Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Av 5763 - August 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Repaying a Debt

by Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

Early in the morning the large group marched through the trees, deep in thought. As they emerged into an open space painted the bright green that follows a European rain, their eyes fell on what seemed to be the cemetery. The hand of evil had struck here. Mute testimony echoing through the unnatural silence. Perhaps it was the blood of brothers rising up from the earth.

Plashov, a small town with low houses, is very close--almost adjacent--to Krakow. During the years of terror and fury a work camp was located here. The story of a goy who saved Jews is scorched into the very earth of this place and engraved into the collective Jewish consciousness. Oscar Schindler--a beauty mark on the face of an ugly world that raged and whose evil heart burst forth--took a stand here. He was a member of the Neo-Nazi Party who employed 1,200 Jews in his factory, and protected them until they were eventually saved from harm. The German beasts considered "his Jews" essential to the war effort and allowed them to live. By saving them physically, Schindler sustained entire worlds.

But the real success was the salvation of their souls. The souls of a whole generation and their descendants. Krakow was also the place where tzidkonis Soroh Schenirer a'h, an educator and a woman of greatness, set up families for generations to come. All of them were her daughters, including the subsequent generations. In the merit of her vision and deeds many Torah homes were established.

More than fifty years later a large group marched through the trees that have grown in this place. They came after decades to set up a memorial for a living soul. Their destination was the grave of a woman who passed away, but is not dead and gone; she continues to live in the generation's consciousness and spirit. Like a promissory note written in the days of horror and not yet repaid, a memorial was set up and a stone laid on her grave.

The cemetery of Plashov is better known as the New Cemetery of Krakow. Gedolei Olom lie in the old cemetery, but Soroh Schenirer, despite her fame and the esteem in which she was held, asked to be buried with the masses. Humble in death just as in life.

Suddenly, in the place that looks like a green forest--in stark contrast to the cemetery--a new, black marble stone juts up. It has been engraved with gold lettering. The stone is cold, but the heart beats warmly.

The group streams in slowly and the people gather together. The paths here are almost never trod, except by the occasional Pole taking his dog for a walk. The image of a man with his dog invariably sends a chill down the spine of any Jew. And when the man and his dog pass by in Plashov, the place that was once home to a work camp and now a cemetery, memories of bygone days flash and the pain of old wounds throbs again.

The ears fill with the noise of shouts, barking and threats. The Holocaust is still here. These are not Nazis, but perhaps they were their accomplices. You have no way of knowing who among them lent a hand to the terrible nullity you are now witnessing. The earth is cursed. Plants root themselves deep into the bloody ground. Roots are the closest thing a man has. Always . . .

The Project

It all began a few years ago with the tremendous project run by Mrs. Ronny Cohen, who ran a network of volunteers at the homes of people living alone and at retirement homes run by Agudas Yisroel of America. During a visit to Eastern Europe she went to the Plashov cemetery, which had not faded from memory even though almost nobody sets foot there. In fact the only part of the cemetery regularly visited is the Chevra Kadisha building, which local goyim transformed into a house.

There are no signs or markers in the burial area, only weeds and trees. An entanglement of malignant growth climbs across many of the graves. Neither does any sign of Soroh Schenirer, who had no children, remain. Without any family members nobody thought to set up a gravestone.

Here began a dedicated campaign by a woman who saw herself as Mrs. Schenirer's talmidoh even across several generations. The woman made a decision to collect money to restore the gravestone that once stood over the grave. Thus a campaign to research, document and record testimony from around the world was launched.

Mrs. Cohen, who has now completed her mission, met with Soroh Schenirer's surviving former students. Archives were scoured. Perhaps because of the outstanding educator's standing, a bit had been written about her that could lead to other information. Perhaps there was some indication of what had appeared on her gravestone, for not one of her former students could remember a single letter.

Frau Schenirer passed away on an erev Shabbos, the 26th of Adar Alef 5695 (1935), shortly after visiting one of her students. Perhaps she sensed the end was near. She lit candles earlier than usual and left for the Olom Shekulo Tov. The event was deeply engraved in the heart of the talmidoh. But what was written on the gravestone she was unable to recall.

Carrying It Out

R' Moshe Skozhwolcz is an elderly man residing at a retirement home in Flatbush, New York, who was also on the list in the search for testimonials. He was born in 1914 and had been a talmid at Yeshivas Tinkov until he fell into Nazi hands. While performing forced labor he was sent to break the gravestones of the cemetery.

