Faith Facing The Holocaust - Lecture #26a: Yossel Rakover Speaks to God (Part 1)
By: Rav Tamir Granot
History of the work
Before concluding this series of lectures on religious responses to the Holocaust, I would like to address one of the most famous and most amazing texts in the realm of faith and the Holocaust: Yossel Rakover Speaks to God. The following words appear as an introduction:
In one of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, among heaps of charred rubbish, there was found, packed tightly into a small bottle, the following testament, written during the ghetto's last hours by a Jew named Yossel Rakover. Warsaw, 28 April, 1943.
What follows is a letter that Yossel Rakover addresses to history and to the Master of the universe.
After reading this letter for the first time, the Franco-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote the following:
I have just read a text which is both beautiful and real – as real as only fiction can be. An anonymous author published it… What this text provides is Jewish learning modestly understated, yet full of assurance; it represents a deep authentic experience of the spiritual life.
The text presents itself as a document written during the last few hours of the resistance of the Warsaw Ghetto. The narrator is a witness to all the horrors. He has lost his young children under brutal circumstances. As his family's last survivor, and that for only a few more moments, he bequeaths to us his final thoughts. A literary fiction, certainly, but a fiction that affords each of us, as survivors, a dizzying view of ourselves and our lives.
Yossel Rakover’s prayer has endured many biographical trials and tribulations. For many years, it was widely believed that this was an authentic letter dating to the Holocaust. Afterwards, when it became clear that this was not the case, the author was accused of plagiarism. In fact, what happened was simply a careless mistake on the part of the publishers; the author never meant to hide his identity. Zvi Kolitz, a Lithuanian-born Jew who emigrated with his family prior to the Holocaust and has lived for most of his life in America, composed this wondrous letter in Yiddish in 1946 in Argentina. When it appeared in Israel some ten years later the name of the author was omitted, leading to the misunderstanding.
Levinas dismisses the question of the authenticity of the text at the very outset, declaring that it is “genuine as only a story can be.” What does he mean by this? It is always extremely difficult to know the inner world of someone else, especially when this world involves extraordinary experiences, such as the Holocaust. The “informative truth” may supply us with only the barest information as to the person’s reality. Hence, in order to understand his inner goings-on as events take place we need a story. Aharon Appelfeld, one of Israel’s greatest Holocaust authors, conveys the same message in his autobiographical work, Sippur Hayim (Life Story). He declares that none of the characters in his books were real people, but that all that he writes is true. Kolitz’s monologue has a tremendously powerful impact because it expresses, in a most profound manner and with a sort of dizzying directness and conciseness, as Levinas notes, the feelings of many who were there but were not always able to express in their own words the thoughts set forth in this monologue.
We shall cite here the main parts of the letter composed by Yossel Rakover – this character who is both imaginary and real – and in the next installment we shall address Levinas’s interpretation, along with some additional comments.
A. The Letter
I, Yossel, son of Dovid Rakover of Tarnopol, a chasid of the Rebbe of Ger and a descendant of the righteous, learned, and God-fearing families of Rakover and Meisels, am writing these lines as the houses of the Warsaw ghetto go up in flames. The house I am in is one of the few still not burned. For several hours, an unusually heavy artillery barrage has been crashing down on us, and the walls around me are crumbling and disintegrating under the concentrated fire. Before long, the house I am in will be transformed, like almost every other house in the ghetto, into a grave for its defenders.
(Here he speaks of the death of his wife and six children, and the destruction of the ghetto…)
I am forty-three years old, and when I look back on the past I can assert confidently, as confidently as a man can be in judging himself, that I have lived an honest life, and that my heart was full of love. At one time, I was blessed with success, but I never boasted about it. I had many possessions and, as my rebbe used to say, very rarely had to make sacrifices. By law and by faith, if I had ever been tempted to steal, it would only have been so as to enjoy depravity for its own sake. My house was open to the needy, and I was happy whenever I was able to do anyone a favor. I served God enthusiastically, and my sole request to Him was that He allow me to worship Him bi-kol livovekha, bi-khol nafshkha u-bi-khol miodekha.
After everything I have lived through, I cannot say that my relationship to God remains unchanged, but I can say with absolute certainty that my belief in Him has not changed a hair's breadth. In the past, when I was well and well off, my relation to God was as to one who kept on granting me favors for which I was always indebted; now my relationship to Him is as to one who owes me something, owes me much. And since I feel that He owes me something, I believe that I have the right to demand it of Him. But I do not say, like Job, that God should point a finger at my sin so that I may know why I deserve this; for bigger and better people than I are firmly convinced that what is now happening is not a question of punishment for transgressions but rather that something very specific is taking place in the world. More exactly, it is a time of hester panim.
