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13 Kislev 5766 - December 14, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Final Days of the War in the Pacific and the Jews of Shanghai

by A. Bernstein

To this day, writers and scholars continue to dispute the necessity of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to induce the Japanese government — determined to defend "the honor of the Japanese Empire" to the end — to surrender. The debate was renewed last summer, the sixtieth anniversary of the dropping of the bombs. "Victory or death," was the Japanese' motto, but did hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens really have to die?

Everything that transpires in the world is primarily for the sake of Am Yisroel. As the world, last summer, remembered the events that interested it, we thought it appropriate to focus our attention on the Torah world in those days. This article focuses on what the end of the war and the Japanese occupation of China meant for the 25,000 Jewish refugees sojourning in China during this period, who did not know when and how the war and the deadly bombing would come to an end. The slogan in the street was, "Down to the last Japanese soldier."

The following is a description of those harrowing times and the horrors of war chronicled in Volume 3 of Hazericha Bepa'asei Kedem.


While the yeshiva students of Shanghai were waging the war of Torah in the beis medrash night and day, battles between Japan and the US raged nearby, reaching their height in the spring and summer of 5705 (1945).

At the beginning of Iyar (late April) the fall of Nazi Germany was complete. The Germans had announced their unconditional surrender to the Allies, bringing the war in Europe to an end. The roar of artillery fire stopped, and quiet settled on the war-ravaged continent soaked with Jewish blood.

Meanwhile, in the East, the fighting intensified. The Japanese, in the spirit of their ancient tradition of "victory or death," continued to wage battle with dogged determination, resisting the Americans with the last of their strength and contemptuously rejecting every proposal for surrender.

The Pearl Harbor days were over for Japan. (The 64th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack was last week.) The US army had scored one victory after another, taking over the Pacific islands one after the next and constantly forcing Japanese retreats. The Japanese fought furiously, with the courage of a wounded animal. They fought kamikaze battles, falling by the thousands. "Japan will never surrender!" officials in Tokyo kept repeating to the bleeding nation. "The Japanese people are proud and do not know the concept of surrender."

Spring passed. The American offense grew stronger, day by day. The Philippine Islands, which had great strategic and economic importance — including Manila, which was one of the Japanese's main strongholds in Asia — fell into American hands. The front was coming closer to Japan itself. The invasion and conquest of Japan by US troops was clearly just a question of time.

Tensions on the east coast of China also rose during these fateful days. In order to make the invasion of Japan easier, the Americans decided to open a second front on Chinese soil. Knowing the Japanese would defend their homeland down to the last drop of blood and that victory would cost them dearly, the Americans decided to launch an attack on Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation, forcing the Japanese to send a substantial number of the troops there to defend the area.

Shanghai was about to turn into a bloody battlefront. The Japanese started making preparations to defend against the US attack with all their renowned determination. They had resolved not to let Shanghai fall into US hands and if necessary, to turn it into a second Battle of Stalingrad.

The name Stalingrad was synonymous with the idea of valiant defense. The Russians had displayed unsurpassed bravery in resisting the German army, which outmatched it in strength and numbers. Stalingrad was under siege for months, hungry and under heavy fire. The Russian soldiers, weak with hunger, fought over every street and every house. The city was pounded with shelling and aerial bombing that killed thousands of residents. The Red Army sacrificed hundreds of thousands of soldiers defending the divided and besieged city, but eventually prevailed. A significant portion of the German forces were encircled and taken captive and the remaining German forces retreated and fled. This marked the first turning point on the way towards Germany's defeat in Europe.

At this point the Japanese made a defiant decision: Shanghai would become another Stalingrad. The city would not be captured by the Americans, no matter how much blood was spilled. They began to buttress the city with extensive, precisely-placed reinforcements. The main streets and the side streets leading to them turned into entrenched positions. Rows of sandbags stretched as far as the eye could see. Machine guns and artillery guns were placed on building rooftops. Trenches were burrowed the length of the sidewalks a short distance from one another and were set up for use as combat positions if necessary. Within a matter of weeks, all of Shanghai turned into a fortress.

Fear for the Future

Local residents watched wide-eyed. The army's painstaking preparations made clear to them what lay in store. Pessimists (and everyone was pessimistic by then) were convinced that when the American attack began, house-to- house fighting would take place in every nook and cranny; nobody dared to describe the price in blood these battles would exact.

Reports from the battlefields further strengthened the atmosphere of fear hanging in the air. The media related the bitter fate of Manila, which had been captured by the US during this period. The Japanese had fought very hard over Manila, buttressing their positions in every part of the city and waging tough battles that caused the local population much suffering. During the final days before the fall of Manila, the Japanese command imposed a regime of terror and executions without trial. Any citizen suspected of "espionage" or of sympathizing with the Americans was put to death. Whites were slaughtered as if they were made to pay the price of victory by the despised white enemy, the US.

