Building Torah in Transient Times

(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

A Bais Yaakov in Shanghai

“Halomeid yeled l’mah hu domeh, l’dyo kesuvah al niyar chadash — What is one who learned in his youth compared to? To black ink written on new parchment.” (Avos 4:20)

During the Holocaust and its aftermath, thousands of children had their chinuch interrupted, putting them at risk of sduccumbing to the lures of lurking missionaries, and missing out on the crucial years of learning Torah and the basics of Yiddishkeit. To counter that, heroic people devoted themselves to maintaining chadarim and Bais Yaakovs under the most trying conditions. Although the situation was temporary, there was no time to lose — every single day of learning Torah was crucial for these youngsters.

Here we tell the tale of the Bais Yaakov of Shanghai, where valiant, courageous teachers and administrators worked under strenuous conditions to inculcate the children of refugees stranded in the Far East during the war years with faith and knowledge, so they would remain on the path of Torah when the world would rone day eturn to normal. This temporary Bais Yaakov helped prepare its students to build permanent Yiddishe homes in the years to come.

Harav Yehoshua Leib Godlewsky in 1947 learning in The Mirrer Yeshiva in Averne, NY when the yeshiva stayed there.

Harav Yehoshua Leib Godlewsky, zt”l, was known as the “Chofetz Chaim of Shanghai.” Before the war began he learned in Telshe, and joined the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai a short while after they arrived. Harav Godlewsky’s vigilance in avoiding any lashon hara was legendary as was his dedication to chessed. Perhaps he was best known for his emotional tefillos, in which he poured out his pure heart to Hashem.

One morning, his cousin, Harav Elchanan Yosef Hertzman, zt”l, noticed that Harav Godlewsky’s tefillos were punctuated with unusual sobbing and groaning. After davening, Harav Hertzman asked him why he was so distraught.

“Have you not seen the missionaries roaming the streets of the ghetto searching to entrap the souls of the young children, Rachmana litzlan?” he cried. “Imagine the destruction that awaits them! The heart is torn asunder by this.”

“What do you propose we do?” Harav Hertzman asked.

With a great degree of seriousness he replied, “We must immediately purchase a building for the Bais Yaakov.”

The Bais Yaakov in Shanghai was started through the impetus of Rebbetzin Chana Gorfinkel, née Gulewski, Rebbetzin Rishel Krawiecs, née Berek, and Rebbetzin Basya Shafran, née Mlynarcewicz, who were among the first of the Vilna refugees to arrive in Shanghai. They had approached Harav Meir Ashkenazi, zt”l, who served as the Rav of Shanghai before the war began, as well as the leaders of the original Shanghai Jewish community, requesting their aid and assistance in forming a Bais Yaakov school to service the incoming refuges. The Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School (SJYA), funded by Mr. Horace Kadoorie and thus known as the Kadoorie School, offered the local Jewish children a secular education, but there was little in the way of religious instruction.

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Ad for donations for Bais Yaakov of Shanghai.

The Threat Was Extremely Real

“One day, I was walking down the street in my neighborhood in Shanghai, and I inadvertently walked into a missionary center near my home,” says Rebbetzin Chaya Small. “As a Rav, my father tended to the thousands of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and I certainly was not looking to enter a missionary center. But they had decorated the place in a most enticing way and they were dressed in such an enticing manner that it piqued my interest, and before I realized it, I was standing inside. They offered me games and toys, which we did not have. I was confused, and Hashem did a tremendous chessed when He put the thought in my mind that something was not right and I must run away as fast as I can. I never told anyone about it because I was just 7 years old, and I figured they would say I imagined it. But for years I was traumatized by it. Who knows what would have happened if, chas v’shalom, I would not have escaped? The tactics of these missionaries were clever and the threat was indeed extremely real and very great.”

• • •

Within two weeks, temporary quarters were established for the Bais Yaakov in one of the local shuls, but due space constraints, a rotation of classes had to be set up for the various age levels.

On Chanukah 5702, the Bais Yaakov students put on a production where they displayed their skills to the parents of the refugees. The gathering made a tremendous impact on the guests, and enrollment increased dramatically.

With classes held in temporary quarters and often forced to relocate from place to place, the work of the Bais Yaakov was greatly hindered. Harav Godlewsky felt that establishing a permanent home for the school would encourage even more parents to send their girls there, thus saving them from the clutches of the missionaries.

