Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Fifth in a series about the rise of Jewish and Torah education in America after the Holocaust

Part One: The Difficult Progress of Jewish Education in America Before the Holocaust

Part Two: How a Handful of American Rabbis and Activists Tried To Save Jews During the Holocaust

Part Three: The Holocaust and the Growth of Jewish Day Schools in America

Part Four: Post-Holocaust American Haven For Yavneh and Its Sages

Mir to New York and Jerusalem via Shanghai, China

The Jewish historian David Kranzler, in the "Introduction" to his epic work "Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, 1938–1945", (1976), writes that Holocaust studies have thus far focused primarily on the catastrophic fate of the Jews on the European continent. In contrast, he seeks to shift the focus from “how Jews died, to how they survived in the Far East where thousands of potential victims built a new life and successfully, transplanted their communal institutions.”

It is an illustration of how at the height of the war, the Jewish people held on firmly to the key of survival. The Jewish sense of survival demanded the establishment of a traditional communal structure with educational institutions playing key roles.

The Shanghai Jewish community in the Shanghai International Settlement was a "half-way station" to America and eventually for many on to Israel for a relatively small, yet nevertheless significant, group of Jewish yeshiva pioneers.

Kranzler writes that while the Nazis were carrying out their "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem, about 18,000 Jewish refugees found a haven in the only place in the world whose doors were open without a visa: the International Settlement of Shanghai. This is related to what he calls one of the central themes of his work: "An extraordinary and ironic twist of fate, or Hashgocho Protis (Divine Providence)...the incredible role of Japan, in actually making possible the survival of 18,000 Jews."

Amongst this group we find "the gripping saga of the Mirrer Yeshiva from its first refuge in Kovno to Shanghai through Siberia and Japan." The ultimate destination of this yeshivah was to be Brooklyn, NY known as the Mirrer Yeshiva, where it arrived almost intact in February 1947 as well as on to Jerusalem, Israel whre it is known as the Mir Yeshiva, today one of the biggest yeshivas in the world with about ten thousand students.

The odyssey of the Mirrer Yeshiva is a blend of high drama, power politics, international diplomatic relations, and above all, the commitment of a yeshiva in exile to the highest ideals of Jewish learning and educational life. With its approximately 250 students and faculty it was one of the oldest of Europe's yeshivas. "It had made its way from the little town of Mir in Poland...across Lithuania, through Russia to Siberia, and then to Kobe, and ended its odyssey in Shanghai."

Combined with other individual Talmudic students, the Orthodox group of over 400 students of Talmud "comprised an elite of East European Jewry in all its partisan divisions." At the war's end, they were to bring a passionate approach to Talmudic learning in America and Israel.

Wikipedia records the fascinating story: "In the summer of 1940, several students of the yeshivah led by Nathan Gutwirth, a Dutch citizen, learned that the Dutch ambassador in Riga, Leendert de Decker, together with the Dutch consul to Lithuania Jan Zwartendijk were willing to provide them with destination-visas to the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Concurrently, it became known that the Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, had agreed to issue transit visas to refugees who wished to escape via the Japanese-occupied Pacific. As a result of these fortuitous events (seen by many to this day as acts of divine providence) most of the yeshiva students requested and received several thousand transit-visas from Sugihara, permitting them to depart to the Far East.

In the fall of 1940, the yeshiva students traveled via the trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, Russia; and then by ship to Tsuruga, Japan. The yeshiva reopened in Kobe, Japan in March 1941...A short time later, Japan expelled the Jews from its mainland, and the yeshiva relocated again, to (Japanese-controlled) Shanghai, China, where they remained until 1947. In Shanghai, Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, a Lubavitcher hassid who served as the spiritual leader of the Jewish refugees, arranged for the yeshiva to occupy the Beth Aharon Synagogue, built in 1920 by a prominent Jewish Shanghai businessman, Silas Aaron Hardoon. For the first few weeks, until funds could be sourced for provisions, the yeshiva community suffered from malnutrition."