In Shanghai, the white residents (including the Jews) wondered if they would suffer a similar fate. A sense of dread prevailed.

When summer began, the fear of aerial bombing joined their list of concerns. The US Air Force began raining bombs on various parts of the city in preparation for the land invasion. Every night, at almost the same time, the air- raid sirens would sound and frightened residents would rush to the nearest bomb shelter. The main targets were the factories serving the military industry and the naval facilities near the port, both of which were in close proximity to the Jewish ghetto. Ghetto residents were terrorized by these bombing forays, which would one day be etched into their memories as an ongoing nightmare.

The Japanese aerial defense grew weaker from day to day. Fierce battles were fought over the skies of Shanghai in plain view of the frightened citizens. American planes began to appear during the day as well, dropping their lethal payloads for hours on end. The deafening noise of the explosions became more frequent.

In the ghetto, where most homes had no bomb shelter, residents felt like they were stuck in a deathtrap. When the blood-chilling air-raid sirens began to sound, many ran to the nearby botei knesses. All-too-familiar with the sight of flames and pillars of smoke rising from the bombing targets and the sound of entire buildings crashing down on the people inside, they would recite Tehillim fervently. Between one bomb and the next they kept prayer vigils. In the face of death they asked for Heavenly Mercy and cried out to their Father in Heaven.

Entire quarters of the city, particularly near the port, turned into heaps of rubble. Flocks of bomber planes filled the skies, black and fearsome, seeding endless death and destruction. Thousands of residents of Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods were killed by the bombing during those terrifying days. Dozens of Jewish refugees were killed, too.

The Jewish Ghetto of Shanghai

Despite the loss of life, the people of the ghetto witnessed many open miracles during this period. Japanese weapons manufacturers were located in close proximity to the ghetto. With bombing targets so nearby, the number of casualties in the ghetto could easily have been ten times higher, even though the Americans knew about and tried not to harm the Jewish ghetto. Even at the height of the calamity, Hashem's Mercy was revealed to the remnants of His people.

There were no bomb shelters anywhere in the ghetto except for one at the neighborhood police station next to Beis Knesses Ohel Moshe. That building had been converted into a hospital. A white flag waved over the roof to prevent the Americans from bombing it. The truth of the matter was that the Japanese also used it as a military warehouse, packing in large stores of guns and ammunition. Numerous Jews from the area would crowd into the building's bomb shelter whenever the bombs started to fall, hoping they would be safer here.

Using the spy network they had laid out in Shanghai, the Americans learned about the ruse and it immediately turned into a target for heavy bombing. Hundreds of helpless Jews were packed into the bomb shelter, sure their time had come. Miraculously, the building stayed standing and nobody was injured. No one could explain how the Americans had failed to destroy the building with their surgical strikes.

Yeshivas Mir

The miracles that took place at Yeshivas Mir were especially fascinating. Like a kindly father, the Mashgiach would frequently offer the frightened boys encouragement. Over and over again, he urged them to continue learning as always, to focus all their attention on Torah and not to be afraid of the danger. "All of the bnei Torah of Shanghai will survive the bombings unscathed, be'eizer Hashem," he promised. "If suffering has been decreed for them, choliloh, they will have their share of suffering through the fear. Nothing bad will happen to any of them!"

His powerful words planted tremendous bitochon in every heart. At the time, the yeshiva was still housed in a dilapidated building on Beacle Street. The building was so unsound it could easily have collapsed just from the shockwaves from an explosion. Yet while other sturdy new buildings nearby were reduced to rubble, the rickety yeshiva building remained standing. At times the walls and windows shook and it seemed as if any moment the whole building would come tumbling down — but nothing happened.

The day most etched into the memories of the yeshiva students was the 7th of Av 5705 (July 17, 1945). That was the day one of the most massive bombing raids was carried out on the area of the yeshiva, a fatal bombing attack that wiped entire clusters of buildings off the face of the earth. The building on Beacle Street quaked so powerfully that the hundreds of bochurim felt the ground move beneath their feet. Many of them closed their eyes, fearing what would happen next. But when the shockwaves passed, once again the building remained standing, as if mocking the enormous, sophisticated bombers trying vainly to harm it.

They breathed a great sigh of relief, which was immediately followed by grave concern. A few of the yeshiva students had been lying sick in their rooms that day in one of the dorm buildings and to their great horror they found it had totally collapsed. The bochurim raced frantically to search for their friends, certain they would have to dig through the piles of rubble to reach them and who knew what they would find?

