It sounded like a gunshot in the night, and nine-year-old Yehudith Cohn woke up with a start. Again it came—this time she was sure the unmistakable sound of shattering glass was coming from her parents’ store below. Carl Cohn, Yehudith’s father, narrowly avoided arrest by the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s dreaded secret police. He risked his life to save a sefer Torah from a burning shul, smuggling it into a taxi after “dressing” it in a man’s coat and hat With the help of a German official who had fought alongside him in the Great War, he was able to secure travel papers for his family’s escape…
Flash-forward to Pesach, 1939, en route to Shanghai, China: The ship’s horn blasted one last time as it slipped away from the dock. Yehudith watched as the sailors coiled the thick ropes, and thought of how her ties to her homeland were being severed forever. Although she knew her family were among the lucky few to escape, her heart was filled with uncertainty about the future…
These are some of the vivid memories of Kristallnacht and the months thereafter that remained with Mrs. Yehudith (Cohn) Goldbart, a”h, her entire life. Recently, her family donated a fascinating collection of artifacts and documents to the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center, capturing the story of her remarkable life spanning three continents.
From the time Yehudith began teaching in her teenage years until the end of her life, she had an innate desire and ability to imbue others with her love of Torah and mitzvos. Where did Yehudith get the knowledge and inspiration to dedicate herself to these values? The answer lies in her Shanghai sojourn, a most unlikely origin for a future teacher of American Jewish youth.
In Poland, Frau Sarah Schenirer, the matriarch of Torah education for girls, founded the first Bais Yaakov. In the Far East, her legacy lived on. A small group of Frau Schenirer’s students organized a fledgling school, and Yehudith Cohn became a Bais Yaakov girl, changing her life forever. In the early days, the girls would crowd into the teacher’s small apartment, perched on covered beds and rickety chairs. In the sweltering heat of the East Asian summer, they would gather to hear peirush hatefillah and parshah stories. It was not just the Torah lessons that young Yehudith absorbed; her teachers were role models of sterling character and dedication to Torah values.
Kweming Road, Shanghai, spring 1944: Thirteen-year-old Yehudith is on her way home from Bais Yaakov and passing her teacher’s house. Right outside, twenty Chinese prisoners are chained to each other at their ankles, as their Japanese guard prods them to dig trenches. Yehudith notices her teacher, Rebbetzin Yenta Mannes, watching from her window. As soon as the guard turns his back, Rebbetzin Mannes drops small pieces of bread to the starving prisoners. Yehudith watches as they look up to the window with tearfilled eyes, putting their hands together in a gesture of profound gratitude.
Through the struggles of war and exile, Yehudith and others like her drew strength from our Torah traditions. Thousands of years before the Holocaust, the nascent Jewish people fought for their spiritual and physical survival under the oppression of Egypt. How did they survive? Chazal tell us it was with the traditions of their ancestors that kept their faith strong. One such example is the work of Yaakov Avinu himself, who prepared his children for the long galus by planting seedlings that would grow into the trees needed for the Mishkan. Imagine the scene during the darkest days of Egyptian slavery. A father and son drag themselves out to backbreaking labor, and as they trudge along, the father whispers, “Son, do you see those huge trees? The Zeide Yaakov planted them so we can build a home for the Shechinah when we leave this place!” Undoubtedly, it was moments like these that kept their hope alive.
In every galus, we have strong trees to lean on. In recent times, a sapling called Bais Yaakov spread its branches to support new generations of Jewish girls.
In 2009, Yehudith Goldbart passed away. Although this remarkable woman ever had children of her own, the seeds she planted in her students will surely bear fruit forever.