Yosl Rakover Talks to God

Yosl Rakover Talks to God

by Zvi Kolitz

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A dying Jew's last words to God -- a text that is regarded as the greatest piece of writing to have emerged from the Holocaust -- the story of how it came to be written, and the afterlife of both the author and his creation.
As the German tanks destroy the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the few remaining fighters, Yosl Rakover, writes out his last words to God, seals the text in a glass bottle, and thrusts it into the rubble before preparing to die. The text surfaces in Europe in the 1950s, is passed from hand to hand, is broadcast on Radio Berlin -- where it is acclaimed by Thomas Mann as a religious masterpiece -- is anthologized and translated into many languages.
But what is hailed as the most important testament of the Holocaust is in fact a short story, written in 1946 for a Yiddish newspaper by a remarkable young Jew, Zvi Kolitz, in Buenos Aires, where he had gone to raise money for the Jewish underground in the struggle to establish the State of Israel. The Borgesian story of what happened to the text and to Kolitz in the fifty years since, and the detective work of German journalist Paul Badde that resulted in their eventual rejoining, form the second part of this fascinating book. And in an afterword, the great French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas's meditation on the text is answered in a commentary by Leon Wieseltier.
Already an acclaimed bestseller in Europe, Yosl Rakover Talks to God restores a blazing artifact of twentieth-century writing to its true setting.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A singular literary creation, worth pondering for generations to come." —The Jerusalem Report

" The text is a quarrel as much as a prayer, an assertion of faith and a simultaneous refusal to accept the traditional notion that God hides his face in response to human sin." —The New York Times

"Yosl Rakover is one of those runaway masterpieces whose energy makes them explode off the page." —Le Nouvel Observateur (France)

"Remarkable . . . a grim but beautiful story." —Los Angeles Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307797803
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/29/2011
Series: Vintage International
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 112
File size: 2 MB

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Read an Excerpt

In one of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in a little bottle and concealed amongst heaps of charred stone and human bones, the following testament was found, written in the last hours of the ghetto by a Jew named Yosl Rakover.

Warsaw, 28 April 1943

I, Yosl, son of David Rakover of Tarnopol, a follower of the Rabbi of Ger and descendant of the righteous, learned, and holy ones of the families Rakover and Maysels, am writing these lines as the houses of the Warsaw Ghetto are in flames, and the house I am in is one of the last that has not yet caught fire. For several hours now we have been under raging artillery fire and all around me walls are exploding and shattering in the hail of shells. It will not be long before this house I'm in, like almost all the houses in the ghetto, will become the grave of its inhabitants and defenders.

Fiery red bolts of sunlight piercing through the little half-walled-up window in my room, out of which we've been shooting at the enemy day and night, tell me that it must be almost evening, just before sundown. The sun probably has no idea how little I regret that I shall never see it again.

A strange thing has happened to us: all our ideas and feelings have changed. Death, quick death that comes in an instant, is to us a deliverer, a liberator who breaks our chains. The animals of the forest seem so dear and precious to me that it pains my heart to hear the criminals who are now masters of Europe likened to them. It is not true that there is something of the animal in Hitler. He is -- I am utterly convinced of it -- a typical child of modern man. Mankind has borne him and raised him and he is the direct, unfeigned expression of mankind's innermost, deepest-hidden urges.

In a forest where I was hiding, I met a dog one night, a sick, starving, crazed dog, his tail between his legs. Immediately we felt our common situation, for no dog's situation is a whit better than our own. He rubbed up against me, buried his head in my lap, and licked my hands. I don't know if I have ever wept the way I wept that night; I wrapped myself around his neck and cried like a child. If I stress the fact that I envied the animals then, no one should be surprised. But what I felt back then was more than envy; it was shame. I was ashamed be-fore the dog, for being not a dog but a man. That is how it is, and such is the spiritual condition we have reached: life is a calamity -- death, a liberator -- man, a plague -- beast, an ideal -- day, an abomination -- night, a comfort.

Millions of people in the great, wide world, in love with the day, the sun, and the light, neither know nor have the slightest intimation of the darkness and calamity the sun brings us. The criminals have made of it an instrument in their hands; they have used the sun as a searchlight to reveal the footprints of the fugitives trying to escape them. When I hid myself in the forests with my wife and my children -- there were six of them then -- it was the night, only the night, that concealed us in her heart. The day delivered us to our pursuers, who were hunting our souls. How can I ever forget the day of that German firestorm that raged over thousands of refugees on the road from Grodno to Warsaw? Their planes rose in the early dawn with the sun, and all day long they slaughtered us unceasingly. In this massacre that came down from the skies my wife died with our youngest child, seven months old, in her arms, and two of my surviving five children vanished that same day without a trace. David and Jehuda were their names, the one was four years old, the other six.

