Prominent among the characters represented in the chronicles of Chanukah and Purim are heroic women, and in the words of Chazal, “B’zechus noshim tzidkaniyos nigalu avoseinu miMitzrayim,” in the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Bnei Yisroel were redeemed from Mitzrayim. The women maintained the spiritual vigor of the nation during the trying years of oppression.
During the cataclysmic years of World War II, women heroically fulfilled their traditional role as family caretakers. The realities of ghetto life created insufferable conditions. While men and women shared the burden of economically supporting their families, women still shouldered the weight of responsibility in caring for the home and the children. Amidst widespread suffering and a rising death toll, women risked their lives to obtain food and other necessities for their families. The psychological and spiritual wellbeing of their families also fell within the women’s domain, and they succeeded in transcending the brutalities of ghetto life. Valiantly, ghetto residents struggled to maintain a vestige of humanity. Minyonim flourished despite German prohibitions, there were secret chadorim and Bais Yaakov schools that taught hundreds of girls, were also established illegally.
The woman who had precipitated a revolution in chinuch habanos, Sarah Schneirer, was a young seamstress from Cracow who had never had a formal Jewish education herself. She was born in 1883 to an eminent family in the notable Jewish community of Cracow. Cracow, home of Rav Moshe Isserless zt”l (1530-1572), the Rama, one of the greatest of Ashkenazic gedolei Torah, had been one of the crown jewels in the 1,000-year-old civilization of European Jewry. Sarah had received the traditional eight years of formal secular education, while her Jewish education consisted of learning how to daven and read the Tzenah Urenah. The education of girls had traditionally taken place in the home, and girls had absorbed Jewish values and practices from their mothers. For centuries, this method had been successful.
European Jewry was in turmoil at the end of the nineteenth century, sundered by foreign ideologies that had arisen in Germany and were spreading eastward. The rising tide of assimilation set in motion by the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, had led to the large-scale alienation from traditional Torah life of an entire generation of young people. There was no formal Jewish education to meet the challenges of the modern period.
The Enlightenment, founded by Moses Mendelssohn, a German Jew, had as its motto, “Sei ein Jude zur house und ein mentsch in strasse – Be a Jew in your home and a person (gentile) in the street.” Scores of German kehillos had fallen prey to this scourge coupled with Reform Judaism.
The Torah giants of Eastern Europe reacted with a powerful counter-offensive, and many great yeshivos were founded in Poland and Lithuania to oppose the threat to authentic Yiddishkeit. With tragic consequences, nothing was being done to protect a most vulnerable part of the Jewish population, the girls.
Sarah Schneirer, firmly committed to her Chassidic upbringing, noted with much heartache how many of her contemporaries had been lured by the Jewish “intelligentsia.” Tragically, some were openly desecrating Shabbos. Sarah dreamed of establishing a network of schools, where girls would be introduced to the treasures of the Torah and the beauty of their heritage. She received the endorsement of the Chofetz Chaim, the Gerrer Rebbe, and other great gedolim.
The upheaval caused by the onset of World War I in 1914 disrupted Sarah’s plans, as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled from Galicia to Vienna. The Schneirer family settled in the Orthodox 20th district in Vienna, where they attended the Stumpergasse Synagogue. The rov of the shul, Dr. Moshe Dovid Flesch was a student of Rabbi Dr. Solomon Breuer, son-in-law of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Flesch’s dynamic personality deeply impacted the impressionable young girl, and when the “Great War” was over, Sarah returned to Cracow with notebooks full of her carefully recorded words of his discourses.
The Orthodox leadership in Poland was firmly opposed to formal Jewish education for girls. They were oblivious to the devastating reality of disintegrating Jewish families. Even more painful for Sarah was the indifference of her friends, who had been poisoned by the toxicity of their environment. However, mothers who had lost daughters to the enticements of modernity went to Sarah Schneirer, imploring her to save their younger daughters. “Our daughters go to the movies after the Friday night Shabbos meal, which we eat early during the winter Friday nights. They just try to hide it from us” (Carry Me In Your Heart, by Pearl Benisch, pg. 27).
The first Bais Yaakov classroom was the workshop in Sarah Schneirer’s apartment, where she began teaching a group of seven young girls.
