By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Their ordeal is well known and well-documented. Students from the Mir Yeshiva escaped the clutches of the Nazis by a hairsbreadth – and went to Kobe, Japan and then spent the war years in Shanghai, China. But how did these Yeshiva boys arrive in the United States? An 18 year old Sally Cohen (now Mrs. Hirsch) traveled with the Mir Yeshiva from Shanghai to the United States. The ship they traveled on was the SS General M.C. Meigs, a US Navy ship. It departed on January 1st, 1949 and arrived on January 24th, 1949. The Mir students and Miss Cohen traveled third class. She shared her experience with the Five Towns Jewish Times.
YH: Mrs. Hirsch, how did you come in contact with the Mir Yeshiva?
SH: While we were in Shanghai – the Mir students gave classes and taught the local Sefardic Jewish community all sorts of Torah classes. They would teach us in the main Sefardic shul in Shanghai. They were single bochurim and they made us all frummer. One of their names was Rabbi Schechter, another Rabbi Borgen.. I don’t remember all their names anymore but many of them became important Rabbis later on in America.
YH: Are you still in touch with any of them?
SH: I did run into them throughout the years, but there is hardly anyone left anymore.
YH: Where did the Mir boys stay?
SH: In Shanghai they lived in a ghetto called Honque. They would come to the Sefardic community often and they had their own minyan for Maariv later in the Sefardic shul.. They also had all their weddings there during the night.
YH: The Japanese had occupied China at the time?
SH: Yes. All the American Mir bochurim had to wear a big A on their clothing.. The British had to wear a B. They called us Naquni – which meant All foreigners in Japanese.. But the Mir boys were all in the Honque.
YH: Why did you decide to go to America?
SH: I wanted to continue in a Bais Yaakov environment. Rebbitzen Kaplan had a Bais Yaakov on South Ninth Street in Williamsburg and the plan was for me to go there.
YH: How many girls from Shanghai came over with you?
SH: There were a little less than ten.. But the Yeshiva boys were a lot.
YH: How did you feel travelling without family?
SH: I was frightened and I was plenty scared.. Because we were Shomer Shabbos my father asked the Rabbi what to do about travelling.. He was told that we had to come on the boat early a couple days before Shabbos and then it would be muttar.
YH: What did the ticket for the ship cost?
SH: Not a penny. The American Navy ship brought us all here for free – there was no ticket cost.
YH: What was the ship ride like?
SH: Most of us were sick the whole time. The ship was light boat and there were no individual rooms. The beds were in one big room – bed after bed after bed. The girls and women were in a different room but the same way. First we stopped in Guam and the ship refilled with food supplies. We did not get off the ship in Guam though. Then we stopped in Honolulu. They took us to the Jewish community there. There was one house in which we all gathered. The Jewish people there were very nice. They loaded us up with sardines and canned goods.
YH: Did the Mir boys have minyanim and a Sefer Torah?
SH: I can hardly remember. Remember, I was a very young girl then..
YH: What were the meals like?
SH: Well, almost all of us were very sick and we barely ate anything. The cooks used to try to get us to eat. They said that all the food in the pot this time or that time was kosher – there was no pork in it. But we were all pretty frum and we did not eat of course. We had some of our own kosher food.
YH: How many suitcases did you land with?
SH: I don’t remember but my niece told me that I came with four suitcases. She was able to look it up.
YH: What happened when you landed?
SH: We landed in San Francisco Harbor. They took us to a hotel for three days there. HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society paid for it, but it was arranged through one of the Torah organizations. And then they put us on a train for New York.
YH: What did you do when you arrived in New York?
SH: The Mir boys went to the Yeshiva in Brooklyn and were taken in the dormitories. They made room for them. I was accepted in the Bais Yaakov in New York but there were no dorm places anymore. I stayed with a wonderful family in Boro Park. Rebbitzen Kaplan a”h played ball with us in the park in Williamsburg. There is a park there right next to the Bais Yaakov. This wouldn’t happen nowadays – but she was very close to all the girls.
YH: Thank you so much! ♦