Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 2-The Long Road to Somewhere
THE LONG ROAD TO SOMEWHERE
“One can write much more about our town, and if it does not have historical value, it is of interest to the descendants of our town, wherever they are, to see how life in our town evolved from generation to generation, and were it not for the fact that the Archevil One put an end to that life, who knows where this life would have reached.” Memoir of Ivenets resident
“Military and Historical tourism,” advertises the brochure for Belarus in somewhat fractured English. “The boring pages of textbooks come alive in this land, abundantly poured with blood of both the invaders and the defenders.” That’s perfectly true. It is amazing how much red blood has been absorbed by a country whose name means White Russia, though “innocent” or “pure” might be a better translation.
What else does Belarus have to offer nowadays to the foreign visitor? The pamphlet continues, “The history was settled so that practically entire Belarusian territory can be considered a thematic military and historical park. One cannot find a place in the country not affected by wars. Since time immemorial Belarus has been the arena of military actions; armades from different states used to cross the country in all directions.”
That’s for sure, too. This is about the westernmost end of the Tatar and Mongol invasions. The Vikings showed up to loot and pillage. And from then on it was Lithuanians and Russians, Swedes and Russians, Napoleon’s French and Russians, Germans and Russians, Poles and Russians. And did I mention 1595 at Buinichy, where revolting peasants fought Cossacks?
As for today, Belarus doesn’t have a great reputation. It is considered Europe’s worst dictatorship, a backward country, a sort of fossil left over from Communism. In September 2009, the government even celebrated the Soviet invasion of Poland which led to the western half of Belarus being annexed by Stalin, though he was allied with Hitler at the time. When a European diplomat friend was assigned to work in a Belarus town, the expression on his face couldn’t have been more stricken than if it had been central Congo or Sudan.
And the tales told about Belarus are enough to drive away a casual visitor, too. You are forced to buy costly and unnecessary medical insurance, ripped off for an expensive visa, and terrified with anecdotes that if you mistakenly take out too much currency, a concentration camp might be awaiting you.
When I explained my plan to the Belarussian ambassador to Israel, much of whose diplomatic career had been spent in Soviet service, even he’d never heard of Dolhinov, though his assistant knew where it was. The visas for a family of four cost about $275, the highest fee I’ve ever paid in decades of world travel.
Actually, I found the country to be fascinating though, of course, I don’t live there But I used to, in a way, which is precisely why I’m going there now. The Russian tide had receded and left Belarus as an independent country for the first time in history. Still, an expert explained, “If Vladimir Putin,” the real ruler of Russia, former president, and current prime minister, “decided to take over Belarus in the morning, it would be incorporated back into Russia by that evening.”
The Belarus ambassador, who’d spent most of his career in Soviet service, had never even heard of Dolhinov, though his assistant had. Like a half-dozen other Central European countries—especially Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Hungary and Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Moldova and Ukraine—a Jewish minority played an important part of their country’s history and is now just a ghost. In all these places, except perhaps the Czech Republic, the entire local nation had been victimized by both Germans and Russians, while much of it also played a large part in wiping out the Jews.
This creates a complex psychological mix of amnesia, apology, and defensiveness whose exact proportions depend on the country and the political views of the individual. Sometimes there is sincere sympathy, sometimes an attitude colored more by attentiveness to one’s image and the possibility of profiting from genealogical tourism.
In Belarus, there are few assets other than the past to be exploited. At the same time, no place suffered more from World War Two in Europe than did the lands which now constitute that country. Belarus was the road by which the Germans entered the USSR and the route on which they were expelled. The war museum in Minsk is probably the biggest in proportion to the city of anywhere in the world.
The situation is further complicated by the amorphous nature of any Byelorussian identity. Originally a group of tribes a thousand years ago, the Byelorussians absorbed a blend of Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian culture. Their language was a dialect of Russian—more different than people think but still a sort of sub-language–and has been largely wiped out in favor of the more powerful tongue. There was never much of a nationalist movement, though what there was eagerly collaborated with the Nazis.
