Jews have long been referred to as the “People of the Book.” Centuries ago, when only the Upper Class would be taught to read and write, we conducted ourselves differently, and even our young were taught to read and write. As a book lover myself, I take great pride in this appellation.
On Tisha B’Av, along with the kinnot mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, there is one kinah, #41, entitled, “Shali Srufa B’aish”- Seek (O Torah) Consumed by Fire. As explained in the ArtScroll Tisha B’Av Kinnot, in the year 1242, 24 cartloads of the Talmud and its commentaries were publicly burned. Please note that this happened two hundred years before the invention of the printing press. Each of those volumes had been handwritten, taking months, even years, of tedious labor and at huge expense. What a calamity this was, for we are the “People of the Book.”
What is amazing is that even under terribly difficult circumstances, this passion for our holy books, our sefarim, never waned. Despite the severe economic hardships, the harsh climate, and constant worry over family members in Europe, the refugee yeshiva students in Shanghai spent the war years seriously engaged in their studies. They used sefarim that had been reprinted from those few carried along to Shanghai from Poland, or sent to them by supporters, particularly Rabbi Kalmanowitz in New York. In an amazing instance of hashgacha pratis, Shanghai, hosting 25,000 Jews by the end of the war, actually became the center for the printing of Jewish books. While books being printed in Europe were done through typeset, a novel, more progressive form of printing had been introduced in Shanghai, offset printing, which proved to be a quicker and more economical process. In fact, survivors who made their way from Shanghai to America after the war reported that sefarim were printed in Shanghai to be shipped to America!
Ms. Fayga Brisman, Development Director of Amud Aish Memorial Museum, shared with me that her grandfather, Reb Shimon Brisman, had been a printer in Shanghai. A former student in Baranovitch and Grodno, he escaped together with the Mirrer Yeshiva bochurim, to safety in the East. With a partner, another Yeshiva student, Reb Berish Mandelbaum (who later became a librarian at Yeshiva University), they established a successful printing plant. Ms. Brisman points out that the depth of scholarship in Shanghai was quite remarkable. Each yeshiva had its own imprint and arranged for the printing of designated sefarim. Reb Brisman, a veritable scholar, eventually made his way to America and became the chief librarian of the Judaica library at UCLA.
The Mirrer Yeshiva was based in the
, built by Silas Hardoon, one of the wealthiest members of Shanghai’s Sephardic Jewish community. The existence of this shul was quite miraculous. Years earlier, Mr. Hardoon dreamt that he should build this edifice. The shul was completed in 1927 and remained empty, unused, until the Mirrer students arrived more than 10 years later and the glorious echoes of Torah learning reverberated through its very walls.
At the first siyum celebration held in Hongkew, Rav M. G. Kagan shared the following, “Jewry, despite its 2,000 year old exile and martyrdom, notwithstanding the heavy suffering and hardships of its dreary life in exile, in spite of thousands of years of tragic wanderings – exists and lives, builds and creates! The Jewish spirit lives in every branch of life and the Jewish heart palpitates everywhere.”
Rav Yaakov Yosef Hakohein Zabare zt”l of Yerushalayim, passed away just a few months ago in the month of Tammuz. He was among the last of the “Alter Mirrer.” At his levaya, many referred to the 5½ years he had spent in Shanghai, together with several hundred Talmudic students. Rav Zabare used to point out that although many of the students became ill with typhoid due to the oppressive heat and lack of proper nutrition and sanitation, not one succumbed to the illness. Their entire existence in Shanghai had been totally out of the norm, above nature. The humidity was so intense that they would cover the pages of their Talmud with plastic and wrap towels around their necks to prevent their sweat from dripping down and soaking the pages. The learning was intense, passionate, occupying every waking hour. There was only one volume of the “Ketzos” available for the entire yeshiva. They would take turns studying from this holy sefer. Rav Zabare’s designated time slot was 3 am. Because of the curfew, he could not walk the streets at night, and so he would spend the entire night in the yeshiva, sitting over his beloved sefarim. This was the world of Shanghai, 1942-1947.
Fishburn Books, based today in Golders Green, England, in 2011 published a listing of sefarim that had been printed in Shanghai. It contains 102 items, including several that are very rare. Among the texts were volumes of the Talmud, Code of Jewish Law, Yore Deah of the Shulchan Aruch as well as rabbinic journals publishing the novella of the rabbinic students, and works of mussar and chassidut. Several of these volumes have introductions that reflect on that particular historical era.
Students of the Lubavitch Yeshiva living in Shanghai were in touch with their Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson who was in New York then. A group of Lubavitcher chassidim established Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim in Shanghai and in 1943 arranged for the printing of Derech haChaim, the Tanya, and Lekutei Devorim.
Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, established by Rav Meir Shapiro in prewar Poland, also had a presence in Shanghai. They arranged to print the Sfas Emes along with Chidushei Mesechto M’Seder Kodshim, together with Mefitsei Or, in 1943.
An interesting footnote: Masechet Yevamot was not printed in Shanghai. According to Reb Moshe Lieb Weiser, the Mirrer Yeshiva was learning Yevamot at the time they fled from Europe and so they had their own copies. Among other volumes printed we find the Mesillat Yesharim, Chachmat Adam by Rav Avraham Danzig, Shitah MeKubetzes, Ketzot HaChoshen, Chidushei haRamban, Sefer Charedim, Gur Aryeh, Netivat Olam, Nefesh HaChaim, Tomer Devorah, Chovot Halevavot along with many others.
It is quite remarkable to note that whilst so many of our brethren were being tragically slaughtered and tortured in Europe, the Talmudic students in Shanghai were strongly engrossed in their studies, and printing these volumes to help spread further Torah scholarship. The yeshiva students and their rabbanim realized how awesome this was, and gratefully acknowledged the hand of G-d that enabled them to continue to learn and produce these sefarim in the middle of the Holocaust.
Besides Bais Ahron, accommodating the Bais Medrash students, there were also schools set up for the younger ones. There were two Jewish schools along with a Bais Yaakov that eventually had over 160 girls attending! The Bais Yaakov began as a Shabbos afternoon Bnos program that evolved into a full day school program. The girls were taught by noted mechanchos: Reb. Chana Gorfinkel, Reb. Basya Safran, Reb. Chaya Bluma Hellman, and Reb. Yenta Mannes, former students of the legendary Sarah Schenirer. These women were committed, passionate and took their responsibility very seriously. As was stated, “Everything created throughout so many generations is now in ruins and along with it the glorious Bais Yaakov movement. But will the work of our mother Sara Schenirer really come to nothing? We, a group of teachers and friends of the Bais Yaakov movement, who were torn from our homes by the stormy waves of war and tossed to distant Shanghai, declare, No! We must establish Bais Yaakov schools here in the same pattern as the Bais Yaakov’s in Poland…”
The Amshinover Rebbe, Rav Simon Shalom Kalisz, also played a major role in the Yeshiva world that existed in Shanghai. He served as a wellspring of fortitude and spiritual strength for the refugees, especially for the chassidic students.
What a glorious people. Steadfast, proud, strong and unwavering in their beliefs and in their commitment to Torah.
Epilogue: With this essay, our review of the Jewish community of Shanghai during the war years comes to an end. We have covered quite a number of topics, hopefully providing our readers with a window into this unusual, diversified community living in a most exotic, often difficult setting. Amud Aish Memorial Museum is now setting up a new exhibit, and together, we will explore further new and varied aspects of the Holocaust experience. Researching these topics along with penning these essays has been an eye-opener for me. I hope your experience has proven to be as rich and as worthwhile as mine. Thank you for joining me in this journey.