Recollections of a Friend
In a life spent traveling and meeting hosts of people from all walks of life, I’ve found that few individuals leave an enduring legacy. Such a legacy was left by a person of small stature but larger-than-life dimensions that are somehow diﬃcult to deﬁne but observably indelible.
From the day I ﬁrst met Zvi Kalisher, almost 40 years ago, I knew he was special. He aﬀected people that way. Zvi would occupy a large portion of my time, energy, and eﬀorts to chronicle the events of his remarkable life—a story that deserves to be repeated and preserved.
When asked to contribute my thoughts to The Friends of Israel’s tribute to a man who was so much a ﬁxture of the ministry of this mission, I was a bit disconcerted. There is so much to be said, yet there are so few words available for a ﬁtting memorial. After considerable thought, I decided to share a few of the experiences that, in my mind, say so much about my friend.
As I traveled with Zvi across Israel, Poland, and the many places that told his story, I was acutely aware of the fact that there were two sides to the history we were attempting to chronicle.
One side involved the irrepressible images of the remarkable epic of survival that began in Poland when Zvi was a 10-year-old who was orphaned when his parents and sister were pushed into a railroad car for a one-way trip to the ovens of Treblinka during World War II.
The other side would not be told, except in unguarded moments of quiet conversations too intimate for prose or public forums. One such moment occurred when we walked onto the property of the orphanage where Zvi had walked hand in hand with his mother before she left him there in a desperate attempt to save his life. He spoke of her wistfully as he shared her parting words: “Now you must be a man. But remember, never tell these people that you are a Jew. And be strong. I’ll come and visit you every week.” Of course, he never saw her again.
Hearing him tell the story, I sensed he knew instinctively, even as a child, that their parting was permanent. But he never felt betrayed. Perhaps the most poignant memory I have of all of our times together was his deep love for his mother, who was never out of mind and was forever etched on his heart.
Do I know Him? Yes, very well.
I was seated in the Knesset oﬃce of Israel’s secretary general, Lt. Col. Netanel Lorch, discussing events related to Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, in which he was an important commander. As our talk wound down, I asked Colonel Lorch if he remembered Zvi Kalisher.
“Do I remember him? Yes, very well,” he told me. “Zvi served under my command during the war. As a matter of fact, he was responsible for my breaking an ankle during an unfortunate time in the ﬁghting. You know, he served as a sapper [land-mine detonator], which was one of the most dangerous jobs in the army. He comes to the oﬃce occasionally, and we talk. He was here a few days ago with his son, and we had a good visit.”
The Warsaw Ghetto was where the Nazis penned up about 400,000 Jewish people behind 10-foot barbed-wire enclosures: 30 percent of Warsaw’s population trapped within a mere 2.4 percent of Warsaw.
Inside the ghetto, children were starving to death by the hundreds. Between 1940 and mid-1942, approximately 83,000 Jews died of starvation and disease alone.
At great risk to themselves, young smugglers, including Zvi, crawled through fetid sewers with food gleaned from the ﬁelds outside the city to distribute to people on the verge of starvation.
As we stood one day over a sewer cover, not far from the Rapoport Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw, Zvi told me, “We went in through this sewer into the Ghetto. I do not know why, but I never had fear that I would be caught or shot by the Germans. I wanted to help, yes; but what was really on my heart was to ﬁnd my family and see if I could somehow get them out.”
After he exhausted his search and gave up hope, young Zvi realized he was utterly alone: To persevere or die were his only options.
Protector of the Innocent
It seemed almost contradictory to me that, for all of his troubles, Zvi never grew bitter or cynical. He lived, both as a boy and a man, as a model of caring.
“I saw him on the road and knew that I must help, or he would not be alive long.”
The “him” was a Jewish boy who had ﬂed the Ghetto in Lodz and was searching for food to take back to his starving family.
“You cannot go back there,” Zvi cautioned him. “Come with me. I’ll look after you.”
And he did just that. For weeks on end, it was as though the child from Warsaw became a parent to the war waif who could not survive on his own. Unfortunately, in a ﬁt of near hysteria, the boy from Lodz made an attempt to take food from a kiosk and go back to his parents, only to be captured and probably killed. The memory of that boy never left Zvi. Nor did his deep sense of regret that he could not save him.
Long after the war, Zvi would take me on his rounds to visit Holocaust survivors in their apartments in Jerusalem. He never spoke of these visits when he told about the war or gave his testimony to groups in later years. They seemed to be almost a sacred trust, something that reached the deepest part of Zvi’s soul.
