A Letter from Bais Yaakov Teachers in Bergen Belsen

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the rare artifacts that survive from the post-war period in Europe. One of the artifacts that give us a glimpse into this extraordinary period is a letter written from the Displaced Persons camp in Bergen-Belsen. Below is a translation of that letter, as published in the August 9, 1945, issue of Shaarim.

A Call from Bais Yaakov Teachers in Bergen Belsen

The letter as it appeared in the August 9, 1945, issue of Shaarim.

The London-based Yiddish weekly of the Agudas Israel, “Yidishe Vokhntzayt (no. 53),” recently published a letter by Rivka Horowitz, a Bais Yaakov teacher, in the name of the Bais Yaakov teachers and Bnos members in the camp to Bais Yaakov and Bnos teachers abroad.

Dear friends, may you be well,

I am writing to you from a desolate town in Germany, where we all ended up, having wandered by various routes after our time in harsh labor camps. There is much that should be said about this experience but I will leave for another opportunity.

You do not know me, and I do not know you, but that does not prevent me from turning to you for help.

There is no time now for me to tell you everything we went through, and more particularly what a hell it was for an observant Jew. But I want to stress one fact: The truth of our faith stood out absolutely clearly, particularly in these experiences and tortures. Armed with faith, a faith inscribed in the heart, it is possible to walk the path of the most unbearable suffering, and remain pure. Rather than abandoning the ways of modesty, it was particularly there that religious Jews recognized the value and power of modesty. Rather than trampling on decency and love, there they understood how important these are in life, and what life is like—without them.

It was for that reason that religious Jews even in the camps based their lives on different principles—and left the camps with something different, something their own.

Most importantly, religious people did not lose their moral compass.

Tragically, only a few such people managed to survive. The greatest, and best, of these went the fiery way of the ovens. A few survivors were dispersed to various refugee camps. Among these survivors are to be found, in Bergen Belsen, a group of members of the Agudah, including some women. A few of the most serious of these women are Bais Yaakov teachers and Bnos members from Sandz, Krakow, Sanok and elsewhere.  

When we were liberated from the camp and first tasted the taste of freedom, we began to search for the world which we had faith that we would find after everything that happened. We had not expected or believed that the war would end the way it did. Was it for this that the Jewish religiosity of Polish Jewry had been destroyed, its world drowned in an ocean of blood, for things to remain exactly the same as before? Were these not the footsteps of the Messiah?

It is difficult, after living the way we did, to face the ordinary world of before. It is at this threshold that we now stand.

Unfortunately, no one among the individuals assigned to our care can help this kind of survivor. We were assigned to the supervision of an English “Rabbi,” a secular Zionist. It was because of him that we were transferred to a different place, within a month. No one shared with us the purpose of this move, but its effect was to isolate us from the rest of our community. After the British occupiers arrived, we were put in the well-known death camp, Bergen Belsen, from which we were moved first to Bergen and then to Lingen.

The “Rabbi” wanted to turn our group into a secular-Zionist kibbutz. If we had realized this, we would not have left Bergen, but we were made aware of this only later. You can imagine how hard our lives were, there “in goles[1] among Jews”.[2]

You can imagine our joy when we received greetings from you and Orthodox Jewry from Dr. H[3] Klepfish, the military chaplain of the Polish army. These greetings lightened our loneliness and desolation. For surely among you must be organized groups of young religious Jews, in faithful observance of what we had sacrificed the marrow of our being for under such harsh conditions. This knowledge would give us support, and allow us to go on. So we decided to write you this letter. For certainly you will understand what we are feeling, and be moved by our double isolation, in our homelessness and in the lack of an appropriate atmosphere for us, an atmosphere of moral exaltation that seeks something more, “for man does not live by bread alone.”[4]

We need your help. First and foremost, send us newspapers and periodicals and news of our movement. We are living here as if on a desert island, in conditions that are not easy. We lack an environment, food, clothing.

There is not a single Jewish book here. Please send us a Bible with rabbinic commentaries and a Hebrew dictionary. Also Ethics of the Fathers with commentaries, ethical literature, Jewish history, etc.

We think that in the course of time there will be those who find some value in these sacred books, and so there is an urgent need for them. As of now, there are only a few young yeshiva students here who need them, and we ourselves will learn from them, and then go on to teach.

But as you know, we are helpless to do anything here, and we look to you for anything you can do for us. We do not participate in the life here, in our desire to carve out our own corner, more beautiful and substantial, and we long for the moment when we can begin our work anew. Do you know anything about our friends in other camps? And if you do, please send them our regards. That will give us great joy. We will not be left with a connection only to you—and with the longing and anticipation of a better and finer life.

We hope for your immediate assistance, in any form whatsoever, for everything has been withheld from us—we do not ask for your pity, but rather call for you to fulfill the debt of friendship.

Where are the religious survivors of German Jewry? Do you have R. Jacob Rosenheim’s address, and what are our chances of receiving certificates[5]? Do we have any reason to hope in this regard for the help of our activists and people?

With blessings,
Rivka Horowitz

[1] exile

[2] This is the title of Nathan Birnbaum’s 1919-20 critique of secular Judaism and call for the revival of Orthodoxy, an important and popular book among Bais Yaakov students.

[3] Dr. Heshel Klepfish

[4] [Deut. 8:3]

[5] likely certificates to Palestine