From an emotional standpoint, this was one of his most difficult tasks. But his fear of the gun barrel and the irate face of the Nazi holding the gun overcame his resistance. Coming across a large gravestone he began to read the lettering, he recalled, speaking into a camera documenting a life of trial and tribulation. His voice trembled, even after all these years. Soroh Schenirer was engraved in stone and he felt paralyzed. His body did not respond. The sledgehammer dropped from his hands.

The Nazi began to shout at him. When the Jew capitulated and brought down the sledgehammer, it broke as it struck the stone. The Nazi overseer went into a frenzy. As his anger grew the Jew took another sledgehammer and swung. The hammer smashed down on the gravestone and broke. The stone remained whole, refusing to surrender. After several further attempts yielded similar results the Nazi soldier became so incensed he totally lost control and fell upon the gravestone, which eventually shattered onto the ground. And when the gravestone was finally desecrated, hearts broke with it.

But here the old man's memory came to an end. The shattered wording on the gravestone was not recorded in the frightened man's memory. Even the passage of time, which allows him to regard the scene from an outside observer's perspective, does not allow him to recall.

Rav Shneur Leiman, a talmid chochom and a historian with years of experience researching and documenting cemeteries in Eastern Europe, was recruited to take part in the effort. He had precise testimonials on the location of Frau Schenirer's gravestone. Despite ground movements, Rav Leiman invested tremendous efforts in the task of identifying the exact location. With the assistance of Rav Shodrik, the rov of Warsaw and Lodz, who confirmed that the land was owned and run by the kehilloh, the efforts began to take shape.

Putting Up the New Stone

When the date of Frau Schenirer's petiroh was engraved on the new, black marble gravestone an idea was conceived to erect the gravestone on the same date, which fell on an erev Shabbos this year just as in 5695. But Adar is not a particularly amenable time of year for such endeavors in Poland. The frosty weather and frosty hearts are covered with a layer of ice, much like the hearts of those who destroyed the gravestone. The earth does not yield to the diggers' pickaxes. The technical difficulties prevailed and hopes had to be deferred. But not for long.

During the winter the stonecutters etched away at the black marble gravestone. With no knowledge of Hebrew the workers had to employ a system of codes. The number "1" stood for alef, "2" for beis, etc. To them the writing was totally meaningless, which made the work prone to error. Rav Leiman had to proofread again and again, watching over the chiseling from start to finish. He remained alert throughout, with the care of a doctor.

Two weeks ago a delegation arrived from the US and Eretz Hakodesh, a trip organized by the heads of Neshei Agudas Yisroel of America and the United Neshei Agudas Yisroel of Eretz Yisroel, Mrs. Grund, Mrs. Goldberg and Mrs. Halpert. When they passed by the seminary of the city of Krakow the building itself told the whole story, all the twists and turns along the way from the incipient idea until its fulfillment. And from there, on to the cemetery.

The Unveiling

Kaddish. After over sixty years a voice echoes through the trees. Yisgadal veyiskadash, Shmei Rabboh. Omen. The pleasant melancholy of Keil Molei Rachamim consoles the consolers. "Ima Soroh," echoes the voice of Rav Yeshayohu Lieberman, and his voice touched an exposed nerve. For all of the ladies are the daughters of Soroh the educator, who had no biological children of her own. She is also the mother of bnei Torah, for in her merit they have somebody with whom to build a Torah home. She is mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of generations past and future, explains Rav Lieberman, eulogizing her. Then the floodgates of tears burst open.

The Nazis, may their names be blotted out, shattered the stone. But the real memorial did not yield to the shattering iron for it lives on in the hearts of many. Her testament, part of which was written in stone, breathes in Torah centers around the world. And thus read the new gilded letters etched with an emery nib: "Here lies the modest and righteous woman, Moras Soroh bas R' Betzalel Schenirer, wife of Rav Yitzchok Landa, a Jewish mother, the founder of Bais Yaakov schools . . . "

In her will she asked that the verses constantly on her lips always remain in the hearts and mouths of her students and their students.

"I close with my old verses: Shivisi Hashem lenegdi somid; Ivdu es Hashem besimchoh; Reishis chochmoh yiras Hashem; Limnos yomeinu kein hoda; Toras Hashem temimoh meshivas nofesh."

And the black stone goes on to tell visitors, "The gravestone was destroyed in the years of fury and re-erected in 5763."


A simple visit to the New Cemetery of Krakow-Plashov struck a chord in the heartstrings and set into motion a private initiative that gained momentum - - and has now come to a close. A large gravestone stands alone. A very nice- looking gravestone.

