A remarkable testament to faith in the face of suffering. Zvi Kolitz is a Lithuanian Jew who left Europe in 1940 for Jerusalem, where he built a life as a daring Zionist freedom fighter. Just over a year after WWII ended, he wrote a gut-wrenching short story, —Yosl Rakover Talks to God,— the last confessions of a fictional Jewish man who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. The story ran in Di Yiddishe Tsaytung, a Jewish paper in Buenos Aires, on September 25, 1946. Later, Kolitz moved to New York, penned a few obscure books, contributed columns to The Jewish Week and Der Algemeine Journal, and lectured at Yeshiva University. His short story, however, got separated from its author. It began to circulate, sans Kolitz’s byline, as a true testimony unearthed in the Holocaust’s aftermath. In 1954, Di Goldene Keyt, a Yiddish quarterly in Tel Aviv, ran —Yosl Rakover— as —an authentic document.— The next year, it was broadcast on a Berlin radio station, and was run in the Parisian Zionist journal La Terre RetrouvÇe. Thomas Mann praised the text for offering a rare glimpse into the human condition. This volume reunites author and story, laying to rest any rumors that the document was written by someone who died in the Warsaw Ghetto. The story could stand alone: Rakover, who boldly privileges Torah over God, declares that despite everything God has done to —make me cease to believe in You . . . I die exactly as I have lived, an unshakeable believer in You.— This new edition also includes an essay by Paul Badde about Kolitz, a piece by Levinas about —Yosl Rakover,— and Leon Weiseltier’s somewhat anticlimactic reply to Levinas. The short story remains a fiction, but, as Levinas reminds us, that does not undermine its truth: Indeed, it is true as —only fiction can be.—
It Came to Life, This Legend of Death
The heartrending Holocaust story of one Yosl Rakover – a figment of the imagination of author Zvi Kolitz, who died last month – was published and broadcast in the guise of a factual account for decades
“In one of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, preserved in a little bottle and concealed among 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.”
Thus begins the story of the last testament of Yosl Rakover of Tarnopol, a Gerer Hasid who lost his wife and six children in the Holocaust, participated in the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, and jotted down his last words before dousing himself with a bottle of gasoline and lighting a match.
In the testament, Rakover settles accounts with God: “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 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.”
In his document, which is 25 pages long, Rakover describes the pride he feels for his Judaism (“I am proud to be a Jew – not despite the world’s relation to us, but precisely because of it. I would be ashamed to belong to the peoples who have born and raised the criminals responsible for the deeds that have been perpetrated against us”); refers to the joy he experienced when involved in acts of revenge, albeit minimal, against Germans during the revolt (“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!'”); expresses his opposition to those who would rationalize the judgment and explain it through the commission of various sins (“To say that we have earned the blows we have received is to slander ourselves. It is a defamation of the name `Jew,’ a desecration of the name `God.’ It is one and the same. God is blasphemed when we blaspheme ourselves”).
However, the main part of the testament focuses on his stubborn insistence on the very belief in God, a belief that remains intact despite all the catastrophes: “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!”
The testament of Yosl Rakover, which was the cause of an emotional outcry among many readers around the world, is not an authentic document. It was written by the journalist, filmmaker and theatrical producer Zvi Kolitz, as a story for the Yom Kippur 1946 edition of the Yiddish newspaper in Buenos Aires, “Yiddishe Zeitung.” Kolitz, who was born in Lithuania and fled to Italy and then Palestine even before World War II, never himself experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. At the time of the writing, he was in Argentina, serving as an emissary for the Revisionist party.
As a gifted speaker, Kolitz was asked to write something for the newspaper. Not long before this, milk cans concealing a ghetto diary and important documents compiled by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum had been discovered in Warsaw, giving Kolitz his inspiration. One night in his hotel room, he wrote the short story that he called “Yosl Rakover Talks to God.” Kolitz, a man of many talents, died on September 29 in New York.
The German journalist Paul Badde conducted an extensive inquiry into Kolitz and the various incarnations of his story, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 1993, to mark the jubilee year of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. In the article, Badde, a religious Catholic, related how he himself came to the story. A friend brought him the work, saying: “Here is someone whose faith still has meaning.” Badde went on to become a devoted admirer and close friend of Kolitz.
This week, in a conversation held from Rome, where he is a correspondent for Die Welt (after having served as the newspaper’s correspondent in Jerusalem), Badde said that not a week went by that he did not speak with Kolitz, and added that they had even spent several vacations together.
The story ran in the Yiddish newspaper in 1946 as a fictitious document, with credit given to its author. But a few years later, in 1953, someone from Buenos Aires sent the story to the Tel Aviv-based Yiddish newspaper, Di Goldene Keyt (The Golden Chain), without mentioning the fact that it was a work of fiction, and without the first lines that tell the story of how it was found (which obviously could not have been written by Yosl Rakover himself). The story was published as an authentic document that had been found in the ruins of the ghetto. The editor of the quarterly, the Yiddish poet (and survivor of the Vilna Ghetto), Abraham Sutzkever, would later say: “The thing so shocked us, seemed so authentic, that we didn’t even think of doing any tests or verifying it in any way.”
