Hadassah Freilich Lieberman is the daughter of survivors.
She is the Prague-born wife of a retired United States senator who became the first Jewish vice presidential candidate (that’s former senator Joseph Lieberman, first Democrat, then Independent, from Connecticut); she is the mother of two children, one of whom is a rabbi revolutionizing Jewish egalitarian intellectually focused learning (that’s Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar), and the stepmother of two children, and she also is a powerhouse of charisma, charm, social advocacy, and professionalism.
She’s also a frequent speaker on issues of American Jewish life, particularly the Holocaust and its effects on the next generations. It’s an issue she knows firsthand.
She will be speaking at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Holocaust commemoration in Fair Lawn on Wednesday. (See box.)
“I am a representative of the Shoah’s next generation,” Ms. Lieberman said. “My parents were survivors, my mother of Auschwitz and Dachau — she was liberated from Dachau — and my father from slave labor camps.
“I really have no bigger message than that I come to talk as a person who is a daughter of survivors, and who wonders how we can pass things on,” she said. “I was talking to my machetuniste, Ruth Wisse” — that’s Dr. Ruth Wisse of Harvard, the mother of Hadassah’s stepdaughter Rebecca Lieberman’s husband, Jacob Wisse — “who was speaking about her memories. She made the point, which was very strong, that we as Jews have always had difficult memories, hard things to remember, and that we have simultaneously stood up and flown, with our wings, despite how low we have been on so many occasions.
“What I want to talk about, what is so important to me to talk about, is that my mother survived the worst of horrors. I found a diary after she died in 1970, telling me that she could write only a few pages, and therefore prayed that her children could tell more of the story.
“We” — that’s Ms. Lieberman and her brother, Ary Freilich, who lived in Tenafly until a few years ago and continues to be active in local Jewish institutions — “had striking parents.” But their obligations are the same as those all children of survivors confront. (And really, which survivor was not striking in his or her own way, she asked.) “We must remember, repeat, and listen. And at the same time, we have children and grandchildren, and we have to move forward with memory and strength. And now we are very lucky because we have the state of Israel.
“My husband and I just recently went back to Ukraine — he is on the board of Babi Yar — since both of our ancestors are from that area,” she said. “There were no Jews left. I really wanted to get out of there quickly.
“As Jews, I don’t even want to have memories of the town that marked our families’ exodus from those areas. As difficult as it is to remember, to go back to those places — difficult because we are no longer there, we are in another place, and we are strong, and we want to remain strong — we have worked really hard to maintain that. We want no part of the societies that have ousted us. And what comes out of the memories that we want to pass on to our children is strength, not weakness.”
Her father, Rabbi Samuel Freilich, was active in postwar Czechoslovakia, working with the government to help get Jews out of the country. “There still was tension between eastern and western Jews,” she said — in rough, hugely overgeneralized terms, between the more and less modern, more and less educated, the ones who had been fairly affluent until the Nazis struck and the ones who never had been comfortable. “It always is sickening to hear about any tensions between Jews, when you look at how difficult everything was for Jews,” Ms. Lieberman said.
Rabbi Freilich had a yeshiva background; when he got to the United States, he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He took a pulpit in Gardner, Massachusetts. It was an interesting situation. Rabbi Freilich was Orthodox by background and early education, Conservative by smicha, and not well versed in American Jewish life. The shul was nominally Conservative but that affiliation wasn’t very deep, and the Jewish community was tightknit but small and not Jewishly knowledgeable.
It was a learning experience on both sides, their daughter reported.
Her mother was an always-elegant woman, attractive and poised, who taught Hebrew school and took a leading role in the shul’s women’s club.
Ms. Lieberman had a happy childhood but it was not without its challenges. “Thank God we were where we were,” she said.
Now, her goal is to ensure that Jews remember the terrible places where many of them, including her parents, have been, while also always remembering to be grateful for where they find themselves now. And it’s not an abstraction for Hadassah Lieberman, as the life story she tells to make that point demonstrates.
Who: Hadassah Lieberman
What: Will give the keynote talk at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual Holocaust commemoration
Where: At Temple Beth Sholom, 40-25 Fair Lawn Ave., in Fair Lawn
When: On Wednesday, April 11; the art exhibit begins at 6 p.m., and Hadassah Lieberman will speak at 6:30.
For more information: Go to www.tbsfl.org or call either the main number, (201)797-9321, or Roz Melzer at (201) 791-3463.