I. Piecing Together the Rebbe's Secret Years
Professor Menachem Friedman was certain that he was only taking a short detour from the study of the Chabad movement and its rabbinical dynasty which has occupied his time for the past few years. "Must check out some of the more obscure biographical data," he jotted in his notes, in reference to the years shrouded in mystery which the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, spent in Berlin and Paris. In our day and age, reasoned Friedman, a careful scholar for whom details are practically an obsession, there are no black holes: everything can be tracked down and investigated. Friedman decided that he must go to Berlin and Paris to find out what the rebbe did there. How and why did he leave Russia, Friedman wondered, rather than .devoting himself to his studies at the Tomekhei Temimim yeshiva in Otwock, a small town near Warsaw, or joining his father-in-law's court in Riga?
Friedman's inquiry commenced in the summer of 1991, but his fascination with the Lubavitcher rebbe actually began many years earlier, when he was a yeshiva student at the Yishuv Hehadash yeshiva in Tel-Aviv. The stories about the charismatic rabbi with a handful of scientific doctorates from important universities in the West fired his imagination and inspired him to pursue his own desire for secular knowledge. "There was something in it that gave a young religious person like myself the confidence to venture into the academic world," Friedman says.
Later, when Friedman was already immersed in his studies, the astonishing growth of the Chabad movement aroused his curiosity. Owing to me unique power of the rebbe, Chabad went from being a relatively marginal group, carrying little influence with ultra-Orthodox Jewry and the Israeli government, to a major phenomenon. Friedman was especially fascinated by Schneerson's ability to rally Israeli politicians to his cause.
Beginning in the 1980s, Friedman began to collect every snippet of information he could find about the rebbe's personality. He listened intently to the moving accounts of those who had met with the rebbe in private. Everyone spoke about his eyes: so blue, so piercing. About his attentiveness and impressive erudition. About his winning personality. In 1991, Mordechai Menashe Laufer began to put together a collection of oral and written testimony about Schneerson called "The Days of the King: Excerpts from the Life and Work of the Renowned Leader of our Generation: Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch." Laufer never claimed to have written an official biography; his introduction makes it quite clear that he has merely compiled data from many different sources. In the first volume, he calls the rebbe a "hidden tzaddik [righteous man]" who appears in changing disguises, a modest, unassuming man in the full sense of the phrase, which is why many people who have met him have trouble remembering details.
This typical Hasidic approach may explain some of the mystery surrounding the figure of the rebbe. Anything is possible. Those who met the rebbe may not remember exactly what occurred; those who remember may not understand; those who saw one thing may have understood it to mean something else; those who did not see may have been unable to comprehend what they were seeing.
Friedman's quest began in 1991, as he peered intently into one of the pictures from Schneerson's Berlin days which appears in "The Days of the King." Schneerson had gone to study in Berlin before his marriage to Hayah Mushka, the daughter of his predecessor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, and he returned there immediately after the wedding. As a Jew who left Soviet Russia in 1927, headed for Riga, and then ended up in Berlin several months later, one would have expected every police force in the world, not to mention the German police, to sit up and take notice.
When Friedman reached Berlin, he found that some of the archives had been destroyed when the Allies bombed the city during World War II. "From my perspective, the research is incomplete," he says, "although there is always the possibility that documents showing when exactly he arrived and where he was coming from will still materialize." Under the circumstances, Friedman started off his search at the university. According to Laufer, Rabbi Joseph'Dov Halevi Soloveichik of Boston was also studying at the university in Berlin at the time, and he lived nearby. Whenever he had a question about an academic or religious text, he would stop over at Schneerson's house and consult with him. Laufer (citing one of the rabbis who heard it from Soloveichik himself and a Kfar Chabad rabbi who heard it from associates of Soloveichik) says that even though Schneerson did not spend much time at his studies, his marks were always higher than Soloveichik's. Moreover, "the rebbe was known to have received several advanced degrees in Berlin, and then later in Paris." Another witness, a resident of Tel Aviv, claimed that everyone knew the rebbe was attending university, and that despite his low-key presence, "everyone knew that a unique personality was in town."
Friedman walked into the archives of the von Humbolt University in Berlin, formerly known as the Frederick Wilhelm University, and asked to see the student registration lists for all faculties from 1926. Although he knew that Schneerson had left for Paris in 1932, he checked the lists up to 1935 just to be sure. The archive director, Dr. Winifred Schultze, placed several fat volumes on a table, and Friedman began to leaf through them. There were thousands of names on the lists, complete with addresses, changes of address, countries of origin, birth dates and passport numbers. He found Rabbi Joseph Dov Halevi Soloveichik of Boston, who was studying theosophy. His eyes lit up once more to find Rabbi Professor Alexander Altaian. "This was a very important academic institution," Friedman says. "People came here from all over the world. There were Jews from Palestine, too. I have their names. From Hadera, Tel Aviv. It is not possible that [Schneerson] was omitted inadvertently."