“It is October 1918. Finally, finally, I am sitting in my own classroom with twenty-five children. Their faces shone with joy as I taught them the meaning of a bracha. Only twenty-five children, but these are twenty-five Jewish souls who have been entrusted to me to be brought up in the true Jewish spirit. A little room with old chairs. It doesn’t even have a blackboard. Here is the place where my dream, carried for so long in my heart, is being realized” (Carry Me In Your Heart, pg. 47).
The Bais Yaakov movement was born.
Bais Yaakov reshaped the image of daughter, mother and family, under the inspiration of the founder and her far-reaching vision. Sarah Schneirer saw a future where girls throughout Poland and the rest of Europe would be attending schools in the Bais Yaakov network, being introduced to the treasure-trove of Torah, our precious legacy. She succeeded beyond her greatest expectations.
By the beginning of World War II, there were 225 Bais Yaakov schools in Poland with 35,000 students. Hundreds of teachers were educated in a teachers seminary that had been established in Cracow, and although it was impossible to recapture the tens of thousands of lost souls, Bais Yaakov strengthened Orthodox Jewry and its influence spread across the European continent.
The world of European Jewry was torn asunder on January 30, 1933, the day on which Adolf Hitler ym”sh was appointed chancellor of Germany. From 1933 to 1939, while the Germans had not yet created a systematic plan for genocide, there was a systematic progression of persecution. The Germans actively endeavored to make Jewish life so miserable through oppressive economic and social policies that the Jews would leave Germany of their own volition.
World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland. On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ym”sh, the security police chief, sent a directive ordering the expulsion of Jews from their homes in the occupied territories and the establishment of ghettos. The ghettos were to be administered by Jewish councils, known as the Judenrat, and located in major cities to concentrate and isolate the Jews.
Ghettos were set up throughout occupied Poland to segregate millions of Polish Jews from the native population. Isolating Jews from the indigenous populace allowed for greater control and economic exploitation. Later, the ghettos facilitated efficient deportations to labor and death camps. The ghettos ultimately played a very significant role in the genocide of the Jews. Thousands of Jews, suffering from overcrowding, disease and hunger, died in the eastern European ghettos without any German intervention. In the larger ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz and Cracow, the sight of Jews stepping over corpses lying on the sidewalks, families shivering in unheated apartments, and starving children hunched on street corners was commonplace.
Despite the horrific conditions that prevailed in the ghettos, religious life persisted. Yomim Tovim were observed, and clandestine yeshivos and Bais Yaakov schools functioned. In the Warsaw ghetto, there were at least six Bais Yaakov schools operating under the guise of soup kitchens. In Vilna, in Lodz and in Pietrokow, teachers were recruited to teach the girls in the ghettos. Bnos Agudas Yisroel, an organization founded by R’ Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, was engaged in relief activities, cooking and distributing food. (R’ Eliezer Gershon had helped Sarah Schneirer realize her dream of providing quality literature for Orthodox Jewish girls. Overcoming many obstacles, he published the first issue of the Bais Yaakov Journal in 1923. As a publication of great literary stature, it contributed much to the growth of the Bais Yaakov movement.)
On the eve of World War II, it has been estimated to have been 100,000 Jews living in Cracow, home to one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in Europe. Soon after the German occupation on September 6, 1939, the persecution of Jews began. On March 21, 1941, a ghetto was established, with 20,000 Jews, including 6,000 from neighboring communities, crowded in. Deportations to the Belzec and Auschwitz extermination camps began in May of 1942 and continued until the final liquidation of the Crakow ghetto in March of 1943.
Many of Cracow’s Jews were transferred to the nearby Plaszow concentration camp, run by the notorious Amon Goeth, a psychopathic killer who took pleasure in shooting Jews for sport from his balcony. A group of ten young girls, most of whom had been Bais Yaakov teachers or students, formed a group called the Zehnerschaft (“ten-some”), providing solace to each other in their joint suffering. One of them was Rivka Horowitz, who had been one of the pillars of the Bnos organization, a born leader, bursting with enthusiasm and energy. In Plaszow, the Bais Yaakov girls heard of the legendary “Tzila,” a nurse who worked in the Auschwitz-Birkenau infirmary and had saved many lives. She had saved one girl from Selektion by hiding her in the infirmary. She had saved another from assignment to the dreaded Block 10, where deadly experiments were performed on girls. They suspected this Tzila to be their beloved Bais Yaakov teacher Tzila Orlean, and when they arrived in Birkenau in October of 1944 their presumption was confirmed.