As sensible as the suggestion was, Harav Hertzman asked the obvious question: “Kesef minalan — From where can we get the money for this?” Harav Godlewsky had no answer; he just burst out in tears. Upon seeing this, the seriousness of the issue became clear to Harav Hertzman, and he knew that extraordinary measures were needed.

Accompanied by Harav Godlewsky, they hurried to the telegraph office and sent a cable to Rabbi Yaakov Rosenheim, zt”l, the president of Agudas Yisrael World Organization, who was in the United States. “Shanghai is an international port and the anarchy is overwhelming with missionaries hunting souls. Money is needed to establish a Jewish school.” They took the liberty of signing the telegram “Gustav Schwab” (Harav Mordechai Schwab, zt”l), who was related to Rabbi Rosenheim, in the hope that he would respond. A moment after they sent it, they regretted what they had done, but it was too late. Sure enough, within a while, $1,500 arrived, a sizable fortune in those days. This money was used to purchase a building, and the Bais Yaakov of Shanghai began to thrive.

       Passport photo of Rabbi Eliyahu         Moshe Liss.

Harav Godlewsky and his wife, Rebbetzin Rachel Zissel, née Abramovitz, were devoted to the education of the Jewish girls of Shanghai. Besides the Bais Yaakov, they set up a dormitory for older girls so they could stay in the Bais Yaakov atmosphere, thereby setting them on the path to become true bnos Yisrael. After the conclusion of the war, Harav Godlewsky, upon the advice of Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l, the Mashgiach of the Mir, and the Skverer Rebbe, zy”a, taught in the Bais Yaakovs of Williamsburg, Boro Park, Crown Heights and the Bronx. The Godlewskys later moved to Eretz Yisrael where they established Keren Hayeled to shelter Jewish girls and enable them to receive a thorough Jewish education and establish true Yiddishe homes.Rabbi Eliyahu Moshe Liss, zt”l, a Lubavitcher Chassid whose wife and two daughters perished in Poland during the war, took over the administrative duties of the Bais Yaakov, helping to shape it into a full-fledged institution. His work with Bais Yaakov was in addition to teaching young boys stationed in Shanghai. He raised funds to cover the Bais Yaakov budget and even supplied the dedicated teachers with an income so they could devote themselves to their students and the school. Rabbi Liss moved to Crown Heights after the war and served as the Mashgiach Ruchani in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva for many years.

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“The Fire of Yiddishkeit”

Rebbetzin Esther Levin, née Ginsburg, is a daughter of Harav Efraim Mordechai Ginsberg, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, and a granddaughter of Harav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l, the Mashgiach of the Mir. As a young girl growing up in Shanghai, she attended the Bais Yaakov in the afternoon.

“The school was designed to keep the fire of Yiddishkeit burning in our souls. We sang a lot, and I understand that Sara Schenirer did that as well. It helped us feel the importance of being a Yid,” Rebbetzin Levin recalls. “I also learned kriah in the Bais Yaakov, and when I arrived in America in 1947, I was able to read and begin my regular schooling.”

Rebbetzin Chaya Small, née Walkin, is the daughter of Harav Shmuel Dovid Walkin, zt”l, the son of Harav Aharon Walkin, Rav of Pinsk. She attended the Kadoorie School in the morning and the Bais Yaakov in the afternoon. “My father was very into giving us an education,” she says. “Even when we were in Kobe, Japan, I attended school and spoke a fluent Japanese. In Shanghai, there was the Jewish Kadoorie school, where we received the bulk of our education, and we went to the Bais Yaakov, which was like ‘Bnos’ program, where we received a ruach of Yiddishkeit.

“One of my main teachers was Esther Rogov, the daughter of Harav Mordechai Rogov, zt”l, and later the Rebbetzin of Harav Leib Bakst, zt”l, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah Ateres Mordechai of Detroit. After the war, she taught in the high school of Bais Yaakov of Detroit for over six decades!

“Charlotte Eisenberg, who became a good friend, was of German origin. She taught the kindergarten, and reached out to the German Jewish émigrés and was influential in attracting them to the school and the Shabbos onegs, bringing them closer to Yiddishkeit.”

“My role model was Rebbetzin Nechama Steinberg [née Zuchovitchke], the wife of Harav Yosef Steinberg, zt”l, who later served as a Rav and taught in Yeshiva of Spring Valley. She had twins in Shanghai, and triplets when she arrived in America! With 5 children under the age of two, she could not continue teaching at that point. (Eventually she moved to Monsey and took up teaching once again.)