Hour after hour, day after day, Friedman pored over the lists and discovered nothing. He was frustrated and tired. Sometimes he would try other sources: lists of tenants living in rented .apartments; water, electricity and telephone bills at the municipality. How could it be that Chabad literature claimed the rebbe had lived there for six years and everyone knew about it, whereas Friedman could find no trace of him? Friedman called Professor Menachern Ben Sasson of the Hebrew University. Had Dr. Yosef Burg, his father-in-law, who had studied at the Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary and visited all the shteibels and rabbinical courts to satisfy his insatiable cultural curiosity, ever spotted the rebbe in Berlin? Burg, known for his razor-sharp memory, had neither seen nor heard. Soloveichik' s son, Professor Haim Soloveichik, also denied that his father had met Schneerson in Berlin. Friedman became anxious. "Where could this man have been?" he asked himself in despair one night. "It seems that he was never here, and if he was, no one saw him."
A small, thin man with a pointy beard and a knitted black yarmulke sat in his hotel room in Berlin, gazing out the window at the crowd below. He felt like he was being buffeted by the wind. Suddenly his wife blurted out: "You're telling me that Schneerson's wife, Hayah Mushka, was with him in Berlin . They had no children. So what did she do all day? Maybe you should try looking for her?" Friedman rushed to the archives. Were women permitted to study in those days? he asked. "If not at the university, then perhaps at the school for overseas students," the archivist replied. "You know, they studied German there. A little history. Geography. They even put out a student newspaper." "Do you have any records?" asked Friedman. The archivist replied, "Here we have records for everything." He pulled out a small book and opened it to 1927. Friedman turned the pages. Nothing. 1928 - still nothing, although he did find some familiar-sounding names: Zohara Wilbush of Haifa, Hayah Berski of Tel Aviv, Alexander Barash of Tel Aviv. Yehudit Margolin, Menachem Zulai, even Yemima Cernowitz. But then he saw it. He could barely believe his eyes: Schneerson, Hayah Mushka. Citizenship: Soviet Union . Address: Oranienburgstr 33, at Braun. Registration date: January 23,1929. Course no. 57 and 45. Hayah Mushka had also completed two other courses. Friedman was walking on air. "They were here!" he cried. "The rebbe was here, and I've got to find him!" "Well," said the archivist, "I've just thought of one last way to do it.", Tomorrow: The Missing Brother-in-Law, Where is Rose Street and Who Was the Rebbe's Talmud Partner?
Missing Brother-in-Law Found in Paris
Prof. Menachem Friedman looked wearily at the chief archivist. "Here," said Dr. Winifred Schultze. "This is a record of the students who audited courses at the university without receiving academic credit." Friedman flipped through the pages and there it was at long last: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a.k.a the Lubavitcher rebbe, had attended philosophy and mathematics courses at a Berlin university for one and a half semesters. Two addresses were given: the Hildesheimer rabbinical seminary, and then a working-class neighborhood not far from Berlin's old Jewish quarter.
Little by little, the pieces began to fall into place. The rebbe's wife, Hayah Mushka, had attended the Deutsche Institute, and the rebbe had audited university courses for at least a year. The rebbe's name appeared in the auditing records on April 27,1928, and then again on November 21, 1929. But where had he been before that? Schneerson was known to have spent time in Germany prior to his marriage. And what about afterwards? The couple had resided in Berlin for six years, from 1927-1933. What could Schneerson have been doing all that time? Friedman has no doubt that the rebbe, self-taught, intellectually curious, and capable of absorbing vast amounts of material, spent his days reading. "He was a loner," says Friedman. "Books were always his closest friends. I am sure that he sat in the library reading everything in sight."
Why the rebbe chose such a "goyish" center of Western culture is a question for which the people at Chabad have no definite answer. Some speculate that it has to do with the mystical theory of "klippot" (husks) and "nitzotzot" (sparks). Throughout their lives, Hasidim are commanded to seek out sparks of faith an extremely difficult mission requiring one to aspire to the highest dimensions of spirituality. Tzaddikim, or righteous men, are capable of finding sparks even where crudity prevails. The true tzaddik can extract the purest of sparks from what appears to be the thickest husk. When asked about his secular studies, the rebbe advised young people not to follow in his footsteps. It was true that he had studied in Russia, Berlin and Paris, he said on one occasion, but he had come to realize that 95 percent of the students were not genuinely interested in the material and ended up learning nothing. Attending university was something that he, the rebbe, could do, but everyone else was best off at yeshiva.
