You were very young when your father passed away. Was life very difficult?
My mother lived through a period of quiet devastation. She received emotional support from Rabbanim and talmidim who frequented our home. For a while we were sent to a boarding house. Many great Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah came there to rest. We were privileged to enjoy a telescopic view of the daily lives of these great Torah personalities. The visit was a reprieve for us children. But it ended as soon as we returned home.
My half-brother Meilich (my father’s oldest son from a previous marriage) was to take over the family dynasty, but he did not want to leave the town of Levertov where he had settled. Many of my father’s Chassidim began to disappear, little by little, to Levertov. My mother worried terribly how she would manage financially without the support of her husband’s vast following.
Some of my father’s closest Chassidim advised my mother to move the family to Warsaw. Munish Ridel, one of my father’s close followers, was able to convince her. After the transition our family began to disperse. Yankel, the oldest, went to the Lubliner Yeshivah. Chavchia was married just a few weeks after my father had passed away. Boruch had married the daughter of the Munkatcher Rebbe; and now Lazer and Leiby, the younger two of my four brothers, went off to the Mirrer Yeshivah to learn.
Once we were settled in, my mother began looking for ways to earn a living. She opened a boarding house in our spacious apartment. Soon our apartment became known not only to yeshivah students who trekked in from all corners of the map, but to some of the greatest Torah personalities in Europe. Our home at Gensia 7A became a landmark. The list of Torah luminaries who passed through our doors was an impressive one. Among them we were privileged to host Harav Elchanan Wasserman; Harav Yerucham Levovitz, the Mirrer Mashgiach; Harav Aharon Kotler of Kletzk; Harav Boruch Ber Lebowitz; Harav Avraham Kalmanowitz; Harav Fishel Goldfeder; Harav Gedaliah Schorr; Harav Elya Chazan, zecher tzaddikim livrachah — and the list goes on.
My sister Devorah decided to leave home and make Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael; a year later my brother Lazer followed her. Yankel returned from Lubliner Yeshivah and the two of us remained at home with my mother.
For how much longer did you remain at home in Warsaw?
Sara Schenirer had already passed away, but I still remember a time when she had come to visit us in Warsaw. She had asked me some questions from Chumash and I answered them. Then she put her hand on my head and said, “You are going to be my good student one day.” In September of 1937 I traveled to Bais Yaakov in Cracow, six hours by train, without any friends.
Can you tell us about the Bais Yaakov in Cracow founded by Sara Schenirer?
Classes were excellent, standards demanding. Two to three hundred students were present at the average lecture. Famous mechanchim — for example, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Orlean and Rabbi Deutscher — were among the outstanding teachers. In addition, Rebbetzin Gittel Pas taught Beiur Tefillah; Rebbetzin Weitzasch for Shulchan Aruch; Mrs. Ida Bauminger for Ivrit; Rebbetzin Esther Beigun for Chumash; and Rebbetzin Rottenberg. The curriculum was excellent and I benefited greatly from it.
To me, the most beautiful experience of seminary was Shabbos. Every week a different faculty couple used to stay with us in the dormitory to make us feel more at home. I remember how we all used to congregate in the dining room in the afternoon. We would sit and talk for a while until seudah shelishis, when Rabbi Orlean came in to give us a mussar shmuess based on Chovos Halevavos or Mesillas Yesharim.
When the men left the hall, we girls would begin to sing. We sang all the zemiros and songs that we knew, one by one. Finally, when the first stars flickered in the night sky, our voices would swell with the special Motzoei Shabbos Yiddish zemer full of prayerful hope for the coming week, “Gut fun Avraham.” The girls were from mixed litvishe and chassidishe backgrounds and although we came from so many different countries, we had the Yiddish language in common.
I contracted rheumatic fever in the dormitory, during the winter of my second year. My hands swelled up strangely and a fever threatened to consume me. I was in such great pain that it hurt if anyone so much as laid a hand on the bed.
My mother arranged for me to travel by train to the village of Wapienno, where there were mineral waters that were reportedly therapeutic. It seemed a little strange to me that she did not bring me straight home but I did not question her judgment. It was only after I had returned from seminary months later that I discovered the reason for the detour. My sister Chavcia had died in Alexander right before I got sick. My mother did not want me to find out so that I would not have to sit shivah. She left three children, all of whom were lost during the war.
To be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.