A team of Brooklyn, N.Y., translators and scholars is moving forward with the release of the memoirs of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mother of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, digging in to the collection’s storied second volume, a collection of episodic recollections penned in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew.

Written in New York in the final decades of Rebbetzin Chana’s tumultuous life, the memoirs provide a fascinating window into the Rebbe’s childhood home and the self-sacrifice of his parents, particularly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, said Lahak Publications director Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook.

A noted Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist who became the chief rabbi of Yekatrinoslav – today, the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk – Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sparked the ire of Soviet authorities, who in their quest to stamp out Jewish life decreed his exile to Kazakhstan, from which he passed away in 1944.

Rebbetzin Chana’s memoirs not only offer a peek into the courageous thoughts of a strong woman who survived such horrors and sought to retell them, but also of a mother whose son transformed the Jewish world, said Brook, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary whose team has been releasing, week by week, portions of the complete memoirs in Yiddish, alongside translations in English, Hebrew, Russian and French, both in published form and online at the Judaism website Chabad.org.

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“This second volume contains stories that we never heard before,” he said. “We also see that she writes repeatedly about how she derives such pleasure from the Rebbe’s leadership in all facets of Jewish life.”

Released this week, the new installments contain snippets of memories, from a visit with her husband to Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1912, to her secret travels through Russia in 1946, two years after Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s passing. (The Rebbe, who at that time directed three of the central Chabad-Lubavitch organizations on behalf of his father-in-law, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, worked to get his mother out of the Soviet Union and traveled to Paris in 1947 to escort her to the United States.)

Three years later, she had already begun her second volume of memoirs.

“It is already after Passover, 1950,” she writes. “In the [Hebrew] month of Av, it will be six years since my husband’s passing. I am always reminded of episodes of his life.”

The style is characteristic of the second volume, explained Brook, which frequently pins past memories to current events as Rebbetzin Chana lives them.

It contains, among other episodes, a description of the Rebbe’s Bar Mitzvah, a large community event during which the Rebbe delivered Chasidic discourses on both the revealed and esoteric parts of Torah; and a detailed accounting of a Passover Seder with all of her three boys.

But the volume’s beginning also illustrates how her husband faced opposition in becoming chief rabbi of Yekatrinoslav, but won over his detractors with a unique sincerity and unequalled commitment to ensuring that Jews young and old, religious and secular, had the ability to practice their faith even at the height of Communist oppression.

Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson’s handwritten inscription in a Book of Psalms (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson’s handwritten inscription in a Book of Psalms (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

“For 16 years, she relived all the details of both happy moments from her children’s childhoods and the pain of her husband’s imprisonment in 1939 at the hands of Soviet authorities,” Brook said at the beginning of the project, which is proceeding under the aegis of the Kehot Publication Society. “The pages of the memoirs can sometimes move quickly day after day, while at other times she went as much as half a year without writing.”

Rebbetzin Chana writes of one memory of her husband making all the arrangements to sell Jews’ leavened products known as chametz, a crucial custom in the observance of Passover.

“He always insisted on carrying out all his endeavors in absolute, 100 percent truth, with profundity and nothing at all superficial,” she explains. “The same applied in this case – his desire was for the chametz to be utterly nullified.”

But some Jews, “influenced by secular culture, viewed the sale of leaven with a critical eye and participated only in order not to affront [the rabbi’s] religious sensibilities,” she continues.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak saw such occasions as opportunities to encourage people to be more sensitive to Jewish teachings and the Jewish way of life.

A noted secular Yiddish scholar from Vilna, who had been evacuated to Yekatrinoslav during World War I, considered visiting the chief rabbi during the pre-Passover preparations as beneath him, but he did it anyways out of respect.

“I remember noticing how he tried to make it obvious … that he was doing something really special just for [the rabbi’s] sake,” she writes. “But he didn’t get the reception he expected.”

Instead, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak chided the professor for being one of the last to take part in the sale. “Couldn’t you come any earlier?” he asked. “You see how late it is!”

The professor, notes Rebbetzin Chana, “sat down and responded to my husband’s questions as dutifully as the young boys who had been sent by their parents on the same errand.

“I often witnessed instances like this,” she adds, “in which people sensed my husband’s profound sincerity in everything he did.”

According to Brook, who pointed out that the second volume also contains accounts of the Rebbe’s early Chasidic gatherings in New York, “these pages are historically priceless.”

Lahak Publications’ translation of the memoirs and their release by the Kehot Publication Society has been underwritten by Benyomin and Rochel Federman, Yossi and Nechama Dina Katz, Uri and Bassie Laber, and Sholom and Esther Laine.