Russian-born Hadassa Carlebach remembers the Stalin years. Yeshivas and shuls were illegal. So was meeting for prayer or learning Torah. But in the Zalman Schneerson home, Jewish prayers, education, learning Torah, continued. Even more audaciously, Hadassa’s father hid fugitives. He himself was arrested over a dozen times, always managing to talk his way out of detention.
The family left for Palestine in 1935. Because of the intense political infighting, and following the advice of his mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Joseph Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the family left for France barely 14 months later. But when the Nazis occupation began in 1940, every Jew was in danger of deportation. Hadassa experienced harrowing situations, which only recently has she been able to talk about.
Senior Planet: Your family’s lives were in constant danger. Were you aware of the dangers as a child?
HADASSA: I became used to it. One mid-winter Russian night, my father told me we’d sleep on the porch. He promised it would be wonderful. And it was! Bundled in warm blankets, I fell asleep looking at the stars. Later I understood that we slept outside to give time to the fugitives inside to escape if necessary. Later, in France, when the need to hide began, we only learned gradually the extent of the danger and tragedy.
Senior Planet: When did the hiding begin?
HADASSA: The real hiding began when France began aggressively collaborating in the deportations. My father’s involvement is credited with saving well over 100 adults and children.
Senior Planet: How?
HADASSA: He made connections everywhere. He identified whom he could trust, even among the French authorities, and was masterful in gaining useful information. He worked tirelessly to find remote hiding places. Many were smuggled to Switzerland.
Senior Planet: Were you aware of his activities?
HADASSA: Aware — and involved! Besides relaying messages, at 17, I was in charge of hiding a group of young children.
Senior Planet: Do any experiences stand out?
HADASSA: Yes. We were getting ready to celebrate Purim, the feast that commemorates Queen Esther saving the Jewish people. My father wrote a children’s play and assigned roles. But just before the performance, our situation deteriorated significantly; everyone had to be moved.
My father told the counselors, asking them to discreetly pack their charges’ meager belongings during the performance. The children enjoyed their play, having no idea what was about to happen. The instant it ended everyone was rushed into the trucks father had waiting and taken to new hiding.
Decades later Berta, who at age 6 played Queen Esther in the play, found me. She asked if I told people what my father had achieved. I said no, the memories were too painful. “Well then,” she said, “I’m doing it!” In her talks, Berta always credits him with saving her and her sister Malkah’s lives. Thanks to her, I found it easier to write and talk about those times.
Senior Planet: Did Senior Planet classes help?
HADASSA: They did. The Jewish Federation of North America funded the development of a pilot program called “Our Voices” designed by OATS (Older Adults Technology Services). The program helped survivors learn to use computers and iPads. I learned about “Our Voices” through Selfhelp, a community services organization for seniors especially Holocaust survivors. While I already used a computer, I needed to learn how to use an iPad – and was delighted to get a free one! In addition to developing our skills, all of us were encouraged to interact electronically with our fellow survivors.
The program’s leaders encouraged my desire to write a personal episode, find and download photos from the internet. What an achievement!
Senior Planet: You were born in 1927 – and still incredibly active! What keeps you going?
HADASSA: God saved me for a purpose. I still don’t know what it is. As long as I can do something good for someone else, I feel that I may be aged, but never old.
Selfhelp’s Holocaust Survivor Program has locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau County. To contact them callor email at
The “Our Voices” program was created by OATS (Older Adults Technology Services). Graduation took place at Senior Planet’s West 25th Street location in Manhattan: https://seniorplanet.org/our-voices-participants-graduate/
The Our Voices program is supported by a grant from the JFNA Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care. https://www.