originally published in Community Magazine
New Brooklyn Museum committed to revealing the unknown stories of heroism and faith that withstood the horrors of the Holocaust.
The joy of Adar abruptly turned to terror on Shabbat morning, 8 Adar, 5703 (February 13, 1943), when German officers stormed the synagogue and threatened to wipe out the entire community.
The Jewish community of Djerba, a sunny island off the Tunisian coast, had flourished for over two millennia, but during the Second World War, Nazi Germany occupied the island, putting the lives of its Jewish population in immediate and grave danger.
The officers demanded from the community an exorbitant bribe of 50 kilograms (110 lbs.) of gold in exchange for the right to live. They warned that if the gold was not handed over within three hours, the community members would all be killed. Rabbi Khalfon Moshe Hakohen, the revered rabbi, immediately instructed the people to bring their gold in order to save the community. The rabbi’s illustrious disciple, Rav Rachamim Hai Havitah Hakohen, broke the wall in his house to take his life’s savings which had been hidden inside the wall. Many others did the same, bringing all the money and jewelry they owned. Still, it was not enough to pay the extortionate bribe.
Seeing there was still a shortfall, Rav Khalfon rode by car – although it was still Shabbat – to the Hara Seghira community in the small Jewish Quarter to collect the outstanding amount. Even the golden bells decorating the Torah scrolls were removed in a desperate attempt to save the Jews’ lives. The Germans collected 42 kilograms of gold, and agreed to give the Jews until Sunday to come up with the balance. On Sunday, the Jews were prepared to deliver an additional eight kilograms, until the joyous news arrived – Allied forces had invaded Tunisia, driving the Nazis out of the country.
The Jews still had the eight kilograms, and they were now faced with the question of how it should be returned. Was it to be distributed proportionately among the community, or should the Hara Seghira receive its portion back in full? This question was addressed by Rav Rahamim Hai Havitah Hakohen in his work Simhat Kohen, where he discusses the halachah in great detail (he ruled that it should be distributed proportionally).
This remarkable story, and the concern for strict compliance with halachic minutiae even under the most trying circumstances, is just one example of how Jews continued to show unwavering loyalty to the Torah during the dark days of the Holocaust.
This heroic fealty to faith during World War II is now being memorialized by a new initiative – the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center (KFHEC), which is set to open in Boro Park next year.
From Pre-War Glory to Post-War Renewal
The education center was originally founded several years ago by Mr. Elly Kleinman, a well-known philanthropist and businessman. His parents, Holocaust survivors, imbued within his family a keen sense of responsibility to recall this unprecedented catastrophe that befell the Jewish nation just 70 years ago. More specifically, Mr. Kleinman has set his sights upon memorializing the extraordinary spirit of emunah (faith) that so many Jews managed to retain despite the horrors and atrocities which they witnessed and experienced firsthand. And so he founded KFHEC for the purpose of perpetuating the legacy of these heroes who remained loyal to Jewish faith and practice after the Holocaust and worked to rebuild Torah Judaism in the United States.
The education center, which plans to open its new home above the Agudas Yisrael shul at 1561 50th Street, seeks to convey the historical narrative of the Holocaust through the Orthodox Jewish perspective, and provide inspiration by showing our predecessors’ heroic commitment to Torah values during history’s darkest hours. Special programs for children will convey the vital lessons of faith that can and must be learned from those who lived and died at the hands of the Nazi murder machine. The center also seeks to preserve the memory and history of the Jewish world that existed before the war, and help us all learn from the magnificent communities throughout Europe and parts of Asia which were lost. The splendor of the Chassidic courts, the intensity of the Lithuanian yeshivot, and the rich traditions of Sephardic communities all come to life in vivid exhibits and enlightening public programs designed to imbue visitors of all ages with an appreciation and knowledge of the Jews of previous generations.
