Pregnancy and Re-Birth in Shanghai

Pregnancy and Re-Birth in Shanghai

Last week my husband attended a lecture at Hebrew University by our dear friend, Professor Vera Schwarcz, whom he studied with and befriended when he was a student at Wesleyan University many years ago.

Vera is a world-renowned expert on Chinese culture. There is even (I just found out) an entire Wikipedia entry devoted to her! She’s also a proud JewishMOM and grandmother and a deeply religious Jew.

Josh came home from the lecture and told me I HAD to write about the lecture, which was all about the power of the Jewish mother and fertility and Torah and hope, for And, after I heard more about it, I totally agreed with him.

Vera spoke about the 23,000 European Jewish refugees who resided in the Shanghai ghetto during World War II.

Among the refugees were many who, in response to the Shoah, gave up all hope. These women chose to stop becoming pregnant or aborted their pregnancies. One such broken woman told her Chinese doctor, as a heartbreaking explanation for the negative birth rate in her community, “We are a finished people.”

And who could blame her? This response to the unfathomable murder of 6 million Jews, including her family members and loved ones, was a natural one, an understandable one, a logical one, even.

Which made it even more remarkable that many of the refugees chose an opposite path–a path of fertility and (re)birth, passion for Torah, and impossible hope despite the attempted genocide raging full-speed ahead several time zones to the west.

These women, including the wives among the 400 refugees from the Mir Yeshiva, never stopped having children. Vera was struck that in every single photo of the women from this community, the women are always either pregnant or holding babies.

Women who become pregnant and have children, Vera explained, are, by definition, women who have hope. Women who believe in the future.

Jewish refugees standing outside a bomb shelter in Shanghai in 1944

This passion to continue Jewish life could also be seen among the Jewish men. The Mir yeshiva students had barely any books to learn from. So when they managed, with great difficulty, to print up several copies of Talmud Tractate Gittin, the students did not sleep the entire night. They stayed up the whole night dancing with joy, the Talmuds cradled in their arms like their wives’ newborn babies.

The family of Rebbetzin Chaya Walkin, who lived in Shanghai as a child, suffered from great poverty, and chose to eat half-portions of food for many months in order to save the money necessary to print up their grandfather’s Talmudic commentary so the yeshiva students would have another sefer from which they could learn.

Rebbetzin Walkin also recalled the “Malbushim HaKavod” (clothing of honor) that she and all of her family members wore every Shabbat.

“We only had two outfits, one for the weekday and one for the Shabbos and holidays…[When we put them on] my mother would repeat again and again: ‘Malbushim Kovod! Malbushim Kovod!”

The mind-blowing spiritual resilience of these refugees, during the Shoah, is awe-inspiring. But it is nothing new for the descendants of Miriam the Prophetess who encouraged her father, at the darkest moments of Egyptian slavery, to rejoin her mother in order to have another baby–whom they named Moses.

Because impossible hope has been, and always will be, a Jewish way of life.


  1. I love this picture!

  2. I myself was born in Shanghai right after the war. I am trying to write a book about my parents experiences there, so if anyone has any other interesting stories or insights, I would be delighted to hear from you. Thank you!

  3. Very inspiring. I know Rabbi Walkin and his son Rabbi Aharon Walkin (I am assuming the son and grandson of Rebbetzin Walkin?) from Queens, huge talmidei chachamim. I am sure it is also in the zchut of these righteous women.

  4. This article is about my grandmother, Rebitzen Chaya Walkin Small. She survived the war years in Shanghai and is working on her memoirs with Vera.

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