When the sun went down the handful of survivors moved on again toward Warsaw. But I combed through the woods and fields with my three remaining children, searching for the other two on the slaughterground. "David! -- Jehuda!" -- all night long our cries slashed like knives through the deadly silence that surrounded us, and all that answered us from the woods was an echo, helpless, heartrending, suffering as we suffered, a distant voice of lamentation. I never saw the two boys again, and I was told in a dream not to worry over them any more: they were in the hands of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. My other three children died in the Warsaw Ghetto within a year.

Rachel, my little daughter, ten years old, had heard that there were scraps of bread to be found in the city garbage cans on the other side of the walls of the ghetto. The ghetto was starving, and the starving lay like rags in the streets. People were prepared to die any death, but not death by starvation. This is probably because in a time when systematic persecution gradually destroys every other human need, the will to eat is the last one that endures, even in the presence of a longing for death. I was told of a Jew, half-starved, who said to someone, "Ah, how happy I would be to die if one last time I could sit down to a meal like a mentsh!"

Rachel had said nothing to me about her plan to steal out of the ghetto -- a crime that carried the death penalty. She went off on her dangerous journey with a friend, another girl of the same age.

In the dark of night she left home and at dawn she was discovered with her little friend outside the gates of the ghetto. The Nazi sentries and dozens of their Polish helpers immediately went in pursuit of the Jewish children who had dared to hunt in the garbage for a lump of bread so as not to die of hunger. People who had experienced this human hunt at first hand could not believe what they were seeing. Even for the ghetto this was new. You might have thought that dangerous escaped criminals were being chased as this terrifying pack ran amok after the two half-starved ten-year-old children. They couldn't keep up this race for long before one of them, my daughter, having expended the last of her strength, collapsed on the ground in exhaustion. The Nazis drove holes through her skull. The other girl escaped their clutches, but she died two weeks later. She had lost her mind.

Jacob, our fifth child, a boy of thirteen, died of tuberculosis on the day of his bar mitzvah. His death was a release for him. The last child, my daughter Eva, lost her life at the age of fifteen in a "roundup of children" that began at sunrise on the final Rosh Hashanah and lasted till sundown.

On that first day of the New Year, hundreds of Jewish families lost their children before evening came.

Now my hour has come, and like Job I can say of myself -- naked shall I return unto the earth, naked as the day I was born. My years are forty-three, and when I look back on the years that have gone by, I can say with certainty -- insofar as any man may be certain of himself -- that I have lived an honorable life. My heart has been filled with the love of God. I have been blessed with success, but the success never went to my head. My portion was ample. But though it was mine, I treated it not as mine: following the counsel of my rabbi, I considered my possessions to have no possessor. Should they lure someone to take some part of them, this should not be counted as theft, but as though that person had taken unclaimed goods. My house stood open for all who were needy, and I was happy when I was given the opportunity to perform a good deed for others. I served God with devotion, and my only petition of Him was that He allow me to serve Him "with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength."

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. In earlier times, when my life was good, my relation to Him was as if to one who gave me gifts without end, and to whom I was therefore always somewhat in debt. Now my relation to Him is as to one who is also in my debt -- greatly in my debt. And because I feel that He too is in my debt, I consider that I have the right to admonish Him. I do not say, like Job, that God should lay His finger on my sins so that I may know how I have earned this. For greater and better men than I are convinced that it is no longer a question of punishment for sins and transgressions. On the contrary, something unique is happening in the world: hastoras ponim -- God has hidden His face.

God has hidden His face from the world and delivered mankind over to its own savage urges and instincts. This is why I believe that when the forces of evil dominate the world, it is, alas, completely natural that the first victims will be those who represent the holy and the pure. To each of us as individuals, perhaps this brings no comfort. Yet as the destiny of our people is determined not by worldly but by otherworldly laws, not material and physical but spiritual and godly, so must the true believer see in these events a part of God's great leveling of the scales, in which even human tragedies weigh little. But this does not mean that the devout among my people must simply approve what is ordained and say, "The Lord is just and His decrees are just." To say that we have earned the blows we have received is to slander ourselves. It is a defamation of the Shem Hameforash, a profanation of His Holy Name -- a desecration of the name "Jew," a desecration of the name "God." It is one and the same. God is blasphemed when we blaspheme ourselves.

