In 1938, Mahatma Gandhi published an open letter to the Jews of Europe advocating passive resistance in the face of Nazi oppression. After agonizing over each word for almost a year, philosopher Martin Buber wrote back.
Buber filled 20 pages of lined notebook paper with an earnestly inked, profound theological argument for a Jewish homeland, an emotional articulation of the Jewish plight in Germany and even a call for what would now be called "a two-state solution," a reconciliation with the Arabs.
The original manuscript, a draft filled with crossed-out words and Buber's neatly written Hebrew characters, will be on display this month in San Francisco.
Rabbi Irv Ungar, a rare book and manuscript dealer specializing in Judaica, recently acquired the letter from a private collector in Israel. He will be exhibiting the 20-page, 7-by-9-inch letter at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair Friday, Feb. 21 through Sunday, Feb. 23 at San Francisco's Concourse Exhibition Center.
For those interested in owning a piece of history, the letter is available for $27,500.
When Ungar examined Buber's letter for the first time, he thought, "I have to own it. I have to own it. Buber had something to say about the survival of the Jewish people, the Holocaust. This letter has a place in the history of our people.
"It's a letter written to the entire world," he said. "The message is for all people."
In the letter, Buber expresses great respect for the Indian leader, but he passionately disputes Gandhi's analogy between the Indians in South Africa and the Jews in Europe. The Austrian-born theologian argues that passive resistance isn't appropriate for the Jews — a people with no homeland who were being exterminated and tortured.
Buber writes: "Now do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments in the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter?"
The theologian goes on to explain that a Jewish homeland in Palestine is essential, saying: "That which is merely an idea and nothing more cannot become holy; but a piece of earth can become holy just as a mother's womb can become holy."
Arguing for reconciliation with the Arabs, Buber asks for "a cordial agreement between the nations" and pleads, "You, Mahatma Gandhi, who know of the connection between tradition and future, should not associate yourself with those who pass over our cause without understanding or sympathy."
Buber's letter, written when he was teaching in Jerusalem, was published in both Hebrew and English. Ungar's copy, dated Jan. 24, 1939, is the only signed, handwritten manuscript of the document.
Ungar has had his hands on significant manuscripts from Jewish history before. The former pulpit rabbi at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame once owned the only privately held autograph of Anne Frank and a handwritten newspaper created on board the Exodus, a ship that illegally sailed into Palestine. Both were sold to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.