There is, then, little or nothing distinctive about Byelorussian people or culture. Ironically, one of its main unique factors was the exceptionally high proportion of Jews among the overall population before World War Two. Another was that the lack of a strong local nationalism, at least before the Germans came in 1941, also reduced the level of antisemitism.
A third factor is the relative popularity of both Communism and the Russians there. Byelorussian citizens of Poland, in the western half of what is now Belarus, were at worst indifferent and at most enthusiastic about the three Soviet invasions, in 1922, 1939 and 1944. Thus, while Jews might be hated for religious and economic reasons, two additional elements of antagonism—national conflicts and the hatred of Jews as Communists—was not a factor there. Ironically, it was under the post-war Soviet regime, when Byelorussians could finally take the best jobs, formerly held by Poles or Jews, or newly created by the development process, did antisemitism reach its peak.
I’m prepared for the worst type of dictatorship—like the ones I’ve seen, for example, in Cuba, East Germany, China in the old days, Syria, and Algeria. Once while experiencing a particularly bad bit of bureaucracy in Algeria, I remarked quietly to a fellow journalist—but hopefully not fellow traveler—standing next to me, “It’s one thing to model yourself on a Communist country but why did they pick Albania?”
Actually, though, Minsk is a beautiful city, at least the downtown area, shining with white marble buildings that looked as if they’d been there for well over a century. In fact, the city was leveled during the war and all of these are reconstructions. True, the place has a bit of the look of a stage setting, the streets and sidewalks fuller with cars or people but rather empty, too, as they must have been in Soviet times. There are few stores—downtown Moscow looks like Manhattan in comparison—but also less disfiguring advertising.
The building that makes the most lasting impact on me is a large white structure on the north side of a square. Now a school, it was once the Soviet secret police headquarters, then the SS headquarters, and then again the Soviet one. It was a building said to have the best view in the city because from it–there was a time when telling this joke required tremendous courage: “You could see all the way to Siberia.”
In a place like Vilnius, Lithuania, or Riga, Latvia, where the horrendous sufferings of the people at Soviet hands are highlighted, such a building would be a museum of Soviet atrocities. In the Vilnius building, which is a museum of the Lithuanian Holocaust, you can go to the basement and see, looking down through the clear plastic floor, the bones of Stalin’s victims executed there and the bullets used to kill them. In Belarus, though, an unkind word is never spoken of the Communist period, a sharp contrast to other ex-Soviet republics.
Daŭhinava, as it was written in Latin, also known as Dolhinów, Daŭhinaŭ, Daŭhinava,
Даўгінаў, Даўгінава, Даўгінова, Даўгынава, Долгиново, Dauhinava, Dolginovo, Dalhinev,
Dolguinovo, Dolhinev, Dolginowo, Dolhinow, Dahlinav, Dauhinau, and Dolhinowo was for 500 years a small town but is today a small village, 50 miles north of Minsk and about 80 miles east of Vilnius.
It’s a simple two-lane road like that you’d find going up and down amidst American farmland. What’s different are the trees, smaller, standing apart a bit more, with lots of white birches. There are glimpses of lakes and marshy ground. There isn’t much other traffic. What’s important about this road is not its breadth but its route, threading between the water-logged lands that make this area one of Europe’s most inaccessible. Dolhinov was a place you had to go through. But now with many other roads and railroads and air routes it is even more of a backwater among the swamp waters.
Yet while Dolhinov has become much further from civilization, it is actually much faster to get there, forty-five or fifty minutes by vehicle, even if only an old red Volkswagen van. This is no longer the way to Minsk or to Moscow but merely to a string of sick, if not actually dying, small agricultural towns and peasant villages. It has gone from being the breadbasket of Russia or Poland to being the Appalachia of a country already poor and less developed. This is Europe’s Third World.
