An ultra-Orthodox rabbi is not the image that comes to mind when picturing a man recounting the Nazis’ horrors. Maybe because it seems paradoxical that someone could devote himself to God in such a way after having experienced firsthand “God’s absence” during the Shoah.
Neither would you expect to see a hassidic rabbi while hiking in the Swiss Alps.
But the Kaliver Rebbe was different. His story was not one that went according to conventional expectations. Menachem Mendel Taub’s life journey led him to witness firsthand the deepest degree of degradation that humanity could sink to, as well as the epitome of beauty that nature offers.
On Sunday, the eve of the 74th Holocaust Remembrance Day, Taub passed away at the age of 96 – after a life filled with immense pain, but also unfathomable joy. His model of dignified and relentless survival, while retaining his rabbinic tradition and divine devotion, remains unique.
I grew up seeing the Kaliver Rebbe every summer. My grandparents ran the legendary Hotel Edelweiss in St. Moritz, Switzerland – for many decades, a popular getaway for Jews from around the world and from all backgrounds, creating a unique mosaic of Jewish diversity and prosperity.
The Kaliver Rebbe stood out as one of the more colorful characters among the hundreds of regulars who religiously flocked to St. Moritz, each in their season.
The height of the summer was the Kaliver’s season. He brought with him scores of adherents, turning the picturesque mountain village into a carnival of hassidic joy.
I remember how, as a young boy sitting across from the Kaliver Rebbe in the hotel’s synagogue, I had difficulty categorizing this elderly man. While he wore hassidic clothes and loudly proclaimed the Shema Israel prayer in his Eastern European pronunciation as if in a trance, his facial expression radiated a child-like innocence. Whereas hassidic rabbis wear their full beards with pride, only a few flimsy white hairs were scattered across the Kaliver Rebbe’s face.
Only later, when capable of grasping the meaning of it, could I be told that this man never had a childhood or adolescence that would allow him to grow into adulthood naturally. Then, I would also hear that the reason he did not have a long, white beard was because decades earlier, this man faced one of the most evil human beings to ever walk the Earth. In 1944, Dr. Josef Mengele did unspeakable chemical experiments on Taub when he was just a young man named Menachem Mendel, leaving him scarred and unable to have children or grow a beard.
The visible scars surely meant nothing next to the invisible scars the Kaliver Rebbe bore his entire life. And even though Taub, born into a dynasty of hassidic giants, lay on Mengele’s operating table; passed through several death camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; and lost all of his siblings in the Holocaust, he emerged a faithful, devoted and strong man who rebuilt his ancestors’ legacy.
After World War II, Taub spent the remainder of his life preserving the memory of the Shoah, especially among his ultra-Orthodox peers, where the likes of Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl did not have the same level of prominence they had among other Jews.
AT FIRST glance, one could recognize that something was different about the Kaliver Rebbe. A sad, at times perplexing expression reflected from his eyes, while his soft voice, always carrying a slight tremble, spoke determinedly, often mumbling and fusing words. That voice carried enormous power, as if each word echoed his tragic past but also transmitted a message of immense endurance and belief.
“He was always positive and behaved towards everyone equally, regardless of their background,“ Leopold “Poldi” Bermann, my grandfather who ran the Hotel Edelweiss, told me.
A seat of honor was reserved for the Kaliver Rebbe at the front of the hotel’s synagogue. Even when he was not sitting there, the bristly, cream-colored couch exuded his energy.
Always flanked by servants and some other overly motivated adherents, he appeared to walk swiftly, even when his old age would not allow him to do so, holding a black walking stick with a silver handle. A long golden robe covered most of his small body, only revealing his unusually small feet covered by his Hoisensocken (literally “pant-socks,” the long white socks reaching almost up to the knees customarily worn by hassidim).
During the decades that the Kaliver Rebbe visited St. Moritz, it was a tradition that he led the Shabbat evening service, and on Saturday afternoons held a tisch (a hassidic gathering with food, song and lectures).
His tunes were nostalgic, and often one felt that the Kaliver Rebbe was slipping in and out of a trance, while singing softly with eyes closed and tapping his foot according to the beat. The trembling in his voice filled an echo that was not simply the product of vibrations of vocal chords. There was a magnitude in his voice, one that faced death and called on the living simultaneously.
“His consideration extended towards everyone,” my grandfather said, recalling how he would purposely speed up his prayer so that the congregation would not have to wait for him.
“It was a miracle how long he lived, considering what he went through in the camps.”
I often asked myself why the Kaliver Rebbe came to the Swiss Alps every year. I was reminded of a well-known story about Frankfurt’s Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), who was asked by his puzzled students why he insisted on visiting the Swiss mountains. Hirsch famously responded that he was prepared for most questions he would be asked upon reaching the gates of Heaven. “But what will I say when God asks me, ‘Nu, Samson, did you see my Alps?’”
Such, then, was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub – both the embodiment of a miracle and a tragedy, a survivor of the Holocaust who was a faithful advocate of life and of the beauty the world has to offer.
With the Kaliver Rebbe, the world has lost not only another hassidic rabbi, but one of the most important witnesses to what the Holocaust did. But even more importantly, the Kaliver Rebbe, through his fight for life, showed what the Holocaust couldn’t do.
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