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Paris Revisited: Filial Devotion and Sensitivity

Paris Revisited: Filial Devotion and Sensitivity

1947

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Rebbetzin Chana and her son (the future Rebbe) at a reception in their honor in Paris.
Rebbetzin Chana and her son (the future Rebbe) at a reception in their honor in Paris.

In 1947 Rabbi Menachem Mendel returned to Paris, there to be reunited with his mother, Rebbetzin Chana.1 It was two decades since they had last seen each other, and in the interim they had largely been able to keep in touch by mail.2 But with the world in the grip of World War II, his parents exiled to Kazakhstan, and R. Menachem Mendel himself fleeing to New York, communication between them was disrupted.3

At some point R. Menachem Mendel learned that mail from the Holy Land could make it through to Russia, and he tried to send packages to his parents and receive news of them through his contacts there. “I repeat my request, twice and threefold,” he wrote in one letter, “that you inform me... if there is any news of their situation.”4 Whether or not these attempts bore fruit remains unknown.

“I repeat my request, twice and threefold, that you inform me... if there is any news of their situation.”

In August 1944, R. Menachem Mendel, received a telegram informing him that his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, had passed away in Alma-Atah. The report of this news in the next issue of Kovetz Lubavitch noted that the precise date of his passing was yet unknown. In fact, R. Levi Yitzchak drew his last breath a full eight days before the crushing news reached his son.5

As the war drew to a close new channels of communication opened, and R. Menachem Mendel stepped up efforts to enable his mother to leave the USSR. Though the chief rabbis of Sweden6 and the Holy Land7 were enlisted to help, all attempts at external intervention were unsuccessful.

Within Russia, however, Chabad chassidim mobilized to illegally engineer a mass exodus via the border city of Lemberg.8 With the help of Chabad activists in Kazakhstan, Rebbetzin Chana traveled to Moscow,9 then to Lemberg, where she was given false Polish documents and spirited across the border.10 Sometime in 1946 she arrived at the Pocking Displaced Person’s camp in Germany, where Chabad survivors and refugees were regrouping and recuperating.11

When Leibel Zisman, a teenager at the time, left Pocking for New York, Rebbetzin Chana entrusted him with a letter for her son, which he delivered to R. Chabad chassidim mobilized to illegally engineer a mass exodus via the border city of Lemberg.Menachem Mendel in person.

“It was not a long letter,” Zisman recalled, “but he took a long time with it… When he finished, he turned to me and asked, “How does my mother look?” …I told him what he wanted to know — that she seemed very thin and pale, that she spoke softly, that she wore a long blue dress with flowers on it and a wig, but no makeup or lipstick. He didn’t seem to get enough of it, and he peppered me with questions about how his mother was doing for half an hour.”12

Unwilling to entrust her passage to America to others or delay their reunion, R. Menachem Mendel flew to Paris. The local Chabad community felt honored to host the Rebbe’s son-in-law and his mother, and shared wholeheartedly in their joy. Remaining in Paris for several months, R. Menachem Mendel’s sweeping erudition and personal sensitivity left a lasting impression.13

Rabbi Eugene Lerner managed the Paris office of the Jewish Rescue Committee, and prepared the necessary papers that allowed Rebbetzin Chana to enter the United States. Years later, both he and Zisman recalled the Rebbe's enduring gratitude.14

When fresh tragedy struck, the Rebbe went to great lengths to shield his mother from further anguish. In 1952 her youngest son, Yisroel Aryeh Leib (Leibel), passed away unexpectedly in England at the age of forty three. She had already lost her husband to the Soviets, and her middle son, DovBer, to the Nazis. The Rebbe apparently feared that a new blow would be too difficult for her to bear, and he was determined to keep her from finding out. In an age of international communication this was not easy, and the Rebbe went so far as to imitate his brother’s handwriting so her correspondence with him would continue.15"My son acquires the World to Come with the ten minutes that he comes to visit me every day.” In her private diary she expressed pain that she had not seen Leibel for so many years, nor met his wife and daughter, “but I am happy when I see his handwriting.”16

Despite the Rebbe’s voluminous schedule, he was constantly sensitive to his mother’s loneliness, and she took great pride and comfort in his accomplishments.17 No day passed without him paying her a visit, and he also made sure that she had a steady stream of other visitors. “Some individuals,” Rebbetzin Chana wrote, “can acquire their portion in the World to Come in a single hour. My son acquires it with the ten minutes that he comes to visit me every day.”18

She lived the last seventeen years of her life in a bright era of renewal inspired by the spirited leadership of her son, and she often thanked G‑d for all the good he had brought her. When strong enough she attended his public talks, noting in her diary the pleasure she derived from listening to him and the eager devotion displayed by “the young people” towards him.19

Footnotes
1.
A video overview of Rebbetzin Chana’s life, including the reunion in Paris, is viewable here .
4.
Igrot Kodesh Vol. 1, page 232. The letter is addressed to Tel Aviv resident R. Chaim Eliyahu Rozenblum who was married to Sonya Gourary, the sister of R. Shmaryahu Gourary, R. Yosef Yitzchak’s older son-in-law.
5.
The original report can be viewed here. The actual date of his passing was the 20th of Av.
6.
Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Zuber, see the letter to him in Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, page 111.
7.
See the telegram sent by R. Yosef Yitzchak dated 16th of January 1946, Igrot Ha-rayatz Vol. 9, page 75, and the letter sent several month later by R. Menachem Mendel Igrot Kodesh Vol. 2, page 131.
8.
See Levin, Toldot Chabad Be-rusia Ha-savotit, chapters 115-116. Lemberg is also known as Levov or Lviv.
9.
In Moscow, she recalled in her memoirs, “I was forced to lodge in a different location almost every night, because residency was granted only to those officially registered.” As a Schneerson, it was “even more dangerous for me to show my identity card.”
10.
In her memoirs, she recalls that she encountered a Jew in Lemberg who was from Yekatrinoslav. Not recognizing her, he told her the story of her own husband’s persecutions, praising him for the respect people had for him and saying how unforgettable he remained. For an account of her escape from Russia see A Mother in Israel, pages 149-154.
11.
They also established ad hoc educational institutions and even a printing press. See Levin, Toldot Chabad Be-rusia Ha-savotit, chapter 119.
12.
Zisman and Lerner, Caring Son.
13.
Examples of such accounts can be viewed here. For a related point of interest see also R. Shalom DovBer Levin, Me-beit ha-genazim, page 277.
14.
Zisman and Lerner, Ibid.
15.
For more details of this subterfuge see here and here .
16.
Viewable here .
17.
See the relevant remarks in her diary here .
18.
Ibid.
19.
Ibid.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.