We stop along the way at a rundown store where the smell of animal manure even stronger than it should be in a place like this, a sign of poor sanitation more than the presence of cows. Then, as we enter town, we ask directions of the first man we see. He wears baggy grey pants, no jacket against the cold, and is pulling on a spindly cigarette. His face is pockmarked and covered with cuts and bruises, a classical alcoholic, a casualty of the long war between East European peasant and vodka.
When I had met a 92-year-old Dolhinov man who’d lived there all his life, he remarked to me, “You look good. You must have lived in more fortunate circumstances.” I should add that I encountered him vigorously chopping wood behind his house and life had preserved him well enough that he seemed capable of running rings around someone half his age. Still, the point was made.
But the houses, they are simply charming, brightly painted in green, purple, or light blue, as if the rustic characters of fairy tales had moved up in the world of their magic villages. Locals and city people may think it a disgrace that people still live in old one-story wooden cottages rather than more modern (and admittedly better insulated) but incredibly ugly two-story brick or concrete buildings. Yet while the interiors are like old two-room apartments, outside each home is immaculate, lovingly maintained and painted in pastel colors, with contrasting window shutters. This is the other side of the peasant life for those not completely demoralized, devotion to the few things one does own.
The roads are now a single lane, and no cars are parked along it because few of the local people own one. We pull up in front of the mayor’s office, a shanty across a narrow lane from the gold-gilt-laden Russian Orthodox church. An old home-made cart, possibly old enough to have been made by one of my ancestors, creaks by pulled by a horse, probably the descendant of one sold by my great-uncle. Two worn-looking old men set on the bench. And the cargo is, of course, potatoes.
As traditional as that crop is the smell in the air, wood smoke, thick and stifling but also comforting. Potatoes and wood, two things—along with apples—the area has in abundance. Next to the building is parked the first—and the last—local car I see. It’s an old Volkswagen bug painted in elaborate military camouflage, which turns out to be the official town vehicle.
Inside, it is rundown with a tiny waiting room and small offices for the mayor and his assistant straight back from the entrance. On the left though is a closed door and in a quick tour the mayor opens it to display the unexpected: a huge and opulent wedding hall, a leftover from the Soviet days when people were discouraged from church weddings by the Communist regime. The podium, not altar of course, is pink like a wedding cake. On it is a fancy quill pen, for signing the marriage documents, and behind it is the emblem of Belarus. The walls are lined with plastic flowers.
Anatoly Krasnevich, the 43-year-old mayor is clad informally in a sweater, a bearlike, genial, seemingly energetic man. At first, he’d insisted that he was too busy to meet me, working on some road improvement plan mandated by the central government, but he relented. It would require a strong effort to dislike him. His assistant is a kind, buxom woman perhaps in her 30s who is obviously an ethnic Pole, a sign that there is no discrimination in modern Belarus along those lines.
He is an electrician by profession, an ethnic Russian whose family came after the war, and not even from Dolhinov. He makes a joke about the country’s dictator, whose face stares out over his shoulder in a photo behind his desk. Belarus’s government today seems more intent on keeping power and making profits rather than ideological conformity through intimidation.
“You are my guest, in spite of the fact that you lived here,” he says in Russian. I find the translation, which might be a little off, intriguing. I, of course, never lived there directly but the welcome applies in more metaphysical terms, doesn’t it?
“The destruction of the Jews,” he tells me, “was the destruction of the town.” And that’s true. From a lively place of more than 4000 people in 1939, it has gone to around 1200 today, a village. Those who can leave do, usually as construction workers in other countries or Minsk.
We go into the small reception room where a table is set simply for lunch, which we hadn’t expected. Galina Tupitzina, principal of the high school joins us, leaning heavily on a cane. She’s an ethnic Russian whose family came to Dolhinov after the war, her father was a teacher sent to Russianize the Byelorussians, a continuation in Communist form of the old Czarist policy.
