Benjamin Bandosz

An Education in Defiance: the Bais Yaakov Movement during the Nazi Occupation

With the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, formal operations abruptly ceased in the Bais Yaakov school network in Poland. The schools, still closed for the summer holiday, did not reopen for the new school year. But Bais Yaakov did not thereby cease operations. Determined administrators, teachers, and students worked to keep Bais Yaakov alive, whether underground or in the open, throughout the Nazi occupation. 

Some of this story may be gleaned from Hillel Seidman’s brief biography in Ishim Shekarti (Personalities I Knew) of Yehuda Leib Orlean, who was serving as the director of the Bais Yaakov Seminary when the war broke out. In the first months after the outbreak of war, Orlean continued to work underground, corresponding with Bais Yaakov teachers throughout Occupied Poland alongside such colleagues as Asher Shapiro, Chana Landsberg, and others. In 1940, after a severe beating by German soldiers, he fled with his family to Warsaw, reestablishing ties with Bais Yaakov students and teachers in that city and given popular classes to such seminarians as Guta Eizenzweig (Sternbuch) and Rivka Alter, the Gerer Rebbe’s daughter, whom he had taught in the Krakow Seminary (Guta Sternbuch writes in her memoir of the powerful impression Orlean had made on her, leading her to embrace an Orthodoxy she was on the verge of abandoning). In April 1941, Adam Czernikow finally acquired permission to reestablish formal Jewish education and Bais Yaakov began to operate in the open. Orlean, Eliezer Gershon Friedenson, Alexander Zysha Friedman, Avram Mordechai Rogovy, and Yoel Unger reestablished the system in the city with five schools, two directed by Orlean, another by Friedenson at Nalewki 37, a fourth at Chłodna 17 by Rivka Alter (Chłodna was the street that divided the ghetto into two) , and a fifth by a female teacher whose name is recorded only as Ravitz. These schools were funded by the Judenrat, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the Self-Help Organization. With the mass deportations of July 1942 these schools closed. Orlean managed to evade deportation to Treblinka by acquiring a Paraguayan passport. But when Paraguay refused to recognize these passports, he was taken to Birkenau on Simhat Torah 1943, where he perished.

Warsaw, Poland, Girls eating in a Soup Kitchen in the Ghetto [Credit:]

Evidence of this activity also survives in publications of the period. On September 20, 1940, Gazeta Żydowska (the Jewish Gazette) published a short article about community efforts to feed and educate children in Warsaw. In eighteen Jewish schools that had been shut down, which included a few Bais Yaakov schools and seminaries, community kitchens opened, operated by teaching staff—and probably staffed with former students. These kitchens fed approximately 12,000 children from Warsaw’s Jewish community. Not only did children find some meager nourishment at these locales, but parents were also assured that teaching staff would look after their sons and daughters, who were provided with child care and (first in clandestine manner and then openly) an education. Representatives of Bais Yaakov were also integral to the establishment of the Alimentary Commission, the committee that supervised and operated these community kitchens for children. In all likelihood, Bais Yaakov teachers and students continued to focus on supporting and caring for young women and girls, ensuring they received not only food in trying times but also a sense of solidarity and belonging. The closure of its schools, camps, and seminaries thus did not halt the Bais Yaakov movement; former organizers, teachers, and students showed that the movement was more than just a school; it was a living collective of “sisters” that continued to grow and contribute to its communities.

When Jewish Councils and Municipalities pushed to reestablish schools in 1940, Bais Yaakov administrators and teachers were at the forefront of these organizational efforts. Members of Jewish Councils in Warsaw, Krakow, Radom, and other cities voiced the need for skilled tradespeople; demand for practical trades was obvious with the destruction in the wake of the 1939 invasion, though the occupying government was undoubtedly more motivated by the need for a skilled labour force to be exploited in factories, farms, and work camps. Bais Yaakov representatives, along with former educators from Tarbut, Shul-Kult, and Jawne, made direct appeals to the General Government in Warsaw to rebuild a school system for Jewish children. In contrast to the push for skilled trades training, the proposed school system would educate students in the cultural-religious spirit of Judaism. The languages of instruction would be Yiddish and Hebrew. This committee’s direct address to the Nazi General Government signals the Jewish community’s strength and boldness even in the wake of occupation, and its urgent desire to cultivate the next generation through an education rooted in tradition that was also revolutionary in its defiance.

Despite the insurmountable barriers and inhumane treatment the Jewish communities faced, the Bais Yaakov spirit persevered. Much like their founder, Bais Yaakov teachers and students went up against impossible odds to conserve and advance women’s education and status in society—even during wartime. In late September of 1940, just over a year after the Bais Yaakov seminary closed its doors, the Jewish Municipality of Krakow established a school system for children. One of the locales of the new school system was 10 Stanisława Street, which had hosted aspiring teachers throughout the interwar period. The reopening of the Bais Yaakov seminary’s doors the year following the Nazi invasion of Poland is a testament to the strength of the movement’s spirit. 10 Stanisława Street’s classrooms and hall may now have been filled with different teachers and students, but they surely knew the history of the building they were occupying. Bais Yaakov was officially dissolved at the very outset of World War II, but in these and other ways, the movement’s foundations in revolutionary activism and fearless defiance continued.

