Naomi Seidman

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?     

Did Bais Yaakov and Sarah Schenirer Revive Tu Be’Av?

Do a quick Google search on Tu Be’Av, and two sorts of material will appear. The first describes a festival dating back to late antiquity, in which, according to Mishnah Ta’anit 4: 8, “On these days [the 15th of Av] the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none. . . . The daughters of Jerusalem would come out and dance in the vineyard. What would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. . .”

Along with this ancient matchmaking festival, we might also learn of the revival of Tu Be’Av in modern Israel, as a Jewish Valentine’s Day, or festival of love. The Orthodox world, in Israel and beyond, has also taken up this day as a “Global Day of Shidduchim,” in which great rabbis pray, without charge, for unmarried men and women to find their mates.

Girls and boys in Israel on Tu Be'Av
Tu B'Av Together - Global Day of Shidduchim 2020

But the Bais Yaakov Project archives tell another story: Tu Be’Av, it turns out, may have been first revived in the modern period neither by modern Zionists celebrating romance nor by Orthodox organizations praying for “shidduchim.” The Bais Yaakov Journal Issue 4, year 3 (1926) reports that the summer of 1926 saw local celebrations of Tu Be’Av throughout Poland. The newspaper describes the numerous correspondents who wrote in to the office of the Bnos (the youth movement associated with the Agudah and Bais Yaakov) to report on how they had celebrated the day and to express “the outpouring of joy awakened by the revival of this traditional historical women’s holiday.”

That this was not a one-time occurrence in 1926 but a regular feature of Bnos and Bais Yaakov life is evident from other writings, including by Sarah Schenirer, detailing how this old-new holiday might be celebrated, and clarifying its meaning for the Bais Yaakov movement. One participant in a Tu Be’Av ritual led by Sarah Schenirer herself provided a rich description of the 1932 celebration in the woods of Skawa, a village thirty miles south of Krakow where the seminary students were spending the last summer before they left for their assigned teaching posts.

The celebration of Tu Be’Av, in Hodo Movshowitz’s retelling, involved a moonlight hike in the woods, with 115 students and teachers walking hand-in-hand behind their leader and guide, Sarah Schenirer. After some difficulties, a bonfire is lit, and a student gives a talk, followed by Sarah Schenirer, and then the girls and women rapturously and prayerfully sing and dance, an experience of great mystical meaning.

Tu Be’Av was revived in Bais Yaakov as a “traditional historical women’s holiday”; the student who spoke to the group around the bonfire explained its meaning, according to the description, as “the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women.” The ecstatic dancing was done not before the eyes of prospective mates, as in the Mishnah, but rather, Movshowitz stresses, with no one watching. Tu Be’Av was celebrated in Poland by Orthodox Jewish girls and women, alone in the woods with their God, their guide, and each other.

Below is the article that appeared in the 1932 issue of the Bais Yaakov Journal, translated by Frieda Vizel.

Tu Be’av 1932 in Skawa

written by
Hoda Movshowitz
[Nowogródek, Yiddish Navordok]
Teacher in Sokolov

Skawa

Evening. The sun is about to set. It is already on the other side of the linden trees [1]. (Yes, the trees of Skawa, you will remain in our memory for a long time!) And suddenly it occurs to me: why does the sun hide behind these giant trees every day before it sets? Does it hide behind these enormous trees to prevent people from seeing the last few moments of its day? Maybe it doesn’t want people to see the impressions it has witnessed of all human deeds — is that why it reddens so with shame, and hides its face among the enormous trees?

But I can’t be lost in thought for long. The sound of some exalted mood reaches my ears and rouses me from my speculations.

All the seminary girls are standing in front of the villa, ready for our excursion. We count a hundred and fifteen, and I too am among them.

And so we set out.

Frau Schenirer at the head. One hundred and fifteen of us go step by step, hand in hand, along the path, Frau Schenirer first among us, our guide. Our hearts beating with extraordinary joy, we follow in the steps of our leader and flag-bearer.

The sun is already completely gone. A star-speckled sky is above us. The glow of the moon illuminates our path.

And we walk and walk, but to where? Our great leader is before us, and we follow her lead.

Finally, we reach a forest. It’s pitch dark all around. The trees obstruct even the bright glow of the moon.

Suddenly, the center of our group lights up. “Campfire!” we pass the word from ear to ear. A flash of light, and then it’s pitch dark again. Something over there doesn’t want to burn. The bonfire doesn’t want to start. Our teachers busy themselves with it, to no avail. Some of us despair, but not those in charge of lighting fire, who keep on working with their bundle of twigs. They work with all their energy, lying flat on the ground with their faces close to the spot where a tiny spark still flickers. There they add a bit of their own life force and, finally, they’re successful and the fire catches.

