Naomi Seidman

Remembering Sarah Schenirer in the Gazeta Żydowska

The brief article in the Gazeta Żydowska marking the seventh anniversary of Sarah Schenirer’s death, on Adar 14 (which fell on March 3 that year) is not unusual in itself. The writer, Chaim Storch, praised Sarah Schenirer’s remarkable accomplishments, her travels and speeches throughout Jewish Poland, the impression she made on parents mourning the increasing distance of their daughters from the spirit of Torah, the maternal warmth with which she embraced these girls and young women. All of the points he made are familiar enough from the encomiums by which Sarah Schenirer was remembered in interwar Poland and in the various Orthodox publications that arose after the war. What distinguishes this ode to the founder of Bais Yaakov is the context of its publication in March of 1942, deep into the Holocaust. What do we make of the appearance of such an article, familiar in what it says, shocking in what it doesn’t say, under the catastrophic conditions of that place and time?

Sarah Schenirer⁩

To understand this article requires recognizing that Gazeta Żydowska was a Jewish propaganda magazine that appeared two or three times a week from July 1940 to August 1942, under the aegis of the Jewish Councils (Judenräte) of the ghettos of Krakow and Warsaw, under Nazi supervision. But while it published deceptive articles about, for instance, “the sanitary care of the Jews of Krakow” during the very periods of mass deportation, the magazine was also permitted a relatively free hand in publishing literature and articles on social and cultural matters, as long as these kept up a façade of compliance and normalcy. Along with this article about Sarah Schenirer, Storch also published literary pieces in the journal. In this case, too, he seemed to be walking within the line drawn by the censors: Storch spoke about Sarah Schenirer’s accomplishments without mentioning that her schools had been shut down in many locations but also occasionally managed to operate underground; that her successor at the helm of the movement, Yehuda Leib Orlean, had been severely beaten in Krakow and fled to Warsaw, where he was tended by Bais Yaakov teachers; that Sarah Schenirer’s slogan—quoted in the article—“Worship God with joy”—was undergoing existential challenges that she could hardly have imagined.

Was he nevertheless suggesting that some of the love of Torah that Sarah Schenirer had inspired in her students was also manifesting itself in spiritual if not physical resistance? Michal Shaul argues that the fascination with Sarah Schenirer was a feature of post-Holocaust life, when she functioned as a bridge between an irretrievable past and a broken future, for an orphaned generation. But this article is evidence that she was present, on the pages of a Jewish magazine, in the ghettoes, as well. What did she really mean to Storch and his readers, at that moment? The pages of the magazine, produced under the censorship of that period, cannot tell that tale. And Chaim Storch cannot tell us: The database of Holocaust Victims at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum lists his place and year of death only as 1942, Lwów, seven years after the woman he extolled, and perhaps a month or two after he extolled her.

Gazeta Żydowska, no. 34, 1942, page 3

Gazeta Żydowska 1942 – full translation

Gazeta Żydowska, no. 34, 1942, page 3

Author: Ch. (Chaim) Storch

The Exemplary Jewish Woman

(on the anniversary of Sarah Schenirer’s death)

The 14th of Adar was the anniversary of the death of a monumental Jewish woman – Sarah Schenirer.

Many of us will probably not recognize this name, many of us may not know that such a woman existed. She did exist, though, and she touched the hearts of Orthodox Jews, the hearts of thousands of Jewish girls. The figure of Sarah Schenirer is a symbol of eternal holiness.

Who was she and what did she achieve? How did she earn her place in our memory? For she did indeed earn her holy place!

In small, provincial towns, in bigger Jewish settlements, among the broader Orthodox community, she continuously lived and worked, visiting innumerable places, where she gave her speeches and sermons, gathering young Jewish girls around her and creating for them the Jewish school system, Bais Yaakov.

At a time when assimilation, which was rampant in that period, was tearing away the Jewish youth, when older parents watched as their children slowly distanced themselves from Judaism, a solitary Jewish woman appeared on the scene—small, alone, and humble, yet she voiced a call to action. With simple yet passionate words, she addressed these parents. These words were filled with heart and fire. And when she spoke, tears rolled down parents’ faces. What she said moved them – because she ceaselessly laid out the path of how to raise their daughters in the Jewish spirit.

She showed them the way and kept guard.

She taught many Jewish girls, stoking the spark of the Jewish spirit in their souls. And in educating them, she enveloped them in a maternal love, as though they were her own daughters.

Thousands of children – Jewish girls – raise their hands to the heavens with the name of their mentor on their lips : Sarah Schenirer. She left us, but her work remains. In the hearts of thousands of children the fire of learning and faith brightly burns.

Today, when we try to keep alive the spirit of Jewish youth, we repeat her favourite words: “Serve God with joy!”

Seven years ago, one of many thousands of Jewish women departed from us, but her example will be in the hearts of Jewish mothers and of the whole community.

