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“These Children are Mine”: The Amazing Story of Sarah Lederman

Dear Friends,

I first met Sarah Lederman when I was a guest for Shabbos meals at the Jerusalem home of my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, and his wife, Rebbitzen Leah Feldman, who is Sarah Lederman’s daughter. At the time, Sarah Lederman was in her 90’s, and was then living with Rav and Rebbitzen Feldman, as she was no longer able to live alone. She was very weak and needed much care. (Subsequently Rav Feldman received the call to serve as the “Rosh Yeshiva” - Dean - of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore; thus, at the time of this writing, Mrs. Lederman was living with her son, Dov Lederman, in Bnei Brak, Israel.) When she sat with us at the Shabbos table, I felt like I was in the presence of a royal and dignified woman. I soon discovered that she was one of the unsung heroes of the Jewish people, and I would therefore like to share with you aspects of her unique story:

During the late 1930’s, Sarah Lederman lived with her husband and her two young children, Dov and Leah, in Warsaw, Poland. Although the majority of Polish Jews were very poor, the Ledermans were considered to be “middle-class.” At the beginning of World War II, when the German army invaded Poland, they began rounding up the Jews. These events caused Sarah to become separated from her husband, but she somehow managed to escape Warsaw with her two young children and cross the border into the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union put her and her children, along with other Jewish refugees, in a slave labor camp, and even the children were forced to do hard work all day. When the war was over, she and her children returned to Poland, and she discovered that her husband was in Israel. 

In gratitude to the Creator for their survival, she decided to devote herself to Jewish orphans who had eluded the German extermination by living as non-Jews in Catholic orphanages or as part of Catholic families. When the war ended, most of these children’s custodians balked at returning them to surviving family members or to Jewish institutions. One can imagine the great grief of the surviving relatives of these children when the Catholic foster parents or orphanages refused to allow these children to return to their families and their people. One third of the Jewish people, including many children, had been murdered, and Jews all over the world were in great anguish at the refusal of Catholic institutions and families to return Jewish children to their people. The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, met with the Pope in an effort to get his help in getting these children released, but the Pope refused to get involved. Sarah Lederman threw herself into the work of rescuing these children and returning them to their families and to their people. Until she was able to smuggle them out of Poland, she took care of the children in a unlicensed orphanage, and with love, gentle patience, and tenderness, she helped them to rediscover their Jewish faith and traditions. She and a group of the children, including her own two children, were in a transport that hoped to reach the Land of Israel. At the border of Czechoslovakia, however, she was arrested by the Polish authorities and imprisoned, but the children, including her own two children, managed to safely cross the border.
The story of her family’s miraculous escape from Warsaw and how she and her two children managed to survive in Russia, as well as the amazing stories of how she managed to return hundreds of Jewish orphans to their people is told in the book, “These Children are Mine,” which is written by her son, Dov Lederman and published by Feldheim Publishers. With remarkable dedication to historical accuracy, the background of this book provides a well-researched and authoritative account of Jewish middle-class life in Poland at the outbreak of World War II, the little-known story of Jewish refugees in Russia, and the difficult and dangerous life of Jewish refugees in post-war Poland. 

Where did Sarah Lederman get the faith, courage, and passion for justice to enable her to defy and outwit the oppressors of her people? The beginning of an answer can be found in the story of Sarah Lederman’s own family background. Her father was a Chassid, a follower of the Rebbe of Radzin. He was highly regarded by the Rebbe, who would spend hours discussing matters of importance with him whenever the Rebbe visited Warsaw. Her father’s Torah values had an enormous impact on Sarah, especially his honesty in business, and his concern for the poor and the downtrodden. For example, her father manufactured cloth ribbons; however, the demands for his merchandise was not too steady, and there were times when there were no orders at all. During such slow periods, his shop, like others in the trade, remained idle. It was then common practice for factories and firms to employ workers only so long as the demand lasted and then to fire them when the last order had been filled. In those times, when unemployment compensation was non-existent, this was tantamount to reducing the worker to begging for his bread, if he did not want to die of starvation. Her father would have none of this. Any worker that he hired was told that the wages in this workshop were slightly below the standard wage for the trade, but once accepted, the employee would be assured of a salary for the entire year, irrespective of the number of days he would actually work.
After she got married and had two children, Sarah Lederman hired as a governess for her children a young Jewish woman named Rachelka, who was a member of the outlawed Communist party. Rachelka’s boyfriend was also a Communist, and he was put in his prison because of his illegal political activities. Sarah helped her governess send her boyfriend food and books when he was in prison. Sarah’s son, Dov Lederman, writes the following about his mother’s relationship with Rachelka:

“Rachelka would often tell Mother that judging from the way she treated those in her employ, she would have made a good Communist. For her part, Mother was also quite unhappy about the prevalent treatment of the working class, who toiled long hours for low pay, at times under unhealthy and even dangerous conditions. She even sympathized with the fiery proclamations about the need for change, but being deeply religious, she rejected Communism, with its materialistic-atheistic notions of Utopia.” (These Children are Mine).
Rachelka later married her boyfriend who became a high-ranking official in the Polish government after the Communists took over Poland. It was Rachelka who persuaded her husband to help Sarah Lederman leave Poland and settle in Israel, where she was able to rejoin her two children, along with many of the children that she had rescued from Catholic homes and orphanages.
Dov Lederman writes that his mother tried her best to keep tabs on the children she had shepherded through the difficult transition from wartime to normal life - as normal as their lives could ever be. They would often stop by the bakery where she worked for a chat. These visits afforded both parties great happiness and satisfaction. And he adds: “To them, Mother was family, and over the ensuing decades she was the honored participant at many happy occasions celebrated by her former charges” (Ibid).
For Sarah Lederman’s beloved “children,” the words of the Prophet that we read this past Shabbos have a special and personal meaning:
“Listen to Me, pursuers of justice, seekers of the Compassionate One...Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who gave birth to you.” (Isaiah 51:1,2).