Planting Seeds of Hope

Harold Kasimow: Teacher, Scholar, and Mensch

By Jacqueline Hartling Stolze, originally for Grinnell College News. Reposted with permission.

A biography of Harold Kasimow’s life and work as a Holocaust survivor, professor, advocate for interfaith dialogue, and a mensch – a compassionate human being. Reposted with permission from Grinnell College News.

Harold Kasimow posing with his hands folded, looking directly at the camera.
Harold Kasimow is the living embodiment of a mensch — a caring, ethical human being.

Anyone walking by Professor Harold Kasimow’s Grinnell home on a Friday night in the 1970s might have been moved to pause and take in the sounds and colors coming from the modest two-story house. They might have wondered about the candlelight flickering in the windows and the sounds of singing, clapping, and laughter drifting through the evening air. They might have glimpsed the shadows of dancers spinning around the room.

For Jewish students at Grinnell College in those days, Kasimow’s home was a magnet on Friday nights. With no temple or rabbi in the community, Kasimow served as the Jewish student adviser. He and his wife welcomed students to their home for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest and celebration that begins Friday at sunset and ends when three stars appear in the sky at nightfall on Saturday.

With no budget, one of the students baked the challah and Kasimow bought the wine. “We rarely studied,” says Kasimow. “We mostly sang songs and danced — we said the prayers.

“They were such dynamic students — so much charisma,” he remembers.

“I really loved Friday nights.”

A Way of Being

The love Kasimow feels for his former students is returned in full, even decades after their graduation. Since 1972, he has been a member of the faculty in the Department of Religious Studies. Now emeritus, Kasimow was the first to hold the George A. Drake Professor of Religious Studies named professorship. He is a beloved teacher and adviser at the College with an international reputation as a leading writer and speaker on interfaith dialogue.

I don’t want to see any more children lose their childhood. That’s what interfaith dialogue is about, I think.

 Harold Kasimow

Among his many students and friends around the world, Kasimow is known for his empathy, his understanding, his thoughtful silences, and his kindness.

Robert Gehorsam ’76 arrived on campus the same year that Kasimow joined the faculty. A religious studies major, Gehorsam says he made sure to take at least one of Kasimow’s courses every semester.

As an alum, Gehorsam’s work as president and member of the Alumni Council, and as a member of a technology advisory committee, has brought him back to campus every now and then. On one of these visits, he happened to run into his former professor. The pair walked across campus together, chatting as they went.

Their conversation flowed naturally, as if they had been apart for two weeks instead of two decades. The occasional pauses and silences felt comfortable. “That’s the thing I still just adore about him,” Gehorsam says. “There was always a quiet space that he provided to let you think and reflect. He always has humility and humbleness. Who doesn’t love that?

 “As a way of being, he’s still an inspiration to me,” Gehorsam says.

To honor their professor, Gehorsam and Jeetander Dulani ’98, a member of the Grinnell Board of Trustees, have created the Harold Kasimow Internship for Interfaith Dialogue Endowed Fund. The fund supports students who want to learn and work with organizations and groups that use interfaith dialogue to pursue social reconciliation and healing.

“We realized Harold had made such a difference, not just in our lives, but in so many others, and his view of interreligious dialogue, pluralism, and engagement is a really powerful one,” Dulani says.

Gehorsam says he’s excited to see the results. “We can’t wait to see what the first awards are, who gets them, and for what purpose.”

“This internship gives students an opportunity to see how their studies apply in the real world,” says Henry Rietz ’89, who is now the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

Rietz says it’s a beautiful way to honor a man who has given so much to his students and to the world. “Professor Kasimow has dedicated his life to interreligious dialogue, and he is still publishing books, writing op-eds, and active in making the world a better place.”

The Grave

A sepia-toned picture of a young Harold Kasimow.
Harold Kasimow as a child.

If the world had been a better place when Kasimow was a child, he might have been a fisherman, like his father.

He might have stayed in the small village north of Vilnius, Lithuania (then part of Poland), where he was born. He would likely have learned the trade from his father, Norman, a successful and prosperous fisherman.

The Nazis changed everything.