I marveled at the way he demonstrated empathy to these elderly people, some of whom were badly scarred by their time in the material hell that was Hitler’s Europe. Zvi always had the right thing to say, and we never left an apartment without a plea from the tenants for a promise that he would return soon.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in Warsaw in 1998 when we decided to take a trip to the home where Zvi and his family lived before the war. I was amazed the place was still standing. During World War II, the German Luftwaﬀe had bombed all the houses across the street into rubble.
The Kalisher house is an imposing structure, beﬁtting the stature of Zvi’s father, who was a veterinarian for the Polish army.
“I have never been back here since the war,” Zvi said. “Let us see if they will let us go in.”
As we stepped onto the porch, a young couple came out to greet us and ask what we wanted. They seemed extremely nervous and refused to permit us inside at ﬁrst. The reason, Zvi later explained, was that the occupants did not own the property. Technically, the house still belonged to the Kalishers. Other conﬂicts have arisen when Jewish owners returned after the Holocaust in an attempt to reclaim their properties.
Zvi assured the people they need not worry because he had no intention of making a claim on the house.
“But how do we know that you are telling the truth?” the man protested.
Speaking in Polish, Zvi answered by taking them on a verbal journey through every room, even describing things he did as a boy in one room or another.
The tenants suddenly softened and invited us in.
“Come, we go in,” he said.
“No, I’ll stay here and wait for you. Stay as long as you like. I’ll wait,” I told him.
I had a good reason for waiting outside. This was not a moment for me to share. My friend was back home for the ﬁrst time in 50 years; and I felt that I was a bystander, watching him enter a sanctuary overﬂowing with memories belonging only to him. After he emerged, we returned to the hotel. Not much was said. Zvi was lost in his thoughts.
A Good Place to Hide
When we entered the village where Zvi had been sheltered from the Nazis for two years, I had some questions about his ability to ﬁnd the farm where he had stayed. I needn’t have been concerned. He led us straight to the place, got out of the van, and said he would be back.
When the door opened, there was a brief moment of tenuous exchange. The man standing before him on the porch was large, with a ruddy complexion. He appeared to be someone you did not want to run afoul of. My trepidation soon disappeared when the farmer scooped my friend up in a big bear hug and beckoned his wife and children to come outside to meet Zvi.
The man happened to be the son of the gracious man who had taken in the child refugee and kept him safe for many months. Actually, the man at the door came into this world with the help of a midwife whom Zvi had been dispatched to ﬁnd in a snowstorm one winter’s night.
As I sat across the room while the farmer and his family ﬂanked Zvi and looked through picture albums of the days they spent together, I saw a diﬀerent portrait of my dear friend. No longer was he the war waif I had written about, who tramped the roads, slept in barns, foraged for a few bits of food, and dodged Nazi bullets. Nor was he the hardened Israeli soldier of so many battles and campaigns.
That day, I felt I had seen the soul of Zvi Kalisher. He was not merely a tough kid who had fought to survive and made it; he was one who made it because he had another mission before him, one that God had fashioned that involved the highest of callings.
A Door Always Open
A true mark of my friend’s character was a reﬁned gift for hospitality. By a stroke of extremely good fortune delivered by God’s hand, he married Naomi, a beautiful girl of Persian (Iranian) descent who was a magniﬁcent cook and ruled the Kalisher kitchen as the sovereign of the manor. Zvi often remarked that, at the arch to the kitchen, she drew a line he was never allowed to cross.
To be invited to a meal at the Kalishers’ was something relished by all of us who were entertained in their home, where the doors were always open to visitors. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for the children to come home to ﬁnd a guest sleeping in one of their beds.
People, some of whom showed up unannounced, were welcomed and entertained, sometimes for weeks on end. The Kalishers’ warm and generous hospitality was the reﬂection of a grateful man, with a wife and family, who was more consumed by love than burdened by the bitterness so many carried after what they suﬀered in the Holocaust.
A Lasting Legacy
When Zvi came to grips with the larger issue of why he had been spared while so many others had perished, he found a new life that touched and transformed an innumerable host of people from almost every corner of the world. I think it can be best summarized in the verse Zvi himself so often referred to, Psalm 27:10: “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lᴏʀᴅ will take care of me.”
His life changed when he came to know the Lord, who took care of him through faith in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. His tireless witness for his Savior, which has been a vital part of this publication almost from its inception, leaves us with a legacy of inestimable value. That legacy is distilled in three features:
- Evangelism. Zvi never wavered in his burning desire to make Christ known—without fear or compromise.
- Patriotism. Zvi loved his adopted country, Israel; served in virtually every conﬂict until he retired; and saw his children follow his calling.
- Compassion. Zvi’s life and ministry were marked by unfeigned kindness. He reached out to people in need, regardless of who they were or where they lived.
My friend has gone to a place that looks better to me every day. He will never be replaced, nor would I wish it so. My friend was, in the best sense, one of a kind. And we are all better because of him.