Sara Imejnu, the Graphic Novel

Just in time for her eighty-seventh yahrzeit, Sarah Schenirer is recognized for what she was–a SUPERHERO!

Krakow now has its very own Jewish, female comic book hero. Though her superpowers differ from Superman’s or Wonder Woman’s, her feats are no less astonishing and remarkable. Her will was stronger than steel, her vision powerful enough to change the course of history, and her convictions defied all odds. The graphic novel, Sara Imejnu, brings to life the revolutionary story of Sara Schenirer and her founding of the Bais Yaakov school system. 

Sara Imejnu is a collaborative effort between a trio of young educators: Olga Adamowska, Justyna Arabska, and Marcjanna Kubala. In their respective roles at the Jewish Community Centre Krakow, the MIFGASH Foundation, and Hillel Krakow, they share a common mission of educating Polish students and youth about the rich Jewish culture of Krakow and Poland more generally. In a recent Zoom conversation, Olga, who describes herself as a Jewish feminist, explained that one of the motivations behind creating the graphic novel was the need to portray the Jewish culture and history of Poland before the Holocaust, to show young Poles that the Jewish community was full of colour and life. While there is only one surviving photo of Sara Schenirer, the graphic novel’s detailed illustrations and dynamic backgrounds indeed animate a lesser known side of Sara Schenirer, showing readers how she, Bais Yaakov, and her Orthodox community were more than the black-and-white photos found in textbooks or museums. “You get to see Sara Schenirer at different ages,” says Olga. By sharing and illustrating the story of Sara Schenirer and Bais Yaakov, the graphic novel also shines the spotlight on women leaders in Jewish history and how their important contributions to the community ensured its growth and survival. 

Photo Credit Agnieszka Trajewka

Working in Krakow, the writers were constantly aware of how much Sara Schenirer was and continues to be part of the city. “Sara Schenirer is very much connected to Krakow, which is our city” explains Marcjanna, “the first Bais Yaakov school was in our neighborhood, where we go to work every day. I pass by this building every day on my way to work, so that is very inspiring.” The first Bais Yaakov teachers seminary was established on Świętego Stanisława Street right by the Vistula River, less than a ten minute walk from JCC Krakow. In the graphic novel, the Krakow scenes show a familiarity with the city’s landscape and its community, firmly situating Sara Schenirer and her revolutionary movement within her hometown. While the origin story of Bais Yaakov and its matriarch is well-known among the Orthodox community, the broader Krakovian and Polish public is largely unaware of their Polish roots. In showing the intimate connection between Sara Schenirer and Krakow, as well as Bais Yaakov’s growth in Łódź and Warsaw, the writers want the graphic novel to show how this revolution in women’s education is as much a part of Jewish history as it is Polish history, and vice versa. Having written the graphic novel in Polish, the writers hope they can bring Sara Schenirer into focus for the broader Polish community.

Sara Imejnu’s illustrations bring historical settings, histories, and characters to life. During the composition of the graphic novel, the writers knew it was crucial to find the right art and design to capture the exact places, communities, and customs of the era. More importantly, they had to find an artist that would capture the essence of Sara Schenirer and her vision of Bais Yaakov. After some searching, they came across the illustrations of Julia Naurzalijeva. Upon seeing her sketches, they all agreed, “This is Sara.” The soft, neutral colour palette effectively foregrounds the interpersonal dynamics between characters, which Naurzalijeva realizes with her organic line work. Whether the bustling streets of Krakow or the meditative Tatra mountains, the backgrounds animate the characters’ movement and dialogue. What is perhaps most striking in Naurzalijeva’s illustrations is the subtle detail of characters’ emotions. The singular facial expressions capture a deep range of emotion, reminding us of the human depth and intensity of the historical narrative: the dismissive glances in Sara Schenirer’s failed educational group for women; the fulfilling satisfaction that fills her first classroom; or the spiritual wonder and awe experienced in the Tatra mountains during an intimate observation of Lag BaOmer. Naurzalijeva’s illustrations truly bring the reader closer to Sara Schenirer. 

With the composition and publication of Sara Imejnu, Adomowska, Arabska, Kubala, and Naurzalijeva are beginning a new chapter of cultural awareness and education. Sara Schenirer’s mission of education is not only expressed through the pages of the graphic novel, the text and images continue her work by educating younger generations about their history, culture, and community. An English translation is slated to be published before the summer, which will undoubtedly herald the graphic novel’s spread throughout North America. When asked about other translations, the writers wishfully pondered the possibility of Yiddish and Hebrew editions in the future. Currently at the JCC Krakow, there is an exhibition featuring the graphic novel which runs until the end of April; its illustrations, along with a few other original pieces by Naurzalijeva, are framed and displayed with additional commentary. The release of Sara Imejnu is both a testament to the significance of Sara Schenirer’s herstory and a living expression of her vision’s continuing impact. On Sara Schenirer’s 87th yahrzeit, her memory continues grow and her story is reaching more and more people.

Benjamin Bandosz is a PhD candidate and 2017 Vanier Scholar at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature. He has published on literature, media, and political economy in Deleuze and Guattari Studies, Journal of Urban Cultural Studies, and Journal of Canadian Studies. As a translator, Benjamin has worked with multimedia subtitling, academic articles, and archival documents. His critical translation work focuses on Polish-language news media’s translations in diasporic contexts, namely their expressions of nationalism and conservatism.