Kasimow was just 4 years old in 1942 when Norman Kasimow took his family into hiding in a shallow pit beneath a farmer’s cattle barn. For 19 months and five days, they never saw the sun. They barely spoke or moved. At night, Kasimow’s father slipped out to find them enough food to stay alive, but not much more than that.

They called their hiding place the grub, or hole. Sometimes, they even called it the keyver — the Yiddish word for grave.

“We were already buried there,” Kasimow says. “If something happened, that could have been our grave.

“It was all strange to me when I got out. I’d never seen the light. I’d never been out of the hole. It was always pitch black.”

The Promised Land

Against all odds, the family survived, thanks largely to the determination of Kasimow’s father. But a year and a half of near starvation, constant fear, and little or no movement had taken its toll. “We were like skeletons. My sister, who is two years older, couldn’t walk,” Kasimow says. “My father carried the two of us in a sack for a while.”

A sepia-toned family portrait of the Kasimows, with young Harold at the center.
Harold Kasimow (center) with his family.

Even after they emerged from hiding, it was a dangerous world, particularly for Jews. In 1949, after three years in a displaced persons camp in the American Occupation Zone in Germany, they found their way to the United States and settled in the Bronx.

It was a chance for a new life — a life of opportunity and education, of making friends and playing handball in the street, of basking in the sunshine and having enough to eat.

At that point, a sort of survivor’s mentality clicked in for Kasimow. Like many others, he turned his back on the Holocaust and focused on the future. His parents didn’t speak of it, and neither did he.

It would be many years before Kasimow began to re-examine the trauma of his early life.


Kasimow went to Yeshiva University High School and then to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, studying Hebrew literature and the Jewish tradition. Later, after serving in the Armed Forces of the United States, he earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in religion at Temple University.

Through his studies, Kasimow met two influential teachers: Bernard Phillips (“an incredible, fascinating human being” who influenced Kasimow’s teaching style); and his mentor and role model Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Holocaust survivor, Polish-American rabbi, and one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century.

“I devoted my academic career to writing about Heschel, which changed my life,” Kasimow says.

Phillips and Heschel introduced Kasimow to ideas that would shape his thinking and his career in important ways. Phillips launched Kasimow’s lifelong interest in Asian religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism.

And when Kasimow read Heschel’s article “No Religion Is an Island,” he was struck by the statement that “the diversity of religions is the will of God.”

Kasimow learned that what matters most is not the faith a person belongs to, but how human he or she really is. He embraced Heschel’s understanding of the true aim of religion — “to transform us, to have concern for others.” This concern is what makes us truly human, Kasimow says.

The Yiddish word for “human being” (mensch) describes someone who is dignified and compassionate, demonstrating great integrity and a never-ending search for truth. To be a mensch is one of the greatest callings we can aspire to.

So began Kasimow’s dedication to interfaith dialogue. Every human being is created in the image of God, Kasimow explains. This principle is the foundation of interfaith dialogue. To downgrade a human being is to downgrade God.

“The hope of interfaith dialogue is to listen to each other so we can begin to see, to try to understand another person,” Kasimow says. “Transformation is always a possibility.” And with understanding may come friendship. “Once you get to develop a friendship, it’s totally different. You may begin to see the beauty and truth in the other human being,” Kasimow says.

Throughout most of his decades-long career on the faculty at Grinnell College, Kasimow kept his Holocaust memories mostly locked away in a dark, seldom-visited room. He wasn’t a Holocaust scholar. Because he had been a child during the Shoah (the Hebrew word for catastrophe, often used to refer to the Holocaust), he felt others were better qualified to write and speak on the subject.

It was only much later that Kasimow began to see how the Holocaust and interfaith dialogue were connected in his life and work. If the principles of interfaith dialogue had been upheld — that every human being is created in the image of God — the Holocaust would have been impossible, a contradiction of God’s will.

“It has occurred to me in recent years that I became so involved in dialogue because of my early life that I’d never wanted to think about,” he says. “I really think so.”

A Life Dedicated to Interfaith Dialogue

Kasimow is retired now, but his work on interfaith dialogue as a way of fostering the common good continues at a remarkable pace. His list of books, lectures, and publications is impressive (see links at the end of this story).