In August 1941, on the eve of the High Holy Days, almost the entire Mirrer Yeshiva arrived in Shanghai. The Beth Aharon synagogue in Shanghai had not been used since 1937 when as a result of hostilities, many Jews moved to other parts of Shanghai. The Mirrer Yeshiva viewed this as another act of Divine Providence: "Since the seating capacity of the synagogue was exactly the same as the number of students, and the building had been used relatively infrequently in recent years, the students felt the synagogue was now fulfilling its true destiny."

The yeshiva's president, Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz (1887–1964), had found his way to America, and devised means to channel financial support to his institution in the Far East. This was no easy task after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Historians have noted that the American people were bitter against the Japanese, as thousands of Americans were dying in battle against them. It was in this "negative climate of opinion" that the elderly Rabbi Kalmanowitz searched for avenues to send large sums of money to his yeshiva surrounded by Japanese controlled terrain in Shanghai.

He arranged to see Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and a curious dilemma presented itself: How could an old rabbi with a limited English vocabulary explain to an assimilated Jew that he too suffered a "Pearl Harbor", that his "children", the Torah scholars of Mir, were starving and endangered in Japanese captivity? While presenting his case, Rabbi Kalmanowitz fainted. That "broke the ice", a rapport was established, and eventually Morgenthau found the means to allow the funds out of America. Kranzler records that a steady subsidy was sent to the Mir and other yeshivas and rabbinical groups, by Rabbi Kalmanowitz and the Vaad Hatzolah via neutral Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden, Argentina, and Uruguay, despite many obstacles. They knew nothing of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe till the end of the war when they were shocked to hear of the devastation wrought by the Nazis and their helpers.

The spirit and quality of Jewish scholarship that the Mirrer Yeshiva eventually brought to America and to Israel was unmatched. The zeal for Torah learning that was enhanced by the Shanghai interlude was an inspiration for those who witnessed the yeshiva's arrival in New York and eventually in Jerusalem as well. In Shanghai the yeshiva remained loyal to a major goal of Jewish Talmudic education: deepening involvement with the original Torah sources. Kranzler writes that in Shanghai, the yeshiva quietly continued its uninterrupted schedule of study of fourteen to twenty hours a day. Adversity had strengthened their resolve:

"In the face of, or perhaps to some extent because of, discomfort and sickness and an alien environment, they delved all the more deeply into the 'Sea of the Talmud' and its commentaries, which became a substitute for their lost families and homes. Study of the Torah also became their sole source of hope for the future...Their unflagging spirit and enthusiasm became a source of awe and wonder to all who saw the Yeshiva at study. Their faith in eventual redemption was perhaps best illustrated by the words of a Niggun (melody), sung hours on end during one Simhat Torah (rejoicing with the Torah festival). While dancing with the Torah scrolls in their hands, they sang in Yiddish:...here we are driven out; And there we may not enter; Tell us, dear Father...How long can this go on?” (From David Kranzler's "Japanese, Nazis and Jews")

It went on for several years, and the yeshiva had to rely on its own resources and creative spirit to exist. For example, in the face of the shortage of Talmudic and Rabbinic texts, the yeshiva resorted to printing Rabbinic works. Close to one hundred titles in Rabbinic scholarship were reprinted in Shanghai. The printing of one Talmudic tractate was followed by the entire Talmud (except for one title), Bible and commentaries, Maimonides' works, and classics of Jewish ethics and philosophy:

"The first offset volume was the Tractate Gittin, a run of 250 copies being made during May 1942. The completion of this first Tractate, marking a milestone in the history of Jewish printing in the Far East, became a cause of public celebration in the Russian-Jewish Club, which was attended by dignitaries of the Ashkenazi community. Such an event would hardly have been dreamed of a year earlier. One Polish non-observant journalist who witnessed this scene, remarked that one who did not witness the Amshenover Rebbe and Yeshiva students dance at receiving this marvelous gift, has never seen true Jewish joy and felt the secret of the Jew's eternity." (From David Kranzler's "Japanese, Nazis and Jews")

The striving to remain eternal, given even only a modicum of freedom, soon came to the surface wherever Jewish communities dedicated to the higher ideals of Jewish education were found. So too, a nucleus of individuals became a source of wonderment as they followed their destiny from Lithuania to America and then also on to Israel, via China. The uniqueness of the Mirrer Yeshiva is that while individual leaders in America gave direction to groups of followers that arose, it served as an example of an entire "community of scholars" who had continued to study during the war years. They provided a model for others to emulate, and even envy. When the yeshiva re-established itself as a unit in Brooklyn, New York: "The sight of men in their thirties and forties studying full time was an inspiration for younger students, who viewed them as culture heroes from a world known to them only from stories told by their teachers or parents."

The Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn first settled in the New Lots section of East New York in Brooklyn before moving to their current location on Ocean Parkway in Flatbush in Brooklyn. After arriving in America some members of the yeshiva then established Yeshiva Bais HaTalmud also in Brooklyn in 1950.

Rabbi Shraga Moshe Kalmanowitz (1918–1998), son of Rabbi Avrohom Kalmanowitz, and an heir to his father's position, has given the Jewish historian and sociologist William Helmreich (1945–2020) in "The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry" (2000) a "vivid portrayal" of how the yeshiva was set up in America: "Today people have contact with the outside world. In China we were isolated and this was good because it strengthened our commitment. As a result we were able to preserve our ruach (spirit). Since we were many, American boys had to adapt to us and little by little they did. You know, of course, that it was unheard of in America that boys learned after marriage. But we did it, as did others. Those who came had real dedication."

The Mirrer Yeshiva's contribution to Torah learning whilst Europe burned remains incalculable. Its ardent pursuit of the most intense form of Jewish education in a world at war remains a key to understanding the great expansion of Orthodox education in America and eventually in Israel as well in the post-1945 era.

Regarding its miraculous escape from Europe during the Holocaust and the arrival of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Israel after the Holocaust, from Wikipedia: "The Mir Yeshiva (ישיבת מיר, Yeshivas Mir), known also as The Mir...[Today] With over 9,000 single and married students, it is the largest yeshiva in the world. Most students are from the United States, United Kingdom and Israel...[during the Holocaust] the approaching Nazi armies caused the leaders of the yeshiva to move the entire yeshiva community to Keidan, Lithuania. The Yeshiva moved en masse...to Vilna in order to get out from under Russian rule and into then-free Lithuania...."

"Around this time, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel traveled to Palestine to obtain visas for his students and reestablish the yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, but these plans were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. In 1944, Rabbi Finkel opened a branch of the yeshiva in Jerusalem with ten students...In Europe, as the Nazi armies continued to push to the east, the yeshiva students fled to (Japanese-controlled) Shanghai, China, where they remained until the end of the war...the escape to the Far East of Mir Yeshiva, along with thousands of other Jewish refugees during WWII, [was] thanks largely to visas issued by the Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk and the Japanese consul-general to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara....After the war, most of the Jewish refugees from the Shanghai ghetto left for [the British Mandate of] Palestine and the United States. Among them were survivors from the Mir Yeshiva, many of whom rejoined the yeshiva in Jerusalem."

Holocaust Survivors Rebuild the Telz Yeshiva in America

The demise of Telz and its yeshiva in Lithuania is recorded by Jewish historian Rabbi Isaac Lewin in "These Will I Remember!: Biographies of Leaders of Religious Jewry in Europe who Perished During the Years 1939-1945", (Volume 1, 1956): The entry of the Germans into Lithuania, following their attack on their erstwhile allies the Soviets in June 1941, unleashed a torrent of local savage anti-Semitism. In the latter half of 1941, local residents attacked the Jews of Telz. The Lithuanian anti-Semites need not have feared any rebuke from the Nazis. They wrecked and destroyed Jewish property and slaughtered many Jews.

The worst day was the killing on the twentieth of Tamuz 5741 (1941), when with exceeding cruelty all the Jews of Telz were savagely killed with indescribable afflictions and tortures. Amongst the killed was the Rabbi of the town who was also the Rosh Hayeshiva, Rabbi Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch (1891–1941) , together with the members of his family and students.

