Biography of Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson

The Chassidim of Nikolayev would fondly recall Chana’s scholarship as a teenager. When a maamar (Chassidic discourse) would arrive from Lubavitch—either repeated by a Chassid who was present at the Rebbe’s discourse, or as notes sent to her father’s home—she would meticulously and faithfully transcribe it, making it available for the eager Chassidim.

Bright and talented, Chana had an excellent ear for music—a quality she shared with her father.

In 1900, at the age of 20, Rebbetzin Chana married Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. The great-grandson of Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the “Tzemach Tzedek” (the third of the Chabad-Lubavitcher rebbes), Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was a renowned scholar and a brilliant Kabbalist. Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, had suggested the match. The wedding took place on the 11th of Sivan, in Nikolayev.

Rebbetzin Chana gave birth to three sons: Menachem Mendel, DovBer and Yisrael Aryeh Leib.

Her eldest son, Menachem Mendel, was born on the 11th of Nissan 1902. On that day Rabbi Shalom DovBer sent six telegrams to the child’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, each with blessings and various instructions.

Before nursing her son, Rebbetzin Chana would wash her hands in the ritual manner, and do the same for her infant. She had a yarmulke and tzitzit made for him and took great care to raise her son—who would eventually become the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe—in a holy environment.

In 1907, when Rebbetzin Chana was 27 years old, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak became rabbi of the Ukrainian city of Yekatrinoslav—known today as Dnipro. He served the community for 32 years—eventually assuming the position of chief rabbi—until 1939, when he was arrested by the NKVD (a precursor of the KGB, the Soviet notorious secret police) for his activities on behalf of strengthening Yiddishkeit(Judaism) in the Soviet Union.

The Jewish community of Yekatrinoslav included many nonreligious professionals, who also held Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in great esteem. Rebbetzin Chana, who was fluent in several languages, contributed to her husband’s success and influence as a communal leader. She was an elegant and personable woman, whose home was a constant hub of communal activity. She communicated especially well with Jewish university students, in whom she took a special interest as she tried to draw them close to Yiddishkeit. She frequently visited the congregants in their homes, counseling and conversing with them on matters personal, academic, and spiritual.

On the 14th of Kislev in 1928, Rebbetzin Chana’s oldest son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, married Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the daughter of the then Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. The wedding took place in Warsaw, Poland. Rebbetzin Chana and her husband were unable to attend the wedding because the Soviet government had severely restricted travel outside the country. Yearning to participate in her son’s joy, Rebbetzin Chana organized a festive celebration in her own home while the wedding was taking place in Warsaw.

Despite the danger in organizing a public gathering and expecting only thirty guests, she was overwhelmed when three hundred people bravely showed up. As someone played the violin and Chassidic music filled the apartment, the Jews of Yekatrinoslav celebrated with their beloved Rabbi and Rebbetzin.

All who were present shared in Rebbetzin Chana’s joy yet sensed her longing to be with her eldest son at his wedding. Despite the sadness in his heart, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak danced with the guests, moving them deeply. Bittersweet tears flowed freely.

While the Soviet government claimed that it allowed religious freedom, it contrived ever more complex laws that made religious observance impossible. In 1939, after fiercely battling the authorities, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak won approval to bake strictly kosher-for-Passover matzah. Word of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s matzah production quickly spread, and Jews from all over the Ukraine and White Russia joyously purchased the matzah. The joy of this achievement was cut short, however, by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s sudden arrest.

On the 9th of Nissan, at 3:00 AM, four NKVD agents appeared at Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana’s home at 13 Borigodna Street. The agents conducted a search through the apartment, scrutinizing all of the rabbi’s letters and responsa, as well as many of his personal papers. They left nothing untouched. After which they ordered the rabbi to come with them.

Not knowing where her husband was being incarcerated or how he was faring, Rebbetzin Chana began her courageous campaign for his release. She was 59 years old.

In a show trial staged by the Soviets, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was found guilty of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to five years of exile in the Central Asian region of the Soviet Union. In Kislev 1939, some eight months after he was first arrested, the NKVD summoned Rebbetzin Chana to their headquarters and informed her of the sentence. They gave her a list of items her husband had requested, which included a tallittefillingartel, Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya. She was also informed that she would be allowed a few moments to bid him farewell before he was to be exiled.

