it gives into the way Jewish law comes to grips with the kind of dilemmas they faced. The writing is starkly beautiful.
— Esther Cameron, author of The Time of the Other and editor of The Deronda Review
While the subject matter of Returning makes for heavy reading at times, the writing is superb throughout. Indeed, the telling often has the pace of a thriller as the reader is led through a maze of conflicting memories and complex relationships, until the full truth of Ovadya’s story is revealed.
Since the questions raised by this unique and profoundly moving book are of the deepest kind, Returning is certain to be read, discussed, and argued over for many years to come.
— Libi Astaire, author of The Moon Taker
Well-written and poignant, Returning 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.
— Yehudis Litvak, Learning and Teaching Torah through Literature
The quality of writing in this book is so excellent, both in style and in content as well as in 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. Returning 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. Writing of this quality is so infrequently encountered that it seems as though this book is destined for major awards.
— Grady Harp, Amazon Hall of Fame, Top 100 Reviewer.
Links to Educational Materials
Author website: https://www.yaelshahar.com.
Reader’s Guide: Questions for readers to ponder as they progress through the book: https://www.yaelshahar.com/readers/returning-discussion-topics//
- Moral and Religious dilemmas in the Holocaust: Topics for group discussion based on dilemmas raised in the book: https://www.yaelshahar.com/moral-dilemmas-holocaust/.
- Reflections and Resources on T’shuvah: Topis for discussion on T’shuvah, supplemented by Jewish sources that can serve as a basis for deeper learning. https://www.yaelshahar.com/readers/reflections-resources-tshuvah-free-download/
Have questions or feedback?
Yael Shahar can be reached at: email@example.com.
Chaya Rosen –
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.