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Prof. Kasimow speaks on Holocaust experience, value of inter-faith dialogue

Harold Kasimow is a Professor Emeritus for the Religious Studies Department here at Grinnell College. He is also a Holocaust survivor. He studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Temple University in Philadelphia. Professor Kasimow has written extensively on interfaith dialogue and its importance for the future peace of humanity. He has taught many classes here at Grinnell on World Religions and, for a short while in the 80s, on the Holocaust. On Monday, Oct. 24, he gave a presentation to the College and Community on his experiences during the Holocaust and his studies. Jacob Goldsmith ’13 sat down with Kasimow after his talk.

What was your experience with the Holocaust?
My main experience, of course, is those 19 months and five days in the grub, that stands out for me. You know, no sunshine, no light, hunger all the time, every day, just trying to survive. But, being so young and not really understanding, not having any kind of sense what the picture. The idea of fear, always being afraid of dying. When we first came out from the grub, when the war was still going on and we were trying to get over more to the Russian side during the incident when we were almost killed. I said, ‘I don’t want to die’.

Why and when did you decide to become a teacher?
I didn’t have any kind of, there is no moment when I told myself ‘Oh, this will be great to become a teacher’. I didn’t have a calling to be a teacher. I came out of a very traditional Jewish, I think very open, Orthodox Jewish home. I went to Yeshiva when I came to the Bronx in 1949. I had a traditional education from 12 to 19, when I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary after I graduated high school. What you learn is that traditional Judaism teaches that the highest aspect of worship is study. The Jews are intoxicated with study. What did they create? Well, they did create the pyramids, but we don’t need to get into that. Books, everything interpretation of traditional texts. Study is a way of life. I actually didn’t know in life even, okay what was I going to do after high school, well I’ll continue studying and I graduated from the seminary, well what will I do, okay so I was drafted in the army. After coming to this country I felt a sense of gratitude and I felt that I should serve in the army and I served two years. I was in military education and then when I came back, I always studied. So eventually I went to full time graduate school in the religion department. There wasn’t anything else I could do, but study and teach. When I was a graduate student at Temple University in Philadelphia I was teaching every Sunday, I was always teaching World Religions. You could almost say, what else could I have done considering that I am still continuing to study all the time, that’s what I do, it’s my life.

You have written largely on inter-faith dialogue, how did you become interested in this field and what is your hope for the future of religions?
This was also a very gradual process that I came to interfaith dialogue, through my interest in other religious traditions. At the Yeshiva and even at the Jewish Theological Seminary, all the education was in Judaism. The moment I was able to read English, when I was 15 or 16, for some reason I began to read books on Jesus, so I became somewhat interested. In the seminary, when I was reading history books, Christianity and Islam played a large role. A major influence on me in this whole process of inter-faith was Bernard Phillips, who developed the Religious Department at Temple University. I became a disciple of his. When I went to the University of Jerusalem I took a lot of courses on Islam. Abraham Joshua Heschel taught me that diversity of religions is the will of God and that holiness is to be found everywhere. That was beginning to encourage me, in some way, in other religions. I was one of the founding members of the Muslim Studies Group at the American Academy of Religion, this was an opportunity to meet all these great people from different religious traditions. I feel that inter-faith dialogue is more desperately needed today than ever before, religions have certainly brought beauty and astonishing enrichment to many believers, but they have caused a great deal of suffering and anguish. There is a great deal of hatred and violence being perpetrated in the name of religion. My hope is that people would talk to each other and maybe more important, listen to each other and reexamine their sacred texts and be aware that religions are not fixed entities, the meaning of the sacred texts are in the minds and hearts of the believers. The aim of dialogue is not to convert people, but dialogue can help us see that in spite of our radical differences there are still very strong affinities and that we are encountering human beings who have true faith in their heart. Dialogue can take a long time, it is very easy to take a religious tradition and dismiss it but when you actually meet a person of a different religious tradition and develop a friendship, then I think that there is more of a chance where you can to see the humanity and touch of divinity in a stranger of a different religious tradition. The hope is really that people should talk and listen to each other and then they can maybe begin to see the face of God in the face of the stranger.

You studied under Abraham Joshua Heschel and you have written a fair amount about him. What did he mean to you and how did he shape your academic, literary and personal life?
I met Heschel when I was 19 years old at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was teaching full time. I took two courses with him as an undergraduate. There was something about Heschel that grabbed me, the personality that he had. I was very drawn to him, because his emphasis was on the ethical dimension of Judaism. There was always a great stress on relations with human beings, the dignity of every human being. Every human being is created in the image of God. He wrote me a recommendation for graduate school and I decided to write my thesis on him. I would travel from Philadelphia to New York once a week to take a course with him. Those were the days when I really had a chance to spend a lot of time with him, in that last year of his life. He made a very profound influence on my life. He was interviewed two weeks before he died; he said “And above all remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.” He did shape my vision of Judaism. I don’t think there is anybody who has influenced me as much in my view of Judaism than Abraham Joshua Heschel, including my view of how I see other religious traditions.

When did you begin talking about your experiences in the Holocaust?
When I think of the beginning of my interest in the Holocaust I think of my meeting with Emil Fackenheim in 1972, he was a major philosopher and I had quite a long talk with him. Around 1980 I also met Elie Weisel and had a one-on-one talk [with] him. I also went to a few conferences, not as a speaker though. I would go to a panel that was just on the Holocaust because some of my friends were on it. I did finally decide that I would teach a course on the Holocaust. In 2004, when Wayne Teasdale, a very spiritual Catholic monk, asked me to write my story for his book, I wrote a few pages about my experiences, especially on the grub. I also realize now, I could always say that there are so many people who are older than me who could understand things much better than me and it was okay. But now I realize that many of the survivors are dying and I am one of the youngest who still has some memory of what was going on. I have decided that I have some obligation to do it, the first time I did it at Yom Hashoah I only talked a little about myself, what could I tell them about the 19 months and five days because, in some sense, there was nothing new under the sun, I never saw the sun during that time.

Is there anything that you would want students to take from this interview?
By studying other traditions we can go back to our own tradition and find new things that we never knew. We can really begin to open ourselves, especially in meeting with other human beings.

-compiled by Jacob Goldsmith,

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