Letter of recommendation for Rebbetzin Blau from Harav Nachum Baruch Ginsburg, Rav of Yanava and mechaber of Sefer Mkor Baruch.

“Eva Shulhop, a German girl, was a kindergarten teacher, and she influenced me to become a kindergarten teacher as well.”

Some of the other teachers included Rebbetzin Chana Henna Blau, a”h, née Shochet, the wife of Harav Moshe Yehudah Blau, zt”I, who had been a teacher in Yavne of Telshe and was instrumental in establishing the Bais Yaakov. Rebbetzin Chaya Bluma Hellman, née Sher, wife of Rabbi Uri Hellman (later the principal of Bais Yaakov of Boro Park) taught in the Bais Yaakov until she was stricken with typhoid. She had learned in the Bais Yaakov in Ponovezh and attended Yavne in Telshe. Despite her weakened state, she joined the girls for the Oneg Shabbos where she infused them with the spirit of Shabbos with singing, story telling and words of chizuk.

• • •

Rebbetzin Chana Dinah Freidin, née Rudinsky, a”h, was born in Kaminetz, Poland. Her father, Reb Hershel, dealt in metals and was one of the main supporters of Yeshiva Knesses Beis Yitzchak, the yeshivah of Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l, situated in Kaminetz. After escaping to Vilna at the onset of the war, she traveled to Shanghai where she eventually married Harav Dov Nachum Freidin, zt”l, a talmid of the yeshivah in Radin and later one of the top talmidim of the Mir. The wedding took place in the home of Harav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of the Mir.

Rav Dov once related that when missionaries came by and tried to lure some Jewish girls to join them with an offer of a cash stipend, his Rebbetzin slapped the missionary across her face, despite the danger both from the missionary and the Chinese administration that was involved. Her actions bore fruit and the missionaries never came around again.

After the war, the Freidins accompanied the Mirrer Yeshiva to Arverne, NY, and then to East New York. When Rav Chatzkel left for Eretz Yisrael in 1949, his close talmid Rav Dov accompanied him first to Mir in Yerushalayim and then to Ponevez. He was a chavrusa of Hagaon Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l. They would learn together nightly for many hours, and before Pesach they would go together to collect funds for the needy yungeleit. Many considered Harav Freidin one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim. Rebbetzin Freidin taught in Beis Yaakov Hayashan in Yerushalayim and later in Bnos Eretz Yisrael, the Satmar girls’ school in Bnei Brak, where many Litvishe yeshivaleit sent their daughters so that they should be taught by her.

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Rebbetzin Rivka Teibel Fischman, née Shereshevsky, was born in Slonim. At a young age, she went to the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Cracow, Poland. She was 17 years old when the war broke out and the Bais Yaakov Seminary disbanded, with all the students returning home. Her mother, apprehensive about the advance of the Russian Army, convinced her to flee. She crossed the border to Lithuania, making her way to Vilna. From there she made her way to Vladivostok on her way to Japan, but she was stopped there because her papers were incomplete. A Russian officer, noticing the name Shereshevsky, asked if she was related to the family in Slonim. When she answered in the affirmative, he told her that he knew the family and admired them for their integrity. This officer then arranged for her passage and she was able to join the rest of the refugees en route to Japan and later Shanghai.

While in Shanghai, she was involved in the establishment of the Bais Yaakov and taught there before her marriage to Harav Henach Fischman, zt”l, a talmid of the Brisker Rav, zt”l, and one of the leading talmidei chachamim in the Mir. During her first year, she taught (Rebbetzin) Etil Partzovitz, née Shmuelevitz, one of three girls in her class (along with Mrs. Lisel Kasztl, née Lefkowitz, and Mrs. Sheindel [Yaffa] Bar Zakai, née Eisenberg). After the first of her two Shanghai children were born, she curtailed her work out of the home but was still involved in the work of the Bais Yaakov, including the Shabbos groups that were instrumental in attracting the girls to come to the school as well as infusing them with the spirit of Shabbos and Yiddishkeit.