Had the tzidkonis been asked, based on her elevated middos, she certainly would have refused.

But this stone was built for our sakes, not hers. As a landmark on the road map of a nation, as a gesture to the spiritual mother of all her daughters. A necessary show of gratitude.

Now the debt has been repaid.

A Conversation with HaRav Yeshayohu Lieberman, Director of Mercaz Beis Yaakov in Eretz Yisroel

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

Those were times of ideological revolutions. The Bund and Zionism, followed by the Communist Revolution. Before us were the Revisionists and behind us the cursed Enlightenment, and all of these developments wrought destruction among our sons and daughters, Rachmono litzlan. Every home and family witnessed the rips and tears. Parents stand with gaping mouths wondering what can be done. What will be?

The late writer R' Elimelech Shteier penned the following:

Young men and women with hopes hovering in the air/ Between the Bund and Zionism dreams were woven on paper/ The forbearing and distressed fathers/ Bore on their backs the whole weight of Golus/ And the modest mothers bearing endless pitchers of affection/ Became oh-so-far away and foreign and suddenly hated/ "The children are getting lost," felt the father and mother in dismay . . .

And at that time, as she heard the rov at a beis knesses in Vienna call on bnos Yisroel to follow in the footsteps of Yehudis the heroine, she felt a stab in her heart. "Indeed these words apply to me," she thought. "Women must act heroically to save Am Yisroel."

Maran baal the Avi Ezri zt'l once told me a fundamental principle in education: One's entire lifetime could be spent with the goal of producing the mother of Rashi Hakodosh. Imagine what would have happened if Rashi's mother had never been. The world would not have had Rashi, chas vesholom, and how could the world have existed without Rashi?

This must be the approach of each and every individual involved in the world of education. Every girl is capable of being the mother of the world's tzaddik and godol hador.

During these days when darkness shrouds the earth the secular school system is collapsing, Rachmono litzlan, and moral decline is apparent everywhere. (And we are well-aware that we must pray to the Borei Olom that they open their eyes and speedily return to Torah and mitzvos.) The secular education system has failed from humanistic, social, cultural and moral standpoints. Drugs, violence and abominations are their lot. Now it has been shown that their studies and scholarship failed as well.

Limudei kodesh have long since been forsaken and the Jewish festivals were forgotten, leaving them only with the sciences. Reading comprehension and foreign language studies have also been a slap in the face for the national leaders and the heads of the secular school system, which has failed miserably and disgracefully, taking 31st place among 41 countries. The Am Hasefer has transformed into the Am Hadomeh Lechamor.

At this time the Bais Yaakov education system must awaken and defend itself and, as the apple of our eye, maintain the path set by gedolei Yisroel. Tze'i loch be'ikvei hatzon and know that only by keeping the embers burning can we safeguard our place.

Maran the Rosh Yeshiva said if the Mishnah at the beginning of Ovos had continued listing in detail the conduits of Torah since Sinai--Moshe kibeil Torah miSinai--down to the present generation, the teachers at Bais Yaakov would also have been listed.

As I stood beside the gravestone of Moras Soroh Schenirer o'h, I felt that we are merely the conveyors of a holy deposit. Hashem Yisborach graced Am Yisroel by giving us His Torah, a hidden treasure. And this was the message the deceased, o'h, would present to us so we would know it at every hour of every day, particularly during times of trial and tribulation.

I concluded the remembrances I delivered beside the gravestone in Krakow as follows:

"Avrohom Ovinu was called `Ho'Ivri' because the whole world was on one side and he was on the other. `We daughters of Israel are Ivriyos,' wrote Rav Alexander Zusha Friedman, Hy'd. `Ivriyos forever we shall remain.' "

That was your way. While the whole world, including the best homes and families of Eastern Europe, had come to terms with the gymnasia and agreed with the gentiles' culture and hollow slogans, "You, Mother Soroh, did not agree and did not come to terms."

Today we must also realize that we are different. While the goal of the designers of education and the government in Israel is to put a limit to the fabulous flourishing of Bais Yaakov schools and to lead us to modernism and changes-- although within their own spheres they have failed to reach any attainments in education, culture or even knowledge and science-- besiyata deShmaya we will maintain our own goals: an education for Torah, yir'oh and middos tovos. And we will accomplish it through dedication and with the guidance and direction of gedolei Yisroel, from whom we will not veer left or right.