God has veiled His countenance from the world, and thus has delivered mankind over to its most savage impulses. And unfortunately, when the power of impulse dominates the world, it is quite natural that the first victims should be those who embody the divine and the pure. Speaking personally, this is hardly a consolation, but since the destiny of our people is determined not by earthly, material, and physical calculations, but by calculations not of this earth, spiritual and divine, the believer should see such events as a fragment of a great divine reckoning, against which human tragedies do not count for much. This, however, does not mean that the pious of my people should justify the edict by claiming that God and God's judgments are right. I believe that to say we deserve the blows we have received is to malign ourselves, to desecrate the Shem hameforosh "Jew," and this is the same as desecrating the actual Shem hameforosh – God; God is maligned when we malign ourselves.
In a situation like this, I naturally expect no miracles, nor do I ask Him, my Lord, to show me mercy. May He treat me with the same countenance-veiling indifference with which He has treated millions of His people. I am no exception, and I expect no special treatment. I will no longer attempt to save myself, nor flee any more. I will facilitate the work of the fire by moistening my clothing with gasoline. I have three bottles of gasoline left after having poured several dozen on the heads of the murderers. That was one of the finest moments in my life, and I roared with laughter. I had never dreamed that the death of human beings, even of enemies – even of such enemies – could so delight me. Foolish humanists may say what they like. \vengeance was and always will be the last means of waging battle and the greatest emotional gratification of the oppressed. Until now, I never understood the precise meaning of the passage in the Talmud that states: "Vengeance is sacred because it is mentioned between two of God's names, as it is written: "A God of vengeance is the Lord." Now I understand it. Now I know why my heart is so overjoyed when I recall that for thousands of years we have been calling our Lord a God of vengeance: "A God of vengeance is our Lord."
Now that I am in a position to see life with particularly clear eyes – something only rarely given people before death – it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between our God and the God in whom the nations of Europe believe. Our God is a God of vengeance, and our Torah is full of death penalties for the seemingly smallest sins, yet at the same time the Talmud relates that it was enough for the Sanhedrin, the highest tribunal of our people when it was free in its own land, to sentence a person to death once in seventy years to have the judges considered murderers. In contrast, the followers of the God of the nations, the so-called God of love, who commanded them to love every creature made in the divine image, have been murdering us without pity, day in, day out, for almost two thousand years.
…I still have three bottles of gasoline, and they are as precious to me as wine to a drunkard. After emptying one over my clothes, I will place the paper on which I write these lines in the bottle and hide it among the bricks of the half-walled-up window of this room. If anyone ever finds it and reads it, he will, perhaps, understand the emotions of one of the millions of Jews who died forsaken by the God in whom he believed unshakably…
…I am proud that I am a Jew not in spite of the world's treatment of us, but preciselybecause of this treatment. I would be ashamed to belong to one of the peoples that spawned and raised the criminals who are responsible for the deeds that have been perpetrated against us.
I am proud to be a Jew because it is an art to be a Jew, because it is hard to be a Jew. It is no art to be an Englishman, and American, or a Frenchman. It may be easier, more comfortable, to be one of them, but not more honorable. Yes, it is an honor to be a Jew!
I believe that to be a Jew means to be a fighter, an everlasting swimmer against the turbulent, criminal human current. The Jew is a hero, a martyr; he is holy! You, our enemies, declare that we are bad. I believe that we are better and finer than you, but even if we were worse, I would like to see how you would look in our place!
I am happy to belong to the world's most unfortunate people, whose Torah represents the loftiest and most beautiful body of law and morality. This Torah has been made even holier and more immortal by the degradation and insult to which it has been subjected by the enemies of God.
I believe that to be a Jew is an inborn trait. One is born a Jew exactly as one is born an artist. It is impossible to be released from being a Jew. A divine attribute within us has made us a chosen people. Those who do not understand this will never understand the higher meaning of our martyrdom. "There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,” a great rebbe once said, and there is no people more chosen than a people permanently persecuted. If I did not believe that God once picked us to be chosen people, I would believe that our tribulations have made us chosen.
