Rabbi Menachem Mendel Taub, the leader of the Kaliv Hasidic dynasty and a Holocaust survivor who made a lifetime of campaigning for Holocaust commemoration and education, died on Sunday in his Jerusalem home at the age of 96.
A survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, Taub was credited with entrenching Holocaust remembrance in the ultra-Orthodox community, with an emphasis on spiritual resistance to the Nazis during World War II.
Thousands attended his funeral in Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon, mourning the revered rabbi.
Born in Transylvania in 1923, Taub was transported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he underwent chemical experimentation by Dr. Josef Mengele that left him, among other things, unable to grow a beard for the rest of his life.
His brothers and much of his community perished in the war. Taub was reunited with his wife in Sweden after the Holocaust.
Taub would frequently speak to Israeli news outlets ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year falls out on Thursday, and did not explicitly shun marking the day, though he opined that it would be better spent in prayer and Torah study.
Many in the ultra-Orthodox community reject marking the state-sanctioned remembrance day, which is pegged to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and instead designate the fast of the 10th of Tevet, which commemorates various tragedies in Jewish history, as the annual remembrance day for Holocaust victims.
Despite his conciliatory stance on the state anniversary, Taub — who was also held in the Warsaw Ghetto — was critical of Israel’s emphasis on physical resistance.
“Why do we give more importance to the physical fighters?” he told The New York Times in 2000. “How about the rabbis and yeshiva students who clung to the religious commandments until the end? Did they not defend the soul of the Jewish people? Are they not as important to Israel today as F-16s and A-bombs?”
An author of numerous books, including several on the Holocaust, Taub attempted to establish a Haredi Yad Vashem-style Holocaust museum, though the project apparently fell through due to lack of funding.
Taub has attributed his commitment to safeguarding the memory of Holocaust victims to an incident at the tail end of the war in which he was rounded up to be thrown into a fire by SS guards. Screaming the “Shema yisrael” prayer, he bargained with God to remain alive, vowing to recite the prayer with the living. For the rest of his life, at ceremonies honoring Holocaust victims Taub would lead a public recitation of “Shema yisrael.”
“I saw people being put into the fire,” he told the Makor Rishon newspaper in 2001. “One of them screamed out before he was killed: ‘If one of you survives, don’t forget to say Kaddish [the mourner’s prayer] for me.’ Then, when the terrible Holocaust happened, I started to think about perpetuating the memory of the holy victims. Who will say Kaddish? Who will tell the story? Who will say ‘Shema yisrael?'”
After the war, he relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, before immigrating to Israel in the 1960s.
President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday eulogized Taub as one “who suffered terribly as an inmate at Auschwitz and dedicated his life to the memory of the victims, inspired by a true love of Israel.”
Taub “gave voice the spiritual heroism of Jews during the Holocaust and did all he could to honor the memory of its victims. His work has particular resonance at present as we redouble our commitment to remember and never to forget.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” at Taub’s death.
Taub “survived the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust and was dedicated to the rebuilding of the world of Torah in Israel and the Jewish diaspora. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to impart the memory of the Holocaust, specifically the heroism in the admirable spirits of those in the ghettos and camps.
The timing of Taub’s death “near Holocaust Remembrance Day strengthens our eternal commitment — to remember and not to forget,” added Netanyahu.