This week a towering Jewish figure left this world. His name was Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, the master ‘Admor’ of the Hasidic dynasty of Kaliv, known to many as the Kaliver Rebbe.

With a noticeable lack of beard that set him apart from other senior Hasidic leaders, the Kaliver Rebbe’s appearance was not by a choice; he was a victim of chemical burning experiments carried out on his skin by the notorious Joseph Mengele at Auschwitz.

Born in 1923 in Transylvania, now Romania, the Rebbe was the seventh generation of a family of Hasidic leaders dating back to Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Kaliv in Hungary, one of the most eminent mystics of the 1800s. In the summer of 1944, aged 21 just having been engaged to be married, he was deported to Auschwitz three days before the holiday of Shavuot along with his family, including six brothers and sisters; he lost them all.

Living with the scars of Mengele

Pulled aside to be one of Mengele’s human guinea pigs, his experience at the hands of the so-called ‘medical team’ at the concentration camp where 1.1 million Jews were murdered, not only prevented him from growing a beard, he was also left unable to father children. Despite the suffering he endured, he refused to let go of the dream of continuing his family’s legacy and saw it his fate to survive. After being transferred late 1944 from Auschwitz to the Warsaw Ghetto and then on to the Breslau concentration camp, he was marched to Bergen-Belsen where he was liberated in April 1945.

Let me live, and I will say Shema Yisrael with the living.

Throughout his life, the Kaliver Rebbe told and retold the story of how his fate to survive the war was sealed. In one of the darkest moments, just days ahead of his liberation, he cut a bargain with God pledging to dedicate his life to passing on the flame of Jewish continuity if his life was saved.

“The Nazis were literally throwing Jews into fires,” he recalled. “I heard Shema Yisrael being sung by a young boy and I turned to God and said, ‘Let me live, and I will say Shema Yisrael with the living.’”

For the next 75 years he would keep to his promise, opening schools, teaching and bringing a community almost entirely destroyed back to life. Wherever he would go, he would tell of his ‘agreement with the Almighty’ and often be brought to tears as he led other Jewish children in the same tune he heard that day. The Shema became his anthem, his revenge, his message to the world.

Rebuilding after the war

After liberation, the Kaliver Rebbe learned the tragic fate of his family, but also that his fiancé, Chana Sara Shapiro, the daughter of an another prominent Hasidic family, had also remarkably survived the war. The couple married and in 1947 moved first to the United States, Cleveland Ohio before immigrating to Israel in 1962 to rebuild the Kaliver Hasidic dynasty which had been largely destroyed by the Nazis.

Growing to be a prominent leader among Orthodox Jews in Israel, the Kaliver Rebbe was renowned for beginning his public appearances regularly visiting children, gathering them together to sing Shema Yisrael with them.

Never forget

Often invoking the memory of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, especially the 1.5 million who were children, he even became known as the Shoah Rebbe, making huge efforts to ensure the memory of the Holocaust be perpetuated.

In addition to a 13-volume edition explaining the deeper meaning of the Jewish holidays, he wrote an ‘Encyclopedia of the Holocaust’ bringing attention to what he described as the ‘spiritual heroism’ of the Jews who gave their lives to observe mitzvot during the Holocaust.

“There were rabbis and yeshiva students who clung to the religious commandments until the end,” he told a New York Times reporter in 2000. “Did they not defend the soul of the Jewish people? Are they not as important to Israel today as F-16s and A-bombs?”

Love for the Jewish People

The Kaliver Rebbe’s appeal and voice far extended the remit of his own Hasidic followers, often reaching out to the wider Jewish community in a spirit of unity. His voice was one of peace between brothers, harmony within the Jewish community, rebuking those who would inflame arguments between the religious and secular in Israel with inflammatory language.

A leader who also built bridges between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities he was known to be a great friend of the late senior Sephardi scion Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, with admiration shared between the two leaders a known testament to their friendship. When the Rabbi Yosef died in 2013, the Kaliver Rebbe considered it a great honor to help write a sefer Torah in his friend’s merit.

The Kaliver Rebbe with Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l

Active well into his 90s fighting for the issues that were dear to him, in 2015, at the age of 93, he gave a rare interview before Passover on Israeli national television, bringing attention to the issue of poor families ahead of the holiday. “The children are crying, and I am crying with them,” he told the reporter. “They have nothing to eat,” adding in tears: “In the name of the six million and one a half million children who perished, how can we let them go hungry? They are crying, I am crying with them.”

A rabbi and a statesman

The Kaliver Rebbe took his responsibility to protect the Jewish People to the highest political offices, reaching out to successive US Presidents urging them to show friendship to Israel. In 2015, from a ceremony in Budapest marking the 70th anniversary since the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, he recorded a video message to then president Barack Obama urging him to be a strong friend of Israel, telling him, “The Almighty ordained that you be president so please do everything you can do to help,” adding: “The whole world should see you are a friend of the Land of Israel.”

Earlier this year, despite being unwell and weak, he congratulated President Donald Trump on moving the embassy to Jerusalem. “I heard about your visit to Jerusalem, and I want to tell you, the Almighty is with you. You should have great success.”

Praised by Israeli leaders

In addition to the tens of thousands of Jews who lined the streets of Jerusalem to pay their respects to the Kaliver Rebbe this week, his passing also brought together Israel’s political leaders, led by President Reuven Rivlin.

At the funeral of the Kaliver Rebbe

“The Rebbe gave voice to the spiritual heroism of Jews during the Holocaust and did all he could to honor the memory of its victims,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added, “The timing of the Kaliver Rebbe’s death near Holocaust Remembrance Day strengthens our eternal commitment — to remember and not to forget.”

We extend comfort to all of his followers. May his memory be a blessing for us all.