It’s an ironic situation, since the USSR had seized the land from Poland, illegally annexed it, massacred Polish war prisoners, deported Polish civilians and sent them to concentration camps, and then brought in ethnic Russian settlers. This is far more than Israel ever did in the territories captured in 1967, and it was responding to threats against its very existence.
The surviving Polish refugees couldn’t even get anyone interested in hearing their story. Yet Soviet aggression had been accepted by the world, another reminder—if one were to be needed—that supposed law and morality is merely a convenience indulged in by most when power is not a consideration.
Tupitzina wears a blue and red flannel coat against the cold. She’d gone to school with Leon in the 1950s there, lived across the street in fact, and he regards her as a special, reliable friend, which is why he sent her money to care for the graveyard. She’s the only one in town who knows any English, and probably any foreign language at all except for the ethnic Poles.
Sitting down, we then look at the lunch laid out. In the center of the table sits a plate piled high with ham sandwiches. It’s been too long since the Jews left. In their good intentions to be hospitable, they just don’t remember that pork is the main culinary boundary between the communities. The situation makes me sad, showing just how far the ghostly presence has faded.
Tupitzina reads the shock, horror, and perhaps trace of amusement on our faces and waves her hand as if magically to make the food disappear. Of course, their intentions were good and
Without further ado, Tupitzina echoes the mayor, “Dolginov is dying,” she says. Civic boosterism has not yet come to this place.
This decline is most visible in what might be called downtown Dolhinov is a small square with buildings on two sides—the other two must have been burned down during a partisan raid during the war and never rebuilt. There is a small post office; a grocery with a little bread; and a bigger general store with work boots, cheap carpets, plastic plants, and a disproportionate amount of funeral supplies, a symbol of the town’s moribund state. There’s an abacus instead of a cash register,
In the store, I find the perfect hat, having always wanted one of those cadet-type caps so often seen in pictures of Russia a century ago. But the storekeeper, horrified when I try it on, rushes over: “That’s for dead people,” she says in Russian. It did seem to have a relatively flimsy construction but I’d attributed that to local quality control. To make her happy I take it off but regret not buying it as a souvenir.
It was on this spot, as photos from the 1930s show, that crowded Jewish shops with large signs proclaimed their wares in Yiddish, along with some Polish. How often my ancestors must have walked up this sidewalk, though now even the second side of the square has ramshackle houses, replacing the vanished stores, with a goat tethered in the back. In some ways, the neighborhood could provide a set for a B-movie about life after a nuclear holocaust. Indeed, there was a Holocaust here, albeit of a different kind with far more conventional weapons.
A few minutes by car is the eastern end of town, which is precisely where it was a half-century earlier, not only because of the place’s stagnation but also due to the stagnant swamps that block the way. At the foot of the conical hill is a memorial marking the place where the hundreds of victims were buried in a mass grave, buried by survivors some of whom I know. I stare down at the soil beneath which lies perhaps 2500 people, many of them related to me. Do they sense my presence? What does it mean to stand on this spot, any sense of mystical bond or special knowledge? It is too overwhelming for such a signal to get through.
In that dreaded year 1942, about 85 percent of everyone related to me in the world was murdered, in Dolhinov and in Slovakia. I passed most of my time on earth without knowing even one of their names or the names of even one of these places. William Shakespeare had written, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” Doesn’t that apply in equal measure to great-grandchildren, nieces, or nephews, to those charged by their happier fate to be guardians of memory and respect?
Above it is a steep conical hill where the post-1920 Jewish cemetery is located. The previous one is gone, buried underneath a street, Leon says. People build graveyards for eternity but they generally don’t seem to last more than a century, such is the limit of human memory or concern about the past.
.Like most people, I have an avoidance sense toward cemeteries: too many sad memories of the past; too many realistic expectations about the future. But when I get to the top of the hill and push through the gate with the Star of David on it, a terrible shock comes from something else. The place is completely overgrown and neglected. Despite the money paid through the school principal it is clear that there’s been no clean-up for a long time. New trees are growing in, the scrub grass is very high; markers have been edited by the fingers of lichen, pushed over, or completely covered by vegetation. There’s a profusion of mushrooms and wild onions.