His most recent books, Love or Perish: A Holocaust Survivor’s Vision for Interfaith Peace (2021, iPub Global Connection) and Interfaith Activism: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Religious Diversity (2015, Wipf & Stock) have earned glowing reviews. Kasimow is currently working on major revisions to his first book on Heschel, Divine-Human Encounter: A Study of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Harold Kasimow and Pope Francis.

A world-renowned Jewish scholar, he has traveled the world to speak about interfaith dialogue, collaborating with internationally renowned scholars, leaders, and theologians of many faiths — including meetings with Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. 

More and more, Kasimow is embracing his role as a Holocaust survivor — he is now one of only two living in Iowa. “There are not so many Holocaust survivors who can still tell their story, which seems to be becoming more important every day with a great deal of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in this country,” he says.

Kasimow is active on the Iowa Holocaust committee and frequently speaks to groups about the Shoah. He values speaking at schools most of all. “Young people ask really good questions,” Kasimow says.

I am hopeful for the future because there really is no other option for humanity.

Harold Kasimow

After speaking at a middle school in Minnesota, he received a letter that shared a mother’s gratitude for his interaction with her son, who suffers from depression. “Talking with you helped him to see hope in the idea that things will get better, and we can survive these difficult times. Please know that by sharing your story and by carrying light from the (literal) darkness, you are planting a seed of hope for future generations.”

“I was just very moved by that,” Kasimow says.

Harold Kasimow presented “Remembrances of a Child Holocaust Survivor” on the Grinnell College campus in 2022.

Kasimow’s experiences were the subject of a book written and illustrated by Chaz Walk, a young student from Johnston, Iowa. The Boy in the Grave is part a series of books (A BOOK by ME) written by children, for children to keep the stories of World War II alive for the next generation. The children interview, write, edit, and illustrate the stories, which are used in schools and libraries everywhere. The Iowa Jewish Historical Society also sponsored a Readers Theater production of the story.

This engagement with young people encourage Kasimow to continue speaking and writing about his Holocaust experiences, although it is never easy for him.

“I don’t want to see any more children lose their childhood,” he adds. “That’s what interfaith dialogue is about, I think.”

He still doesn’t feel that he is a Holocaust scholar. “I’m a Holocaust survivor,” he says.

Kasimow says he is frequently asked whether he is optimistic. “I am hopeful for the future,” he says, “because there really is no other option for humanity.”

Recent Lectures and Publications


Love or Perish: A Holocaust Survivor’s Vision for Interfaith Peace, iPub Global Connection, 2021

Abraham Joshua Heschel Today: Voices from Warsaw and Jerusalem, Wipf & Stock, 2020

Interfaith Activism: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Religious Diversity, Wipf & Stock, 2015 

Edited Books

Pope Francis and Interreligious Dialogue, ed., Harold Kasimow and Alan Race, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue, Wipf & Stock, 2005

Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, 2003

Huffington Post Op-eds

A Letter to President-Elect Donald Trump,” Nov. 16, 2016

Trump and Evangelical Christians,” Dec. 16, 2016

Great Servant-Leaders: Models for Our Time,” April 11, 2017

Saint John Paul II: Defender of the Jews,” May 18, 2017

The Times of Israel

Sacred Texts and Violence – A Call for Dialogue,” June 9, 2017

A Plea for Religious Humility and Justice,” June 28, 2020

Book Review: Saved by Schindler: Celina Karp Biniaz, by William B. Friedricks,” Oct. 28, 2022

Other Media

A Holocaust Survivor’s Vision for Interfaith Peace: A Conversation with Harold Kasimow,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Feb. 18, 2022

Spiritual Audacity: Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Story,” Reform Judaism, Feb. 24, 2021

About Harold Kasimow

The Boy in the Grave, written and illustrated by Chaz Walk, A BOOK by ME, 2020

Visiting Scholar in Catholic Thought: Dr. Harold Kasimow,” Benedictine University Research Guides, 2019

To Be a Mensch: Professor Harold Kasimow’s Lecture Tour in Poland,” Jewish-Christian Relations, March 31, 2005

Featured photo credits: Harold Kasimow speaks at the Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, Illinois, in honor of the Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance, May 7, 2019.

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