Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Sign in Tel Aviv

Rechov Hatishim V’Shalosh (“Street of the 93”) in Tel Aviv was approved by the city’s Name Committee after Bais Yaakov and Agudat Israel leaders successfully petitioned the Committee to honor the memory of the 92 teenaged Bais Yaakov girls and their teacher who were captured by the Nazis and committed suicide rather than be used as “comfort women” (a disgusting term, if ever there was one) to be raped by Nazi soldiers.

Headline of New York Times article: “93 Choose Suicide Before Nazi Shame.” “Jewish Teacher and Students in Warsaw (sic) School Foil Plan to Force Prostitution.” “Women Provide Themselves with Poison and Pray as they Await Germans’ Arrival.”

The story begins on July 27, 1942, when 92 students aged 14-22 and their teacher who were studying together at the Bais Yaakov school in Krakow were rounded up by the Nazis. A two-page suicide letter in Yiddish dated August 11, 1942, ostensibly written by 17-year-old Chaya Feldman, was somehow smuggled out to Daniel Lewenstein, a Swiss textile merchant in Zurich known as a reliable source for receiving clandestine information dispatched from Nazi-occupied Europe.

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On January 5, 1943, Meir Shenkolevsky, secretary of the world Bais Yaakov movement and a member of the Central Committee of Agudat Israel in New York, received the “Feldman Letter” and promptly brought it to the attention of the Annual Conference of the Jewish Orthodox Rescue Committee. After the Bais Yaakov Committee determined that the missive was authentic – how it made that determination is unknown – it was forwarded to Rabbi Leo Jung, who translated the letter into English and released the letter to the public on January 7, 1943. The New York Times published it the next day on page 8 (i.e., not very important news) as follows:

Dear Friend Mr. X in New York:

I do not know whether this letter will reach you. Do you still remember who I am? We met at the house of [the late] Mrs. Schenirer and afterward again in Marienbad. When this letter will come into your hands, I shall not live any more. Give our regards to Mr. Rosenheim and our friend Goodman, both in England. We all met in Warsaw at our friends. Y____ and Y____’s son was also there.

We had four rooms. On July 27 we were taken out and thrown into a dark room, have only water. We studied the sacred works and got courage. In age we are from 14 to 22; the younger ones are afraid. I try to recall mother Sarah’s [Schenirer] teaching of the Torah. It is good to live for G-d, but it is also good to die for Him.

Yesterday and the day before we were given hot baths and we were told that German soldiers would come tonight to visit us. We yesterday swore to ourselves that we would die together. Yesterday one sent us to a big house with bright rooms and nice beds. The Germans do not know that our last bath was our purification before death. Today, everything was taken away from us, and we were each given one nightgown. All of us have poison. When the soldiers will come we shall drink it. Today we are together and all day we are saying our last confessions. We have no fear.

We thank you, good friend, for everything. We have one request: say Kaddish for us, your 93 daughters of Israel. Soon we shall be with Mother Sarah.

Regards from . . . . of Krakow.

Sara Schenirer (1883-1935), a pioneer in Jewish education for girls, founded the first Bais Yaakov school in Krakow from where it spread throughout the world and remains a leading institution for the religious education of girls to this day. Jacob Rosenheim (1870-1965) was a German pioneer of Orthodox Judaism who founded and led the Agudat Israel World Organization. Harry A. Goodman (1899-1961) was an active Mizrachi member who later became political secretary of Agudah and a leader of the Agudah in Great Britain.

The Times article, which intentionally obscured various proper names to protect those still trapped in Hitler’s Europe, noted that “Rabbi Jung said no further word had been received from teacher or pupils.” Jung, a well-known scholar who was rav of The Jewish Center in Manhattan and served as chairman of the American Beth Jacob Committee, made two significant errors in the material he sent to the Times. First, he erroneously placed the event in Warsaw – he blamed the error on his secretary who, he said, thought of every Holocaust event in Poland as taking place in Warsaw – and, second, he incorrectly identified Feldman as the teacher.