Tzila Orlean had reached Auschwitz in 1942, when the camp was new. Speaking a perfect German, she was appointed head nurse of the infirmary. Tzila was the only individual called by name rather than by number in Birkenau. All the SS officers, including the monstrous Dr. Mengele, referred to her respectfully as “Orlean.” Tzila was one of Sarah Schneirer’s early students, a teacher par excellence, in Bais Yaakov schools and later at the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Cracow. In the ghetto, she inspired girls with her Tehillim lessons.
Their friend, Tillie Rinder , who had become the “White Angel of Auschwitz,” was also there. Tillie, barely eighteen, was the secretary in the infirmary. Under the powerful searchlights, she would glide from one block to another during the night. She would bring medication she had stolen from the infirmary, water to the fever stricken, and sugar to typhus victims. Often, she handed over her own bread ration (Carry Me In Your Heart, pgs. 41-46).
Almost four years after the establishment of the Cracow ghetto, on a bitterly cold January 18, 1945, as the Soviet Army was approaching, about 66,000 prisoners – among whom were the Zehnerschaft – were evacuated on foot from Auschwitz. Driven out of the camp into icy fields and roads knee-deep in snow, more than 15,000 died on the way to Gleiwitz and Wlodzislaw, Poland, where those who remained alive were jammed onto uncovered railroad cars. Without food or water, many more perished during the long and frigid journey that took the prisoners west to Germany.
Pearl Benisch, one of the Zehnerschaft, writes in her Holocaust memoir, To Vanquish the Dragon (pgs. 377-378): “If we had thought the Death March the climax of our suffering, we now discovered something worse: the Death Ride. Now we were packed into closed cars like matches in a box, except that matches are allowed to lie down and they are given more room. The screams and laments of the half-dead passengers mixed with the foul air, whose stench, increasing with every hour, was worse than anything we had known thus far. After a while, it became unbearable. The stronger among us began to fight for room to move their arms and legs, but this only led to more wailing. We had begun to go mad… Several days later, the sealed doors opened. It is beyond human comprehension, but some of us were still alive to step out of hell into a paradise of fresh night air. We were in the forests of southern Germany. The air was still crisp and cold, but milder than in the east. As they marched us along, we inhaled the fragrance of the towering evergreens.”
The survivors of the death march had arrived in Bergen-Belsen.
“Bergen-Belsen, located in the midst of the woods, was not an extermination camp. It had no gas chambers, no towering chimneys, no stench of burning flesh. It was a self-liquidating camp, where inmates were allowed to perish of ‘natural’ causes, such as starvation and disease. Tens of thousands of people had been brought here, not for useful work or even meaningless drudgery; only to sit on the dirt floor, look around blankly, and wait for death” (Benisch, pg.381).
In Women and the Holocaust, Leah Weis-Neuman of Kosice, Slovakia, writes of her odyssey through the Nazi netherworld, beginning from her deportation to Birkenau and on to Breslau-Hundesfeld and Mauthausen: “The last stop of our journey was Bergen-Belsen. If we had had to endure only Bergen-Belsen, it would have been more than enough. If we had had to endure everything else that had befallen us, without Bergen-Belsen, that, too, would have been more than enough. But together, they were beyond human strength.”
When the British troops arrived on April 15, 1945, they found 60,000 survivors and 27,000 unburied corpses. Most of the survivors were too weak to greet the liberating army. Following liberation, starvation and typhus claimed about five hundred inmates every day for ten days.
A few weeks after their liberation, Rivka Horowitz, as spokeswoman for her friends, wrote a letter to the Jews in the free world. The following are excerpts of that letter (from Hidden in Thunder – Volume II, pg. 677, by Esther Farbstein):
I am writing to you from a remote town in Germany, where we have ended up after being in harsh labor camps. There is much to say on that subject, but I am leaving it for another occasion. This is not the time to tell you about all we have been through, and especially about what hell this life has been like for a religious person. But one fact should be asserted. The truth of the path of faith became obvious precisely amidst these experiences and torments. Equipped and suffused with deep faith, faith within the heart, one can make it through unbearable agony in life and remain pure. In a place where others diverged from the path of modesty, these people recognized its value and power. In a place where others rode roughshod over integrity and love, they sensed the importance of these values and felt what life is like without them. Therefore, religious Jews in the camps based their life on other foundations – and came out different, with something of their own. Most important of all, religious people did not lose control or their moral equilibrium. Unfortunately, only a few of them survived. The best, the elite, were burned in the crematoria; the few who were left were lost and shunted to various camps.”
