A written text sometimes acquires a literary life of its own, forgetful of its writer.
… Der Tojt kenn mehr nit warten, un ich darf endigen mein schreiben. Vun die ojberschte Etashen iber mir wert der Feier schwacher vun Minut. Es fallen azind die letzte Vartejdiger vun der dosiger Festung …
… Death can not wait much longer and I must finish my writing. The gunfire from the stories above me becomes weaker by the minute. Now the last defenders of our fortress are falling …
The Yiddish lines above (in German phonetic transcription) are taken from a testament, said to be found in one of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, between charred bricks and human bones. The Testament is in Yiddish, ostensibly written by a Yosl (alternative spellings Yossel, Jossel) Rakover from Tarnopol, one of the last defenders of a still Jewish-held building during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. Yosl Rakover’s testament was published in 1946 in the Yiddish-language journal “Di Yiddishe Tsaytung” in Buenos Aires, by a Zvi Kolitz.
Angry with God
In his testament Yosl Rakover describes the desperate situation of the last few Jews in the Ghetto, fighting against an entire SS division. But soon his writing acquires a different tone. It develops into a long lamentation, directed at God. It is deeply moving. But it is also a text with theological overtones. Yosl Rakover is angry with God, in a similar manner that the biblical figure Job (Hiob in Greek, German, et al) was angry with God. But he seemingly comes to a less angry conclusion than Job -- “I can not praise You for the acts that You are now allowing to take place. Instead I bless and praise You for Your very existence.” So the atrocities that God allows, soon to fall upon Yosl himself, they don’t shatter Yosl’s faith in God.
There is no need to elaborate here on points of theology. But they were apparently important enough to motivate the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas later to write an essay about them and to bring Thomas Mann to declare the document a “holy text”.
Time and history march on at their own pace. In 1953 an unidentified person from Argentina sends a typewritten “testament from the Warsaw Ghetto” to the Yiddish journal “Di Goldene Kajt”, without specifying neither title nor author, and the text is published as an “authentic document”.
Yosl Rakover’s talk with God soon becomes famous. Two years later the text is translated into German and it is aired in a wireless programme of the German station “Radio Freies Berlin”. Thomas Mann, the anti-nazi German literary giant and winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize in literature, listens to the programme and goes into raptures. A French translation leads the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas to declare the “anonymous author” of the text a genius of theology as well as of literature.
The Testament is translated into different languages in several, sometimes diverging, versions. When the first Hebrew translation appears in 1965, nothing is said about the identity of the writer. Few take any notice of the unknown “Zvi Kolitz”, or whoever was behind the first publication of the text in Argentina. The text, now widely read throughout the world, had acquired an independent life of fame and glory.
Not noticing Zvi Kolitz was somewhat unfortunate. As it turns out, the entire testament, including Yosl Rakover’s talk with God, is actually written by Zvi Kolitz, who is alive and in good health for many decades to come. The Testament of Yosl Rakover is altogether a work of fiction, written by Kolitz in 1946, for the Yom Kippur edition of the Jewish-Argentinean paper “Di Yiddishe Tsaytung”. Yosl Rakover expressed theological subtleties, but he is an entirely fictional character.
In actuality Zvi Kolitz never even saw the Warsaw Ghetto. Large parts of his family were annihilated in the Holocaust, but the Nazi murderers couldn’t touch Kolitz himself. Because even if he was born in Lithuania (in 1912), where almost all of the 160 000 Jews were murdered, Zvi Kolitz left the country already in 1936, heading for Palestine by way of Italy.
Having arrived in the British Palestine mandate in 1940, Zvi Kolitz became an activist in the Zionist movement. For a while he was imprisoned by the British for his activities, but the war with Hitler convinced the British authorities in Jerusalem that Kolitz would be more useful as a soldier in the British army than in a prison cell.
Travelling for the cause
After the war Zvi Kolitz returned to gathering support for the Zionist cause. He was sent out as a an official representative of the World Zionist Congress to various countries (officially, while unofficially recruiting for the Irgun, a radical Jewish underground organization led by the future Israeli Premier Menachem Begin).
It was while travelling to promote Zionist causes that he found himself in Buenos Aires in 1946, giving speeches. Here the local Yiddish journal asked him to write a contribution to their special Yom Kippur edition. Some authentic notes and written fragments had in fact been found in bottles and jars in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. Zvi Kolitz had long thought about writing something against this heroic and tragic background. So Kolitz was happy to oblige the Argentinean-Jewish editors. He wrote a compelling story about despair and faith, in the guise of a fictional testament, a short text of less than 25 pages.
It was not until the early 1990’s that the true identity of Yosl Rakover and his creator Zvi Kolitz were unequivocally established. The German journalist Paul Badde became interested in the background of Yosl Rakover’s testament and started doing extensive research. In the Jewish Centre archives in Buenos Aires, Badde succeeded in finding a 1946 copy of the Yom Kippur issue of “Di Yiddishe Tsaytung”, where the text had originally been published. There was no doubt: the author was Zvi Kolitz. Today this copy is no longer available -- in 1994 terrorists bombed the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, killing almost a hundred people and completely destroying the archives.
The author Zvi Kolitz continued writing in various publications, but he never repeated the success of his text “Yosl Rakover talks to God”. Instead, he switched to producing films (the first Israeli-made film “Hill 24 doesn’t answer” in 1955, winning an award at the Cannes Film Festival). Later Kolitz moved to the United States, producing plays and musicals on Broadway. Zvi Kolitz died on September 29, 2002 in Manhattan.
German transcription and translation
In 1996 a new translation of “Yosl Rakover talks to God” was published in German, with a parallel phonetic transcription of the Yiddish original. The book includes an essay by Paul Badde concerning the curious fate of the text and a theological essay by Emmanuel Lévinas:
Zvi Kolitz: Jossel Rakovers Wendung zu Gott. Eine Klage. Paul Badde (Hg.), Volk & Welt Verlag, Berlin 1996, 120 S., ISBN: 3-353-01069-6
In 2000 an English translation of this German version was published by Vintage Books.
Note: Yiddish is very close to German as far as structure and vocabulary are concerned, but it is written with unfamiliar Hebrew letters. Hence for non-Hebrew readers a phonetic transcription is necessary. However, the phonetics of German and English are different, so a German-Yiddish transcription looks different from an English-Yiddish transcription. This explains the different spellings of the fictional Yosl’s name – Jossel in German transcription, Yosl or Yossel in English transcription.