The issue isn’t just one of the place’s even more mournful aspect, of disrespect shown to those I’d come to respect and forgetfulness of those I’d come to remember. No, it was also an act of bad faith. The relations among national groups in this part of the world had been complex. Jews, Poles, and Byelorussians had co-existed—often with Russian rulers—in peace most of the time. But there had been more than enough wars. Antisemitism was one side of the coin but there had been plenty of positive relationships as well.
It is possible to focus on the antagonisms, but that is not wholly accurate. Some neighbors helped Jews escape being murdered, others gleefully turned them in. In pre-war Poland, antisemitism was not so much a universal but an issue over which there was a struggle among Poles themselves. Yet it is also easy, especially for Jews among whom assimilation has become a skill set so inbuilt as to be unconscious, to sentimentalize.
No other group so passionately wants to believe in the brotherhood of man, the dissolution of difference. An American sociologist once told me that when he does surveys on personal identity, if a college student answers, “What does it matter” or something along the lines of, “I’m a citizen of the world,” that person is invariably Jewish.
This kind of thinking is the Jewish political disease, a key element in their political tilt—often disastrously—to the left, like those Jews of Dolhinov who became Communists only to discover that the Polish masses hated them for doing so and the Soviet rulers wanted to destroy their people, and often themselves personally and physically. Far from a brave new world of universalism, the regime had the same goal as its Czarist predecessor: to transform them into Russians.
Yet the breaking of faith represented by this overgrown cemetery reminds us of the truth that so much of modern officially approved culture tries to deny: You can ultimately, only depend—at best–on those with whom you have something profound in common: family, co-religionists, nation, country, in ever-larger concentric circles, like gravity the forces that bind becoming weaker over distance.
We press through across the width of the cemetery, about 12 rows of graves, in lines of perhaps 50, stretching until hidden by trees and undergrowth. There is a skill to walking in cemeteries, especially older ones, where the ground is so undermined by digging and decay that it threatens to cave in, with horrible results.
But Tupitzina had promised to send the students to help in the clean-up, which was either a courtesy or an attempt to salvage her subsidy. Slowly dots appeared on the horizon. The first students come, cutting across a field toward the back gate, several on bicycles. The older boys looked, or tried to look, tough in black jackets and stocking-hats. Girls gossiped and giggled, ponytails swinging.
About nine to fifteen years old, they are wearing thin jackets and sweaters, though many have international brand names and sport shoes, close to being indistinguishable from American kids of that age. Very Slavic in appearance, they have light hair, high cheekbones; altogether a good-looking and healthy group of children. They might not have luxuries but fresh food and outdoor exercise are more conducive to well-being.
It’s a complex moment. I’m going to have to make a speech to explain what I’m doing here to these kids, to make a lasting impression on them. But realistically, of course, they are just viewing this field trip to clean the cemetery as a lark, a chance to get out from under the teachers’ feet and the classrooms’ walls. Also, anything I say will be translated into Russian so the meaning on arrival in their ears would predictably quite different from the meaning on departure from my lips.
Then, too, among them there are the grandchildren of Byelorussians who were Nazi collaborators and of anti-Nazi partisans alike—and none of them knows anything about that personal past of their own—as well as post-war ethnic Russian arrivals.
So here’s what I remember saying, with some conscious sugar-coating: “For 500 years our families lived together and saw each other every day. The relations among our people were good. Wherever we go we remember that we came from Dolginov. We hope that you remember us as part of our town. We represent hundreds of Jews who lived here or whose families lived here. We ask you to remember people who were part of the town. We feel very close to you as friends.”