According to Chabad lore, the young Menachem Mendel Schneerson, son of the Kabbalist rabbi Levi Yitzhak (and great-grandson of Zemach Zedek, the third Admor of Chabad), left Soviet Russia together with his future father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson. They spent a short time in Riga, where Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak tried to set up court, before moving to Otwock in 1935 (after the outbreak of World War II, he fled to the United States). All this time, Menachem Mendel was engaged to marry the rabbi's daughter, Hayah Mushka. A booklet published after Hayah Mushka's death explains that "owing to the hardship in those days, it was not possible to hold the wedding soon after the engagement," and even after their departure from Russia, "there were delays."
Friedman would rather not advance any theories in this regard, lest he end up distorting the facts. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak's two young daughters, Hayah Mushka and Shayne, were not in a hurry to marry. Hayah Mushka was 27, and her sister, 26, when they stood under the wedding canopy. A family relative claims that when the young Schneerson first came to the rebbe's court in 1925, he was interested not in Hayah Mushka but in her younger sister. However, this is difficult to prove and remains mere speculation. One way or another, Schneerson arrived in Berlin alone, apparently in 1926, and his betrothed, Hayah Mushka, stayed home with her father. The wedding took place only two years later, in November 1928 not in Riga, where the family lived, but in Warsaw where Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak headed a yeshiva. On December 2, 1928, the local Jewish paper reported that the groom wore European clothing (which was not the custom among Polish Hasidim), that he held several academic degrees, and that the bride was educated, too. In the Chabad community, weddings are important events, generally celebrated in grand style. In this case, the guests left with a bad taste in their mouths: Thieves and pickpockets took advantage of the festivities to work the crowd, and even the rebbe admitted, years later, that his wedding had been a "very disorganized affair." For this reason, he said, Shayne and her husband were married in a modest ceremony, in an out-of-the-way town near Vilna.
Who was Shayne's husband? Where did this couple disappear to after their marriage in 1932, which is barely mentioned in Chabad literature? Chabad sources claim that the two perished in the Holocaust, and that the rebbe recited the mourner's kaddish for them every year. These sources also state that the rebbe studied nautical engineering at the Paris Sorbonne. If this is so, where did he live? In the Jewish Quarter? Photographs and other evidence point to Rue de Rosier, near the central synagogue.
Friedman called his, friend, Jules Cappell, a comparative religions scholar with connections in the intelligence community. Perhaps he went to a private university, said Cappell. They checked, but came up empty-handed. An old Jew spoke to them over the phone. He said he knew where the rebbe had studied. Then he got scared and claimed to have forgotten. He was just a feeble old man, he declared. Friedman begged him to reconsider. "All right," he said. "It's called ESTP, a technological college for construction and industrial engineering on Boulevard St. Germain in Montparnasse."
"A lot of baloney," thought Friedman. "I'm sure Jules will tell me there is no such place." He took his wife and went to sit in a local cafe. At three o'clock, he returned to the hotel. An urgent message was waiting for him. "Yes!" shouted Cappell. "He did study there! Tomorrow at nine we'll go down and check the records."
Friedman could not sleep all night. At eight thirty in the morning, he was at the school office. A file lay on the table. "Finally I met the rebbe," he said. "I saw his picture attached to the top of the file. I was so excited I nearly lost my mind." He begged the secretary for permission to take a photograph. She said no, but eventually gave in. He pulled out his pocket camera and snapped page after page. Then he dragged the whole file over to the photocopy machine. Here he is! The rebbe himself! In flesh and blood! Mendel Schneerson. Soviet citizen. Grades: Not outstanding, but not bad. Diploma: Licensed to practice electrical engineering. Address: Aha! 9 Rue de Boulard, 14th arr. No wonder he was nowhere to be found in the Jewish Quarter. Friedman raced from the school to Rue de Boulard. Quite a way, he thought to himself. I wonder how the rebbe walked all this way every Shabbat. In the wintertime, he asked to leave early on Friday afternoon. A note was appended: permission granted, on condition that all tests are passed.