Soon a large fire is burning in the center of our circle, almost like the Jewish fire which we kept burning for so long, deep in our hearts.

It’s quiet. No one dares to speak out loud, to break the silence, to interfere with what we are all feeling. Who? Every one of us! Because we are all experiencing something tremendous—you can see it in our eyes. . .

And then someone does break the silence. Who speaks? One of the students, who begins to give a talk. She speaks and each of her words rings out and is echoed back by the trees.

She speaks of the meaning of the fifteenth day of the month of Av, about the holiday that belongs to us, to young Jewish women. The mood is serious, even sad, as she finishes.

Again a silence lasts for a long time. From time to time we hear the crackle of the burning twigs. And suddenly we hear the voice of Frau Schenirer. All eyes are now focused in one direction, and with great anticipation we listen to the words of our great leader.

Her eyes and the features of her face are sunken in the firelight, but her voice rings out: “And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings” [Leviticus, 6: 5]. And she draws a picture to help us understand what this means. In the desert among the camps of Israel, the tribe of the Levites, and in their midst the tabernacle and the altar on which a fire burns that may never go out. This fire was sent by God himself to the altar. So was this divine fire not all that was needed to burn the sacrifices? But no, every morning the priest would add some wood. The divine fire can only burn for us when we have such divine priests who guard it, who feed the fire without cease, who add firewood without tiring of it. Only then can we be sure that the fire will always burn on our altar. And then, no power in the world can extinguish it.

And after a short silence her voice rings out again. “Many waters cannot extinguish love” [Song of Songs, 8: 7]. Every person has within herself an altar. The heart of each person is a temple, and the fire that burns of its altar is the “Fear of God” and “Love of God”. God starts off this fire on our altar. But we have to guard this spark, to blow on it again and again, without tiring.

And again there is silence. All eyes are turned to the fire. Meanwhile it burns; dry twigs flame out on the ground. Our eyes are burning, too, and maybe something else as well, something invisible, in a secret place, a small and hidden flickering flame. No question about it — each and every one of us knows this about herself, without the slightest doubt.

And suddenly we hear again the familiar voice; “Let the children sing!”

And so we sing. Suddenly we are so overcome with the urge to sing that no power in the world can stop us.

“There is none like our God!”

We sing. Quietly at first, and then louder and louder and from the middle of that song, the tune of a deep prayer rings out:

“Cleanse our hearts so we can serve you in truth!” And ever more beautiful and stronger grows the song, until we are no longer singing — this is a fervent prayer!

And it continues for another minute or two, until some extraordinary longing overcomes our soul, and out of our hearts tear the words “Next year in Jerusalem!”

The tune grows stronger, more emotional, more prayerful. The fire in our eyes grows brighter, more radiant. We add wood to the fire and the flames leap up. We can no longer sit still, we rise. Everyone wants to dance.

And so we dance.

Alongside us dances our leader, Frau Schenirer. Hand in hand with us, together. We dance, we can no longer see anything before our eyes. Our eyes close, our souls pine for something, everything around us disappears. It is so good… Our feet dance of their own accord. And so we dance, strong, stronger, even stronger still.

The dancing lasts for a long, long time, and still dancing we return from the woods. And still we dance. We dance as we accompany Frau Schenirer home, and only later do we ourselves go to sleep.

***

That was the fifteenth of Av, 1932, in Skawa. A year has already passed since then. We have dispersed, each to her own way. But did the bonds we forged then slacken? No, a thousand times no!

We hold each other by the hand, united in one organization, united just as we were then, as we danced out of the woods with no one seeing us. We are each and every one of us deeply connected with the rest, even as each of us works in our own circle.

[1] In old Slavic mythology, the linden (lipa, as called in all Slavic languages) was considered a sacred tree. Particularly in Poland, many villages have a name “Święta Lipka” (or similar), which literally means “Holy Lime”.

Bais Yaakov Journal article about Tu Be’av 1932 in Skawa, page 2
Bais Yaakov Journal article about Tu Be’av 1932 in Skawa, page 1

?האם שרה שנירר ובית יעקב הקימו לתחייה את ט”ו באב

חיפוש מהיר של צמד המילים “ט”ו באב” מעלה שני סוגים של תוצאות. הסוג הראשון עוסק בתיאור תקופה קדומה בתולדות עם ישראל ובה בנות ירושלים היו יוצאות לכרמים לחפש להן חתן (תענית ד, ח). התוצאות מן הסוג השני מתארות את תחייתו של פסטיבל השידוכים התנ”כי בישראל בימינו אנו. אם כ”יום האהבה” המזמן חגיגות ומסיבות, ואם בתפיסה אורתודוקסית – ולפיה ט”ו באב נתפס כ”יום השידוכים העולמי” ובו נישאת תפילה שרווקים יזכו למצוא את בני זוגם במהרה.