In such a circumstance I have, naturally, no expectation of a miracle and do not beg of Him, my Lord, that He should take pity on me. Let Him veil His face in indifference to me as He has veiled it to millions of others of His people. I am no exception to the rule. I expect no preference. I will no longer try to save myself, and I will not flee again from here. I will lighten the work of the fire and pour gasoline over my clothes. I still have three bottles of gasoline in reserve, after pouring several dozen over the heads of the murderers.

That was a great moment in my life, and I was convulsed with laughter. I could never have imagined that the death of people, even enemies -- even enemies such as these -- could fill me with such joy. Foolish humanists may say what they will, revenge and the longing for retribution have always fueled the resistance of the oppressed to the very last, and will always do so. Nothing else brings such solace to their souls. Until now I had never really understood the passage in the Talmud that says, "Vengeance is holy, for it is mentioned between two names of God, as it is written: A God of vengeance is the Lord!" Now I understand it. Now I feel it, and now I know why my heart rejoices when I remember how for thousands of years we have called upon our God: "God of Vengeance!" El Nekamot Adonoi.

And now, when I am in a position to view life and the world from this clearest of perspectives, such as is rarely granted a man before death, I realize that there is this exclusive and characteristic difference between our God and the God in whom the peoples of Europe believe: while our God is the God of vengeance and our Torah threatens death for the smallest of transgressions, it is also told in the Talmud how in ancient times, when the Sanhedrin was our people's highest court -- when we were still a free people in our own land -- a single death sentence from the High Council in seventy years was enough to make people call "You murderers" after the judges. The God of the other peoples, however, whom they call "the God of Love," has offered to love every creature created in His image, and yet they have been murdering us without pity in His name day in, day out, for almost two thousand years.

Yes, I speak of vengeance. Only rarely have we seen true vengeance, but when we have experienced it, it was so comforting, and so sweet, such deep solace and intense happiness, that to me it was as if a new life had opened up. A tank suddenly broke through into our alley and was bombarded from every fortified house around it with bottles of burning gasoline. But not one of them found its mark the way it was supposed to. The tank continued to advance undamaged. I waited with my friends until the tank was rumbling past, literally right under our noses, then we all attacked it at the same moment through the half-walled-up windows. The tank immediately burst into flames and six burning Nazis leapt out of it. Yes, they burned! They burned like the Jews whom they burned, but they screamed more than the Jews. The Jews do not scream. They embrace death as their deliverer. The Warsaw Ghetto is dying in battle, it is going down in gunfire, in fighting, and in flames -- but there is no screaming.

I still have three bottles of gasoline left, and they are as precious to me as wine to a drinker. When not long from now I empty one of them over me, I will put the sheets of paper on which I am writing these lines into the empty bottle and hide it here between the bricks in the wall beneath the window. If anyone should ever find them and read them, he will perhaps understand the feeling of a Jew -- one of millions -- who died abandoned by God, in Whom he so deeply believes. I will explode the two other bottles over the heads of the thugs when my last moment is come.

We were twelve people in this room when the uprising began, and we have fought the enemy for nine days. All of my eleven comrades have fallen. They died silently. Even the little boy -- God only knows where he came from, he was all of five years old -- now lies dead beside me. His beautiful face is smiling, the way children smile when they are peacefully dreaming. Even this little boy died as calmly as his older comrades. It was early this morning. Most of us were already no longer alive. The boy clambered up the pile of corpses to catch a glimpse through the window slit of the world outside. He stood beside me that way for several minutes. Then he suddenly fell backwards, rolled down over the bodies of the dead, and lay there like a stone. A drop of blood appeared between two locks of black hair on his small, pale forehead. A bullet in the head.

Our house is one of the last bastions of the ghetto. Until early yesterday morning, when the enemy opened concentrated fire on this building with the first light of dawn, everyone here was still alive. Five had been wounded, but they kept fighting. Yesterday and today, one after the other, they all fell. One after the other, one on top of the other, each standing guard for the other and shooting until they themselves were shot.

