The Kosher Bookworm: “Ish Yehudi: The Life and Legacy of a Torah Great, Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach,” by his son Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach


Reviewed by Alan Jay Gerber

Issue of April 24, 2009 / 30 Nissan 5769

“Honor your mother and father.”

This commandment from G-d is given to us as a Divine mandate for all time. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the author of the book under review, delivers a heartfelt tribute to his martyred father and mother with the focus upon his father, Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach, and his illustrious career as a rabbi and teacher in pre-war Germany, together with his wife, daughters and his Hamburg congregation, in the forests near Riga in the spring of 1942.

Titled “Ish Yehudi” (Shearith Joseph Publications, 2008), Rabbi Carlebach details with loving care and riveting style the life’s work of his distinguished father and mentor.

From the end of the 19th century to Kristallnacht in November of 1938, German Orthodox Jewry formed a vibrant community. The ideology of Torah Im Derech Eretz, as set forth by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, set the tone for every institution that served the spiritual needs of that community until the rise of the Nazi regime. Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach was to play a pivotal role as a prime spiritual leader in perpetuating the Hirsch legacy and in seeing to it that each and every Jewish person brought into his care was served with dignity as prescribed by our religious tradition.

The son, Shlomo, delves into great detail in this 316-page biography, describing the lineage of the Carlebach rabbinical dynasty as well as the various activities, both communal and educational, that these leaders were engaged in. Among the more fascinating episodes in Rabbi Carlebach’s career was that of his efforts as a German military officer during World War I in bringing the Torah Im Derech Eretz ideology to Lithuanian yeshivot ravaged by war.

Using his German military position, he, together with his brother Dr. Emanuel Carlebach and brother-in-law Dr. Leopold Rosenak, both high ranking German military rabbis (chaplains), initiated numerous educational programs and initiatives in German-occupied Lithuania and Poland that helped sustain the educational institutions under their control. These initiatives helped uphold the basic integrity of these yeshivot under some of the most trying conditions, that being the German military occupation. Nevertheless, it was that very occupation that served as their salvation. Just consider the following testimony.

Many years later, after World War II, Rabbi Reuvein Grozovsky, zt’’l, was said to have told Rabbi Eliezer Finkel of Mir-Yerushalayim that “ I can bear witness that if not for the intervention of this young man’s father, the Gaon, Rav Joseph Tzvi Carlebach, may Hashem avenge his blood, Slobodka Yeshiva would have ceased to exist. And not only Slobodka, but all the great Torah institutions of Lithuania, were saved through his intervention, and his strenuous efforts to provide for their sustenance.”

When one considers the great rabbinic luminaries who were yet to rise from the batei midrash of these yeshivot during the inter-war years and come to America, the legacy of these “German military” rabbis only looms that much larger.

The chapters detailing these activities, when placed into perspective concerning the behavior of the German military during World War II, only further demonstrates in glaring detail the perfidy of the German nation in its demonic mission of genocide of the Jewish people. It is hard to imagine a more glaring contrast in the behavior of one civilized nation within the span of just one generation and of the evil forces that impelled and inspired such an evil national demeanor. What is more ironic is that this same Rabbi Carlebach, by then the chief rabbi of Hamburg, was murdered in cold blood by the same military force that he had served with distinction just two decades earlier.

Another inspiring facet as described by his son, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, is found in the closing chapters of this book, detailing the roundups, deportations and killings that were to come. Leadership, the raw exercise of the spiritual role model’s power to inspire and lead, was to become Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach’s lasting legacy.

Rabbi Carlebach, due to his distinguished reputation, had ample opportunity to leave Germany and escape the Holocaust, as did other Jewish leaders. However, he refused to leave his congregation and his communal responsibilities as chief rabbi. He was joined by very few other brave leaders who were in a similar position and chose to stay with their students, among them Rabbi Ben-Zion Halberstam of Bobov, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman of Beranovitch, who were both martyred with there followers and students and the distinguished aged Jewish theologian, Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck of Berlin who miraculously survived torture by his Nazi captors.

All of them could have avoided their evil fates; yet, of their own free will they chose to stay. HY”D. For this we are to be eternally grateful.

During those last months between the deportations to Riga and Jungfernhof and to the ultimate fate, “Al Kiddush Hashem,” the author details the absolutely super human behavior that Rabbi Carlebach demonstrated in nurturing the morale of his congregants, consoling them, especially the little children, teaching them, conducting services and attending to the needs of the ill and dead. His personal conduct under some of the most horrendous conditions is heart breaking. This chapter is a must read by all to fully appreciate the humanity of this man.

These last months were to serve for so distinguished a rabbi as his lasting legacy, a legacy that serves as the capstone of this eloquent tribute by a surviving son, who in his own right suffered the slings and whips of the Holocaust. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was to survive and ultimately join his surviving siblings and relatives, including his famous namesake cousin, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l, here in America. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was to devote his life’s work to Jewish education, and harbotzas Torah, as a mesivta rav and mashgiach at Chaim Berlin, and as a Torah teacher and mashpiah at several Bais Yaakov schools. Rav Carlebach was a pioneer 30 years ago in the use of tape recordings of Torah shiurim according to the weekly parsha as well as mussar and holiday themes.

According to Rav Carlebach a companion volume to this biography will iy’H will be forthcoming. It will contain selected and previously unpublished writings of Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach, in English translation. This will certainly be a most important addition to the growing literature in English of the Torah Im Derech Eretz tradition and mesorah.

A further word:

Another important book on Holocaust studies is one by Rabbi Shubert Spero, entitled, “Holocaust and Return to Zion, (Ktav, 2000). This book, accurately subtitled “a study in Jewish philosophy of history” is perhaps one of the most eloquent and sophisticated presentations of traditional Jewish thought and theology concerning the intricate relationships one can make between the various episodes of persecution and terror throughout Jewish history and the rise of a Jewish republic in the Holy Land by the mid-20th century. These 10 chapters contain a wide panorama of observations, comments and teachings that weave together theology and history in an uncanny manner without the emotionalism a less capable mind would produce.

Rabbi Spero does the rabbinate proud in this volume and gives a Torah based view of our history a sound basis for discussion and ultimately for belief in our G-d directed destiny.

Next week, Yom Ha’atzmaut.