Wikipedia describes those events during the Holocaust: "In 1940, the town of Telz was invaded by Soviet forces. Shortly thereafter, the yeshiva was forced to surrender its main building for use as a Red Army barracks. The students remained in Telz, where they rented accommodation from local townsfolk. This also changed, when the Soviets forbade the renting out of rooms to yeshiva students. Bloch responded by dispersing the yeshiva to five surrounding towns and arranging for members of the faculty to travel from town to town to deliver classes to his students.

On Tuesday July 15, 1941 (20th Tammuz), Nazi Einsatzgruppen and local Lithuanian sympathizers massacred the male population of Telz, including Rabbi Bloch himself and the faculty of the yeshiva. Three of Rabbi Bloch's daughters survived the Holocaust. Rochel married Rabbi Baruch Sorotzkin who joined the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, and later served as the Rosh yeshiva. Another married Rabbi Aizik Ausband, a student of Telz in Lithuania who also became a Rosh yeshiva at the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. The third daughter Miriam married Yosef Yehudah Leib Kleiner; they met and married in a DP camp in Germany after the war, they immigrated to Israel in 1951."

Senior members of the Rabbi's family who survived were his brother, Rabbi Eliahu Meir Bloch (1894–1955), and his brother-in-law, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz (1894–1964), who had left Lithuania almost a year earlier. After wandering across Russia and Japan, they reached secure shores in America. On 28 October, 1941, together with a nucleus of their students and several other young men, they established the Telshe Yeshiva of Cleveland. This school of Jewish learning was to become one of the largest Torah institutions in America.

The opening of the Telz, or Telshe, Yeshiva of Cleveland by Rabbis E. M. Bloch and C. M. Katz, was part of a repeated pattern, notes Rabbi A. Rothkoff in "The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation" (1982). Yeshivas conducted in the traditional fashion were opened by those who reached America's shores. In Cleveland, Telz under the tutelage of Rabbis Bloch and Katz retained the "Telz method" of Talmudical analysis, stressing "precise inductive reasoning". Rabbi Eliezer Silver was soon traveling to raise funds for Telz. After a visit to the Telz Yeshiva in 1946, Rabbi Silver published a statement of support revealing his happiness that at last America was home to "Yavneh and its sages":

"My soul rejoices and my heart is elated every time I visit the holy Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland. It is rapidly becoming one of the leading American yeshivot, by virtue of both its large student body and the high level of its curriculum. The illustrious name of Telz has been restored on these shores. From day to day the school grows stronger to the joy of all those who esteem Torah and 'fear of the Lord'."

The men who "engineered" the remarkable transplantation of Telz from Lithuania to America were a rare breed. In 1940, when the Russians occupied Lithuania, the Telz Yeshiva was subjected to relentless persecution. The yeshiva was forced to close, and Rabbis E. M. Bloch and C. M. Katz set out to find a new sanctuary for Telz. By the time the Nazis moved into Lithuania, the two rabbis were well on their way to America, crossing the Pacific. They had come to realize that to bring their yeshiva over from Europe had become impossible. They would have to start from the beginning all over again.

Rabbi D. Keller, in "He Brought Telshe to Cleveland" (The Torah World, 1982) , describes this realization: "From that time on, they acted as men possessed. Although they had no idea of the fate of their own families (Reb Elya Meir's wife and four children, Reb Mottel's wife and ten children), their working hours were devoted exclusively to reestablishing the yeshiva."

A location far from New York was deliberately chosen. Rabbi Bloch announced that the yeshiva would relocate in a Jewish community which needed strengthening, and which suited the "spirit of the yeshiva" better than metropolitan New York. When objections were raised, Rabbi Bloch is reported to have replied: "When one recognizes God's 'hashgachah' (Providence) in all that occurs, he realizes that when people are impelled to leave a place because of impending danger, this is not flight but a signal of a mission on which they are being dispatched. We are not only refugees! We were sent by the Almighty to replant the Yeshiva of Telshe in America." In the span of forty years the yeshiva grew to become one of the world's "great Torah centers and stands as a living monument to the dedication and vision" of Rabbi E. M. Bloch and Rabbi C. M. Katz.

