Monday, April 6, 2015

The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction by David Weiss Halivni 1996

"Halivni's book is surprisingly rich and resonant . . ." from a review by Jonathan Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times 10/16/1996

David Weiss HaLivni has written a memoir in order to tell the story of his life from a religious and spiritual perspective. Until he and his family were deported to Auschwitz when he was a teenager, he spent his early years from about the age of five with his grandparents in Sighet, Romania where his Hassidic maternal grandfather was his mentor. The author was precocious indeed, and although he insists his capacity to memorize was not unusual, as a very young learner he memorized large tracts of the Talmud. He was his grandfather’s pride and joy, his family’s pride and joy, as well as the community’s.

He relates later that his extensive Talmud learning helped him in the various Concentration camps he was assigned to. He impressed fellow inmates with how much he had learned and their reverence for learning stirred a number of them to help him survive. This included at least one Jewish kapo.

When HaLivni was liberated, he first went back to Sighet where he found out that his family had all perished. He then spent some time with a family friend in Budapest, then moved to a Displaced Person’s camp in Germany. From there he was sent to New York with other orphaned children and stayed in places where he refused to eat the food until others could prove it was kosher. It was at this point that Jewish American religious scholars encountered his vast learning.

HaLivni, who went on to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then Columbia University, writes about charting his own course. Yeshiva scholars advised him against going to a secular college, wanting him to devote all his time to Talmud, but  HaLivni was interested in the secular world as well as the religious, so he attended yeshiva and Brooklyn College simultaneously.

HaLivni devotes very important chapters to the Holocaust, how he was affected by it, and how and why he still has faith in God despite what he experienced and despite having lost his family. He also writes about how certain beliefs by members of the general public concerning the Holocaust disturb him. For example, he says it is not true that every survivor feels guilt for having made it out alive.

This memoir leaves the reader with a lot to think about. His exploration of his own life as a survivor (he tells little of his traumatic experiences as a concentration camp prisoner) reinforces the notion that survivors are not a monolithic group. Their reactions are shaped by their upbringing, past experiences, circumstances, and individual personalities.

This memoir includes a detailed and useful glossary explaining religious terminology and well as describing who historical personages mentioned in the body of his work were.

To watch a video of a discussion between Elie Weisel (who grew up in Sighet)  and Oprah Winfrey about Auschwitz and to see them at Auschwitz, click here.

To read about the study of the Talmud, click here.

Shaye Weiss   
            Channa Yitte Weiss – daughter of Shaye; married Yisroel Yehuda Katina (a cousin)
            Ethyl Weiss- daughter of Shaye
            Feige Weiss – daughter of Shaye; marries and divorces Zallel Weiderman
            Channa Yitte Weiss – daughter of Feige and Zalell; (took name Weiss once parents divorced)
            Leitzu Weiss – daughter of Feige and Zalell; (took name of Weiss once parents divorced)
David Weiss Livni – son of Feige and Zallel; (took name of Weiss once parents divorced); married Tzipora;  took name Livni is the U.S..
            Shai Livni – son of David Weiss Livni – married Diane Kushnir
Leib Weiss – brother of Shaye
Shiya Maggid – distant relative
Sarah  Festinger – author’s great aunt

Menachem Mendel Hager – grandfather of Tzipora – wife of author

Friends and Acquaintances
Beryl Landau
Shlomo Weiss
Leizar Hoch
Naftali Elimelech Schiff
Menachem Mendel Hager
Shimi Weiss
Rutzi Kratz
Yekutiel Yehuda Teitelbaum
Zalman Leib Gross
Menyu Rubin
Moshe Finklestein
Shulamit Halkin
Saul Lieberman
Aaron Kotler
Joel Teitelbaum
Yizhak Hutner
Louis Finkelstein
Gerson Cohen
Joel Roth
Laibl Kahan
Oskar Dob
Joshua Herschel Friedmann
Chaim Lieberman
Moshe Scharf
Aaron Wertheim

Sighet, Romania
Kobolecka Poljana, Ukraine (formerly Czechoslovakia)
Khust, Ukraine
Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp, in the former Czechoslovakia
Visheva, Ukraine
Ungvar (Uzhgorod), Ukraine
Tyachevo, Ukraine
Jewish Theological Seminary, NYC
Windsheim Displaced Person’s Camp, Germany
Yeshivas rav Chaim Berlin, NYC


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