In February 1996, Friedman returned to Paris to check out the building on Rue de Boulard. At the Paris archives, he obtained a full list of tenants from the 1930s: Tchi Que, Chinese. Bruno Rani, Italian. Alexander Muzamin, Russian artist. Another russian. A journalist. A French waiter. And Menachem Mendel, Russian student. Immediately following, Hayah Schneerson. Friedman put the list down. These are the neighbors the rebbe studied Talmud with? Never mind, he consoled himself. At least I've found him. Then, towards the bottom of the list, he made out two familiar names: Mendel Hornstein and Shayne Hornstein. The missing brother- and sister-in-law! Friedman went back over the documents. How could he have missed it, he wondered. There in the engineering school file, below the note granting the rebbe permission to leave early on Friday, was another note: "Permission also granted to Mendel Hornstein."
Friedman raced back to the school office. Yes. Mendel Hornstein studied here. This is his student card. You want to photograph it? No, really. This is going too far. You can look at it and that's all. Friedman copied down all the data: Mendel Hornstein. Polish citizen. Previous studies: Faculty of Philosophy in Warsaw. Born: 1905. Years of study: 1933-1937. Examined on July 24, 1937. Failed. The two couples apparently lived together in Paris, in a neighborhood far from the Jewish community. Right after their marriage in 1932, Shayne and Mendel joined the rebbe and his wife, and the move was clearly planned in advance.
Friedman displays a photograph of the young Mendel Hornstein. No beard or sidelocks. Not even a hat. A fascinating character, says Friedman. His mother was the aunt of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson and the daughter of Rabbi Shalom Dober, the-fifth Admor of Chabad. He is almost never mentioned in Chabad sources, apart from his having joined the rebbe's "shlihot" prayers in Paris. His picture is never shown. Why has Mendel Hornstein, such a close and intimate member of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson's family, been erased from the collective memory of the Chabad movement? In 1997, Friedman set off to Warsaw to find out.
Warsaw and Tales of Chabad
One of the publications put out by Chabad contains a rare photograph of Shayne, the youngest daughter of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson. Shayne, dressed in a wedding gown, sits stiffly on a table or a high stool, her face toward the camera and her body turned dramatically to one side a pose common at the time. With a determined look on her face, and only the barest hint of a smile, Shayne makes for a very attractive portrait indeed. It is a photograph that makes us curious to know more about these sisters, who postponed marriage and spent years living in one of the more colorful, "goyish" neighborhoods of Paris, far from the crowded warmth of the Hasidic court and their father's home. What made their husbands choose a technical career like electrical engineering? One theory, now corroborated by Chabad, is that Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak put his sons-in-law through school to ensure that they had a source of livelihood. According to Chabad, Menachem Mendel even found a job upon arrival in the United States. This week, Chabad denied having written about Mendel Hornstein's death in the Holocaust and the fact that he never became a rabbi. "Actually," they said, "he is not that interesting." For Professor Menachem Friedman, Hornstein is not just interesting,,' he is fascinating. When Friedman arrived in Poland, he asked a Polish journalist to assist him in his research at Warsaw University.
To his surprise, things proceeded smoothly this time. He found the file, opened it and gasped in amazement. There was the young Mendel Hornstein, gazing back at him with beautiful, soulful eyes and a clean-shaven face. Now he understood why Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak had preferred to hold his daughter's wedding in some outlying town and not in Warsaw, where hordes of Hasidim from different courts would be looking and watching. Friedman easily found records for the whole family - Moshe and Mussia Hornstein and their children. Mendel Hornstein's name also appeared on a long list of Jewish and Polish youngsters who had received a discount on their tuition. Poring over Hornstein's photograph, Friedman addressed him as if he were alive: You are the Mendel who lived alongside the rebbe in Paris for nine years, who married the beautiful Shayne, who failed your engineering exams and went back to Poland. For some reason, Friedman felt a special need to document the life of this young man.
Mendel Hornstein was born in Annopol, Volhynia on April 23, 1905. He went to school there for four years. In 1922, he moved to Warsaw with his parents and attended high school in Otwock. In 1926, he applied to Warsaw University. After being turned down by the mechanical engineering department, he studied philosophy and mathematics, but never received his degree. In 1932, he married Shayne Schneerson, born in the town of Lubavitch in 1904. The wedding took place on June 14, as soon as the academic year was over, and in January 1933, the couple joined Menachem Mendel and his wife Hayah Muskha in Paris. Both couples were childless. In 1942, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Shayne died in Treblinka. Her husband was murdered soon afterward, on November 5, 1942. Hornstein arrived in Paris with his Warsaw University records, but he had trouble gaining admission to the technical college in Montparnasse. "The Days of the King," a collection of stories about the Lubavitcher rebbe, goes into great length about these difficulties, but in reference to his brother-in-law, Menachem Mendel. The sentimental tale is told by Dr. Meir Shochetman, "who had the privilege of studying with the rebbe at university in Paris [the Sorbonne] and helping the rebbe and his wife in their early days in the French capital."