In the fierce debate now taking place with the heads of the Education Ministry over the future of the Bais Yaakov and seminaries' education system and their purpose, we should review what Moras Soroh Schenirer wrote to my father, Rav Hillel Lieberman, when he founded the Bais Yaakov school in Jerusalem 70 years ago. In Elul 5694 she wrote from Yardenov:

" . . . Please be aware that Bais Yaakov schools do not aspire to provide the students with a great deal of knowledge, but rather a great deal of spirituality, a great deal of enthusiasm for mitzvah observance and a great deal of middos tovos.

"Beis Yaakov schools aim to engrave on the hearts of bnos Yisroel an iron seal of love and yir'oh for the Borei Olom, for His mitzvos and for the great Jewish tradition."

And how shall we bring this to fruition in the face of those plotting to do evil? According to Chovos Halevovos the verse, "Mayim amukim eitzoh beleiv ish, ve'ish tevunoh yidlenoh" means that water wells deep underground and all it takes is for man to come and remove the dirt and clay from the wellspring. "Ve'ish tevunoh" refers to gedolei hador who know how to draw the water out from beneath the dirt and clay.

We will walk in their light.

A Conversation with HaRav Zeev Wolf, Director of the Bais Yaakov Seminary of Bnei Brak

by Binyamin Y. Rabinowitz

In his book Hatekufoh (under "Chinuch" p. 32) my father zt'l, wrote, "Certainly the project in whose founding Maran the Chazon Ish zt'l participated and which Maran the Brisker Rov zt'l aided and Maran HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l, backed constantly--who is even worthy of praising it?"

This was how he described Chinuch Atzmai.

Although the Bais Yaakov Seminaries are not formally tied to Chinuch Atzmai, they are an integral part of chinuch that strives to be "atzmai."

Schools for girls in Frankfurt and Telz preceded them, but it was ordained from Above to leave a place for Moras Soroh Schenirer o'h to leave behind as her legacy to all of Am Yisroel a Bais Yaakov school in every place.

The history of Am Yisroel teaches us that in every generation there are certain tasks HaKodosh Boruch Hu assigns in advance to certain individuals. Soroh Schenirer, it seems, was among those HaKodosh Boruch Hu assigned a task that benefited Am Yisroel throughout all generations.

Bais Yaakov was founded on the solid foundations of gedolei Yisroel. Without the enthusiastic support of the Admor of Belz zt'l, who was the first to be asked about the idea, and the Chofetz Chaim and other gedolei Yisroel, Bais Yaakov would not have the right to exist.

Therefore to answer the question of what these gedolim would have to say about today's Bais Yaakov, we will ask the gedolei Yisroel with us now, for only they know how to convey the opinion of gedolei Yisroel from past generations. Bais Yaakov's goals of providing an education in middos and yiras Shomayim have certainly not changed or diminished.

Soroh Schenirer was gedolei Yisroel's delegate and their trustee to carry out the exalted task of saving bnos Yisroel from the ill winds of her period, which is also the task of the people in charge of the education of bnos Yisroel today, wherever they may be.

Our existence today is in the merit of the gedolei Yisroel throughout the generations, from Avrohom Ovinu o'h to our own generation. Even if we are unable to define the purpose of each of the gedolei Yisroel ever since Am Yisroel became a nation, clearly each of them has an effect on us today, beyond what we learn from their seforim. Similarly, all those to whom HaKodosh Boruch Hu assigned a spiritual task in Am Yisroel are alive and with us today.

Soroh Schenirer's spirit is alive and with us at Bais Yaakov today, even if we do not know how to delineate in what way we feel her spirit. Her merit will stand by us, and as Chazal taught us, "Monuments should not be made for the dead. Their words are their memorial."

Sewing Spiritual Clothing

Moras Soroh Schenirer was born in Krakow, one of the centers of Chassidus in Poland, in 5643 (1883). The terrible poverty and austerity in which most Polish Jews lived, the antisemitism that constricted the Jews economically, and the Enlightenment calling for freedom and equality, all worked to drive many young Jews out of the beis medrash.

Nonetheless, at least the educational system for boys was developed. Education for girls totally lacked foundations and infrastructure. Although for generations girls had stayed home and learned Torah and mitzvos from their mothers, now they were no longer content with their status. The outside world enticed them, whispering in Polish, German and Russian. Enlightenment and money. The daughters of the rich amused themselves with high "culture," but most of the girls-- including Soroh Schenirer--came from impoverished families and had to start working at a young age.

During her childhood drawn to Jewish books in Hebrew and Ivri taitch, regularly studying Ein Yaakov and Tzenoh Ur'enoh, Nachalas Tzvi and Chok LeYisroel. While her friends were playing games, singing and dancing, Soroh was busy studying. Her clear mind extracted a moral lesson and yiras Shomayim from everything she encountered.

