Rabbi Shmuel Walkin, zt”l, was born in the early 1900’s in Russia. He married Rebbetzin Cila in 1933 and they lived in a number of towns in which he held the position of rav, ending in Lukatch. During World War II, he and his family traveled to Vilna where Shiguhara, prominent among the “Chasidei Umos ha’Olam,” awarded them precious visas. Miraculously, the Russians allowed them to leave and they traveled by train to Moscow. For two weeks they traveled by train and then boat until they reached Kobe, Japan. Their final destination was Shanghai where they lived for the duration of the war.
The Walkin home was modeled after that of Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu. They and their three young children lived in one room. The kitchen with its icebox and grill was located on the ground floor of the house and was shared with everyone who came to stay with them. There was no hot water in the house; it had to be purchased across the street. Yet, they hosted many simchas. In fact, Rabbi Uri and Rebbetzin Bluma Hellman, beloved teachers in Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, married in their home, a day before Pesach.
Shabbos and Yom Tov were always special. On Shabbos, the Walkin family shared a chicken with a neighboring family; 4 adults and 8 children shared one chicken. Despite the difficult conditions in Shanghai, and the oppressive climate, they lived a “normal” life. They had matzah on Pesach and a sukkah on Sukkos. On Simchas Torah there were flags and lit candles firmly secured in apples. The children went to school and were always dressed neatly and appropriately.
Rav Walkin became a mentor and spiritual guardian to many of the refugees. He did not have an official “shteller,” but was involved in many community programs. He and Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi (featured in our March 23 issue) organized the soup kitchen and he helped tend to the needs of the students of the Mirrer Yeshiva, working hand in hand with Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, and Rav Chanoch Leibovitz, zt”l to acquire funding to support the students.
Rebbetzin Chaya Small of Chicago, their oldest child, spoke at a public gathering several years ago about her childhood in Shanghai. She repeatedly expressed how “normal” it was, despite the somewhat “abnormal” circumstances. In photos she shared with the audience, we note how the adults and children were relatively well-dressed and appeared well fed. In a photo from the wedding of Manya, the daughter of Rav Meir Ashkenazi, to Rav Hershel Milner, it is obvious how beautifully dressed everyone was. In fact, the lovely, young girls are all sporting huge white bows in their hair! A young girl at the time, Rebbetzin Small remembers living in a home permeated with acts of kindness and love of one’s fellow Jew.
A dear friend, Mrs. Miriam Steinberg of Lakewood, New Jersey, shared with me that her in-laws also married in Shanghai, in the home of Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi. There were actually three couples who left Mir engaged to be wed: her in-laws, Rav Yosef Steinberg and Nechama Zuchovicka, aleihem hashalom; Rabbi and Mrs. Hellman and Rabbi and Mrs. Neuhaus. Nechama, then 18 years old, was reluctant to leave her parents and siblings; Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, encouraged her to accompany her chassan. Ultimately, both were the only survivors of their families and were zoche to raise a beautiful Toradik family together. Rebbetzin Richel Kotler a”h, told Miriam that the seudah at this particular wedding consisted of prunes and rice.
On Tzom Gedaliah 1945, a baby boy was born to the Walkin family; his bris was held on Yom Kippur. The Kiddush cup that is part of the current exhibit in the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, was a baby gift on the occasion of Chaim’s birth.
Also included in the exhibit, donated by Rebbetzin Small, are a one day pass – permission to leave the ghetto, a table runner that had graced their dining room table, a jewelry box and kimono, all adorned with Chinese motifs. Rebbetzin Cila Walkin wore her kimono on the Yomim Tovim. She continued to wear it even after moving to America.
In 1946, Rabbi Walkin and his family, boarded a war ship, the General Meigs, and sailed to the US. They settled in Crown Heights, where he continued to actively pursue visas for Jews who still remained in Shanghai. For three years, he worked diligently until every single Jew was accounted and provided for. Years later, he remained in touch with many of these individuals and families, who had relocated to Australia, South Africa, Europe and the United States. Extended families, children and grandchildren, still keep in contact with the Walkin family today, even after so many years.
Rabbi Walkin opened a shul in Crown Heights and he and his Rebbetzin continued to be surrogate parents for myriads of young men from Shanghai who had lost their entire families in the war.
Subsequently, the family moved to Kew Gardens where Rabbi Walkin became the rav of the Beth Aaron Congregation. Additionally, he was the vice president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada, and was a respected Talmudic expert on the Talmudic laws regarding divorce.
Rabbi Walkin and his family had a huge impact on many of our fellow Jews who found themselves in a foreign land with absolutely no means of support and no family network. He assumed responsibility for their welfare and emotional and spiritual well-being. May his memory be a blessing.
I am pleased to share with our readers that Rebbetzin Chaya Small has authored a book based on her experiences during those tumultuous years. In the Crook of the Rock will appear in bookstores later this season.