Israel – Which girls attending a Bais Yaakov school hasn’t heard the story of the courageous 93 girls from Sara Shnirer’s Cracow seminary who preferred to take their lives rather than submit to the Nazis’ despicable plans? A small street in south Tel Aviv bordering on the streets of Mordechai Analewitz (commander of the Warsaw ghetto) and Chana Seresh (the Hungarian Jewish parachutist who was brutally murdered by the Nazis) was called “The 93” after the righteous girls. A book was written about them called “Chaya Feldman’s last letter” recounting the tale of courage.
But 60 years of research have concluded that the story was a fraud.
Who created the myth and why?
The beginning of the chilling story was in New York in 1943. Meir Shenkolevsky, the secretary of the world Bais Yaakov movement and a member of the Central Committee of Agudas Israel in New York, received a letter from Chaya Feldman just before she gave up her life: “I don’t know when you will get this letter and if you still will remember me. When this letter arrives, I will no longer be alive. In a few hours, everything will be past. We are here in four rooms, 93 girls ages 14 to 22, all of us Bais Yaakov teachers. On July 27, Gestapo agents came, took us out of our apartment and threw us into a dark room. We only have water to drink
“The younger girls are very frightened, but I comfort them that in a short while, we will be together with our mother Sara [Sara Shnirer’, the founder of the Bais Yaakov Seminary]. Yesterday they took us out, washed us and took all our clothes. They left us only shirts and said that today, German soldiers will come to visit us. We all swore to ourselves that we will die together. The Germans don’t know that the bath they gave us was the immersion before our deaths: we all prepared poison. When the soldiers come, we will drink the poison. We are all saying Viduy throughout the day. We are not afraid of anything. We only have one request from you: Say Kaddish for 93 bnos Yisroel! Soon we will be with our mother Sara. Signed, Chaya Feldman from Cracow.”
The letter also reached Israel, was published in the Davar newspaper and the New York Times, and was the inspiration for songs, articles, assemblies, prayers and poems. A memorial booklet was even issued in memory of the women, who were symbols of bravery, purity and modesty.
The one problem with the story: After 60 years of comprehensive research, Yad Vashem says conclusively that it never happened. The 93 women were a Holocaust myth, without a basis in reality.
The street in south Tel Aviv was called “The 93” after chareidi organizations, including the administration of Bais Yaakov and Agudas Israel, asked the municipality to commemorate the girls and call a street after them. The Name Committee accepted the request, based on the “The 93” book which was published by the “Committee to Protect the Honor of a Bas Yisroel” (published in Iyar 1943) which contained articles, prayers and songs in memory of the undefiled girls who took their lives.
Atty. Naomi Levenkron, an expert on women-trafficking and the director of “Mishna”, a non-profit dedicated to studying social law in the Administration College, happened to come across the story. “As one whose occupation revolves around prostitution and rape, I was astonished how come I had never heard this story before.”
Levenkron turned to Yad Vashem and received the laconic reply that the story wasn’t true. The response shocked her. “I heard about Holocaust deniers, but I never met Holocaust inventors,” she said. She even suspected Yad Vashem’s attitude to the story was based on apathy towards abuse of women.
But there were annoying question marks hanging over the story long before Atty. Levenkron got involved. Prof. Judy Tidor Baumol-Schwartz, the head of the Contemporary Jewry Program in Bar Ilan University, had asked, “How could Chaya Feldman’s suicide letter arrive from a room in the closed ghetto, in occupied Europe, to the rabbis in New York? Where did the women acquire such a large quantity of expensive poison? How come none of the Holocaust survivors had heard of this story, which occurred in a relatively small ghetto? Why was the Yiddish letter written in a Hungarian dialect, while Chaya was from Poland? The large number of girls proves that the story was impossible.”
Chareidi Holocaust researcher Esther Farbstein, the head of the Holocaust Studies Center in the Michlala, and author of the book “Hidden Thunder”, confirms that from the point of the Nazis, the story is illogical. “It’s hard to believe that an organized group of Germans planned an action which opposed the Nazi racial laws, which forbad relations with Jews, and all the more so to do it in public — even though it is possible that similar events took place in less public circumstances and in different numbers, such as when the soldiers serving in the Wehrmacht felt themselves unhampered by the regulations to maintain their race.”
Despite the hard questions, the chareidi community continues to celebrate the story. Sarit Yechimowitz, who learned in a Bais Yaakov school, recalls that on the day of the 93 girls’ yahrtzeit, the girls in her school had an assembly, the principal spoke, and an important rav visited who spoke about the girls’ courage and their dying al kiddush Hashem.
Yechimowitz explains, “The story had a strong impact on us, even me, who was known as a rebel. The line that was taught is that it was ‘:yaharog v’al yaavor. When you hear again and again about these women’s courage, you think to yourself, ‘How can I dare go with a short skirt, when 93 women died al kiddush Hashem to be sure their bodies weren’t violated?”
Esther Ettinger, the author of “Wonder in the Night”, an account of her childhood and youth in a Bais Yaakov school in Tel Aviv, says she also remembers the story of the 93 girls. “This story sanctifies the goals and important values we were educated to in Bais Yaakov — maintaining our modesty and purity,” she says. “It shows the greatness of faith and the desire for Kiddush Hashem.” Nevertheless, Ettinger says that she had also heard that the story was a myth.
“A Holocaust survivor, who taught in Bais Yaakov, told me that she has her doubts about the story and therefore doesn’t teach it,” says Prof. Baumol-Schwartz. “She told me that there are enough stories of true bravery by Jewish girls in the Holocaust, but if someone wants to use this story of the 93 girls, let them.
“I find a dark side to using a fabricated letter about a story that never occurred, but the people who created it probably had good intentions. The story has elements that are poignant to all of us.”
Ms. Farbstein says that the story became famous after the war, when ghetto fighters and partisans were prime heroes in Israeli society. “All the others, particularly the religious, had to defend themselves for going like sheep to the slaughter. There was need for a story of courage that could compare with a ghetto revolt.”
After researching the case, Atty. Levenkron wrote an article which appeared in the Theory and Review journal tying the myth to the shame and guilt suffered by raped women.
“Throughout history,” she explained, “the occupying army not only conquered the enemy country but also its women’s bodies. When the war was over, the suffering of the women victims didn’t end either. Their community, who should have been supportive of them and help their rehabilitation, accused them of consorting with the enemy. Norwegian women who had relations with German soldiers as part of the German plan to improve its racial purity, were treated viciously and with hostility. Women who were raped in Darfur are similarly treated shamefully by their communities.
“During my research I discovered only a few references to sexual abuse or sex in exchange for food during the Holocaust. Even when such cases occurred, they were never retold in first person. Holocaust researchers preferred to deal with other questions focusing on femininity rather than sex. A discussion of this kind in reference to the Holocaust is viewed as eroticizing the genocide.”
Mrs. Levenkorn believes that the message which the story of the 93 girls conveys is that whenever a Jewish woman is in danger of being raped, she has the choice to commit suicide or live a life of shame.
But this may be a misunderstanding. Perhaps the message of the story is that where a woman is likely to be killed anyway, she should take her life in purity rather than first become a rape victim and then be killed.