Instead they were astonished to discover that all four bochurim who had been in the destroyed building were safe and sound. Each of them had his own story of open miracles to tell.

One of the talmidim had felt very sick and spent the whole day confined to his bed. Just moments before the bombing, he had gotten out of bed to step out into the courtyard. The moment he reached the edge of the courtyard furthest from the building, the bomb landed.

Another talmid, Yehuda Dickstein, had dozed off in his second-story room when the bomb hit. The floor of his room collapsed, sending bed and bochur tumbling down. The walls and stones came crashing down on top and he found himself buried under the debris as darkness surrounded him. A single sliver of light flickered through a tiny crack.

Through superhuman efforts Yehuda pushed the heaps of stones far enough out of the way to create an escape route. Eventually, he managed to free himself. Dazed and confused, he suddenly emerged from beneath the rubble, still unable to grasp what had transpired. Only after he saw himself covered with dust and dirt, his face black with soot, did he begin to realize he had been buried alive. Except for a bump on his head that healed after a few days without treatment, he had gotten out in one piece.

He was elated and did not stop asking himself what he had done to merit such a wondrous miracle. "Call me Zayin Menachem Av," he told his friends. "That way I will never forget the miracle that happened to me on this day."

The third of the four also found himself buried under an enormous pile of rubble. Every floor of the building was completely destroyed, except for one flight of stairs that somehow remained standing. The bochur could not say how he wound up under the stairs at the moment the bomb hit. Nonetheless, he was buried in rubble, but the stairs stood erect, suspended in midair, protecting the bochur lying trapped underneath.

When his fellow yeshiva students arrived at the scene and began to dig through the rubble he found a way to signal for them to come to him. Through chasdei Shomayim the bochurim managed to extricate him unharmed. Afterwards his friends kept gathering around him, dumbfounded to see that he had gotten out without a single scratch!

The fourth survivor, R' Elchonon Yosef Hertzman, recalls the circumstances of his rescue: "I wasn't feeling well on that unforgettable 7th of Av, so I lay in my room. I couldn't decide whether or not to go to the doctor. To tell the truth, I was leaning towards not going because it was a mild illness and I hoped that with Hashem's help I would recuperate without medical intervention. But for some reason my legs started to take me toward the doctor without me knowing why. I was simply forced from Above to get up and go, in order to save me from the devastation.

"Right at the time I was at the clinic the building was hit and totally destroyed. Later we learned that the Japanese radio station in Shanghai was located right near the building and, determined to destroy it, the Americans were bombing the area heavily.

"After that day, the bombing continued, not ceasing until the Japanese surrender. They increased, becoming even more frightful, as the US Navy prepared to invade Shanghai from the sea. But we were all miraculously saved from these bombing, too. Words cannot describe chasdei Hashem and all of the miracles He did for us constantly, day in and day out."

Even the Chinese, who literally worship wood and stone, realized Divine Providence was watching over the bnei Torah. Whenever the air-raid siren sounded they would gather around the yeshiva students!

One of the veteran talmidim, HaRav Moshe Binyomin Bernstein zt"l, also had fascinating stories to tell. During the period of the bombing, for some reason, one day the learning took place in a particularly ramshackle building. When exceptionally destructive bombing started, most of the talmidim rushed to a nearby bomb shelter. Maran HaMashgiach HaRav Yechezkel Levenstein zt"l was unfazed by the thunderous explosions and remained in his place, learning mussar with a clear head and marvelous composure. Other talmidim, including HaRav Bernstein, stayed with him in the building and the experience was etched into their hearts until their dying day. To them, it was clear as day that his zchus alone was keeping the building from falling down.

"On that day, we saw how right Maran the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l had been when he said that without the Mashgiach we would not have been able to survive the Golus. All of us clearly felt that it was only through the power of his tefilloh and the zchus of his tzidkus that we merited all of the miracles and all of these wondrous occurrences."

The Americans' preparations for the big attack on Shanghai remained in high gear. The time was imminent. According to rumors, a massive US fleet was cruising in the Pacific, waiting for the signal to launch an attack, and thousands of paratroopers were also standing by to provide aerial assistance in the campaign to take over the city.

The Japanese grew more nervous from day to day. They continued buttressing the city madly. Frightful machine guns were installed on every rooftop and trenches were dug into the streets for kamikaze soldiers to use as battling positions. (Several of these positions were readied on Chushan Street, as well, not far from the yeshiva.) The Japanese commanders kept saying they should fight over Shanghai (which had turned into a symbol of national pride) down to the last soldier and that they would never retreat. Their plans included street fighting in the heart of the civilian population, which would mean a bloodbath for the men, women and children. Shanghai was about to turn into a deathtrap for its residents.