חיפוש מהיר בארכיוני פרוייקט “בית יעקב” מעלה תוצאות שונות בתכלית. ט”ו באב, כך מסתבר, קם לתחייה מחודשת בקיץ 1926 שבו נערכו לראשונה חגיגות מקומיות של החג ברחבי פולין (כתב העת “בית יעקב” גיליון 4, שנה 3). כתב העת מתאר בהרחבה כיצד הגיעו כתבי חדשות מקומיים למשרדי “הבנוס” (תנועת הנוער של בית יעקב ואגודת ישראל) לסקר את האירוע. החגיגות תוארו כ”שמחה אדירה שהתעוררה בעקבות תחייתו של חג הנשים המסורתי”.

זאת ועוד, נראה כי חגיגות ט”ו באב בשנת 1926 לא היו אנקדוטליות בלבד, אלא אירוע מתמשך שאירע אחת לשנה. מסמכים אחרים, כולל כתביה של שרה שנירר מתארים במפורט כיצד יש לחגוג את החג החדש-ישן הזה, ומבהירים את משמעותו עבור תנועת בית יעקב. בשנת 1932, כך עולה מיומנה של אחת התלמידות, נחגג החג ברוב שמחה בהובלתה של שרה שנירר עצמה ביערות סקאווה, כשמונים ק”מ דרומית לקראקוב, באיזור שבו נפשו התלמידות בסמינר קיץ זמן קצר לפני שפנו לעבודה כמורות. תיאור מרגש נוסף נמצא בסיפורה של הודא מובשוביץ על ט”ו באב שבו היה ליל ירח מלא, ושרה שנירר הובילה 115 תלמידות בשיר ובתפילה. הטקס כלל הדלקת מדורה, נאומים, שירה וריקודים. הטקס מתואר כהתעלות רוח מיסטית של ממש.

מכתבים אלו ניתן לממוד כי ט”ו באב קם לתחייה בבית יעקב כ”חג הנשים המסורתי”, התלמידה שתיארה את הלילה התייחסה אליו כ”חג השייך לצעירות היהודיות”. הריקודים, הגם שלא נעשו לנגד עיניהם של בני זוג פוטנציאליים כפי שמדגישה מובשוביץ, נחגגו ברוב עם, בקבוצות של נשים יהודיות אורתודוקסיות, עם המדריכה הנערצת וזו עם זו. נראה כי משמעותו של ט”ו באב כחג נשים השייך לצעירות יהודיות לא רק שימש כגשר בין המסורת והכתבים היהודיים לבין מציאות חייהן של הנערות, אלא גם הוסיף נדבך של שייכות קבוצתית וגאוות יחידה למורות לעתיד, שתפקידן כמנהיגות רוחניות בקהילות יהודיות היה קריטי באותם ימים בפולין.

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. Naomi’s book was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award’s Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity category and a winner in the Women Stud­ies category.

Ways of Looking at a Class Photo:
The Photo as Mystery

It might seem that the classroom photo is as simple, transparent, and conventional as a photograph can be. Its arrangement, with the students ideally all visible and facing forward, the teachers arrayed at the side, the board that acts as a caption for the class and school, is designed to convey straightforwardly its own identity.

The photo the gifted Polish photographer Agnieszka Traczewska emailed to me this week conforms in some ways to this pattern. Although it depicts students outside, sitting at food-laden tables, its identity as a school photo is evident: the school—Bais Yaakov of Lublin—is signaled in three different ways:

  1. Behind the welcome sign (perhaps greeting a visiting delegation of men) children hold up a banner that reads “Bais Yaakov of Lublin”;
  2. at the bottom of the photo, another pair of girls holds up a board that specifies in black on white that the photo was taken at the Bais Yaakov of Lublin summer colony in Zaklików on July 23, 1933;
  3. a third handwritten note conveys the same information in a superimposed box at the right of the photo.

But the straightforward information conveyed in the board and banner and text box cannot resolve the mysteries posed by this photograph.

While we are fortunate to have the date on which the photo was taken, and even the name of the studio (Studio Victoria, in Lublin), the photo also has a history that transcends that single flash of the photographer’s camera: the photo has at least two trajectories, one to a newsroom in which the board appears in white on black, and another to an archive, in which it appears in black on white.

From the Lubliner Tugblat, August 1933

The text box at the right in the newspaper version is in Polish in the newspaper, and in Hebrew in the archival version of the photograph. The archive in which it appears is the Ghetto House Museum: apparently the photo was taken to Palestine in 1937, when a student who appears within it emigrated. While the newspaper photo is clearly a reproduction, it also may capture an earlier moment in the photo’s history, with the Polish rather than Hebrew handwritten description. Which, in such a case, is “the original,” which a copy?