The Earliest Bais Yaakovs in North America

Among the strange aspects of researching Bais Yaakov is that it is much easier to understand its early history than figure out what it is today. Bais Yaakov lacks a central office or archive, and many of the schools have no online presence. While I was able to see lists of schools in archival material from the pre-Holocaust era, the researchers at the Bais Yaakov Project are using not only the usual methods of Google searches and digital archives but also—and ironically—more old-fashioned methods like word of mouth and interviews with people who have some knowledge of this more recent history.

Every once in a while we get lucky, finding a researcher who knows the terrain intimately and knows how to find what they don’t already know. Frieda Vizel, who leads a walking tour of Hasidic Williamsburg (which is how I met her), is one such person; see her website at She knows Williamsburg inside and out, and understands where to find the history that is no longer present on the streets. Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg has a special status in Bais Yaakov history, the only school on North American soil that was founded under the umbrella of the Krakow Central Office, with a director, Vichna Kaplan, who had been a prized student of Sarah Schenirer. Despite the difficulty of establishing the school, it got off the ground and spawned many other Bais Yaakovs. But while Bais Yaakov was once part of the Williamsburg Jewish landscape, it has barely left a trace, in a community that aligned itself increasingly with Hasidic groups who formed their own girls’ schools. But those traces of Bais Yaakov remain, for those who have eyes to see. Frieda put together this beautiful walking tour, more virtual than the one she usually leads. But in it, the past comes alive. We hope you enjoy it.

View the Tour »

Bais Yaakov, My Mother, and Me

A few days ago I visited my mother for the first time since the pandemic began. On previous visits, we’d pull out the Scrabble board and play a game or three. But since I began to research Bais Yaakov, we’ve pulled out my mother’s old photo albums instead, and gone over what to me is her fascinating story in Bais Yaakov. My mother, Sara Abraham (later Seidman) was born in 1922 in Turda, a town in the Transylvanian region of Romania. She attended a coeducational Jewish school, and only had her first experience of Bais Yaakov in 1938, when she attended the Bais Yaakov Seminary in Czernowitz (then Romania, now Ukraine), which was founded in 1935 as the third of the Bais Yaakov teachers’ seminaries. Instruction was in German, and many of the teachers were refugees from Nazi Germany. She remembers one fellow student from Italy, who told her about her father doing research in the Vatican Library.

She also remembers that the students were required to be outside, walking, each day after lunch, however cold it was. In this photo, you can practically see the shivers.

My mother made a dramatic escape from Czernowitz the day in 1940 the Soviets invaded the city, with another five Bais Yaakov girls on the last train out. One of the teachers pushed some money into her hand as she was packing, telling her that it was for the rest of the year’s tuition, even though the semester was nearly over. Back in Turda, she immediately opened a Bais Yaakov school to serve the towns’ girls and, when the Jews from surrounding areas were sent to Turda, those displaced girls, too.

She also ran a Bnos youth group, and was the leader of a large group of children and young women, some older than she was. She was paid as a teacher, but the money went to feeding the refugees breakfast, for many of them their only meal of the day. Each year on her birthday, a photo was taken of her surrounded by these students.

After the war, my mother worked at another Bais Yaakov, in the Displaced Persons camp at Föhrenwald, Germany. She was also involved in the Bnos in the DP camp. It was there that she first met my father, Hillel Seidman, who was touring the DP camps on behalf of Agudah. This was also the camp where my mother reconstructed a Hebrew textbook from memory, using the back of German military requisition forms because paper was scarce.

My parents met again a few years later in Paris, where my mother had gone to found yet another Bais Yaakov and try to acquire a visa that would allow her to join her parents in New York. One photo shows the school preparing for the visit of my father, apparently a distinguished speaker. Others show my mother taking her students on class trips, or spending the summers with them in the countryside, in a town call Fublaines.

In 1949, my mother spent the summer at the DP camp in Bergen Belsen, hoping that she might have better luck acquiring a visa from there. This photo shows her with one of the two Bais Yaakovs in the camp, the one that served Hungarian students (rather than Polish ones).

That fall she attended the Neshei Uvenos Agudath Israel in Antwerp as the delegate from France. This was the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the women’s organization in 1929, and the first time it had met since the war.

A few months later, my mother finally got her visa, a teacher’s visa, sponsored by the Bais Yaakov of Williamsburg. In 1950, she married my father in New York, and continued her involvement with the school system that had so shaped her life.

Suicide or Accident:
A Tragic Mystery at the Krakow Seminary

Among the new offerings in the relaunched Bais Yaakov Project website is a section devoted to Polish press coverage of Bais Yaakov in the interwar period. But what can we discover about the movement from Polish articles, as opposed to what we learn from the Hebrew or Yiddish press, or Bais Yaakov’s own journal? The first article that turned up in a search, by the BYP member Charna Perman, was a report about the apparent suicide of a student at the Krakow Seminary, an event that understandably caught our attention and that was not reported in the Yiddish or Hebrew press. Click here to see the original newspaper article (on page 15), Benjamin Bandosz’s translation of the article can be found here. The student, who was from Romania, was described as having been distraught the night before leaving the seminary, as “obviously despondent” when she arrived, and asking to sleep on the fifth rather than third floor. It was true that neither her family nor anyone at the school knew any more details about what might have been troubling the young woman, but the first article made it seem likely that she had indeed committed suicide.

