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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Somehow I Survived Binah may, 2011

Somehow, I Survived

Byline: As told to Debbie Shapiro

While the world was preparing for war, I was enjoying myself at the Bais Yaakov summer retreat in the Carpathian Mountains. We were a small, close-knit group; many of my schoolmates had come from afar to attend the only girls' seminary then in existence. Although Frau Schenirer's school was tiny, it was from this seed — this kernel of kedushah — that today's Bais Yaakov movement emerged.

We were oblivious to the thunderous black cloud threatening to engulf us, until, like a lightning bolt on a clear day, one of the girls received a letter from her parents with money and instructions to return home immediately — “before the war erupts.” The camp was immediately closed and we all returned to Cracow, where the seminary was located. I suddenly realized that there really was a possibility of war.

We arrived in Cracow on Monday. Everyone — the wealthy, the intellectuals, the simple people — were working together to dig bomb shelters. The government had already declared a blackout, which meant that at night all lights had to be covered to prevent enemy planes from identifying the city. Although there was an ominous feeling that something terrible was about to happen, we had no idea what, or just how terrible it would be. Even as the hanhalah frantically worked to return us to our families, they kept on reassuring us that there was absolutely nothing to worry about, and that before long everything would return to normal.

The following morning I received a letter from my parents with instructions to return home to Slonim immediately; I was one of the twenty girls who left Cracow before the air raids began. When I left that Wednesday night, I was positive that I'd soon be back and that life would return to normal. But of course, it never did.

The ten of us continuing east from Warsaw missed our connecting train and spent the day at the home of one of my classmates. We kept on phoning the train station to find out when there would be another train heading east, until finally we were informed that there was one at four o'clock that afternoon. Although we had no idea how far east the train was going, at least it would bring us closer to our destination, and we decided to try our luck. I left my heavy suitcase — the one that contained all my sefarim — in Warsaw with my friend, positive that I would soon be back to fetch it.

The train heading east was packed with Polish army recruits. We were petrified to board — ten girls alone with hundreds of Polish soldiers! As we were standing on the platform, wondering what to do, we noticed one empty train compartment and quietly slipped in through the open window. We remained silent the entire trip, praying that the soldiers would not notice us.

The train ground to a stop in Bialystok. Not long afterwards, a cattle train heading east pulled into the station. This train was also packed with drunk Polish Army recruits, but it was the middle of the night and the men were sleeping, so we slipped inside and quietly spread out, blending into the surrounding darkness. Although we were not noticed, one drunken soldier stepped on me. His boots were so sharp that they cut my navy blue (and very fashionable) shoe in half! I was just grateful that it was my shoe, not me!

I arrived at the Slonim train station at 4:55 in the morning and bid my friends goodbye. Of course I didn’t know it then, but of the ten girls who traveled with me from Warsaw, I was the only one who would survive the war.

I disembarked the train and started walking home. A few minutes’ walking distance from my house, I ran into my mother, who was shocked and overjoyed upon seeing me. She had heard that a train had arrived, and hoped that I would be on it. Years later, Reb Zelig Epstein, zt"l, who had spent the previous night at my parents' house, told me that my parents had assumed they'd never see me again.

The day I arrived home was September 3, 1939. Our neighbor's window was open, and we could hear her radio from our living room. At five o'clock, we heard the announcement that war was officially declared. Although it wasn't a surprise — fighting had erupted on September 1 with the German invasion of Poland — we were still shocked. The air raid sirens began wailing almost immediately.

Prior to the official declaration of war, the Germans had signed a treaty with the Russians, called the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, dividing Poland between the two allies. We were now part of the Soviet Union and positive that Germany would never attack us, so despite the shrill wailing of the air raid sirens, we felt relatively safe.

Upon hearing the declaration of war, an uncle of mine who lived on the German side of the border grabbed the two sifrei Torah and his set of Shas, and fled to the relative safety of Soviet-controlled Slonim. Hoping to escape notice, he traveled on the back roads and little-used dirt paths. Crossing what he assumed was a nothing more than a muddy patch of the road, his wagon sunk into the quicksand, and he barely escaped with his life. Although at the time the destruction of the two Torah scrolls and Gemara set seemed tragic, we later realized that it was a blessing in disguise, because in this way they escaped defilement in the Nazis' hands.

Although we were safe from the Nazis’ harassment of Jews (at least that's what we thought it was then — we had no idea that they were planning to kill us all), we were afraid of becoming Soviet citizens. The USSR was an anti-religious state, and we knew that it would be almost impossible to remain G-d fearing Jews under the Communists. So, when the Soviet Union announced that it would be granting independence to the tiny state of Lithuania, thousands of Jews, including many of the great Polish yeshivos that were now inside the USSR, raced to get there during the two weeks that Lithuania was still part of Russia, before the border would close. For many, including almost the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, this window of opportunity became their passport to life.