 

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The Feldman Letter, which was reprinted in various publications across the U.S., also reached Eretz Yisrael in February 1943, where it was published in various newspapers. The story, which generated a great emotional response across the spectrum of the Jewish world that was just beginning to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, infused Jewish culture and generated many poems and songs. Agudat Israel designated the 26th of Adar – which was Sarah Schneirer’s yahrzeit – as a day of remembrance for the 93 martyrs, and several events were held in their memory, including a Chicago memorial hosted by the Jewish National Fund. The story of “the Ninety-Three” quickly grew to become a metaphor for Holocaust suffering, sacrifice, and martyrdom, and the girls became an emblem of Jewish fearlessness and modesty during the Shoah.

The problem, however, is that the story is a fabrication.

Historiographers and other critics ask several pointed questions regarding the veracity of the story. How could Feldman’s missive have made the trip from an impenetrable room in a sealed Krakow ghetto to a group of rabbis in New York? How did the girls obtain poison, let alone poison sufficient to kill 93 people? Even after the incredible worldwide attention brought to bear in this story, why has no one has ever been able to identify Chaya Feldman or learn any details of her history? Why is there no corroboration of the event by the Nazis, who generally documented everything? Weren’t these deeply Orthodox girls aware of the strict halachic prohibition against suicide? And, as linguists ask, why did the Polish Feldman write her letter with a Hungarian Yiddish idiom?

Perhaps most significantly, why did none of the Jewish survivors in the Krakow Ghetto hear the story? Experts say that it undoubtedly would have been known by the Jewish Council in the ghetto and been spread through the underground network there. In particular, it is well-nigh impossible for 93 corpses to have been removed from the building in plain sight and disposed of without any Jews in the ghetto knowing about it.

The nature and the structure of the “Feldman Letter” – including particularly its use of 93, an odd and seemingly random number – strongly suggests that the true unknown author predicated it upon a well-known kinah (lamentation) written by the famous paitan (liturgist) R. Eleazar HaKalir (570-640) and which is recited on Tisha B’Av.

The kinah begins, “Remember what the enemy [Titus] did [when] he drew his sword and went inside the Holy of Holies.” The agonizing lamentation describes the scope of the outrages perpetrated by Titus before concluding with “our spirits sank when the holy vessels were removed. They were placed on a ship there to be used for his own purposes. Our skin crawled when the High Priest awoke and did not find the 93 (holy)Temple utensils” (emphasis added). The kinah goes on to cry lament that “the holy of holies he sprayed with his filth [i.e., his semen].”

The kinah in turn is based upon the Mishnah in Tractate Tamid, which describes how the 93 utensils used in the Holy Temple and stolen by Titus were shipped to Rome, where they would be used for unmentionable sacrileges, even before the Kohen Gadol was aware that they were missing – a bitter commentary indeed on the lack of professionalism and dedication by the High Priest.

Finally, the timing of the Feldman letter and its use of the metaphors described above could hardly have been coincidental. First, there was, indeed, testimony later given about the Nazi murder of 100 Jewish girls in Krakow that took place around the same time. However, these murders were an act of retribution in 1940 for the murder of two intelligence officers by Jewish girls whom they had raped, and it had nothing to do with suicide, by Bais Yaakov girls or otherwise.

Second, it was written only a few weeks after Tisha B’Av about events that took place soon after Tisha B’Av, and the author almost certainly drew a line from the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, to HaKalir’s kinah, to the contemporary threat from the Nazis. The thematic associations underscoring the unknown author’s drafting of the Feldman letter are all evident: the juxtaposition of the number “93;” the defiling of the Beit HaMikdash with the tyrant’s semen; the sexual indecencies the Nazis had planned for the girls, themselves “holy vessels;” the Jewish blood spilled by both Titus and the Nazis; and the lack of awareness by both the High Priest and American Jewish leaders – the former who was too busy pursuing his own interests to care about the fate of the holiest of all vessels that had been entrusted to his care, and the latter who were so self-involved that they could not pay attention to what was happening to their fellow Jews in Hitler’s Europe.

Nonetheless, Bais Yaakov and other charedi leaders insist that the story is true based upon the unlikely testimony of Hannah Weiss, the “94th girl” who claims that she personally overheard the suicide plan. Weiss, a student at the school, had been summoned by family to care for a sick relative and, as she tells the story, when she heard that her classmates had been captured, she hid in the yard of the building where they had been sequestered. She claims that she heard every word uttered by the girls, including Feldman’s last address to her students, and that when she heard their decision to commit suicide, she burst into tears and was found by a Nazi soldier.