In her diary she writes, "In Vienna, I had a chance to see a parade to mark sixty years since the Kaiser assumed the throne. I saw fabulous sights, splendor and magnificence that defy description, and the masses nearly trampled me. What a display of veneration for a man of mere flesh and blood and bones with a body destined to disintegrate into dust, just like the poor, miserable beggar. But the Creator commanded us to honor earthly royalty. A special brochoh was even formulated to say over a king. This must be to teach man . . . [that] All the more so [man] should honor the King of Kings, Who sees all of His creations, Who knows all thoughts and nothing is concealed from Him . . . Take a look and see how our girls pray . . . "

Due to financial strain on the family, Soroh had to work as a seamstress. She would often repeat the saying of Rav Hirsch of Riminov, "A tailor's apprentice was I. All my days I would try to mend old clothes and not ruin the new ones."

"But here the new ones come out defective," she thought. "How much effort is invested in the pattern, the dye . . . Do young ladies take such pains over their spiritual clothes? Is their spiritual clothing tailored to fit their inner selves?" And then she made a resolution: Spiritual clothing has to be sewn for bnos Yisroel. Clothes that will fit the spirit of the times externally, but raw material that comes from pure sources.

Soroh Schenirer soon gathered together 25 young girls (the numerological equivalent of the word "koh" in the verse, "Koh somar leBais Yaakov") and began to teach them Torah and yiras Shomayim in her home. On the door she hung a sign reading, "Here we teach girls limudei kodesh."

This brilliant, yet simple, idea earned the support and approbation of the Torah and Chassidus greats of her day, including the Chofetz Chaim and the Admor of Belz. HaRav Meir Shapira of Lublin developed the idea further and set up a seminary for teachers, to allow graduates to complete pedagogical studies in order to disseminate the Bais Yaakov concept throughout Europe.

* * *

It is the last Friday of Soroh Schenirer's life. Her skin yellow as an ancient manuscript, she suffers in silence. But she wants to pray and ask forgiveness for the sins she may have committed. She asks the student whose turn it is to serve as her helper to pour water over her hands. With awe and reverence the girl pours water over the withered hands. Suddenly Soroh Schenirer's weary face lights up and she tells her student, "I see you've learned the laws of netillas yodayim well!"

Hours pass and Shabbos approaches. With the last of her strength she says, "Just as you say a brochoh over good, you say a brochoh over . . . " but she does not complete her sentence. She lights Shabbos candles early and with a cry of, "Tatta helf mir! (Father, help me)" her pure soul departs.

The girls restrained themselves throughout the entire Shabbos, not shedding a tear. They just sat quietly and spoke of the deceased's greatness. And when Shabbos was over the cry of bereavement burst forth. The personal bereavement of every one of her thousands of students and the sense of loss among thousands of Jews from Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia-- everywhere her schools had been set up.

Soroh Schenirer's Will

Since one does not know his day [of death], how much time he will have the merit before HaKodosh Boruch Hu to influence -- and every day he gains more awareness of Hashem's Torah in order to elevate Beis Hashem and to strengthen its foundations --

And [therefore] now I turn to you, all Bais Yaakov teachers, "Bnos" madrichos and members, "Batya" madrichos and members, and all of the Bais Yaakov students and all bnos Yisroel who want to be worthy of this appellation --

Boruch Hashem all of you know that man's sole purpose in this world is to serve the Borei Yisborach "with all of one's heart and all of one's soul" . . . And therefore I call upon you, Bais Yaakov teachers: May all that I practiced be holy to you . . .

When speaking of matters of utmost importance [i.e. marital prospects] display your true Judaism. Do not take note of his material state, but rather thoroughly probe and inquire to determine whether he is a true yirei Shomayim and if he is a ben Torah. I hereby ask all of you to focus all of your attention on this matter. It goes without saying that all of you will cover your heads, of this I am sure . . . and whoever wants to bring me nachas by wrapping a kerchief on the sheitel will be blessed. And Hashem Yisborach will bless all of you and shower upon all of you Jewish nachas and may you merit generations of true Judaism.

And now I further ask that you do not hang--lema'an Hashem--my picture, i.e. my photograph, anywhere. Not at school and not at home. My greatest wish is for my girls to carry me with them in their hearts. And whenever a worthless idea to commit any transgression comes to mind, may the picture of me in your heart appear and remind you: "It is forbidden for me to do this . . . "


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