The Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Shanghai

Our last article mentioned the monthly stipend sent to the yeshivas on behalf of each student. Upon review of my father’s documentation, it is clear that the monthly amount was not fixed. For some months it was $19 and for others $27 or $29. Extra funds were sometimes provided for clothing or other expenses. (For a telegram from the Previous Rebbe to Rabbi Ashkenazi, see Igros Kodesh of the Freideker Rebbe, Vol. 6, p. 1.)

Shanghai was a hot city, and as a result of the heat, many became ill. This affected such a large number of the students that it took a toll on the seder of the learning in the Yeshiva. An accounting of the medical bills was kept, and many of the Shanghai Jewish residents took it upon themselves to pay for the medical and pharmaceutical expenses, especially a Mr. Boropolsky. Dr. Seligson, who davened in the Yeshiva and saw the toll that illness was taking, handled the students’ health issues. He helped students from all of the Yeshivos and the refugee and Jewish community as well. (Even many years later, many of those who escaped through Shanghai trusted only Dr. Seligson and relied on him for their medical care.)

One of the health problems that afflicted the students and other refugees caused their mouths and tongues to swell and split. Doctor Seligson diagnosed it as beriberi, a condition often caused by a Vitamin B deficiency (related to diets based on white rice.) After that diagnosis was made, the remedy was self-evident, and the students recuperated well from Beriberi. But other health issues remained and unfortunately, one bochur, Shmuel Chanowitz passed away in Shanghai.

While in Shanghai, the bochurim attempted to keep the same seder as they had in Otwosk. They learned Talmud Tractates Kesuvos, Baba Basra and Gittin. Some of the Chasidus they learned were the Rosh Hashanah Maamorim from 5694 and Maamorim of 5660 and 5659. Rabbi Ashkenazi gave frequent shiurim, whenever possible.

But the seder was hard to keep. During some months, the learning went well. At other times, it went less well. Some of this was due to the health issues. But other matters contributed greatly: in the early 1940’s, the housing was not equipped with air conditioning and fans were a rarity. To compensate for the heat and humidity the Europeans wore lightweight clothing. Additionally, they took baths to cool down, often several times daily. But because of the heat, the frequent cooling baths, and the accompanying illness, it was challenging to maintain the normal study program.

Secondly, the bochurim were getting reports about the horrors in Europe. The students’ families were all in Poland, and we cannot imagine the emotional strain of being a young bochur stranded in China, not knowing how the inferno of Europe had affected his family.

Thirdly, they were stranded in a nation at war. After Passover 1943, after the forced move to the Hongkew ghetto, the Lubavitchers maintained separate living quarters, but shared a Bais Medrish with Yeshivas Chochmas Lublin. It took time to acclimatize to their new housing and learning situation.

The Hongkew ghetto was near military plants including an aircraft factory, a strategic military target. Towards the end of the war, bombs were dropped in this vicinity. Jews were hurt, but Boruch Hashem no students were injured. For their safety, however, a “bomb shelter” of sorts was created in the basement. Obviously, the learning schedule was severely compromised.

So they suffered: The seder was difficult to keep, and morale was at times low. And yet, throughout this ordeal, they kept the directives and customs of the Lubavitch Yeshiva. But all was not sad. During this period, two bochurim found shidduchim and married. Yosef Protovitz married a Shanghai Jewish girl from a German background. And Pesach Rabinowitz also married a “Yekkeshe” girl. Rabbi and Mrs. Ashkenazi took care of all the details of the wedding, cooking and preparing for all the needs of the newlyweds. And they had other triumphs in Shanghai: Rabbi Moshe Liss organized and ran a Talmud Torah for 100 students.

Every religious observance had its challenges. Rabbi Ashkenazi had one of his baale baatim plant an esrog tree. One year, somehow it was destroyed. They telegrammed Rabbi Yisroel Zuber for, amongst other items, a Kosher esrog. Rabbi Herschel Fox related that before Sukkot, my father searched far and wide for an esrog, but found one that had only the ridges and no body. This esrog (called a “Buddha’s hand” because of its long, finger-like projections) was very questionable. The bochurim of Lubavitch shook the 4 minim using it (saying no brocha.)

They were virtually cut off from the Rebbe. Communications, usually via telegram, were few and infrequent. Most of them came through Rabbi Yisroel Zuber in Stockholm. Whenever they telegrammed, they did so in code. For example, the Rebbe was referred to as Davidson (the son of Shalom Dov Ber). From the telegrams, it is obvious how much the students yearned to hear about the wellbeing of the Rebbe and to receive sichos and maamorim the Rebbe. (See Previous Rebbe’s letters, Volume 8, page 212 and footnotes, shows the communications through Stockholm about the situation in Shaghai.)

Rabbi Mordechai Bryski and Rabbi Nochum Prager helped in printed seforim for learning, including Likutei Diburim.   China had a printing process that Europe did not have: a “photo offset” process. This may be similar to or the precursor of the modern photo-offset process, but in any case, it made reprinting of texts much easier. One such “printing press” was donated – used, but in working order – to the Lubavitch yeshiva in Shanghai. Throughout the years, many different donations were given to maintain the printing operations. The bochurim reprinted the “Kol Koreh” “Call to Actions” and sent them to Techin and Harbin (in Russia). In Harbin, Reb. Avrohom Koifman, reprinted them (once even with the Rebbe’s picture) and distributed them again.

And the printing press was put to use for farbrengens. The two major farbrengens that were celebrated were Yud Tes Kislev and Yud Beis Tammuz. All the yeshivas were invited, and the Roshei Yeshiva were encouraged to join in, as well. Records show that the Amshinover Rebbe, Rabbi Shimon Kalish, was a participant. In 5702 (1942), the talmidim distributed copies of Tanya that were printed in Shanghai. As was previously stated, Likutei Dibburim was also distributed at a farbrengen. They tried to mekarev other b’nai Torah and community members to be closer to Chassidus and the Rebbe.

In HaKriah v’HaKedushah Volume I, p. 10, there was a “Shir HaGeula.” Reb Yisroel Dovid Rosenberg put the shiur to music. The song, about the hope for Moshiach, was sung frequently in Shanghai.

(This article is based, in great part, from a report that the Bochurim sent to the Previous Rebbe after the war and also to Reb Chaim Rosenberg, grandson of Reb Yisroel Dovid Rosenberg and Shimon Goldman.)