After the war, Rav Henach began saying shiur in the Mirrer Yeshiva when it was stationed in Arverne, NY, during the winter of 1947. He then moved to the Bronx and taught eighth grade in Salanter Yeshiva. Later, he became a Maggid Shiur in RIETS, where he taught the second-highest shiur parallel to Harav Noach Borenstein, zt”l. He renewed his friendship and chavrusashaft with Harav Simcha Sheps, zt”l, a Rosh Yeshivah in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas who had been his chavrusa in Mir and in Brisk. They would learn on the phone each week, and in the summer, when they spent time together in Rockaway, they would once again learn in person. Harav Henach was niftar in 1965.

Rebbetzin Fischman taught for decades in Bais Yaakov-Bais Miriam in the Bronx, under the auspices of Harav Yerucham Gorelik, zt”l. She was known as a dynamic teacher who taught both younger and older grades. Seminary students who wished to observe an experienced teacher in action, as well as student-teachers who wanted to give model lessons, were often assigned to her classroom. When she relocated to Chicago, she taught in the local Bais Yaakov there as well.

• • •

“My mother often said that Rebbetzin Chana Gorfinkel, a”h, never got proper credit for all she did for the Bais Yaakov in Shanghai,” says Mrs. Itka Cohen, née Fischman. “Although she was stricken with typhus and was not well enough to teach, she took an active role in mentoring the teachers and assisting them with ideas of how to present the Torah topics they were teaching.”

“She was the briach hatichon, the central pillar, of the Bais Yaakov,” Mrs. Cohen remembers her mother saying.

Rebbetzin Gorfinkel was born in Mir, Poland, and desperately wanted to attend the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Cracow under the auspices of Frau Sarah Schenirer, but her parents were unable to afford the tuition. It was arranged that she would assist in the seminary in lieu of tuition, and she eventually became extremely close to Frau Schenirer. With her encouragement, she began establishing Bais Yaakov branches in different cities, eventually setting up 22 such schools before the outbreak of the war.

She married Harav Chaim Gorfinkel, zt”l, in 1932, and he remained in the Mir until the yeshivah fled to Shanghai. . (Rav Chaim and Harav Yeshaya Shimanowitz were the only two Mirrer talmidim who remained in Kobe, Japan, over Yom Kippur, and they fasted two consecutive days due to the question of the halachic international date line.) When she and one of her two children took ill, Rebbetzin Fischman took the healthy child into her home. After the first child recuperated and was returned to her parents, the other child took ill, and Rebbetzin Fischman once again took the healthy child in.

Chinese pass for Harav Chaim Gorfinkel.

Rav Chaim was known as one of the masmidim of the Mir, yet when his wife was not well, he remained in the house to tendtheir children. At night, when his wife and children were asleep, he returned to the beis medrash, often risking being caught outdoors past the curfew, which was punishable with severe caning. Yet, in his desire to learn, he risked arrest, often learning through the entire night.

After the war, the Gorfinkels settled in New York and Rav Chaim taught Gemara in Yeshiva of Brooklyn in Williamsburg. His daughter married Harav Yitzchak Kaplinsky, zt”l, a Maggid Shiur in Mesivta Torah Vodaas, whose father, Harav Yisrael, zt”l, was a Rav in Europe after having learned in the Mir and served as a Rav for the refugee community in Shanghai during the war.

Later in life, the Gorfinkels moved to Eretz Yisrael, where Rav Chaim rejoined the Mirrer Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. He established a gemilas chessed fund to assist yungeleit in the yeshivah, in part because he felt that he might not have been entitled to receive a full stipend from the yeshivah in Shanghai due to his absences when he had to take care of his family.

The hanhalah of Bais Yaakov Yerushalayim (BJJ) would encourage their talmidos to visit Rebbetzin Gorfinkel so they could connect to a student of Frau Schenirer who accomplished so much in helping to establish the Bais Yaakov movement.

• • •

Rebbetzin Yenta Mannes, née Wrobel, was born in Zaremby, Poland, and was recruited by Frau Schenirer to join her seminary in Cracow. She later taught in Yavne, the school for girls set up by the Roshei Yeshivah of Telshe, Lithuania.

Her husband, Harav Hillel Mannes, was from Schwabach, Germany, and had learned in Kelm. Although he attended university with the intention of receiving a doctorate, when he saw the sign on the door that stated, “Jews and dogs cannot register,” he discontinued writing his thesis and left for Telshe Yeshiva, where he remained until 1940.

The couple was engaged shortly before the war broke out, which enabled Yenta to travel to Shanghai on her chassan’s papers. They married in Shanghai in 1941, and Rav Hillel served as the secretary of the beis din while he learned in the Mir.

