Hope is stronger than life
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Hope is stronger than life

The legacy of Zelig Kalmanovitch, prophet of the Vilna ghetto

Rabbi Aryeh Meir

Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion and is the chairperson of the Teaneck Environmental Commission.

You are reading this on the eve of the recitation of Selichot prayers, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur not far off. This is a time of year when we should be engaged in heshbon haNefesh, a personal soul-accounting. We should be asking ourselves “am I the person I want to be?” “Where have I not lived up to my expectations for myself?” “How could I be better, more honest, more caring, more truthful to myself and to others?” “What more could I be doing to strengthen the community that I am a part of?” “What is my responsibility to my nation, to am Yisrael and to Medinat Yisrael, to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel?”

Recently, in researching for sources for a new Elah Ezkarah (martyrology) service for our congregation’s Yom Kippur service, I came across an amazing person. His name is Zelig Kalmanovitch, and I want to share with you some details about his life and legacy.

I learned about Kalmanovitch from a chapter in David Roskies’ book “The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe.” Kalmanovitch was a Lithuanian Jew and a philologist, historian, and cultural activist in Vilna. An avowed secularist and Yiddishist, he became observant in the ghetto of Vilna and began to keep a journal in Hebrew. His situation and that of the Jews around him caused him to think deeply about the meaning of Jewish existence and the catastrophe facing east European Jewry. To him, the Nazi war “was aimed at more than Jewish bodies; it was a war against the sacred triad of Israel-Torah-God,” Roskies tells us.

While not ignoring the tragedy of the Nazi onslaught, Kalmanovitch saw some hope in the solidarity of Lithuanian Jews in the ghetto and in the sparks of Jewish cultural renewal that managed to exist in those horrific circumstances. He based his faith on two foundations: One, that even under the most dire circumstances, Jews still would choose to remain Jews. This would ensure that the sacred triad would remain intact. Israel, the people, would remain Israel. The Nazis might destroy a great part of the Jewish people, but they could never destroy the sacred triad. The combined force of the Jewish nation, Torah, and God ultimately would emerge triumphant.

This is an excerpt from a sermon he gave on December 27, 1942:

“History will revere your memory, people of the ghetto. Your struggle for dignity will inspire poems… People will ask, why was this done to this people?… thus, the khurban (Holocaust) will steal its way into world history…the Jewish people will forget this branch that was broken off. From the healthy trunk will come forth branches and blossoms…there is still strength and life…the Jewish people will not be hurt. It will, it is to be hoped, emerge fortified by the trial. This should fill the heart with joyous gratitude to the sovereign of history.”

The second foundational pillar for his faith was a strong belief in the centrality of tikvah, hope in the future. This is from a Passover sermon to the Jews of Vilna in 1943:

“The Jew who clings to the sacred triad needs no pity. A war is being waged not only against the Jews … but also against the Torah and God, against the moral law and the Creator… Let the ghetto Jews consider themselves as prisoners of war, but let them remember that the army (the Jewish people) as a whole cannot be defeated. The Passover of Egypt is a symbol of ancient victory of the sacred triad. My wish is that together we shall live to see the Passover of the future.”

Zelig Kalmanovitch did not live to see that Passover. He left Vilna on a transport to a slave labor camp in Estonia. According to survivors’ reports, he continued to serve as a prophet of consolation, giving lectures and talks, offering words of encouragement. At one Chanukah evening gathering, he said that the light of Judaism would continue to shine on. Weakened from illness, he was assigned to clean the barrack toilets. It was reported that he said to his block mates, “I am happy that I have the privilege of cleaning the excrement of these holy Jews.” He had one prized possession in the camp, a tiny Bible that he managed to hide from the Germans. “His death was like that of the second-century martyr Rabbi Chaninah Ben Tardion, who was burnt alive by the Romans holding a Torah scroll,” Roskies tells us.

Zelig Kalmanovitch found faith and brought hope and encouragement to a Jewish community that faced only suffering and destruction. What was the source of his strength and optimism? Perhaps it was his understanding of the Jewish will to survive, to overcome discrimination, pogroms, crusades, exile, and more. Surrounded by death and suffering, he believed that the Jewish people would survive, and that evil would be defeated.

What is the lesson for us as we enter these Yamim Nora’im? The trials we face cannot compare to those that Zelig Kalmanovitch and countless others faced throughout our history. But we can learn from the message that Kalmanovitch taught in the ghetto: that hope can play an essential role in our Jewish lives, a hope granted us in the knowledge that we form an indissoluble triad together with our precious Torah and the Holy One of Blessing. May the New Year bring us a greater awareness of that hope as it brings us closer to our fellow Jews, to Torah, and to God.

Rabbi Aryeh Meir is an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, a member of the New Israel Fund, the Teaneck Environmental Commission, and the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet.

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