A first-hand account of the impact Telz had on American-born youth is recounted by Rabbi Dov Keller, Rosh Yeshiva of a Telz "branch" in Chicago.. He recalls that the original student body consisted of a few students that had escaped from Europe and some Americans sent from Baltimore. "The Americans had no idea of what Telshe signified. They were even novices in the learning of Gemara and the two Roshei Yeshiva had to literally introduce them to advanced Torah study." The rabbis lived and ate in the yeshiva, educating their students in the broadest possible manner. This was in spite of the personal losses they had suffered.

The spirit of that time is captured in the lecture notes of Rabbi Bloch, when upon receiving confirmation of the fate of Telz in Lithuania, he wrote in 1945:

"I am not able to concentrate (on this writing) as I should, for that which I feared has reached me--the terrible news of the death of...at the hands of the cursed German murderers...I feel that I can never come to peace (with myself) without the toil of Torah...without fulfilling the sacred duty which now falls upon the survivors. Having learned of my awful tragedy, my first call of duty must be laboring in Torah. I am indentured in the service of my people...of what importance are the woes of the individual when compared to the duties of the Klal (Community)?" (The Torah World, 1982)

The spirit contained in Rabbi Bloch's words was carried forth into the future and touched all elements of the Orthodox educational configuration in America. An example of this direct inter-action is the influence of the yeshiva leaders on the Jewish (Hebrew) day school movement. The later Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter (1915–2001) addressed a Torah Umesorah National Planning Conference on the function of Torah education (chinuch) in modern times, reported in June, 1964. Rabbi Gifter typifies the zeal of the yeshiva founders when he declares that: "The function of Torah chinuch is the creation of a society where Torah will not merely be one of a vast number of human interests but rather a society where all human interest, all human endeavor centers in and emanates from Torah.” ("The Function of Torah Chinuch in Our Generation" in "Hebrew Day School Education: An Overview", 1970)

Rabbi Gifter stresses that in an age of specialization there is a need to implant into the young minds and hearts of Jewish Day School children the dream of becoming a "Torah specialist". He asks: "How many of them dream of becoming a Chofetz Chaim, a Reb Chaim Brisker, a Reb Mayer Simchah, a Chazon Ish?" All these were illustrious sages of recent times whose rise to prominence was in great part due to their "laboring" in Torah studies. Rabbi Gifter concludes:

"Much indeed has been achieved...But with the great change that has been wrought we have not yet brought this generation to Sinai...The challenge of Torah chinuch (education) is that 'we come close to the mountain' and that we take our children with us to see and hear what our forefathers saw and heard. We must become witness to the great Reality of Emunah (faith), with renewed intensive efforts in consolidating positions already won, and in the continued conquest of new horizons for Torah."

Thus, the challenges that the survivors of Lithuanian Telz, who were also the founders of American Telz, presented to American Jewry were thrust forward into the broader arenas of Jewish education. From its "fall" in Europe, it demanded a "rise" in America. The efforts to revive Torah education amongst the masses of American Jewry became the powerful and broad challenge of a handful of Holocaust survivors. They demanded that their survival from the destruction and ashes of the Holocaust create a better and broader and better type of Jewish and Torah education in America.

From the original Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, came branches of the yeshiva set up in America by its rabbinical graduates such as the Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago. In 1960, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, Rosh Yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, established Telshe Chicago as a branch of the Telshe Yeshiva. As well as Telz of Riverdale, New York officially known as Yeshiva of Telshe Alumni, founded in the early 1980s by Avraham Ausband a grandson of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, the Telzer Rav and by Rabbi Yaakov Reisman, a son-in-law of Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter.

The Telz yeshiva had at one time planned on opening a branch in Jerusalem, Israel and some of its students and faculty spent some time there in the 1970s towards that end. The neighborhood it was in is still known by the name of "Telz", as reported in Wikipedia: "The modern community was established in 1973 by a group of students and teachers from Yeshivat Telz in America. Despite the official name of 'Kiryat Yearim', it is widely known as Telz-Stone, after the yeshiva and American Greetings founder-chairman Irving I. Stone, who helped to finance the community's early development."

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.

He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy. Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]