This week, just after Passover, around the time when many remember the Holocaust, the Kaliver Rebbe passed away in Israel at age 96. He and his first wife were both concentration camp survivors. He had a very unique image for a Chassidic Rebbe, because as one of Dr. Mengele’s experiments he was no longer able to grow any facial hair. He had dramatically flowing white peyot, but no beard. It is also said that due to the sadistic experiments he was unable to have children.
The Kaliver Rebbe’s passing made me look up a Hungarian song that was discovered (learned by the first Kaliver Rebbe from an Hungarian peasant or shepherd several generations back) popularized in modern times by the Kaliver Rebbe who survived the Holocaust and just passed away.
My kids know the words “Sola Kokosh Mar” (the opening words of the song and the song’s title) because its one of the phrases I sometimes say in a silly way with them, but we never discussed the meaning of the song and what it is about. My Yeshiva friend (we spent two years in France together) Rabbi Yossi Lebovics (now of Florida) is big into singing, he’s a real Chazzan, and having Hungarian roots he was always interested in this song, but didn’t know anyone who could teach him the lyrics. But one year, after the Soviet Union fell apart, a Hungarian yeshiva student came to Morristown where Yossi was learning at the time, and he taught him the words to this song.
It’s a nature kind of song, remember it was originally learned from a shepherd or peasant. It describes the rooster’s call, the shining sun, and a highly unusual bird that roams these parts. The big question of the song, is when the special bird go home to where belongs, it is obviously not from around here, it is out of place, and needs to be home. So this is seen as a metaphor for the Jewish people in exile, always different, standing out, out of place. The song transitions from Hungarian to Hebrew when it speaks of the rebuilding of the Temple and the coming of Moshiach.
There’s an eerie Holocaust memorial on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary. There are bronzed shoes, of all types and styles, all affixed to the boardwalk at the side of the river. It is a memorial to the Jews who were ordered to line up at the river, take off their shoes, and then they were shot, their bodies flowing down the river, their shoes left behind.
70 years after the Holocaust began in Hungary, 1944-2014, the Kaliver Rebbe returned from Israel to Budapest for a special ceremony at the riverside. All types of people gathered there, religious, not-religious, people from Israel, locals. And the Kaliver Rebbe on the microphone sang aloud the Sola Kokosh Mar song, accompanied by a choir of Chabad children from Budapest. You can watch it on YouTube, it is very moving. Almost like a flash-mob, more people start to gather.
So this is the story of a Hungarian-Jewish song, and a the story of very special Holocaust survivor. And the bittersweet but unwavering hope of the Jewish people – that exiled bird, hoping to go home…