An estimated 150 members and guests of Snohomish County’s Chabad Jewish Center gathered at Mukilteo’s Rosewood Community Center March 16 to hear the inspiring story of a young Jewish woman who, along with her father, saved more than 100 children during the 1940-1945 Nazi occupation of France.
Now 95, Hadassah Carlebach’s saga began before she was born. Rooted in her parents’ persecution in the late 19th century Russian pogroms, her story moves through her birth as Hadassah Schneerson in Soviet Russia, first-hand accounts of travels with her father and family through Europe and Palestine, the Nazi takeover of France, the 1945 liberation of Europe, and how even today she bears scars.
Despite the almost daily life-or-death uncertainties of these horrific times, she not only survived but thrived, assisting her father in his personal mission to feed, house and save more than 100 children from the Holocaust. Hers is a first-hand account of bravery, fortitude, dedication and principle, told against the chilling backdrop of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Her presentation was particularly timely. Coinciding with Purim, the Jewish holiday marking a narrowly averted holocaust in Persia more than 2,500 years ago, her talk carried an indelible message to young and old of the strength that comes from maintaining our traditions and identity, and that we must never forget. (Read the Purim story here)
“My parents were survivors first,” she began. “They lived in what is Belarus today, and survived the Russian pogroms of the late 1800s. After the Bolshevik revolution they moved to Leningrad, formerly Saint Petersburg, where I was born in 1927.”
After the treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Versailles, Belarus was no longer part of Russia, so as emigrants in Leningrad, her parents had no official status as residents of the Soviet Union and were considered “illegal persons.” This imposed many restrictions, most immediate to the family was that as an illegal person lacking identity papers, her mother could not be admitted to a hospital to give birth.
“In order to live in Soviet Russia under communist rule you needed a permit,” Hadassah explained. “My mother went from hospital to hospital and was turned away from all. Eventually she found a private doctor who agreed to handle the birth. He rushed her up the back stairs so no one would see – the doctor would have been in big trouble if he was discovered treating anyone who was not an official Soviet resident – but he couldn’t give me a birth certificate because I was illegal. I remained an undocumented baby until a year later when a midwife delivered a baby for a relative and was able to slip through a second birth certificate for me.”
She told of how Jews were relegated to second-class status in Soviet Russia – even those few who served in Stalin’s cabinet – and were subject to overt and covert persecution in all sectors of life.
“Yeshivas were outlawed, and we could not give our children a Jewish education,” she explained. “Our only alternative was to go underground for ceremonies, education and practicing our traditions. But doing this meant losing a lot of privileges – in particular, getting a job. But there were some sympathetic folks who helped with money, food, etc.”
This prejudice would often manifest in random mob violence – to which public officials would quietly turn a blind eye.
“One night when I was about 6 years old my father announced that ‘tonight we’ll sleep outside on the back porch – won’t that be fun!” she recalled. “I later learned he had heard that vigilante mobs were organizing in our neighborhood and targeting illegal people such as ourselves. My father wedged a table against the front door, and we spent the night on the back porch, which would have made it easier to escape if the mob came.
“We never knew when Russian officials would come into a home, a restaurant or a store looking for illegal people,” she added. “Even today those memories haunt me. When I enter someone’s home or business, I always look around for an escape route or a hiding place. It’s like a reflex.”
She went on to relate that money was a constant problem for illegal persons like themselves. They were barred from working and so couldn’t hold jobs to earn money, and trafficking in foreign currency was punishable by death.
She told how her father, an unassuming man who walked with a limp, would personally transport small amounts of money in a suitcase, despite the constant risk of being detained by guards demanding to search him and his belongings.
“My father’s response was always, ‘I don’t have the key – I stole the suitcase – I don’t know what is in it,” she said. “Although he was arrested and detained on several occasions, he was very articulate and fluent in Russian, and managed to talk his way out of some pretty tight spots.”
But for young Jewish men who did have papers, there was the constant threat of being drafted into the Red Army. To protect them, her father would take their identification and show up in their place, using his limp to get an exemption.
“It worked like a charm and led at least one Russian official to wonder why there were so many limping Jews,” Hadassah added with a laugh.
But the pressure kept increasing, and in the early 1930s her father took the family out of Russia and emigrated to Palestine (Israel today), which offered a greater degree of safety.
“Palestine was very communistic at that time,” Hadassah recalls. “Many of the people we met honestly believed that Russia was a wonderful place for Jews and didn’t believe what my father told them was going on. But for me it was much better than being afraid all the time in Russia, where we had to watch every word we said to guard against inadvertently betraying someone. I loved our time in Palestine – I remember feeling happy and safe there.”
In 1935 her father left Palestine for Europe, where he hoped he could be of help. After a short stop in Poland he arrived in Paris, where refugees escaping Nazi rule were pouring in from Germany. He decided to remain in Paris to assist them. After war broke out, this stream of refugees became a flood, with many Jews arriving from Nazi-occupied Poland.
“My father was always doing things to help other people,” Hadassah explained. “He saw Paris with its influx of refugees as a place where he could do a lot of work. But he didn’t know the French language, and most the refugees didn’t either — that made assimilation difficult.”
