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.

Heroines of the Bais Yaakov Journal

The story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls from the Krakow Teachers’ Seminary who committed suicide rather than be taken as prostitutes by German soldiers is well known in Orthodox circles. But before it was created, perpetuated, and commemorated in various ways, there were other stories of virtuous women that taught young Orthodox girls how to become good Jewish women, wives, and mothers. Reading the Bais Yaakov Journal, I was often struck by the extravagant if not impossible ideal that was presented to young women: these were stories that recommended that they not only live a Jewish life, but also be prepared to die a holy Jewish death. 

The story of Odl in issue 58 (1930) of
Bais Yaakov Journal

One of these stories about a “holy martyr” who died “a terrible death” in order to “sanctify God’s name” is the tale of Odl, published in prose in Issue 58 (1930), and as a ballad in Issue 110-111 (1933).  It is the story of a woman from Lemberik (known as Lemberg, and today as Lviv), which took place in 1718. Odl was a bright girl with the best of qualities, from a good wealthy family. She was married off by her father to a promising young scholar, whom she financially supported so that he could devote his time to learning Torah. But the Christians envied her business successes, and they crafted a plan incriminating her in a blood libel: on the eve of Passover, they bribed her Christian maid who helped them enter the home, where they planted the body of a dead Christian child, and claimed that Odl had killed the boy. She was sentenced to be dragged around the city by horses until she was dead. Her final request was just for a few pins: Odl’s act of devotion to God was to pin her dress to her legs, so that even while being dragged through the streets her dress will continue to cover her legs, thus keeping her dignity and modesty intact.

This same story, it should be mentioned, appears in a slightly different form in I.L. Peretz’s story, “The Three Gifts”, where the secular writer ironizes this tale of ultimate sacrifice by having the angels who collect the pins after the girl’s death pronounce them as “useless” but beautiful.

1945 staging of Peretz’s The Three Gifts [From the New York Public Library]

But there was nothing ironic about how the story was retold in Bais Yaakov, not only in the interwar period but afterward, as well. The grotesque and pious story may have left an impression, as well, on the unfortunate young woman who (it seems) threw herself out of a high window in the Krakow Seminary in the autumn of 1934. One piece of evidence reported by the Polish Jewish press suggesting that she had committed suicide rather than had a terrible accident is that the body was found with a dress wrapped around the legs, as if, even in the extremity of her emotional situation, the young woman still upheld the archetypal Bais Yaakov value of modesty. Read our blog post about this incident » 

The Jewish holidays were also an opportunity for the Bais Yaakov Journal’s writers to tell tales of virtuous women, some of whom were also martyrs. In issue 49 (1929-1930) Hanukkah becomes a time to commemorate the story of Hannah, who sacrificed her seven sons “al kiddush hashem”. Hannah encouraged them not to give up their Jewish faith, even at the cost of their lives, and she watched them being murdered in front of her eyes. Hannah claims (as she does in rabbinic literature) to be more righteous than Abraham: while he sacrificed one son to God, she sacrificed seven. 

It is maybe worth mentioning that these tales were written by men (by Y. B. Mandelbaum, Israel Emiat, and Moshe Tzinowitz accordingly) and addressed young girls, teaching them the values they should aspire to. These stories saddened me, suggesting that the male writers of the Bais Yaakov Journal saw women only through the lens of their bodies, praising them only for their sexual modesty, or valuing them only for these extreme acts rather than their everyday virtues. But then I read the story of “Dina the Great”. This piece, published in issue 60 (1930) written by Benjamin Zisman, tells the story of the “Rebbetzin of Brisk”. Dina was born to a wealthy orthodox family and was recognized as a bright child from an early age. Her father encouraged her to learn, and she was determined to prove that she was as smart as the boys, composing a beautiful sermon (drasha) for her twelve birthday. As an older woman, she was appreciated for her good heart and charitable ways. She was a good wife, but her husband died young, and she became a young widow. Dina took her fate into her own hands and decided she should become Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel’s second wife. She wrote him a letter in Hebrew, impressing him deeply. Although he had vowed not to remarry, when he met this remarkable woman, who cited rabbinic passages on why they should be wed, he changed his mind. Thus she secured herself the mate she desired by her intelligence and knowledge.   

The story of Odl in issue 58 (1930)
of Bais Yaakov Journal

The story of Dina, unlike the first two, offers young girls and women a different role model. Women, too, might be judged for their intelligence, along with their devotion to God and good deeds. More strikingly, a woman can decide whom she would like to marry and propose to a man. And she can do all that without paying a terrible price for such forthrightness. The Bais Yaakov Journal, that is to say, did not speak in only a single voice on what it meant to be an admirable Jewish woman.