This week, Sutzkever told Ha’aretz: “I received this text; it made a big impression on me, and I printed it without thinking too much. It had a strong impact, since people assumed, as I did, that it was an authentic text.”
So began the legend of the life and times of Yosl Rakover. Its publication in an important Yiddish journal, by a prominent survivor and poet, must have added to the credibility of this independent version. In actual fact, Kolitz responded after hearing about the publication, and made a point of mentioning his own “ownership” of the story, but the legend was already stronger, at least in some instances, than him. For instance, even Sutzkever’s journal, to which Kolitz sent a letter of clarification, did not even bother to print the correction.
In periodicals, prayer books
In January 1955, the story was broadcast on Radio Free Berlin, again as a “document that had been discovered,” and two months later, was again published in Paris in the same guise. Kolitz responded again, at which point the story was rebroadcast in Berlin, this time with the real author’s identity stated.
Conversely, in Paris the text described as authentic was analyzed by Holocaust scholar Michael Borovitz, who proved that it could not have been written by a Yosl Rakover. (One of the arguments raised by Holocaust critics against the authenticity of the text is that no people of the age of 43, as Rakover is described, took part in the revolt. Furthermore, all of the people who did take part belonged to organized groups and did not act on their own, as Rakover says he did.) All this led Borovitz to declare the text a “forgery.”
The writer Chaim Be’er reiterated this claim in the Ha’aretz book supplement nine years ago, charging Kolitz with responsibility for the fake story. Kolitz’s nephew, businessman David Kolitz, apprised Be’er of his error, explaining that his uncle had always taken pains to stress that it was a work of fiction. He even brought the two men together for a meeting. Be’er then ran another column in which he set the record straight.
In the United States, excerpts of the “testament” were inserted in several prayer books, Orthodox and Reform alike. Kolitz told Badde that he had heard that in one Conservative synagogue in New York, the text was presented on Yom Kippur by an actor who described the testament as an authentic document. Several worshipers approached the congregation’s rabbi, and told him that they knew it was a work of fiction and that they even knew the author. “He replied that he knew, but that the text was more emotional this way.”
One scholar in Chicago devoted an entire book to the story, in which he argued with complete confidence that the original work was actually written in English, and that the Yiddish version was merely a subsequent translation, in which the translator added some excerpts of his own.
The legend was so compelling that in 1968, when the text was published in a New York periodical, although it was made clear that this was a work of fiction, a note was added, explaining that although it was not an authentic document, “there was in actual fact a Yosl Rakover in Warsaw who perished in the flames,” and whose fate became known to the author, and inspired him to write. Of course, this allegation had nothing to do with reality.
Excerpts of the story appeared in a textbook on issues of religion that was published in Germany a few years ago. It appeared as a genuine document, to which was appended a suggestion for an exercise: “Classify the type of faith that is expressed in this text. Compare it with the charges directed by Ivan Karamazov to God [in the book “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky – Y.S.]. Is Yosl Rakover a modern enemy?”
From Kook to kibbutz
In Israel, the story (again, in its “authentic” version) was mainly adopted by religious Zionists, who saw it as an expression of contending with questions of faith engendered by the Holocaust. Following its publication in Sutzkever’s journal, the story was translated and appeared (in excerpted form) in a Bnei Akiva youth movement journal as early as 1955. It received particularly broad publicity after being included in the book, “I Believe: Testimonies of the Lives and Deaths of People of Faith During the Holocaust,” published by Mossad Harav Kook in 1965. In the early years of Gush Emunim, it was again considered a popular document among members of the movement. But it was also reprinted in 1971 in Shdemot, a quarterly published by the kibbutz movement – as a genuine document.
Two years ago, the story appeared in a new, full-length translation into Hebrew that was published by the Ministry of Defense Press, this time with Zvi Kolitz clearly marked as the author. This edition included the extensive inquiry by Paul Badde, and several other articles that had been written over the years by the French-Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas, the American-Jewish essayist Leon Wieseltier, and the president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Norman Lamm.
Both in its authentic and its fictitious versions, Yosl Rakover’s story left a deep impression on philosophers and men of letters throughout the second half of the 20th century. Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann, who read it in the form of an authentic account toward the end of his life, described it in a letter as “an emotionally wrenching text, religiously and personally.” The author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was once asked about his thoughts on the meaning of the Holocaust, said that he felt “exactly like Yosl Rakover.” The philosopher Levinas, who discovered the text in its “story” incarnation, in which it was attributed to “an anonymous author,” was not at all bothered by the fact that it was a work of fiction. He described it as “a real text as only a story can be.”