Even more thought-provoking was a follow-up article a few days later, which declared the investigation into the shocking event (which included an autopsy) closed. Click here to see the original article on page 14  The investigators had determined that it was impossible to know whether the girl had jumped out the seminary window or rather accidentally fallen. With both possibilities in play, the investigation was inclined to allow for a tragic accident, rather than continue to suppose, as at the outset, that this young woman had committed suicide. As evidence for this second possibility, the writer mentions a key piece of evidence: the dress that had been wrapped around the girl’s legs, although she was wearing a nightgown. This dress allowed the investigators to suggest a scenario for a tragic accident: Miss Winter (we never learn her first name) had been shaking out or dusting off her dress out the window when she fell. No doubt such an explanation came as something of a relief to the school administration, which might be charged with psychological neglect, and to the parents, who could now legitimately bring their daughter to Jewish burial, something denied to suicides. Perhaps the girl’s fellow students, too, preferred to mourn a shocking accident than recognize the presence in their midst of such grievous psychological pain. And the newspaper, which tended toward social conservatism, might also have preferred to propagate the less sensational alternative, even if they followed the investigators in first entertaining one and then another possibility.           

The investigation saw the significance of the dress in helping construct a scenario for an accidental fall. But reading that article as someone steeped in the culture of Bais Yaakov, I interpreted that dress differently. Might this dress signal that even in the extremis of the act of suicide, this Bais Yaakov girl was working within the framework of tsnius, the cornerstone of Bais Yaakov culture then as now? Was she ensuring that even in her death, her legs were not exposed? If this was a suicide, it was one that operated within the bounds of Bais Yaakov culture, leaving that world without also transgressing its values. Every life is a mystery to others, and those who surrounded this seminarian were unable (or unwilling) to describe her private pain. But in her unwillingness to expose her naked legs (if I am reading that detail right), the Bais Yaakov girl who jumped out the seminary window (if indeed it was a suicide) both covered herself from exposure and gave us a glimpse into her most intimate thoughts.

Naomi Seidman is the Chancellor Jackman Professor of the Arts in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow; her 2019 book, Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition, explores the history of the movement in the interwar period.

Remembering the 93

The story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls from the Krakow Teachers’ Seminary, who killed themselves rather than be taken as prostitutes, appeared in the New York Times on January 8, 1943, about six months after the events described in the letter were supposed to have taken place. By February of 1943, news of this event reached the Land of Israel, where mass meetings were held, poetry was written, trees were planted, and streets were named in honor of the martyrs.

The story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls from the Krakow Teachers’ Seminary, who killed themselves rather than be taken as prostitutes, appeared in the New York Times on January 8, 1943, about six months after the events described in the letter were supposed to have taken place. By February of 1943, news of this vent reached the Land of Israel, where mass meetings were held, poetry was written, trees were planted, and streets were named in honor of the martyrs.

Beginning in the 1950s, a scholarly consensus has developed deeming this event a pious fiction. Mysteries nevertheless remain: Who wrote the first letter, purporting to be from Chaya Feldman, one of the 93 girls (this letter is sometimes called “The Last Will and Testament of the 93 Bais Yaakov Girls)? And who wrote the second one, by a purported eyewitness named Chana Weiss, which appeared in 1947 and lent dramatic detail to the events that had been missing in the brief first letter? Why would these letters have been written?

The fictional status of these events does not void their historical interest. On the contrary, the letters and the reactions they provoked are an important part of Bais Yaakov history, Orthodox Holocaust memory, and Jewish experience in the 1940s. Naomi Levenkron, for instance, has shed light on the group that sponsored the commemorations in Palestine, “The Committee for the Defense of the Honor of the Jewish Daughter.” This group arose not in response to the reports about the 93; it was already in existence, as a response to the scandals of the secular Zionist street, particularly Jewish prostitutes with Arab customers, and Jewish women who consorted with British colonial officials. For Bais Yaakov to ally itself with forces fighting Jewish prostitution was not a new phenomenon. In 1927, Leo Deutschlander, the chief administrator for Bais Yaakov in the Agudath Israel, attended a conference of organizers against the International White Slave Trade, the sex trafficking rings in which Jews were overrepresented as pimps and prostitutes; at the conference, he found valuable support for Bais Yaakov precisely as a bulwark against such travesties. In that respect, the Tel Aviv Committee was just continuing an old alliance.

In the weeks to come, we will present more documents about these events and their commemoration, in the original Hebrew or Yiddish and in English translation. In the meantime, we are presenting the commemorative booklet published in the summer of 1943, in honor of the 93—this publication was called for at the mass event described in the booklet.

As always, we are curious to hear from Bais Yaakov graduates and others about your responses to this story. Had you heard of the 93? Did this story figure in your education? What do you think it teaches us about Bais Yaakov?