Ka-Tsetnik as a Yeshiva Boy: Yechiel Feiner’s early writing in the Bais Yaakov Journal

Among the many writers of the Bais Yaakov Journal, one name caught my eye – Yechiel Feiner. Feiner was famous—even infamous—as a writer, but under another name at a different time. But that was only after the Holocaust, when he settled in Israel. As a refugee immediately after the war ended he used the name Karl Zetinski, and later in Israel he officially changed his name to Yechiel Di-Nur, but published his works under the pen name Ka-Tsetnik 135633 (KZ is Yiddish for Prisoner of a Concentration Camp, and 135633 was his prisoner number at Auschwitz). These books are controversial: criticized by some as “pornographic Holocaust fiction” for their grotesque violence, lurid sexual scenes, and cannibalism, they are also defended by others as capturing something of the horrors of the Holocaust that no other writer had.

Finer as a young man, before the war (Raviv, Erez, 16.7.2021, Davar)

Feiner only published one book of poetry before the war, in 1931, when he was a twenty-two-year-old star student at the famous yeshiva in Lublin. When he found the volume in the National Library of Israel after the war, he borrowed it, tore it to pieces, and sent its remains back to the library with a hand-written letter; he confessed to burning his book, and sent cut-outs from it as the remains, asking the library manager to “Burn it. Like my world and everything dear to me, was burnt in the crematorium of Auschwitz”, and by that asking the manager to become an active participant in his act of destruction. But this book of poetry, it turns out, was not his entire prewar literary output. Among the other articles and short stories that fill the pages of the interwar Bais Yaakov Journal, as I discovered, are four short works of prose written by him. These short stories were written around the same time Feiner published his volume of poetry, appearing between 1930-1932. In them, one can gain a unique glimpse of a (then-Orthodox) writer in the making.

His first piece published in the journal in 1930 (issue 52) is titled “A Children’s Tale: Red Flowers,” and presents a disturbing story, made only more disturbing by the fact that he dedicates this bloody “children’s” tale to the Bais Yaakov school in Proshovitz (perhaps Przeworsk, which did have a Bais Yaakov in 1930).

The cut outs sent by Di-Nur to the National Library of Israel
(The Librarians, National Library of Israel, 17.7.2018)

Once, while strolling, the narrator arrived at a beautiful garden, with beautiful red flowers. The flowers had a powerful and marvelous scent, and he became drunk from breathing the air. Suddenly he realized that the flowers were nourished by the gardener’s blood, and not by water. Upon inquiry, the gardener explained he lives for the flowers, for their beautiful smell. The gardener, the creator of beauty, lived for his creation and paid for it with his own blood. The moral of the story is clear: Feiner, the poet, sees himself as that gardener, who pays with blood for his creation and lives for its beauty.

Feiner, with his tendency to Romanticism, continued to publish writings that are full of pathos. In issue 67-68, also published in 1931, Finer contributed an essay on “Art and Criticism”. In this piece, he discusses the creative process and reveals his reaction to the role of literary critics. Finer uses two metaphors to describe the heart of the poet: the heart is the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and the heart is a blue sea, whose turbulence is often hidden from others. The poet’s power of imagination, which creates worlds and burns brightly, is the most “powerful feeling of a creative period”. And then comes the critic, with his logic and lack of imagination, and he cannot understand the poet’s work, he cannot enter the Holy of Holies (kodesh-hakodashim) and behold “the olive oil that burns in the menorah in the poet’s soul”. It is possible that this piece was written after the publication of his first book of poetry, which did not achieve the critical acclaim he hoped for and believed he deserved.

What is so striking about these 1931 works by a young religious poet is not only the slightly overheated and romantic views on literature and poetry – the poet is close to God and pays for his art with his very blood. Even more so is that that Feiner took a sacred image, of the Holy Temple and its sacred inner precincts, and used it for a more secular set of ideas about art, imagination, and the misunderstood artist. Of course it is also remarkable that the Bais Yaakov Journal was happy to publish such work—evidence, perhaps, of its generally open attitude toward young Orthodox artists and writers, even ones as strange as Feiner. It also serves as evidence that Feiner’s lurid imagination, which he described as a product of his Holocaust experiences, may have already been operative in that period before the war, though in much less extreme form.

A video of Feiner at the Eichmann trial »

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 »

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.

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.