As a teacher in the Bais Yaakov, Rebbetzin Mannes was much beloved by her students. She hosted a class of 12 students in her small apartment on Baikal Street. Once the Bais Yaakov got its own building, Riva’leh Shmuelevitz and Yehudis Cohn, two talmidos who lived nearby, would accompany her to school each morning.

Rebbetzin Mannes extended herself to help anyone in need. When a group of chained prisoners were led past her house, she would often lower a piece of bread to them on a string, a small gesture that gave them a bit of extra strength to endure the torture of their Japanese tormentors.

After the war, the Manneses moved to Wickliffe, Ohio. Rav Hillel became the principal of Telshe and Rebbetzin Yenta taught first grade in Hebrew Academy. They served in those positions for 40 years.

• • •

Rebbetzin Basya Shafran was born in Ostrolenka, Poland, to a family of Gerrer Chassidim. At 6 years of age, she met Frau Schenirer, who asked her where she lived. “Ich leb in G-tt’s velt — I live in Hashem’s world,” she answered. Frau Schenirer was duly impressed and is reported to have replied, “Six years old now, but one day she will be a great Bais Yaakov teacher.”

After attending Bais Yaakov Seminary in Cracow, she became a teacher in Kaminetz and ate her Shabbos meals at the table of the Rosh Yeshivah Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l. When the Russians decreed the school had to remain open on Shabbos, she fled to Vilna and made her way to Shanghai.

Before Sukkos 5602/1942, she published a call to arms in the local Agudas Yisrael paper called Di Yiddishe Shtime Fuhn vaiten MizrachThe Jewish Voice of the Far East. In her missive, she described how Sara Schenirer had been motivated in the years subsequent to World War I to begin a program to educate Jewish girls and how she had not been daunted by the overwhelming odds against its success. As history was repeating itself, she pledged to keep the work of her mentor alive by establishing a Bais Yaakov school to plant the seed of the Bais Yaakov ideal in the stony soil of Shanghai.

She married Harav Yitzchak Shafran, zt”l, in 1942 and settled in an area called the French Concession. There Rebbetzin Shafran began attracting girls to Bais Yaakov by offering a hot meal. She collected funds from affluent Jews to support her classes. Her devotion was unparalleled as she even taught classes in her small apartment soon after giving birth to her first child, with the baby sleeping in the corner while the girls gathered in her kitchen.

• • •

The family of Mrs. Tzalcha (Sally) Hirsch, née Cohen, had come from Iraq to Shanghai many years before the war and was considered part of the original community. Although she attended the Kadoorie School in the morning, Mrs. Hirsch spent a lot of her afternoons in the Bais Yaakov as one of the older girls.

“My teachers were bachurim from the Mir, including Rabbi (Baruch) Borchardt, Rabbi Borgen and Rabbi Schechter. When the war was over, they convinced me to travel to New York and join Rebbetzin Kaplan’s Bais Yaakov,” she says with pride. “My parents went on to Eretz Yisrael while I went alone to New York and spent some memorable years learning from the incomparable Rebbetzin Kaplan. My schooling in Bais Yaakov of Shanghai set me on my path for life.”

Tzalcha married Rabbi Yaakov Hirsch, zt”l, a talmid muvhak of Harav Dovid Leibowitz, zt”l, in Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim (located at the time in Williamsburg on South 9th Street). Rabbi Hirsch learned for 50 years in the Novardok Yeshivah and Lakewood Minyan in Boro Park, finishing Shas b’iyun and Mishnah Berurah many times.

Together with his wife, they built a family of bnei Torah. During the summers, Mrs. Sally Hirsch served as the camp mother in Camp Agudah, often meeting her mentor Rabbi Baruch Borchardt, who served as camp director. They would reminisce about the good old days in the Bais Yaakov of Shanghai.

• • •

At one point, the Bais Yaakov of Shanghai had 160 students. As World War II came to an end, the families in Shanghai made arrangements to leave and enrollment began to dwindle. A picture of the student body taken in 1946 shows over 100 girls, but in the 1947 picture there seem to have been only around 25 students.

By 1948, the majority of the Jewish families had already left for America and Eretz Yisrael, and a farewell gathering was held. Over the seven years of its existence, hundreds of girls had received a Bais Yaakov education through the exceptional dedication and devotion of the teachers and administrators. They continued on in their lives to build ehrliche Yiddishe families.