Yosl Rakover Talks To God by Zvi Kolitz (1946)

On Holocaust Memorial Day, this week’s Random Book of The Week is both a classic of Holocaust literature, and a curious literary phenomenon.

Zvi Kolitz (1919-2002) was a Lithuanian Jew who left his homeland in the thirties to live in Italy and then Palestine, where he led recruiting efforts for the Zionist Revisionist movement and was jailed by the British for his political activities. A film and theatrical producer who was active in post-independence Israel’s literary and cultural life, Kolitz is most famous for creating the fictional Yosl Rakover, one of the last fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto as German tanks roll in, who writes of his feelings towards God in light of the horror he has endured, and hides his account in a bottle in the ruins of the Ghetto where it is found years later:

I cannot say, after all I have lived through, that my relation to God is unchanged. But with absolute certainty I can say that my faith in Him has not altered by a hairsbreadth.

Written in 1946 and published in a Jewish newspaper in Beunos Aires, the tale took on a life of its own when it was picked up in later years and treated as a true testimony from the Ghetto, going as far as being inserted into prayer books. As a New York Rabbi who presented it as a true account to his congregation during Yom Kippur said to people who told him that they knew the story’s true author: ‘I know there’s an author. But this way it is much more moving.’

This edition includes Paul Baade’s fascinating account of the reconnection between the real author and his book. The most powerful lines for me were Kolitz’s rebuttal of those who accused him of fakery in writing about an experience he had not endured:

I did not lose a single person in Auschwitz whom I knew, and yet not a day goes by when I am not moved to think about Auschwitz. I have become incapable of taking any tragedy other than personally, wherever it occurs. What happens in Bosnia affects me. What happens anywhere affects me. This is a wound. Pick up the newspaper – every day is a wound.

John Donne said something very similar almost 400 years earlier in 1624:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, let’s remember that no man is an island. A stranger’s tragedy is our tragedy too. Peace to you all!

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