By the time the war broke out, she estimates that there were 60-80 children under her father’s care. With the fall of Paris to the Germans in June 1940, he, Hadassah and the children moved south to Marseilles, a port city in the unoccupied zone. While not under direct Nazi rule, Marseilles was administered by the puppet Vichy government,which collaborated closely with Nazi Germany, so their situation remained dangerous. Despite this, there were many French officials and citizens who were not sympathetic to the Nazis, and some of these would secretly help Hadassah and her father’s efforts on behalf of the children.
Through these sympathetic people, her father was able to find homes in the area to house small groups of the children. But these homes were almost invariably secular, and her father — a strict believer in maintaining Jewish traditions, especially for the children — organized a Shul (school) to ensure that the religious and spiritual needs of the children were met.
“He basically said ‘OK, you take care of the physical needs of the children, and I’ll take care of their religious needs,”’ Hadassah recalls. “This included education, religious observances and even maintaining a kosher table. It was hard to do, but my father made sure it happened.”
Managing to feed, house and care for these children under the constant threat of being found out by Nazi sympathizers was very challenging, and the dangers of being discovered were ever-present.
“At least one of our groups was betrayed, and all 16 children were taken to Auschwitz. I know of only one from this group who survived,” Hadassah added.
“To help with our financial needs, my father established a credit system where he borrowed money from the folks he saved, and after the war these people were repaid,” she continued.
“We all had to pull together and everyone in our group had to do something for the common good – housecleaning, teaching, cooking, everything. We even made it a game with a little contest to see who could clean up the fastest,” she added with a smile.
Food was one of the biggest challenges.
“My father was very strict about keeping a kosher table – this was non-negotiable,” she explained. “At one point we had no butter but did get a supply of margarine. Before he would allow us to use it my father had a sample sent to a chemist for analysis to make sure it was OK. It was!”
And the diet was often very limited.
“At one time all we had for several weeks were green peppers and bread. Even to this day when I eat a green pepper it brings me right back there,” she added. “And each of us got only one egg per month, and it was always a big decision how to cook your egg – I’ll never forget one child who always wanted it sunny side up.”
In addition to ongoing education and maintaining a kosher table, keeping traditions included observing Jewish holidays.
“Purim was always festive with a party, gifts and a play,” Hadassah recalled. “Each year my father would write a new play for Purim. The rehearsals were great fun!”
But one year on the eve of Purim, sympathetic French officials warned my father that there was to be a raid the next day.
“My father insisted that the party go on and that no one should tell the children and ruin the day for them,” she explained. “While the party was in progress, we packed the suitcases, arranged for trucks and as soon as the festivities ended, we loaded the children up and relocated east to the Italian section of France.”
In another example of maintaining traditions under occupation, the group was laying low in a building just a few yards from a railroad track that frequently carried trains packed with German soldiers heading to Italy to shore up Italian forces fighting the Allies. It was Rosh Hashanah, and an important part of the observance is blowing the shofar (ram’s horn), which is quite loud and would certainly have been heard outside the building.
“To not attract attention, we would wait until we heard a train approaching and sound the shofar just as the noise from the passing train peaked,” Hadassah explained. “We had to stay cool in those times.”
In another close call the teenage Hadassah was leading a group of children through a snowy section of woods to a new location, because the old one had become unsafe.
“We were walking through the woods with snow around us, and I heard dogs barking. They might have been pursuing us, I don’t know for sure,” she related. “I am very afraid of dogs, my fear overcame me, and I just stopped walking – I was paralyzed with fear. And then this little girl in the group – she was maybe 7 years old – said ‘let’s think about God and just go.’ She got us up and going again, and her quiet bravery gave me the strength to walk on despite my fear.”
She remembers when liberation finally came in 1945, and suddenly there was no more fighting in the streets.
“But it didn’t mean our work was done,” she explained. “We wrote thousands of letters to every city hall in France trying to find the children’s parents so we could reunite them. Not many answered. Some of the children got back to their families, some had lost everyone.”
In the years after the war, Hadassah fought – and continues to fight — to overcome the ponderous emotional burden these experiences left behind.
“It was tough to move on. I have no idea why God saved me,” she said. “Survivor guilt is complicated. We want our children to know about this, but we also want them to believe we live in a nice world, not one where humans exterminate each other. But in the end, we have to talk.”
Her love for and experience with children led her to start teaching after the war. But it didn’t go well.
“One day I realized I was going in there like a sad sack every morning,” she said. “So I decided to change, and every morning the first thing I’d do is sing to the children – it began our day on a happy note, and I believe it helped me more than it did them.”
She also began telling stories about life with the children during the war years. A favorite was her strategy for lining up to get soup from a large common pot. “You don’t want to be in front of the line because the soup is watery, but you don’t want to be too far back because there may not be enough left – the trick is to be right in the middle!”
Another was from the days where each child would get only one egg per month. They wanted to bake a cake for her father’s birthday, but it would mean three children giving up their eggs. It was a tough decision, but volunteers came forward and “the cake was delicious – the best ever!”
In her concluding comments, Hadassah stressed the importance of keeping these memories alive, being a witness, maintaining dignity and identity, and keeping traditions.
“I’m now 95 years old, and have many children, grandchildren and two great-grandchildren,” she concluded. “Never stop trusting that God is good, and we are here.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel
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