When she was finally permitted to see him in prison, Rebbetzin Chana was saddened by how weak and frail her husband appeared. Fearing he would not have the strength to survive the difficult journey, the Rabbi asked forgiveness of his wife. The couple parted, with Rebbetzin Chana returning home.

Weeks passed with no word as to her husband’s destination. One night, at about 1:00 AM, a young Jewish woman who worked in the post office knocked on Rebbetzin Chana’s door. She bore a telegram stating that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak had been exiled to the far-flung village of Chi’ili, in the republic of Kazakhstan.

Rebbetzin Chana immediately resolved that, come what may, she would journey out to that remote location to join her husband in exile. In the spring of 1940 she traveled to Moscow, and from there took a train to Chi’ili, an arduous journey of five days. She managed to take matzah, wine, and some cooking fat with her for the upcoming holiday of Passover. At last, she arrived, and was reunited with her husband.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana’s lived in extreme poverty and discomfort, with no privacy. Yet, this giant of a spirit mind was constantly active with Torah novella. Unable to obtain paper and ink, Rebbetzin Chana learned to make ink from local herbs and flowers and her husband wrote on the margins of the holy books he had. These were eventually smuggled out of Russia many years later and remain a living legacy from her husband. Published by her illustrious son in freedom, these Kabbalistic Torah insights are studied till today around the world.

In the month of Elul, after arranging for another Jewish exile to move in with her husband, Rebbetzin Chana departed with a heavy heart. On her way to Yekatrinoslav, she traveled to Moscow, where she filed petitions to commute his sentence of exile. Her relentless efforts on behalf of her husband’s release were met by deception and cruel indifference by the authorities. The situation remained unchanged.

During the winter of 1941, after spending five months back home in Yekatrinoslav, Rebbetzin Chana courageously decided to rejoin her husband in exile. She once again journeyed to Chi’ili, arriving two weeks before Passover. There she found her husband in a desperate situation. The government had cut off his daily allotment of bread, leaving him famished and debilitated. Always resourceful, Rebbetzin Chana struggled to improve the critical situation. Through Rebbetzin Chana’s remarkable ingenuity, they somehow managed to survive.

With World War II ravaging Europe, many refugees and displaced people ended up in the Kazakhstan region where Rebbetzin Chana and her husband lived.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana soon became well-known among all the Jewish refugees. Large groups of men and women, especially those women whose husbands were taken away for the war effort, would visit the esteemed rabbi and his wife, seeking counsel on various matters.

With meager resources at their disposal, and facing a constant threat to their very lives, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana heroically reached out to their brethren in need, helping in every which way—materially and spiritually.

The winter of 1942–43 was extraordinarily frigid. Rebbetzin Chana fell ill with a high fever. Fearing that her illness might be contagious, Rebbetzin Chana asked no one for help. Her condition deteriorated from day to day.

One day, a couple visiting with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak observed him struggling at the stove trying to cook a pot of kasha (buckwheat). The woman realized that her help was needed and stayed for several days. As the woman nursed the Rebbetzin back to health, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sat at the table nearby tearfully praying for his wife’s recovery. The Rebbetzin would write in her diary that her husband’s tear-soaked Tehillim brought about her miraculous recovery. Soon she regained her health.

In 1944, as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s sentence was nearing its end, his physical condition began to deteriorate. Though unaware of this, a serious illness was spreading through his body, severely weakening him.

Meanwhile, friends in nearby Alma-Ata resolved to secure the rabbi’s release. They contributed thousands of rubles, giving of most of their wealth, in order to acquire the proper permits for the relocation. After six weeks fraught with setbacks and obstacles, they were finally able to obtain the release documents.

Immediately after Passover, his sentence completed, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rebbetzin Chana left Chi’ili and arrived in Alma-Ata. In this large city their living conditions improved somewhat, and they worked more vigorously to help others in need. Yet through the summer the Rabbi’s illness grew worse. A young friend made a special trip from Leningrad to Alma-Ata, together with a well-known doctor. The doctor did not have a good prognosis for the rabbi. He had no cure for his ailment.