Then we set off to clear the cemetery, to clean the headstones and to read them if possible. The children grab shovels, drag out brush, they pass like a whirlwind of enthusiastic effort. They are kids used to working. For them, it becomes a game, a challenge, as my children instinctively understand. The teachers scream at the students to work harder, while doing nothing themselves. Our guide says to my daughter not to dirty her hands, “Let them do it,” with that strong sense of social snobbery, class privilege, and disdain for manual labor that seems to thrive so strongly under Communist regimes .
My son, Daniel, nine years old and wearing his prized Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat, purchased on Baker Street in London, was surrounded by peers speaking to him in Russian, despite his incomprehension. One bolder lad decided to try out his English: “Do you want to eat a table?” he asked seriously.
Here’s how my then 14-year-old daughter, Gabriella, described the experience:
The tombstones protruded from the ground like jagged teeth, barely differentiated from rocks. Some were broken into two cold pieces, others slowly deteriorating, ivy growing thickly over them. You could almost hear them cracking. Spindly trees towered overhead with large wigs of leaves, soon to spiral down, showing splices of sky from between the branches.
“Found one!” Called Daniel. He waved his arms so fast they looked like multiple arms, a Hindu goddess. “One, two, three,” the headstone was heaved up and turned over. What remained was an empty, rectangular, frowning, hole, and a dirty hunk of rock. We rubbed the soot off the rock and I scrutinized the engraved letters.
“The pious woman, Debra, daughter of…..Shlomo? Died on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month, Av,’’ I ran my fingers across the carved Menorah at the top.
The kids pulled out clumps of weeds, yanking nature’s wild hair from the ground, gathering armfuls of leaves and dropping them in a pile outside the gate. I scrubbed with dry fingernails at moss creeping over a forgotten name.
Some of the children began clawing wildly at the naked dirt. I bent my knees, digging along with them. One of the boys nudged me, pointing to a sliver of rock jutting from the ground. I dug my fingers under the stone to lift it with all my might. Others joined in the effort, grinning and grunting. They were looking at me patiently, as if asking me to lead them. I felt a fluttering feeling in my tummy, the wind scraped against my skin, and slowly, together, panting; we heaved up the gravestone and turned it over.
Surprisingly the dirt had sunken into the Hebrew letters, making them readable. More kids began to clean the tombstone together, caressing the old letters and wiping away years of dirt and abandonment with a single sweep.
Silently, the youngsters gazed at me, expectantly. They want to know who this is as much as I do, I thought. I read the person’s name: Josef son of Tzvi who passed away in 1900. The words curled out of my mouth in swirls. Bella translated and the children stared wide-eyed at the pile of earth which was once a living and breathing human being. Joseph was Jewish and from an era that these children couldn’t comprehend. He lived before them in the same town as they now lived. Maybe one of these children’s great-grandfathers had known him.
It was as if they had discovered him, like a child discovers a new and mysterious plant in the garden, one that he has never noticed before. It was as if this person had been reborn. We sat in a circle, Jews and non-Jews, happy and laughing, feeling deeply attached, in a graveyard of forgotten people, now remembered.
And, of course, just as I expected and with full melodrama—life is like that much more than we expect—the last grave of all we find that day is that of my great-grandfather. It’s surprisingly elegant compared to the others and in a position of honor, near the front gate. So around it, we gathered together again and I made a closing speech, trying to put everything I felt and wanted to say into the fewest and clearest words:
“If we want other people to respect us then we need to respect those who came before. You’ve done a good deed before God and before man and I thank you from my heart.”
Against my advice, more money is turned over to the school and more promises are made. A year later when another descendant visits Dolhinov, he angrily reports that the graveyard looks untouched, even more overgrown than when I was there.
After an overnight old-style European train ride in a sleeper, we arrive in Vilnius, the destination for centuries of the Jewish merchants of Dolhinov on their wagons. I also came to like the city and its people but wondered when glimpsing those of an appropriate age whether they had once been in Dolhinov in German uniform.
