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Writing History, Creating Destiny

Shira Yehudit Djilimand

This week marks the shloshim of Rebbetzin Chana Rotenberg a”h, a remarkable woman whose goal was to transmit the mesorah and Torah of the previous generation. This mission shaped her every deed, whether hand-copying her husband’s magnum opus, discussing chinuch issues with Rav Hutner ztz”l, reaching out to families in Cincinnati, or going blueberry-picking with her children.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

 They were a family with one foot in the past and the other in the future. The Rotenberg home was infused with a fascination with Jewish history, and yet, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Rotenberg were also dedicated educators and innovators — they scanned the horizon of our history, while keeping their eyes trained firmly on the future.

“If you ask me to sum up my grandmother,” says Chaike Oppenheimer, “I would say mesorah. She was a piece of the previous generation that is no more, and she was absolutely dedicated to transmitting the mesorah of those previous generations and their Torah to the coming generations.”


Nothing Else Matters

Chana Zehnwirth was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1920, a scion of two prominent families. Her father, Rav Moshe Yehoshua Heschel Zehnwirth, who was a shochet, was descended from the great chassidic rebbe Rav Naftali of Ropshitz ztz”l, and her mother, Baila Yuta, descended from the great Rav Eliezer Tiefenbrun ztz”l of Krakow.

Times were hard in Poland and in 1927, Rav Zehnwirth and his family fled the crushing poverty, emigrating to America where they settled in the Lower East Side of New York. Their time there was brief. One year, Mothers’ Day fell on Shavuos and Baila Yuta noticed the daughter of her frum neighbor arriving in a car to bring her mother flowers. Horrified, Baila Yuta resolved to take her family back to Poland. Incredibly, the entire family returned to Poland, to the same crushing poverty from which they had fled. As Rav Yaakov Yosef Rotenberg, rosh kollel of K’hal Shaarei Shlomo in Lakewood and one of Rebbetzin Rotenberg’s three sons, points out, “That was unheard of — how many people went back? But it demonstrates a major point that my mother drove home to us: when ruchniyus is at stake, nothing else matters.”

Implanting Ideals

Back in Poland, Rav Zehnwirth tried to make ends meet, but life was hard. In 1933, he returned to America as a shochet — alone. Baila Yuta and the children remained in Krakow. It was during those years that young Chana enrolled in the still-revolutionary Bais Yaakov, founded by Sarah Schenirer. Like most of the young Orthodox girls, she had studied in the public elementary school.

“In those early years,” explains Rabbi Rotenberg, “lots of girls from heimishe families enrolled in the Hebrew gymnasium [a school system of the Haskalah] and it wasn’t considered going off the track. They wanted to continue studying on an intellectual level, and Bais Yaakov wasn’t yet looked on as the first choice.”

Chana’s mother was undoubtedly delighted with her daughter’s decision — Baila Yuta herself had attended Sarah Schenirer’s groups for married women. Chana was so inspired by the Bais Yaakov vision that, when given money for a new pair of shoes (hers had holes), she used it to attend a Bais Yaakov convention in Krakow instead!

There, Chana forged friendships with figures well-known to us today: Rebbetzin Basya Bender, Rebbetzin Chava Wachtfogel, and Mrs. Pearl Benisch, author of To Vanquish the Dragon, a poignant portrayal of the spiritual heroism of the Bais Yaakov girls during the horrors of the Holocaust (which was, in fact, written in large part thanks to Chana’s gentle but persistent persuasion).

In the introduction Rebbetzin Rotenberg wrote for Carry Me in Your Heart, Pearl Benisch’s account of Sarah Schenirer’s life, she describes the ideals they learned to embrace: “We learned that our highest ambition was to study Torah, live Torah, teach Torah, and implant Torah in future generations. Thus not only were we imbued with Torah, we were also imbued with the idea of spreading it through all of Klal Yisrael.” In fact, upon graduation, 17-year-old Chana was chosen to open a new Bais Yaakov school in the distant Polish town of Voidislov.

In April 1939, Chana was standing in line at a Krakow bank when she overheard two soldiers conferring. The Nazis were about to invade Poland, they averred, and Poland didn’t stand a chance. Media censorship had withheld political developments from the populace and Chana was shocked. She went straight home and told her mother that they must escape to America.

Baila Yuta was not impressed. “Who will marry you in America?” she said. It was only when Chana promised to return to Poland after the war to marry a heimishe boy that her mother agreed to procure visas and leave.

Although realistic enough to appreciate the threat hanging over Polish Jews, Chana had her own moral dilemma to resolve before crossing the Atlantic. Upon entering the seminary, all Bais Yaakov students had to commit to teaching the next generation. Perhaps she would not be able to fulfill that commitment in the US, Chana worried. Despite the perilous situation, she felt compelled to explain herself to the principals.

“I had given my word,” she told her children years later.


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