Rebbetzin Chana endured those heartbreaking days with exceptional strength and fortitude. Despite the dire conditions, she continued to welcome into her home any depressed or broken person, attending to his or her specific needs, and providing food when necessary. She retained her dignified manner and grace throughout—even wearing gloves and an elegant hat when receiving guests—and would converse with the doctors on a variety of topics, whether worldly or spiritual in nature. Rebbetzin Chana would take particular interest when the discussion turned to her husband’s scholarship and piety.

On the 20th of Av, her husband returned his pure soul to its Maker. He was interred in Alma Ata. Today this city boasts a Chabad rabbi and center and his burial is a holy place where many come to pray.

With the loss of her husband, her children far away, and the war refugees returning home, Rebbetzin Chana was now completely alone. She yearned to be reunited with her eldest son. A friend helped her obtain a train ticket from Alma-Ata to Moscow, at that time a nearly impossible achievement.

Rebbetzin Chana arrived in Moscow in late 1945 and lived discreetly in a small suburb. Her situation was dreadful. Forced to hide her whereabouts, Rebbetzin Chana would find a new place to stay every day—where she slept one night, she could not return the next. Thus, she lived for several months.

Rebbetzin Chana knew that she must leave Russia, but there were numerous hurdles in the way. A committee of a few devoted Chassidim was involved in an elaborate mission for her rescue.*In the summer of 1946, Rebbetzin Chana eventually crossed the Russian-Polish border, arriving in Krakow. She then proceeded to an American “Displaced Persons” Camp in Pocking, Germany. From here she managed to get to Paris, France, where she was met by her eldest son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who flew in from New York. The reunion of mother and son, separated for twenty years and after profound suffering and loss, was deeply emotional.

After Shavuot, Rebbetzin Chana and Rabbi Menachem Mendel sailed from Paris to New York, having been directed by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, to travel by boat and not by airplane. At the port, they were sent off by a large group of Chassidim and friends.

The ship arrived in New York on the 28th of Sivan 1947.Rebbetzin Chana’s wandering and suffering had finally come to an end, and a new era of her life now began. Slowly, the scars of decades of oppression began to be replaced with joy and tranquility.

On the 10th of Shevat 1951, Rebbetzin Chana’s son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, assumed leadership of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Rebbetzin Chana, who would not easily conceal her pride, would often speak of her son’s distinguished character and greatness, and of the resemblance to his father that she saw in him. When she did, tears of joy could be seen in her eyes, tears that one could tell outweighed all the sad and bitter tears of her earlier years.

With dignity and without pretension, Rebbetzin Chana always took a genuine interest in the wellbeing of each person she knew. She had the knack of being able to relate to all, regardless of age or position, and anyone who shared even a few moments of conversation with her felt it to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Her love of fellow Jews and sincere concern for each individual were clearly evident in each word she spoke.

Every day without fail the Rebbe would visit his mother, during which he would prepare for her a glass of tea.

Finally, her newly found life, and the joy she took in her illustrious son, seemed to somewhat erase years of misery and heartbreak.

It was during this period that Rebbetzin Chana wrote her remarkable memoirs, beginning with the memorable words: “I am not a writer, nor the daughter of a writer . . .” These poignant memoirs were later published in A Mother in Israel.

On Shabbat, the 6th day of Tishrei 1964, Rebbetzin Chana passed away. She was 84 years old.The funeral took place on Sunday morning. Approximately 5,000 people, headed by her son, the Rebbe, accompanied Rebbetzin Chana to her resting place at the Chabad cemetery in Queens, New York. Participants remember the Rebbe weeping profusely at her burial.

In his mother’s honor, the Rebbe established Keren Chana, a fund that provides long-term loans for girls seeking to continue their Jewish studies.

Today there are many educational institutions the world over that proudly bear the name Chana. Together with the countless women and girls who have been named Chana, they serve as a fitting tribute to the remarkable life and personality of Rebbetzin Chana. May she be an inspiration to us all.

Slightly adapted and shortened from By Shmuel Marcus and Avraham D. Vaisfiche

*The ‘Mume Sara’ – our grandmother was one of those active in providing special passports enabling Jews to leave Russian. She assisted Rebbetzin Chana in leaving. Rebbetzin Chana left Russia together with a group of Lubavitch Chassidim which included our parents and family.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s