My mother was an extremely realistic and intelligent woman. Although she was not aware that many of the yeshivos were escaping to Vilna, she wanted my brother and me to flee the Soviet Union. My father, on the other hand, felt that we were much too young to undertake such a dangerous journey. Later on, when they learned that many of the yeshivos had taken that route, he changed his mind. But by then the borders were closed. So we made preparations to flee illegally.

I had just turned seventeen when I fled from Soviet-controlled Poland to Lithuania together with another five young people: my younger brother and his two friends, and another two girls. We took the train to the Lithuanian border, where we were immediately arrested and thrown into prison; but when the guards left their posts for a few minutes, we slipped out the back door into the surrounding forest. After several hours of crawling in the snow, we saw a small, decrepit old hut and knocked at the door to beg for help. An old Jewish woman let us in. She pointed to her one piece of furniture — a shaky, old bed — and told us to hide underneath it. That night, she found a professional smuggler to guide us across the border.

On the Lithuanian side of the border, we were also caught and thrown into prison. This time, we bribed our way out. On our way to Aishishok, we met a Jew who told us that the city was now a closed military zone, and he kindly hid us in the back room of his home. Meanwhile, we asked him to deliver a note to an acquaintance of mine who lived in Aishishok.

It was Wednesday. We had been walking and crawling in waist-high snow since Sunday, and were so exhausted from the ordeal that we fell into a deep sleep. A few hours later, three Russian army officers burst into our hiding place. Seeing our shocked expressions, they said, “Yidden, don't be afraid. Your friend sent us to you. We'll be back tomorrow.”

The following afternoon, the soldiers arrived at our hiding place to take us three girls out for a stroll. We looked like three couples out on a date. They brought us to a Lithuanian hotel, gave us some Lithuanian currency, and instructed the hotel owner to put us on the train that left to Vilna at five o'clock the following morning.

We arrived in Vilna at seven o'clock Friday morning. My brother and his friends arrived shortly afterwards. Rav Aharon Kotler's daughter learned with me in Cracow, so we went straight to her house, where we were warmly welcomed. The Kotlers told us about a dormitory there in Vilna that had opened up for Bais Yaakov girls, and warned us that it was dangerous to walk on the street before becoming legal residents. So, after putting our bags in the dormitory, my friends and I went straight to the government office to apply for our official papers. On our way there, I ran into a neighbor of ours from Slonim, who helped us get our papers and then insisted that we spend Shabbos with her family.

My father's cousin, who had come to Vilna with the Mirrer yeshiva, visited that family over Shabbos while I was there. After Shabbos, he suggested that instead of returning to the dormitory, I rent a room in the home of one of the Mirrer rabbonim. I stayed there for an entire year, and as a result I became an integral part of the Mirrer community, which meant that when an opportunity to escape arose, I knew about it. So many times in our lives we never fathom events' true ramifications. I “happened” to meet a friend from Slonim and accept her invitation for Shabbos, and as a result, my life was spared.

I knew Russian and some English, and became the unofficial yeshiva secretary — the one who composed the telegrams to the Mirrer talmidim in the States, and took care of all the official government business. Since I was so involved in helping the community, I knew everything that was going on. This knowledge was crucial to my ultimate survival. In the summer of 1941, the Japanese consul began handing out temporary visas to Japan. At first, we were skeptical. We thought it was a ruse to send us to Siberia. But when we heard that some bachurim had succeeded in getting there safely, we started investigating the possibility.

In order to attain a Japanese visa, I needed a Polish passport. But although I had a birth certificate stating that I was born in Poland (Slonim belonged to Poland before being transferred to the Soviet Union at the start of WWII), I’d never had a Polish passport, and was planning to travel to Kovno to apply for one. But the evening before I was supposed to go, I received a telegram from my father instructing me not to go. He wrote that all Jews residing in Slonim who had made official arrangements to flee the country had been exiled to Siberia. Although this later proved to be their salvation, at the time we viewed it as tragic.

With no other choice, I ended up leaving Lithuania on a forged passport. I flew (yes, flew!) to Moscow, as I had received papers from America entitling me to get an American visa. When that didn't work out, I boarded a train heading to the Japanese border. But my visas were not in order, and I was caught in Wladivostok, the last stop before Japan. I was interrogated for close to five hours. When they asked me to sign my name, I purposefully wrote a Polish “r” instead of a Russian “p.” When they saw me sign my name like a Pole, they laughed and told me that I could continue on, even though my passport was obviously forged. I still don't know how I managed to keep my cool!