In reaction to Yosl Rakover and his irrepressible belief in God, the Jewish philosopher George Steiner said that Jews are “infected with God,” in the same way that others are consumed by yearnings or lovesick. The German poet Wolf Bierman wrote: “Ever since I learned that this final prayer was not written in letters of blood at the hour of death, but in ink, by a living, breathing writer, I am in greater admiration of this ingenious text, which in my opinion is one of the finest works of literature in the world.”
The author’s own story
The biography of Kolitz himself is colorful and fascinating, even discounting the Yosl Rakover affair. He was born in a Lithuanian city of 6,000 Jews, the son of the local rabbi. When he was 14, his revered father died of diabetes and Kolitz left, heading for the Land of Israel. David Kolitz says that when his uncle was in Lithuania, he moved in Betar movement circles. Indeed, en route to Palestine, Kolitz spent a few years in Italy, where he studied history at the University of Florence as well as seamanship at a school for naval officers set up by Betar. Following his years in Italy, he wrote a book praising Mussolini, who he described as a “complete and strong personality, with absolute consistency and a singularly unique force of will … standing well above all of the other leaders of Europe.” Badde explains this saying that “in those days, Mussolini was a strong friend of the Jewish National Movement. `The old Rome,’ he used to say, `destroyed Judea, and the new Rome will build it.'”
Kolitz arrived in Palestine at the beginning of World War II, and became active in the Revisionist party. He secretly joined the ranks of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (the pre-state underground militia) and its struggle against British rule. Kolitz’s older brother, Eliezer, was killed in July 1941 while serving in the British air force. (Another of the eight siblings is Yitzhak Kolitz, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem.)
Zvi Kolitz became well known in the ranks of the Revisionist movement, primarily as a gifted speaker and fundraiser. Once the war was over, he went to the United States where, according to several members of his family, he was also involved in fundraising for the weapons ship “Altalena,” and to Argentina, where he wrote the story of Yosl Rakover.
In the 1950s, he gained a reputation as a screenwriter and the producer of the first full-length Israeli film, “Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer.” He subsequently explained to Badde that it was the success of the film that had kept them ever since then in the United States. His second wife, Matilda, claimed it was a matter of her inability to learn Hebrew, although there are rumors about tension between him and Menachem Begin, and his disappointment over having not been placed in the higher echelons of the Herut movement. (He was close to Begin’s rivals in the Revisionist movement, Hillel Kook and Shmuel Merlin.)
In New York, Kolitz became a theatrical producer of, among other things, the play, “The Deputy,” based on the book by Rolf Hochhuth, about the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. He left the world of show business after the failure of the English-language version he produced on Broadway of Habimah’s Hebrew musical “King Solomon and Shalmai, the Sandalmaker.” His nephew, David, who often visited him in New York, relates that for many years, his uncle’s home, which fronted on Central Park, was considered one of the more prestigious cultural salons in Manhattan.
In the last 15 years of his life, Kolitz was once again engaged in the Jewish world. He lectured at Yeshiva University, the stronghold of modern Orthodoxy in New York, on issues of Jewish philosophy, and wrote a column on Jewish affairs in the Jewish Week. In his personal life, he also took a greater interest in observing the mitzvot (commandments). He began putting on tefillin (phylacteries) every morning and kept a kosher kitchen. His sister, Rachel Margaliot, said earlier this month that “throughout all the incarnations of his life, Zvi was always a great believer, which is what enabled him to write `Yosl Rakover.'”
On the day he died, Rabbi Baruch Rakover, a distant relative of his, also passed away in Haifa. David Kolitz says it was this cousin’s family name that inspired the name of Yosl Rakover.
Yosel Rakover Speaks to G-d, which already been presented last week at the festival, was brought back by popular demand.
It’s a disturbing piece about the last Jewish man left in the Warsaw ghetto as the area was being torched by the Nazis. Yosl knows the end is near and has lost his will to live. “The sun probably has no idea how little I regret that I shall never see it again,” he says.
To him it’s an insult to beasts that the Nazis are compared to them. As for Hitler, he sees him not as an animal, but rather as a child of modern man, a product of modernity, an expression of the dark side of humankind.
Life has become a calamity to Yosl and death a liberator. But he hasn’t given up on God, with whom he has an extended conversation as he prepares his final exit.
Yosl laments over his lost grandchildren, compares himself to Job, toys with his prayer shawl, nibbles on a piece of stale bread and ruminates on what it means to be a Jew.
Mandelbaum gives a passionate performance of what’s essentially an extended death scene – a man saying farewell to the world.
The text he delivers was written not as a play but as a newspaper article, in 1946 by Zvi Kolitz. For many years, it was believed to be an eyewitness account, but it is in fact, a fictionalized tale inspired by real events.
Amy Coleman directed this thought-provoking work, which was adapted by Mandelbaum from Kolitz’s story.