This was the first of several letters written to the outside world. As the most dynamic member of the group, Rivka Horowitz became the spokesperson and authored the letters. On September 14, 1945, a letter written shortly before Rosh Hashanah was printed. The headline read: “What Are You Doing For Us?” She complains about apathy regarding the survivors’ fate and calls for immediate action in several areas. In her appeal from “a remnant of the broken Jewish people,” she demands empathy and a helping hand: “We don’t understand the ways of Divine Providence, but we are calling you to account and asking: What have you done and what are you doing for us?” Two months later, they held a general conference of Bais Yaakov survivors. The character and determination of these young survivors are a reflection of the chinuch that shaped these girls’ lives.
Of this group of ten young women, nine of them had attended the Bais Yaakov seminary in Cracow and had also served as group leaders or teachers in the movement. The girls had been incarcerated with their families in ghettos around Cracow. When the Cracow ghetto was liquidated in 1943, they were deported to the Plaszow camp, where seven of them worked in a sewing shop. In Plaszow, they formed a group, supporting one another like sisters, and it was there that they became known as the Zehnerschaft, a name that stayed with them from then on.
From Plaszow, they were deported to Auschwitz, where they maintained the mutual support group, a significant factor in their ultimate survival. They upheld the highest standards of morality in their behavior with other prisoners. Whenever possible, they observed the Yomim Tovim and managed to bake matzos for Pesach of 1944. They rescued one another during selections, supported each other on the death march, and, wherever possible, stayed in touch with other Bais Yaakov girls.
Sarah Schneirer’s guiding principle was “Bais Yaakov lechu veneilcha be‘ohr Hashem (Yeshayahu 2:5). Her protÃ©gÃ©s recognized their mission, assumed the mantle of leadership, and took the initiative in forming the first group for educational activity in Bergen-Belsen. Bais Yaakov classeswere soon opened in various DP camps, run by teachers from Poland and Bais Yaakov alumnae from Hungary and Slovakia.
From the DP camps, these young women departed to destinations all over the world and were instrumental in building institutions for chinuch habanos modeled after the example set by their great mentor. Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan a”h brought the Bais Yaakov movement to American shores and founded the first Bais Yaakov high school in the United States. The scores of Bais Yaakov schools flourishing across the American continent are a tribute to her memory. Every bas Yisroel alive today owes a debt of gratitude to the great aim b’Yisroel, Sarah Schneirer, the one individual who perhaps had the greatest impact on Klal Yisroel in the past century.
Dos Yiddishe Vort, the Agudas Yisroel newspaper edited by Joseph Friedenson z”l, who was niftar on Shabbos Zachor, was published in a DP camp in Feldafing/Munich from February 1946 until March 25, 1949. On April 2, 1946, less than a year after liberation, Dos Yiddishe Vort published a special issue in honor of Sarah Schneirer’s yahrtzeit. The articles addressed Sarah Schneirer, who was still very much alive in the hearts and minds of her students. The lead article was written by Rivka Horowitz and was titled “Du Lebst Mammeh – You Are Still Alive Mama!” “During the worst ordeals in the camps, we wrote on our hearts the verse, ‘Do not abandon your mother’s teachings – Al titosh Toras imecha’” (From Hidden in Thunder, Farbstein).
The article written sixty-seven years ago is still apropos. The mother of Bais Yaakov is very much alive in every mikdash me’at established by her thousands upon thousands of descendants. Sarah Schneirer’s neshamah basks in the ethereal glow of the kedushah emanating from all of those homes. In the Olam Ha’emes, du lebst mammeh!
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This article is dedicated to the memory of my righteous mother, Harabbonis Devorah Schick a”h. Her first yahrtzeit was marked on the 19th of Teves 5773. She, too, was a survivor of Auschwitz, Plaszow, and other concentration camps. She struggled to observe whatever mitzvos she could during those torturous years, and she sustained fellow inmates, encouraging them to persevere. She rose from the ashes, married, brought children into the world, and taught them to say, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod.” She is very much alive in my mind and in my heart, which carries the permanent inscription: “Al titosh Toras imecha.” I am comforted by the knowledge that she has bequeathed an everlasting legacy through her scores of descendants, all of whom are conducting their lives according to the mesorah she indelibly imbued in her offspring.
Du lebst mammeh!