However, Weiss’s story asks us to believe that she was somehow unseen by the Nazis when she hid in a yard near a heavily guarded building; that she was able to hear every word spoken inside a building at a distance from the building; and that, when caught, the Nazis simply let her go. Most problematic, however, is Weiss’s claim that the deaths took place on the 13th of Av – more than two weeks before the Feldman letter was written on the 28th of Av.

Those who support the veracity of the story further argue:

  1. That Jews in the ghetto became proficient at smuggling; that there were any number of instances where members of the underground were able to hide poisons on their persons; and that, as such, it is possible that the teacher was able to similarly obtain and hide the poison that was eventually used in the mass suicide.
  2. That the mere fact that Feldman was in Poland does not mean that she couldn’t have been born and raised in Hungary, which would explain her use of a Hungarian Yiddish idiom in her letter. [Of course, this is speculation and there is nothing to even suggest that Feldman’s origins were other than Polish.]
  3. That information was sometimes smuggled out of the ghetto and it is not impossible that the Feldman Letter was as well. (However, the girls were imprisoned in a building carefully guarded by Nazi officers, rendering ludicrous the very idea that the letter somehow got out.)
  4. That, as to the halachic prohibition against suicide, Tractate Gittin 57(b) tells of 400 boys and girls who were carried off to Rome and who, understanding that their fate would be to be used for immoral purposes, considered drowning themselves in the sea. However, they were afraid of violating the central Jewish proscription against suicide – which the Torah considers to be murder – but when the eldest cited Psalms 68:22, “From Bashan I will retrieve them, I will bring them up from the depths of the sea,” the girls all leapt into the sea, followed by the boys, an act which was approved by the rabbanim.

Supporters of the story of the Ninety-Three further note that kinot, which traditionally aggregate other sources that were not actually ascribable to a specific event or even actually transpire at one place and time, are not intended to deceive anyone. Rather, they are designed to paint a picture of pain and suffering so as to evoke deep concentration and heartfelt emotion in our prayers. Thus, the Feldman Letter was similarly not intended as a true historical account but rather as a call to rouse the American Jewish community from its lethargy in the form of an updated version of the kinah. They argue that much as the kinah ends with an admonition to “Awake! Why do you sleep?” so was the story of the letter designed to light a fire under American Jewry and its leaders to take action on behalf of the Jews of Europe.

Defenders of this unfortunate “fake news” further point out that it is indisputable that there were innumerable atrocities perpetrated regularly by the Nazis against the Jews that were far worse and that there are documented precedents for Jewish martyrdom and mass suicide from the earliest times of Jewish history. As such, they say, the story of the Ninety-Three is a contemporary emotional archetype of Jewish martyrological history that falls well within the tradition of “the typography of martyrdom” and that, as such, it hardly matters whether the details of this particular incident in the Krakow Ghetto actually occurred.

In any event, the story was investigated for many decades by Yad Vashem which, after many decades of research, determined that “we have no documents or testimony of witnesses which corroborate the incident.” Even if possible, but unlikely, explanations exist to explain away each of the significant difficulties underlying the veracity of the story, the gestalt of the story simply defies credulity. Virtually all contemporary scholars conclude that the entire story is a myth, including prominent Holocaust historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who wrote:

In Holocaust history, myths are especially abundant about the behavior of pious Jews in circumstances of extreme crisis; this is in fact a genre with many precedents in Jewish history. The most widespread such story is probably that of the ninety-three (more or less) devout girls of a Beth Jacob school in the Cracow ghetto who chose mass suicide over the degradation of a German brothel. It is a fanciful and moving tale of sacrificial piety . . .

Finally, some analysts note that even were the entire story to be categorically true, the Feldman letter only presents the girls’ intention to commit suicide and that, in fact, even after decades of research and discussion, there is no evidence anywhere that the suicides actually happened.

The fabricated account of the Ninety-Three continues to be actively perpetuated by the charedi community in general and by the Bais Yaakov movement in particular, who continue to tell the tale to succeeding generations, hold annual celebrations of an event that never happened, and mark the yahrzeit of 93 girls who never committed suicide. A much broader, but no less important, discussion for another day is the incredible chilul Hashem that results from fraudulent Shoah stories, which Holocaust deniers joyfully pounce upon to “prove” that the whole idea of the Holocaust is a story invented by Jews. There are too many millions real and tragic Holocaust stories to ever have to invent them.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.