Holocaust books can range from only brushes the surface to difficult to read to powerfully upsetting. There was one book I read in part and never finished because I found it so upsetting. In that book, everyone Jewish died (each a gruesome, slow death) – the narrator himself was a prisoner in the camp but not Jewish. Then there are books that seem to suggest if only we all were nice, such horrible things would not happen (except only nice people read those books – mostly drivel to me).
Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Israel Meir Lau we get an autobiography with hope, perspective, respect for many different kinds of people and a story of a boy who loses his parents and much of his family but succeeds, succeeds in his own life and in touching many others. Rabbi Lau is imprisoned in Buchenwald as a young boy – most children his age are killed right away, but his brother, a Russian man and others manage to help him survive. At one point he is getting food to his brother Naphtali, because he is in the non-Jewish part of the camp where there are more rations, and his brother is among the Jews who get little. Because of his brother and his brother’s promise to his father, the two make it to pre-State of Israel Palestine and are reunited with an uncle and a half brother.
One cautionary remark about this book: in some ways it is divided into two parts. My 11th grade son had to read this book for school last year. He found the first part, where little Lulek (Rabbi Lau’s childhood nickname) survives the Holocaust, to be quite interesting. The rest of the book he found more difficult to read. Indeed, we follow Rabbi Lau around the planet where he visits the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn, Fidel Castro in Cuba, King Hussein of Jordan and Pope John Paul II. As the narrative tends to jump around a bit, it is not always easy to move with it, but I found much of what he had to say of interest. For example, I did not know he was so close to Prime Minister Rabin. Sometimes he gives his divrei Torah (words of Torah) in detail, and you wonder if the person to whom he is speaking understands what he is saying.
This division of the book reminds me of the last book I finished: An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chesler. Like Lau’s book, much of the exciting tale happens in the first part of the book, and the rest of the book is explanatory narrative and less dramatic parts of her life, like conversations with her ex-husband forty years later. My apologies to Phyllis Chesler for not writing a full review right now (that’s the problem with taking out brand new library books – you can’t keep renewing them). A jewel of Chesler’s book is a short history of the Jews of Afghanistan. Another remark that relates the story of Phyllis Chesler with that of Rabbi Lau: although she says she comes from an Orthodox Jewish family, it is clear she had very little Jewish education. In contrast, Rabbi Lau came from a long line of rabbis, and his brothers and uncle made sure he got a strong Jewish education in Israel. He also was clearly a gifted student – he jumped from first to fifth grade in one year. Would she have had such a strong attachment to an Muslim Afghan man if she had a stronger education and heritage? Who knows.
One of the most revealing parts of Out of the Depths were the early years in Israel when no one talked about the Holocaust, not survivors or native Israelis. There was some kind of shame attached; indeed, children were taught the Jews went like sheep. In retrospect, one can argue with this statement, but it helps to understand how Holocaust survivors were not given the opportunity in those years to work through the grief, the anger, and all the other feelings. When Eichmann came to trial in 1962, finally, the dialogue about the Holocaust began.
There was one character in the book for whom I felt bad and didn’t really get Rabbi Lau’s reaction to him: the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger. Rabbi Lau comes to visit Manger as he lies ill; Manger compared himself to Noah and how he got drunk after the flood. Rabbi Lau’s comment to the reader is “Although I understand Itzik Manger, I choose to identify with those who suffered immensely during the war but who opted to lead their lives in a vastly different mode.” I am not convinced he really does understand Itzik Manger. This is not to say one should tolerate alcoholism, but underneath that choice to drink alcohol was clearly a lot of depression and grief. I can accept how one can be in such a state having lost one’s whole world. Rabbi Lau claims he understands, but I didn’t really feel that. Perhaps with the right kind of professional understanding and help, Itzik Manger could have had some more healing in his life.
On the other hand, I was in awe of his conversations with the Pope, Fidel Castro and King Hussein. For example, Fidel Castro asks Rabbi Lau a thought provoking question:
Here in Cuba, a child of eight growing up without parents, and especially without knowing the language, will turn into a juvenile deliquent…But you came to Israel barefoot and penniless, and today you are like the Jews’ pope…How did a boy from the streets, who started out with nothing, get chosen to be the senior religious representative of the country?
And then Rabbi Lau, after initially surprised by the question, talks about his heritage of a long line of rabbis, and how his father left a spoken last will and testament with his older brother to take care of his younger brother, and how his uncle took care of him when he finally arrived. He spoke of his teachers in yeshiva and of his tutelage under his father-in-law, Rabbi Frankl. He felt even though he lost his parents, in many ways they stayed with him.
I was impressed with Rabbi Lau’s own self reflection – he was able to note that separations are painfully difficult for him, because of his early separations from his mother and his brother (he was reunited with his brother). He said even a simple goodbye party when leaving a position did not feel good to him.
If you like autobiographies, this is well-worth reading. If you would like to read about a Holocaust survivor’s story, this one is more upbeat than many others. I also learned a bit about the role of the chief rabbi in Israel. The book certainly gave us a rabbi who is a well-rounded person and able to connect to many.