Review: Yosl Rakover Talks to God by Zvi Kolitz

I stumbled across this tiny book among the shelves of my library and was drawn to it, mainly thanks to the title: Yosl Rakover Talks to God. I had never heard of the story before and the history behind it, but I was in for a wild journey.

Warsaw, 28 April 1943

There are two stories here. One is the now legendary tale of a defiant Jew’s refusal to abandon God, even in the face of the greatest suffering the world has known, a testament of faith that has taken on an unpredictable and fascinating life of its own and has often been thought to be a direct testament from the Holocaust.

The parallel story is that of Zvi Kolitz, the true author, whose connection to Yosl Rakover has been obscured over the fifty years since its original appearance. German journalist Paul Badde tells how a young man came to write this classic response to evil and then was nearly written out of its history.

What struck me almost immediately -and most noticeably- upon starting Yosl Rakover Talks to God was the unnerving honesty behind each sentence. There’s no purple prose or watering down the vocabulary; the author tells of the events as they are, and you feel it reverberating for pages to come. A simple passage made me contemplate as if I had just read a whole story. Take for example the one below:

“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.”

The ending is what gets me every time because these two half-starved ten-year-old children were dying of hunger and are being chased as if they’re “dangerous escaped criminals.” Nothing makes my blood boil more than my hatred for Nazis. Nothing.

This is also why I don’t read the horror genre when you can just take a look at History, or even the news, and have pretty much the same feelings evoked.

But circling back to the story, the language created by Zvi Kolitz was rich in its attention paid to each deserving line, as every word takes part in delivering to the overarching theme.

“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.”

No author has consumed my world as much as Kolitz’s did with his short story. It’s my mission to get my hands on any of his remaining works. In the meantime, I will be sure to share Yosl Rakover Talks to God with anyone I can because it’s impossible to keep to myself.

Point proven, one last quote I want to share that talks about keeping quiet in the face of evil:

“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.”

The lengthy afterword offered necessary insight on Zvi Kolitz’s life before and after releasing Yosl Rakover Talks to God, his family history, the Yosl Rakover myth and  Kolitz’s fight to have his authorship be recognized. It was dynamic and all-consuming.

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