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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?