The photo, taken in the open air, shows young girls seated at two tables, with a series of adults ranged around and behind them. Perhaps at least some of these adults are visiting for the day, as the Bruchim haba’aim banner implies. But who are they? Parents? Agudah activists? Administrators from the school in Lublin? Is that a nurse on the left, charged with the health of the children in an era with high rates of malnutrition, tuberculosis, and other diseases linked to urban poverty? Beside her stands a man who is clearly not part of the “rabbinical” group, but rather a worker in the camp—a cook or baker, perhaps, from his work uniform? We know that photos were sometimes appended to reports to the Joint Distribution Committee or other funding organizations, and these often showcase food bought with donated funds, or the healthful effects of the outdoors on city children. Does that explain the food piled before the children?

The photo has a companion that gives us a few more clues, but also raises new questions.

In this photo the group is arranged in an apparently more conventional pose, arrayed in rows against the side of a wooden building, with the youngest seated on the ground in front and all facing the photographer. Perhaps the photographer gave the girls instructions, because many in the front row hold their arms crossed before them in a similar pose. The mustached man at the left in the previous photo, so strikingly different in appearance from the other men, appears again, now at the right.

But the uniformity of the rows and the similarity of the poses are deceptive: Unlike the front row of young children, the rows above are messier, more diverse, and harder to categorize. Unlike the crossed arms in the front row, hands reach out to touch others in no clear pattern, two heads lean toward each other in companionship.

[The baker (or cook?) drapes a casual arm around the shoulders of a teenaged girl, who leans softly into him; in the other photo, she is seated with her group (seventh from the bottom on the right side of the right table). Are they related?] EDIT: As pointed out by Jewish Book Finds and Akiva Yasnyi on Twitter, the hand on the girl’s shoulder is a left hand, making it impossible to be the  baker/cook’s hand.

A tangle of arms connects a group in the middle, of men and younger and older girls. A younger girl reaches back to hold hands with an older one. A man in the middle of the photo holds a smiling young girl between his knees, while an older girl rests her hands on his shoulders. Do these linked hands and easy touches represent family relationships within the relationships that govern schools or camps?

Fortunately, we have some information about at least three of the people in these photos, including the girl three down from the middle of the sign with her hands resting on the shoulders of the man seated in the row below her. As the Ghetto Fighters House Archive tells us, she is Bluma Cohen (later Hajdenkrug), and he is her uncle, Yaakov Mincberg; Bluma was raised by this uncle along with his wife Sara—after Sara died in 1934, her uncle raised her alone. Bluma’s cousin, Chana-Hinda Danziger, is seated third from the left in the first row of seated girls, in a shirt with three black buttons (she is also at the top of the left table in the other photo). Bluma moved to Palestine in 1937, when she was 17, and it may be her hand that wrote the Hebrew words appended to the table photo. The uncle who raised her, whose shoulders she rests her hands on, was killed in the Holocaust. But as with so many of these photographs, we do not know the fate of the others pictured.

Like the night sky, the photo yields other details with longer viewing. In the right background of the archival photo of the children at the table (this isn’t visible in the blurrier newspaper reproduction), there is a figure who seems to have been scratched out. A ghostly hand is raised above the scratch marks, as if signaling for our attention, like an interwar photobomber. Below the scratches is a pair of child-sized pants. Who is he (if he is a person, and not a garden gnome or figment of my imagination)? And who scratched out the image? Was he scratched out because as a boy he didn’t belong in this picture of Bais Yaakov schoolmates and their caretakers? Or do the scratch marks reveal and conceal a more personal animus? Was it Bluma who scratched it/him out?

A photo records a moment in time, and yet these photos record multiple moments in time. Not only that July day but also the date a few weeks later it appeared in a newspaper, the date it was packed into luggage for an overseas voyage, the date it was labeled and relabeled, the date it was scratched out, the date it was transferred to an heir, the date it ended up in an archive, and the date I received it from another Polish photographer, and the date it comes back—like a ghost—in this blog. 

Each of these is a transformation, like the black-on-white or white-on-black naming of the school.

For those of us who have a scrapbook full of Bais Yaakov class photos, these photos that have escaped the general destruction of interwar Bais Yaakov are fascinating for their familiarity and for their differences. The casual touches among men and girls are among these differences, which hint at a different social order than the one I experienced in Boro Park. 

But if they cannot fully capture the world of interwar Bais Yaakov, answer all our questions about what that was like, they can give us glimpses of this world, even—maybe especially—when they seek to obscure these experiences.

This post was updated on May 12, 2020, to reflect the correct information for the newspaper in which the photo appeared. Many thanks to Adam Kopciowski, who made the connection between the newspaper and the archived photo.

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. Naomi’s book was a finalist in the National Jewish Book Award’s Edu­ca­tion and Jew­ish Identity category and a winner in the Women Stud­ies category.