Apart from the three bottles of gasoline, I have no more ammunition. There is still heavy gunfire coming from the three floors above me, but it seems they cannot send me help any more. The staircase appears to have been destroyed by shells, and I think the whole house may soon collapse. I am lying on the floor as I write these lines. All around me, my dead friends. I look into their faces and it is as if irony had washed over them, peaceful and gently mocking. As if they wanted to say: "Have a little patience, you foolish man, another minute or two and everything will become clear to you, too." The same expression hovers about the lips of the child, who is stretched out as if asleep by my right hand. His little mouth is smiling, as if he were laughing to himself. And to me -- still breathing and feeling and thinking like a living creature made of flesh and blood -- to me it seems as if he's laughing at me. As if he sees through me. He's laughing at me, with the quiet, meaningful laugh of one who knows much yet must endure talking with people who know nothing but think they know it all. He knows it all now, this little boy, it's all clear to him now. He even knows why he was born if he had to die so soon, and why he had to die now -- and this in just five years. And even if he doesn't know why, he knows that knowing why or not knowing why is utterly irrelevant and unimportant in the light of the revelation of God's majesty in that better world where he is now -- perhaps in the arms of his murdered parents, to whom he has found his way back.

In an hour or two I shall know it, too. And if the fire does not consume my face, perhaps there will be a similar smile on it when I am dead. But I am still alive. And before I die I want to speak to my God once more as a living man, an ordinary living man who had the great but terrible honor of being a Jew.

I am proud to be a Jew -- not despite of the world's relation to us, but precisely because of it.

I would be ashamed to belong to the peoples who have borne and raised the criminals responsible for the deeds that have been perpetrated against us.

I am proud of my Jewishness. Because being a Jew is an art. Being a Jew is hard. There is no art in being an Englishman, an American, or a Frenchman. It is perhaps easier and more comfortable to be one of them, but it is not more honorable. Yes, it is an honor to be a Jew.

I believe that to be a Jew is to be a fighter, an eternal swimmer against the roiling, evil current of humanity. The Jew is a hero, a martyr, a saint. You, our enemies, say that we are bad? I believe we are better than you, finer. But even if we were worse -- I'd like to have seen how you would have looked in our place.

I am happy to belong to the unhappiest of all peoples in the world, whose Torah embodies the highest law and the most beautiful morality. Now this Torah is the more sanctified and immortalized by the manner of its rape and violation by the enemies of God.

Being a Jew is an inborn virtue, I believe. One is born a Jew as one is born an artist. One cannot free oneself of being a Jew. That is God's mark upon us, which sets us apart as His chosen people. Those who do not understand this will never grasp the higher meaning of our martyrdom. "There is nothing more whole than a broken heart," a great rabbi once said; and there is also no people more chosen than a permanently maligned one. If I were unable to believe that God had marked us for His chosen people, I would still believe that we were chosen to be so by our sufferings.

I believe in the God of Israel, even when He has done everything to make me cease to believe in Him. I believe in His laws even when I cannot justify His deeds. My relationship to Him is no longer that of a servant to his master, but of a student to his rabbi. I bow my head before His greatness, but I will not kiss the rod with which He chastises me.

I love Him. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life -- and the more we die for this way of life, the more immortal it is!

And so, my God, before I die, freed from all fear, beyond terror, in a state of absolute inner peace and trust, I will allow myself to call You to account one last time in my life.

You say that we have sinned? We surely have! And for this shall we be punished? This, too, I understand. But I want You to tell me if there is any sin in the world that deserves the punishment we have received.

You say that You will yet take revenge on our enemies? I am convinced that you will revenge yourself on them without mercy, of this I have no doubt either. But I want You to tell me if there is any punishment in the world sufficient to atone for the crimes that have been perpetrated against us.

Perhaps You are saying that it is not a question of sin and punishment now, but that it is always so when You veil Your face and leave mankind to its inner drives? But then, God, I wish to ask You, and this question burns in me like a consuming fire: What more, O tell us, what more must happen before You reveal Your face to the world again?

I wish to speak to You clearly and frankly, to say that now, more than at any previous stage on our endless road of suffering -- we, the tormented, the reviled, the suffocated, the buried alive and burned alive, we, the humiliated, the mocked, the ridiculed, the slaughtered in our millions -- now more than ever do we have the right to know: Where are the limits of Your patience?

And I wish to say something more to You: You should not pull the rope too tight, because it might, heaven forbid, yet snap. The temptation into which You have led us is so grievous, so unbearably grievous, that You should, You must, forgive those of Your people who in their misery and anger have turned away from You.