The heads of the city's three yeshivas were well aware of the terrible danger and constantly sought ways to save their students. The most viable proposal appeared to be to flee north to the city of Tansin in the interior of the country. This large city had a kehilloh numbering about 200 Jews who had immigrated from Europe. They were willing to take in the yeshiva members with open arms and take care of all their needs. Tansin was located far from the coast, free from the dreadful bombs and the approaching front. Compared to Shanghai, Tansin seemed safe and serene. Many felt that fleeing to it was the best option for escape.

But the Mashgiach, HaRav Levenstein, differed. He weighed the matter and reached a firm decision: No. He explained that the preparations and the journey would sever the talmidim from their learning for several days. According to his psak, bitul Torah was the greatest danger of all, far more dangerous than the American bombs and the battles liable to take place in Shanghai. During these difficult times, the Mashgiach asserted warmly, every moment without Torah was to be regretted.

After each of his decisions, through some fabulous means, we invariably discovered that it had saved the yeshiva from calamity. His decision on the Tansin question was further proof of his sagacity—"chochom odif minovi."

After the war, the students found out that during this period a bloody civil war broke out in Tansin. The communist underground tried to revolt against the government. Vicious battles were waged against the Nationalist Army forces. The two sides slaughtered one another ruthlessly, destroying whole neighborhoods and spilling civilian blood in the process. The first to fall victim to both camps, the communists and the nationalists, were the white, foreign residents. "Had we been tempted to uproot ourselves from Shanghai who knows whether any of us would have survived, choliloh?" said one of the talmidim, when he later learned of the danger we had been in.

Goral HaGro

At the height of the debate, a group of students, like on previous occasions, decided to use Goral HaGro, a special technique for reaching decisions. An exceptional talmid chochom involved in the decision-making process had experience using Goral HaGro, such as before submitting requests for exit visas to the secret police in Vilna.

Once again he counted the pages, the verses and the words in the Tanach and again received an astonishingly unambiguous response. Hashgochoh protis led him to Yeshayohu 37:35, which reads, "For I will defend this city to save it, for My own sake and for the sake of Dovid My servant." This short, clear verse shed light on all of the questions. We would remain in Shanghai!

Under the circumstances, these words hinted at the city of Shanghai and the war that was about to break out in it. It contained a Heavenly promise to defend the city from the battles soon to take place. Shanghai's zchus was also clearly indicated in the verse— "ulemaan Dovid avdi." The servants of Hashem in the city were the bnei Torah cleaving with mesirus nefesh to Hashem and His Torah.

Thus the course of action was now clear: to stay in Shanghai, as dangerous and frightful as it seemed, and to await chasdei Shomayim.

A sudden calm settled on the chareidi community. The city no longer seemed like the mouth of a volcano ready to erupt but a safe and protected place. All who were let in on the secret of the Goral were certain that no evil would befall Shanghai.

At the time, there was no way of knowing how close the war was to an end. Thousands of miles away, in the nuclear installations of the US, final preparations were underway for the dropping of the A-bomb on Japan, the bomb that would finally bring the six-year war to its end. Just two weeks after the Goral, the promise of safety and security came true.

The final days of the war were filled with spiritual fortification and tremendous yegiyoh in Torah. At the end of Menachem Av, the prolonged nightmare finally reached its end when Japan announced its unconditional surrender.

A horrific historical event that became known as one of the greatest tragedies known to mankind brought about Japan's final fall and its surrender to the Allies. The atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the deaths of well over one hundred thousand people, the utter destruction of the two cities and endless suffering and pain for years to come.

Realizing there was no hope of ending the war without invading the Japanese mainland, which would entail massive casualties, the US decided there was no alternative other than to use nuclear weapons—the most lethal weapon in the chronicles of human history. Only the atomic bomb, President Truman and his Cabinet held, would break Japanese obduracy and force them to surrender.

Unconditional Surrender

On Monday, 27 Av 5705 (August 6, 1945) the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, on the last day of Av, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese people took a brutal, crushing blow that brought them to their breaking point. On 6 Elul (August 15) the Japanese emperor announced that his country would accept the Joint Declaration of Peace.

Reports of Japanese surrender quickly spread around the world. In the Far East, where the war had raged on until that very day and millions of people had undergone suffering beyond description, the streets were brimming with joy.

For the people of Shanghai, who had lost hope of surviving the war, it meant last-minute salvation from certain destruction. The city went from despair to jubilation. Many Shanghai residents burst out in uncontrollable tears of joy. Friends and relatives fell on one another with hugs and kisses as tears slid down their cheeks.

In the botei knesses the Jews offered ardent prayers of thanks and sang songs of praise and exultation. Many people started to kick up their feet spontaneously and it seemed that even the walls were dancing with them.


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