I believe in Israel's God even if He has done everything to stop me from believing in Him. I believe in His laws even if I cannot justify His actions. My relationship to Him is no longer the relationship of a slave to his master but rather that of a student to his teacher. I bow my head before His greatness, but will not kiss the rod with which He strikes me.
I love Him, but I love His Torah more, and even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still observe His Torah. God means religion, but His Torah means a way of life, and the more we die for this way of life, the more sacred and immortal it becomes.
Therefore, my God, allow me, before death, being absolutely free of every semblance of terror, finding myself in a state of absolute inner peace and assurance, to argue things out with you for the last time in my life.
You say that we have sinned? Of course we have. And therefore for that we are being punished? I can understand that too. But I would like You to tell me whether any sin in the world deserves the kind of punishment we have received.
You say that You will yet repay our enemies? I am convinced that You will. Repay them without mercy? I have no doubt of that either.
Nevertheless, I would like You to tell me whether any punishment in the world can compensate for the crimes that have been committed against us?
You say, perhaps, that it is no longer a question of sin and punishment, but a situation ofhester panim in which You have abandoned humanity to its impulses? Then I would like to ask You, God – and this question burns in me like a consuming fire - What more, oh, what more must transpire for You to again reveal Your countenance?
I want to tell You openly and clearly that now, more than in any previous period of our endless path of agony, do we have – we the tortured, the humiliated, the strangled, the buried alive and burned alive, we the insulted, the mocked, the ridiculed, the murdered by the millions – that now do we have the right to know the limits of Your patience.
…Forgive those who have desecrated Your name, who have gone over to the service of other gods, who have become indifferent to You. So severely have You struck them that they no longer believe You are their Father, that they have any Father at all.
I tell You this because I believe in You, because I believe in You more than ever, because now I know that You are my Lord, because surely You are not, surely You cannot be, the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible manifestation of godlessness.
If You are not my God, whose God are You? The God of the murderers?
If those who hate me and murder me are so sinister, so evil, what then am I if not the one who reflects something of Your light, of Your goodness?
I cannot praise You for the deeds You tolerate. I bless and praise You, however, for the very fact of Your existence, for Your terrible greatness, which is so awesome that even what is happening now makes no impression on You! And precisely because You are so great and I so small, I pray You, I warn You in Your own name: stop underscoring Your greatness by tolerating the torments of the persecuted.
…Death can wait no longer, and I must finish my writing. On the floors above me, the firing is growing weaker by the minute. The last defenders of this stronghold are now falling, and with them falls and perishes the great, beautiful, God-fearing Jewish Warsaw. The sun is about to set, and I thank God that I will never see it again. The red glow of the conflagrations comes in through the little window, and the bit of sky I can see is red and turbulent like a waterfall of blood. In about an hour at the most I will be with my family and with the millions of other dead members of my people in that better world where there are no more doubts, and where God alone is sovereign.
I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted, but not enslaved; embittered, but not cynical; a believer, but not a supplicant; a lover of God, but no blind amen-sayer.
I have followed Him even when He repulsed me. I have obeyed His commandments even when He has struck me for it; I have loved Him and will continue to love Him even when He has hurled me to the ground, tortured me to death, made me an object of shame and ridicule.
My rabbi always told the story of a Jew who fled from the Spanish Inquisition with his wife and child, striking out in a small boat on the stormy sea until he reached a rocky island. A bolt of lightning killed his wife; a storm rose and hurled his son into the sea. Alone, solitary as a stone, naked and barefoot, lashed by the storm and terrified by the thunder and lightning, with disheveled hair and hands outstretched to God, the Jew continued on his way across the desolate, rocky isle, turning to God with the following words:
"God of Israel, I have fled here in order to be able to serve You undisturbed, to follow Your commandments and sanctify Your name. You, however, do everything to make me stop believing in You. Now, lest it occur to You that by imposing these tribulations You will succeed in driving me from the right path, I notify You, my God and the God of my father, that it will not avail you in the least. You may insult me, You may strike me, You may take away all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death – I will always believe in You, I will always love You! Yea, even in spite of You!”
And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God: Nothing will avail You in the least! You have done everything to make me renounce You, to make me lose faith in You, but I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakable believer!
Praised forever be the God of the death, the God of vengeance, truth, and law, who will soon show His face to the world again and shake its foundations with His almighty voice.
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Into your hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit.
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Zvi Kolitz, Yossel Rakover Speaks to God: Holocaust Challenges to Religious Faith (Hoboken: Ktav, 1995), p. 13.