Forgive those who have turned away from You in their misery, but also those of Your people who have turned away from You for their own comfort. You have made our life such an unending and unbearable struggle that the weaklings among us were compelled to try to elude it. To flee wherever they saw a line of escape. Do not strike them down for this! Weaklings are not to be struck down, weaklings call forth mercy. Lord, have mercy on them -- more than on us!

Forgive also those who have taken Your name in vain, who have followed other gods, who have become indifferent to You. You have tested them so severely that they no longer believe You are their father, that they have any father at all.

I am saying all this to You in plain words because I believe in You, because I believe in You more than ever before, because I know now that You are my God. For You are not, You cannot be the God of those whose deeds are the most horrific proof of their militant godlessness.

For if You are not my God -- whose God are You? The God of the murderers?

If those who hate me, who murder me, are so dark, so evil, who, then, am I if not one who embodies some spark of Your light and Your goodness?

I cannot praise You for the deeds You tolerate. But I bless and praise Your very existence, Your terrible majesty. How mighty it must be if even what is taking place now makes no impression on You!

But because You are so great and I so small, I beg You -- I warn You -- for Your name's sake: Stop crowning Your greatness by veiling Your face from the scourging of the wretched!

Nor do I beg You to scourge the guilty. It is part of the terrible logic of the inexorable decrees that they will come face to face with themselves at the end, because in our death dies the conscience of the world, because a world has been murdered in the murder of Israel.

The world will consume itself in its own evil, it will drown in its own blood.

The murderers have already pronounced judgment on themselves, and they will not escape it. But You, I beg You, pronounce Your guilty verdict, a doubly harsh verdict, on those who witness murder and remain silent!

On those who condemn murder with their lips while they rejoice over it in their hearts.

On those who say in their wicked hearts: Yes, it is true that the tyrant is evil, but he is also doing a job for which we will always be grateful to Him.

It is written in Your Torah that the thief must be punished more severely than the robber, although the thief does not attack his victim and threaten him, life and limb, but merely tries to deprive him of his property by stealth.

The robber attacks his victim in the broad light of day. He has as little fear of men as he does of God.

The thief, on the other hand, fears men, but not God. This is why his punishment should be more severe than the punishment of the robber.

So I do not mind if You treat the murderers as robbers, because their behavior to You and to us is the same. They make no secret of their murders and of their hatred of You and us.

Those, however, who remain silent in the face of murder, those who do not fear You but fear what people will say (Idiots! They don't know that people will say nothing!), those who express their sympathy for the drowning man but refuse to save him, those -- oh, those, I swear to You, my God, are the ones You should punish like the thief!

Death cannot wait any longer, and I must finish what I am writing. The gunfire from the floors above me is diminishing by the minute. The last defenders of our fortress are falling, and with them Warsaw, the great, the beautiful, the God-fearing Jewish Warsaw, falls and dies. The sun is going down now, and thanks be to God I shall never see it again. The glow of the inferno flickers through the window, and the little piece of sky I can see is flooded in flaming red like a waterfall of blood. Another hour at most and I will be with my family, and with the millions of the dead among my people in that better world where there is no more doubt and God's hand rules supreme.

I die at peace, but not pacified, conquered and beaten but not enslaved, bitter but not disappointed, a believer but not a supplicant, a lover of God but not His blind Amen-sayer.

I have followed Him, even when He pushed me away. I have obeyed His commandments, even when He scourged me for it. I have loved Him, I have been in love with Him and remained so, even when He made me lower than the dust, tormented me to death, abandoned me to shame and mockery.

My rabbi used to tell me, again and again, the story of a Jew who escaped the Spanish Inquisition with his wife and child and made his way in a small boat across the stormy sea to a stony island. A flash of lightning exploded and killed his wife. A whirlwind arose and hurled his child into the sea. Alone, wretched, discarded like a stone, naked and barefoot, lashed by the storm, terrified by thunder and lightning, his hair disheveled and his hands raised to God, the Jew made his way up onto the rocky desert island and turned thus to God:

"God of Israel," he said, "I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death -- I will always believe in You. I will love You always and forever -- even despite You."

Here, then, are my last words to You, my angry God: None of this will avail You in the least! You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You.

Praised be forever the God of the dead, the God of vengeance, of truth and judgment, who will soon unveil His face to the world again and shake its foundations with His almighty voice.

"Sh'ma Yisroel! Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my soul."

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