Although the Soviets accepted my Polish passport, I remained in Wladivostok for seven weeks waiting for a Japanese visa. All the Jewish refugees stayed in one hotel. I was friendly with a group of six other young people, so for Pesach, we joined together to make a Seder. Even those Jews who were very far from religious observance refrained from eating chametz on Pesach. One of the Mirrer bachurim gave us one of his two matzos when he left for Japan. Another bachur found a potato somewhere, which we cooked in an electric kettle. For the arba kosos, we boiled dried fruit and used the water for wine. Although the refugees conducted several Sedarim at the hotel, it was all done very quietly, as no one wanted to draw the attention of the authorities.

I'll never forget how hungry I was that Pesach. Every day we went out searching for food, but mainly, we survived on air. One girl's feet became so swollen from malnutrition that she was unable to walk. It was a very difficult time for all of us.

Finally, after seven weeks, we received our visas. Years later, when a contingent of Japanese historians came to Israel to learn about Japan's role in saving the refugees, they examined my visa and told me, much to my shock, that the consul had stamped it with the wrong date, to make it appear as if it had been issued earlier, as by then it was illegal for him to issue visas!

Visa in hand, I traveled to Kobe, Japan, where I remained for the next five and a half months. Now that I was relatively safe, I decided to get a legitimate Polish passport, and went to the Polish consulate together with the required two witnesses. It turned out that the Polish Consul was also from Slonim, and knew me and my family well. After spending over half an hour talking about life back in our home town, he issued a passport on the spot. Now that I had an "in" with the consul, I often turned to him for help with other Jewish refugees.

Kobe was crowded with Jews in transit. Most people were permitted to remain for just ten days before continuing on to Shanghai, but for some unexplainable reason, I was given a six-month visa. Still, I didn't want to be in Kobe for Yom Kippur; due to its close proximity to the international dateline there was a question as to which day Yom Kippur was — and I certainly didn't want to fast for both days! I made arrangements to travel to Shanghai, but since the rickety old boat that had transported most of the refugees to Shanghai was no longer in service, I traveled on a fancy cruise ship via Korea! The Jewish refugees on board, along with the other passengers, were served gorgeous five-course meals, which of course we couldn't eat.

Shanghai was a different world, totally unlike anything I had ever experienced. It rained constantly throughout the summer, and with each rain the heat became more intense. Sometimes the rain was so heavy that it was impossible to leave the house. Winters were dry, without snow, and freezing cold. It was a city of stark contrasts. The rich were extremely affluent, whereas the poor starved. The established Jewish community consisted of Russian Jews who had immigrated to Shanghai prior to the First World War. They were well off and lived in large, spacious homes with numerous servants. They had magnificent shuls and an independent educational system. They were also big baalei chessed who helped us in many different ways, such as assisting newlyweds in setting up their households. Although we refugees did not have much money, we were able to reciprocate in our own way. For example, I made two aufrufs for one of the families that had been influenced by the yeshiva to become more observant. I even prepared cakes and baked them in the bakery's oven.

In addition to the established Russian Jewish community, some 15-20,000 German Jews had fled to Shanghai after Hitler rose to power. The majority were able to take along at least part of their wealth, which they used to establish businesses and become financially independent. Only a small percentage of the German Jews, however, were religious, and with our arrival in 1940, the few religious German refugees joined our kehillah.

I arrived in Shanghai the day before Yom Kippur. Two weeks later, my friends and I opened a Bais Yaakov. I taught my first graders in the little one room apartment that I shared with three other girls. Until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America and Japan went to war, we received a regular stipend from the United States, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (commonly known as the Joint) paid our rent each month. After that, it was all nissim!

I was the “baby” of the community, the youngest girl living in Shanghai without her family. After my roommates married, I was the only single girl in the yeshiva community. But I didn't stay that way for long. My husband and I were married in 1941, just eleven months after I arrived in Shanghai.

During all this time, I had no contact whatsoever with my family. I constantly hoped for the best and prayed for their safety. It was only after the war that I discovered they had all been killed, Hy”d, including my brother.

Running a household in Shanghai was a full time job, even with a servant to help me. Our one tiny room served as a living room, bedroom and kitchen. Each morning I went to the marketplace to shop for fresh food, as in the dense heat and without any refrigeration, food spoiled quickly. If I wanted chicken for supper, I would purchase a live chicken and take it to the shochet. Afterwards, I'd bring it back home, where I'd pluck it and clean it, and, more often than not, I'd have to bring it to the rav to ask a shailah. (One erev Yom Tov, three of my four chickens were treif!) If the rav paskened that the chicken was kosher, I'd return home to kasher it and only then could I start preparing the meal!