In the hotel lobby is a guide entitled “Exploring Vilna.” In the historical section there are three paragraphs or so on the very real crimes of the Soviets and KGB against during the war against the (Christian) Lithuanians. The Nazis are not mentioned at all. This indicates a certain problem of historical narrative. There is no doubt that the Soviets treated the country terribly, executing hundreds and deporting tens of thousands. The Germans were there for only three the Soviets for well over forty years. The Lithuanians are entitled to turn the old KGB headquarters building into the Museum of the Lithuanian Holocaust.
But that was not the only Holocaust in Lithuania. Many Lithuanians are trying to cope honestly with this complex history; others aren’t. One of the main reasons that Jews were hated in Lithuania was that they were—and this was a major theme of Nazi propaganda, too—identified as Communists. In fact, though, most Jews had tried to prove they were Lithuanian patriots. Seven were in the first independent Lithuanian parliament, several dozen died fighting for the country’s freedom during World War One, and so on.
During a tour of Vilna, full of the genuinely inspiring stories of the resistance to Communist rule, we’re standing in front of a brick wall with a huge antisemitic graffiti. It was in Lithuanian but I could easily read it. And during the time we spent standing, the Lithuanian Jewish guide talked about various things and pointed at buildings but never acknowledged its presence.
It would be silly to use such things to condemn an entire country for its antisemites just as to point to individual Jewish Communists doesn’t prove Jews are treacherous or disloyal. Nor does it make the idea of nationalism invalid.
But the reality of this history, the typicality of these conflicts, should be understood.
My grandparents on my father’s side came from Dolhinov, in an area where the Russians and Poles fought endlessly. The Russians oppressed the Poles until 1918. Then the Poles oppressed the Russians until 1939. Then the Russians oppressed the Poles until 1941. Then the Germans oppressed both until 1944. then the Soviets chased out the Poles in 1944 in a population exchange or ethnic cleansing take your pick. And who knows what’s going on today.
On my mother’s side, her grandfather came from South Prussia where the Germans oppressed the Poles from 1780 through 1918. Then the Poles oppressed the Germans until 1939. Then the Germans murdered the Poles until 1945. Then the Poles threw out all the Germans.
And my mother’s grandmother came from Austria-Hungary where German-speakers ruled over Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, and others. In 1918, Czechoslovakia was formed. The Slovaks, ethnic Germans, and many of the Hungarian minority supported the Nazis. After 1945, all the Germans and most of the Hungarians were deported. The town of Magyar (Hungary) Brod became Uhersky Brod. Finally, dissatisfied at playing second fiddle, the Slovaks split off from what became the Czech Republic.
Europe’s history has shown—and many doubt that the future will be different—the real difficulty of maintaining multiculturalism.
Amidst this complex of other people’s battles, the Jews historically had difficult decisions to make. Should they:
Stay traditional and mind their own business but then face traditional antisemitism in turn?
Become Zionists and leave?
Emigrate anywhere possible, which usually meant North America?
Be Bundists and seek their own share of the power, thus potentially antagonizing the local majority group?
Assimilate? But then the problem was: assimilate to whom?
Turn revolutionary as Communists and thus intensify antisemitic persecution if they lost and both destroy their own community and intensify antisemitism if they won?
These were not easy choices.
In South Prussia they tried to speak German and be good Germans so the Poles hated them and the Germans didn’t accept them.
In Austria-Hungary they tried to be German-speakers (loyal subjects of the monarchy) and the Czechs (who have just about the best record of all these groups though) and the Slovaks hated them. Some tried to be good Hungarians but that didn’t make the Hungarians love them.
In Russia they tried to be good Russians (which made the Poles and Ukranians hate them) or to change Russia (which made a lot of the Russians hate them).
Ultimately, it was a no-win situation. Zionism or emigration or both made the most sense. And because of my ancestors’ decisions in this regard, they lived, they prospered, I exist.