Visitors to the center will be greeted by a short film that will introduce them to the hallowed space dedicated to the sacred memory of the Holocaust martyrs. A striking three-tiered exhibition, revolving around a series of exhibition stops, will trace the history of the Holocaust from the pre-War period through the liberation of the camps and the subsequent miraculous rebirth of Orthodox Jewry after the war. The KFHEC’s devoted staff is currently working vigilantly to collect and catalog a broad archive of donated artifacts that highlight the heretofore untold stories of heroism and faith. Tefillin, sewing patterns, military uniforms, and countless other precious relics are all waiting to tell their stories of faith and heroism, offering us an opportunity to preserve the memory of those who lived and died during that period, and to gain inspiration from them for our own lives.
Guests will be able to explore a state-of-the-art interactive media center, which offers valuable digital and online resources, and browse the KFHEC library, which already consists of over 3,000 volumes of halachic responsa and other works relevant to the Holocaust, including the aforementioned Simhat Kohenby the great Tunisian sage Rabbi Hai Havitah Hakohen.
Escape to Shanghai
On May 14th, KFHEC is offering the public a preview of its work, inviting everyone to the Kol Yaakov hall in Brooklyn to follow the remarkable journey of a young German girl named Yehudith Cohn Goldbart. Using materials from a collection of artifacts donated by a survivor’s family, which were examined and prepared by the center’s professional curators, KFHEC’s staff recreated Yehudith’s story in the form of a stunning panorama spanning three continents. Visitors will join nine-year-old Yehudith as she escapes the conflagration of Europe to the teeming city of Shanghai, China. Thanks to an established Sephardic community founded with the help of Sir Horace Kadoorie of Baghdad, the Cohns and many other refugee families settled in Shanghai during the Holocaust. Yehudith attended the Kadoorie School until students of the renowned Sarah Schenirer opened a small Bais Yaakov, in which she then enrolled. Yehudith blossomed under the tutelage of her Bais Yaakov teachers, and later, after the war, made her way to the US. She never forgot those lessons forged in the heat of the Asian summers, and she continued to be a driving force in girls Torah education throughout her life.
Chronicles of Heroism and Faith
This is just one of the many stories waiting to be discovered at KFHEC. The center’s research division has unearthed numerous little-known details about the Jews’ experiences before, during and after the war. One such story, of particular interest to the Sephardic community, involves the Jews of Morocco and its king at the time, King Mohammed V. In the early years of the Second World War, Morocco was controlled by the pro-Nazi French authorities, known as the Vichy regime. The king, however, opposed the anti-Semitic decrees of the French authorities and refused to impose the restrictions which were declared in France. In 1941, King Mohammed openly flaunted the Nazis by inviting Morocco’s rabbis to the traditional throne ceremony, a major event held annually in the royal palace. King Mohammed reportedly told the Nazis, “There are no Jews in Morocco, only citizens.” (Interestingly enough, Morocco is home to the only Jewish museum in the Islamic world. On a quiet street in an upper-class neighborhood in Casablanca sits the Musee du Juaisme Marocain de Casablanca, the Museum of Moroccan Jewry. The simple structure houses an eclectic collection of historical pieces, and while the museum does not receive a steady stream of visitors, the museum’s very existence is a source of great pride to the local Jewish and Muslim populations.)
KFHEC has already hosted several communal events, including a series of classes run in partnership with the Jewish Enrichment Center of NY. Participants take part in a three-month course, after which they embark on a tour of Poland and Hungary with a specific focus on sites rich in Jewish history.
KFHEC is committed to telling the largely unknown stories of faith amid horrific tragedy, of an unwavering commitment to Gd and Torah that could not be shaken by even the most gruesome and brutal atrocities ever committed by one nation against another. These stories will, without doubt, inspire and challenge all of us to strengthen our own commitment and resolve, and to learn from the holy martyrs of the Holocaust of how the flames of faith can withstand the greatest challenges, and how Jewish belief can survive and flourish even under the harshest conditions.