Disease was rampant, and everything, including the water, had to be boiled; even the fruits and vegetables that we peeled had to be sanitized with boiling water before they could be eaten. Although many of the people in the yeshiva community came down with dysentery and typhoid, none of them succumbed to the disease. It was absolutely amazing; all those who joined our community survived!

I was constantly battling the dirt and trying to stay on top of the laundry, which we washed by hand. Despite the tedious, almost non-stop work, my house was always immaculate, and my two children clean and well-dressed. They never looked like poor, neglected refugee children.

After Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese and the Germans became allies, the Jewish refugees were confined to a ghetto, whereas Jews who had lived in Shanghai prior to the war were allowed to continue living outside of the ghetto. That was the beginning of the anti-Jewish edicts, when the Germans pressured the Japanese to kill their Jewish population. Any Jews caught outside the ghetto without a proper pass were immediately thrown into jail, where they usually died of disease. (Although, as mentioned, no one from the yeshiva community ever succumbed to disease, baruch Hashem.) Since the yeshiva was located outside the ghetto, the yeshivaleit received special passes allowing them to be outside the ghetto from six in the morning until eleven o'clock at night.

For us, trouble came when my husband's coat was stolen. We were, of course, upset at losing such a warm, expensive coat, which we could not possibly replace. But even more worrisome was the fact that he kept his identity badge in his coat, so although he was issued a new identity badge, the new number did not match the number on his pass. When the Japanese restricted us further and stopped allowing us to leave the ghetto at all, they collected all the passes and saw that my husband's numbers did not match. They threw him into jail.

Thanks to the askanim's tireless efforts on my husband's behalf, he was only imprisoned for a very short time — but it was still long enough for him to contract typhus. Everyone tried to convince me to send him to the hospital, but I was afraid. Many people never left the hospital alive. Eventually I found a doctor willing to come to our one-room apartment to examine my husband. When he saw how spotless everything was, he told me, “If you want your husband to survive, keep him at home.” Meanwhile, the bachurim in the adjacent apartment vacated their home, and I moved in there with my ten-month-old baby so we wouldn’t be living in close proximity to my sick husband. For the next few weeks, although my baby remained in the other room and I took care of all of our needs there, I devoted every minute of the day to taking care of my husband. Every morning, a friend would come to my window and I'd give her money to purchase food and other necessities. Although bachurim came to help feed my husband and tend to his needs, miraculously, none of them caught the disease.

The heavy bombings began in 1945, when American forces started shelling the city. We lived in rickety shacks, with no place to run. In one air raid, a glass picture fell off the wall, and my knee was so badly cut that I needed stitches and couldn't walk properly for three months. We saw many nissim, too. In a neighboring house, the ceiling collapsed onto two just-vacated beds, forming a canopy over the third bed, where a yeshiva bachur was trying, unsuccessfully, to get some sleep! In another house, a bachur was learning when a piece of shrapnel went through the roof of the building and got stuck in the ceiling over his head. He was very frightened, but l'maaseh, nothing happened.

The last air raid took place on the seventh of Av, 1945. We stood near the glass doors and watched the bombs falling one after the other. The air was grey with dust. The following day, erev Tisha b'Av, there were many, many funerals among the refugees, but everyone in the yeshiva community survived.

The war ended on a Friday night. Instead of air raids, we heard yelling and screaming. Although we realized that something unusual was going on, we were afraid to leave our homes to investigate. In the morning, when the men went to shul, they discovered that the doors to the ghetto were open and that we were free to leave. The war was finally over!

Looking back, I'm amazed how, during these difficult times, when we were living in the ghetto, completely cut off from our families and without enough food to eat, we were able to lead normal lives. We married, we raised families, we invited guests for Shabbos meals; somehow we succeeded in living a rich, full Jewish life. I remember one Purim when a group of bachurim came to visit. We were sitting around our table, eating a desert that I had prepared from dried figs and dates. Since no one had money to prepare proper shalach manos, each bachur passed his plate to the boy sitting next to him, and we all rejoiced in what we had. It was beautiful.

We were really one huge family. We didn't have much, but whatever we had, we shared. And even today, some sixty-five years after liberation, those of us who were part of that yeshiva community of refugees feel like one, enormous family. The connection is very, very deep. When alter Mirrers get together, the years melt away as we share each other's joy and pain.

Debbie Shapiro is a wife, mother, grandmother and longtime Jerusalem resident.. Her latest book, Women Talk  is a compilation of interviews with great Jewish women. If you'd like tocontact Debbie, please write to her at  debbieshapiro@binahmagazine.com .

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