Shochetman goes into a long, winding story about the anti-Semitism of the admissions committee and an "unexpected" problem which came up: It was the custom to sit in the lecture halls bare-headed. Shochetman solved the problem by wearing a beret. He says the rebbe studied nautical engineering and mathematics, and possibly psychology. Friedman claims to have proof that the bulk of Shochetman's testimony is fabricated and that he has embellished the facts in true Chabad style. This week, Shochetman's son, Professor Eliav Shochetman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, doubted that fact could be effectively separated from fiction when there ere no living witnesses to ask.
One can be fairly certain that the elder Shochetman's testimony has undergone cosmetic changes at a minimum. "The Days of the King" is considered rather archaic today among the younger adherents of Chabad, but even the most educated and modern Chabadniks live comfortably with the Hasidic narrative. After all, such stories are like a tribal campfire which burns bright, supplying fuel for the sociological, cultural and ideological foundations of Hasidism as a whole, and the Chabad movement, in particular. A quick glance at any Hasidic work, from the popular Baal Shem Tov tales to the rarest anthologies of forgotten tzaddikim, reveals an almost uniform tendency to glorify reality using the same literary tools we are familiar with from the world of ancient folk tales. When a tzaddik is born, a great light fills the room. When he is four years old, he makes a wise comment that excites the rabbis, who predict a great future for him.
He is so engrossed in his books that his mother may call him to dinner six times before he hears her. And then there are other wonders and miracles which are not even worth trying to interpret logically. Professor Israel Bartal, a historian at the Hebrew University, has coined the phrase "Orthodox historiography." Chabad, he says, is particularly interesting because it specializes hi writing history that may have a certain scientific value, and has actually been writing its own chronicles since the 19th century. One of the earliest collections of Hasidic stories, "Shivhei ha-Besht" ("Praises of the Baal Shem Tov"), was compiled by Chabad and brought to press by the same printer who produced the Chabad classic, the "Tanya."
Traditional Jewish society was not of a historical mindset. Historical awareness really began to evolve in the wake of early 19th-century Romantics. Chabad, however, was a forerunner in this sphere. Bartal is also fascinated by how each generation produces a Chabad of its own while preserving a heterogeneous character within that generation. An appreciation of history, Bartal says, is part of the process of modernization, and Chabad has been particularly adept at exploiting modern tools for traditional purposes. Contemporary examples are their mitzvah tanks and the Chabad Internet site. "The writings of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak are a wonderful blend of irrational legend and 19th-century archival references," he says. "The Chabad story is so much easier to absorb than a serious academic study."
Chabad historiography is designed, of course, to transmit a clear message and address man's inner world. But if the inner world of the traditional religious community is in such good shape, why do Chabad historiographers need the justification of history? Bartal sees this as a desperate battle against modernity. Secular historians are perceived as liars who use scientific tools to disparage Judaism. If that is the case, the Chabadniks say, then we are against enlightenment, but if there is anyone who is enlightened, it is us.
Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson left Europe for the United States feeling that the natural world of Europe had been destroyed as the result of demonic trends directly connected to enlightenment. In his eyes, enlightenment became the direct opposite of Hasidism. Borrowing metaphors from the Russian Revolution, he was convinced that the Haskala movement was an international organization with a network of mysterious spies. In his own essays on Hasidism, he used images derived from the historical writings of Dubnow. But he went further than that. He began to build up a cadre of history writers to provide an alternative to Dubnow.
The result, Bartal says, is a "fascinating dialogue of mirror images." Yet it is an anachronistic view of history which views the 18th century through 20th-century lenses. Since World War II, one of the most significant tools in Orthodox historiography in general, and of Chabad in particular, is nostalgia: the image of a completely religious world in which theology occupies center stage. Or, in short, the return to an earthly Garden of Eden, the very opposite of the miserable, gloom-filled Jewish world which the Zionists invented for their own purposes.
When Friedman's book comes out, curious Chabadniks will stampede the bookstores. They will look for errors and argue with a passion they rarely display to the outside world. This week, members of Kfar Chabad were saying that the time had come for "one of our own" to take the plunge and write a real biography of the rebbe. Chabad spokesman Menachem Brod denied feeling threatened by Friedman's study. On the contrary, he said, any document or factual discovery about the life of the rebbe is welcome. "We ourselves are collecting material and intend to publish it on an official basis," Brod noted. "But I cannot say that personal speculations by Friedman or any other researcher are appreciated."
And yesterday, as if to prove Bartal right, a Chabadnik expressed himself this way: "The moment the facts are in our hands, they become our history. What other people write doesn't matter."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now