Living And Learning In Shanghai Through World War II

Living And Learning In Shanghai Through World War II

By Rabbi Dovid Hoffman

First-Hand Stories: How Rav Shmuel Berenbaum spiritually sustained the Mir Yeshiva for five years in Shanghai

Rashi writes: “Betzalel made the Aron; since he gave his heart and soul to the work more than all the others, therefore it is called by his name.” We learn the concept of m’siras nefesh for the Torah – the Aron – from none other than Betzalel.

Any discussion on m’siras nefesh for Torah study would be remiss if it didn’t recall the “Sweltering Days” – as Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l would call them – the days of Torah in Shanghai. In 1941, when the Mir Yeshiva moved from Lithuania to Japanese-controlled Shanghai, China, the Jewish refugees settled in the large Beth Aharon Synagogue in Shanghai, which contained a very large study hall, as well as a massive kitchen and eating hall. Rooms were rented in the Hongkou (ghetto) of Shanghai, and two nearby buildings were purchased and transformed into dormitories. The Yeshiva’s 400 students pursued their studies as if nothing existed outside the four amos of the Beth Aharon Synagogue. Far from their homes and their families, cut off from the war-stricken world, where the blood of European Jews flowed, the students of the Mir Yeshiva sat in the Beth Aharon Synagogue and immersed themselves in Torah learning.

The summer in Shanghai was especially difficult, for the stifling heat made people sweat profusely. It was so hot that it became impossible to touch the metal feet of the shtenders due to the tremendous heat that they absorbed. The students used plastic sheets and cut a rectangular window into them, the width of a line of text. These sheets were placed on the written page to prevent their sweat from smudging the ink, and they wrote commentaries on the pages through this window.

During this time, Rav Shmuel and his chavrusa (study partner), the gaon Rav Nochum Partzovitz zt”l, completed two s’darim (orders) of the Talmud – Nashim and Kodashim. They adhered to a regular learning schedule that began with the afternoon study session and ended at three o’clock in the morning, after a slight break for Maariv. Rav Shmuel described the infernal heat that existed in the Shanghai ghetto, as well as the many cases of fainting that he experienced and the rivers that he sweated. These rivers of sweat, he would later recount, prevented him from writing his Torah commentaries on the page without the writing getting smudged and erased. He also recounted how the terrible darkness imposed during the night, due to the fear of allied bombing, showed him how it was possible for complete darkness to reign outside – without light and without hope – and yet inside there was a precious light that pierced the pages of the Gemara.

Although the war had ended in Europe in May of 1945, battles were still raging on the Pacific front during that summer of 5705, when the United States gradually began to invade Japan, and Shanghai became a favorite target of heavy and horrific bombing raids. Next to the Yeshiva building were two targets favored by the Americans, whose aerial bombardments were methodical and precise. One target was a building housing the main offices of the Japanese Navy, while the other was a police building that had been disguised as a hospital, but had been uncovered by American intelligence. Even though both buildings were constantly under attack, no bombs ever touched the Yeshiva.

The Yeshiva was a safe haven – no bomb ever came
within the confines of the Jewish house of worship

Later, Rav Shmuel recounted that he would customarily see terrifying sights on his way to the Yeshiva: the dying and “living dead” being piled up into heaps. Although the students would see this on a daily basis, they never altered their rigorous study schedule. What was even more amazing was that from the Yeshiva windows, they could look out every morning and see the terrified faces of Chinese and Japanese citizens – men, women, and children – flooding the Yeshiva courtyard in great numbers at the start of each bombing raid, for word had spread all throughout the city that the Yeshiva was a safe haven – that no bomb ever came within the confines of the Jewish house of worship. Indeed, numerous bombs fell on Shanghai both day and night, yet nothing fell upon the holy Yeshiva. There were thousands of pounds of explosives dropped on Shanghai during that horrifying time, yet the students continued to learn Torah and always remained protected.

The holy mashgiach, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l, described the situation as follows: “During those five years of exile, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum literally sustained the Yeshiva for us by the power of his hasmadah – his incredible diligence!”

Rabbi Dovid Hoffman is the author of the popular “Torah Tavlin” book series, filled with stories, wit and hundreds of divrei Torah, including the brand new “Torah Tavlin Yamim Noraim” in stores everywhere. You’ll love this popular series. Also look for his book, “Heroes of Spirit,” containing one hundred fascinating stories on the Holocaust. They are fantastic gifts, available in all Judaica bookstores and online at To receive Rabbi Hoffman’s weekly “Torah Tavlin” sheet on the parsha, e-mail


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