As for their attitude to the “Old Country” it ranged from nostalgia, through deliberate amnesia, to resentment. Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Ruderman, himself born in Dolhinov and who came to head the yeshiva of Cleveland in the land of Ohio, suggested the proper Jewish attitude on this matter. In analyzing one section of the Bible, he recalled how the deity told Moses that Aaron, and not himself, should strike the Nile River with his staff.
Why? Ruderman explains,
“Because the Nile protected Moses when he was cast into the river; it was not to be smitten by his hand. In this manner, the Torah teaches us how deeply we must feel gratitude, not only to human beings who help us but even to inanimate objects such as water and sand. Moshe is commanded to take vengeance on the nation of Midyan but cannot participate himself because he lived there for many years and felt gratitude for his former homeland.”
If one believes, than that type of argument is called religious. If one doesn’t, it is still equally valid in the real of logical, moral, and philosophical. Thus, too, it is true with the transformation of past into present. One should feel gratitude toward one’s former temporal homeland and those who inhabited it.
Taking this journey to understand those people and decisions has allowed me to meet several hundred people, living and dead, I’d otherwise never have known; and to be to a dozen places I’d otherwise never have seen.
How could one possibly imagine how my ancestors and the other people of a little isolated town like Dolhinov lived? At first, this appears a hopeless task, a great unknown and a few vague shreds based only on a tiny number surviving witnesses whose memories extend back to the 1930s. Yet it is amazing how much evidence remains, in some ways organized on the Internet though much of it in the most obscure references and in dusty archives.
Life is basically pretty simple. People wake up, eat breakfast, pray, do some sort of labor, eat lunch, labor more, pray more, eat dinner, deal with family or friends, and go to sleep, finding time for some reading and study whenever possible. Babies are born, children are educated, marriages made, children parented, life comes to an end. We make a great deal of the details and are fascinated not only by variations in them as well as to the overall pattern. That’s what makes for travel, anthropology, dining out. When that pursuit relates to that far-off country from which traveler never returns—the land of the dead—we call it history.
There’s more around of it than you may think. Documents signed by my ancestors in the 1880s patiently have waited for me to come and visit them, as empires rose and fell, as dust drifted downward like miniscule snow drifts. The scattered evidence extends to the ends of the world, over thousands of miles in extent about a place one could walk across in twenty minutes. Often, today, this bureaucratic data which is now gold to be mined is brought together by electronic magic, unimaginable to those living in a time when few travelled further away from their homes than an automobile can now take you in a half hour and the most advanced technology was the well bucket and kerosene lamp. The number of languages required to bring home all of these scattered bits is awesome. The list eventually includes Byelorussian, English, French, German, Hebrew, Latin, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, and Yiddish.
And yet, like pieces of a puzzle—a puzzle ultimately as large as the earth itself—to be fit together by a combination of ingenuity and what the ancestors called sitzfleisch, the ability to sit and work patiently to the point of exhaustion and beyond.
Too much has been lost but far more has been preserved than we dare dream. So within two years of having never heard the word Dolhinov, I know more about it than anyone on earth. And while the smallest details might appear only to a tiny number of people, with a few changes for other people of east central Europe—and somewhat larger adjustments for others—it is a story that applies to just about everyone, since even the most sophisticated resident of New York, London, Tokyo, or Cairo with very few exceptions, arises from a village or tiny town dweller not so long ago.
On page 416 of the memorial book to Dolhinov, Yitzhak Levi Koton stares out with a guileless expression that belies what he’d experienced by 1945. He is in Red Army uniform, having been transferred from the partisans to a regular unit after the Soviets captured Belarus. I glance between the 20-year-old boy in the book on my lap and the 85-year-old man sitting next to me, knowing they are one and the same body carried through two-thirds of a century. His left ear stands out at an angle just as in the photo. The distinct and quizzical eyebrows, which strangely only go halfway across above his eyes, are precisely the same.
Born on May 15, 1924 as Leib “Lova” Koton, he’s the grandson of a famous rabbi. His father had gone to America for a while, didn’t like it, and returned to Dolhinov. Koton became a member of the left-wing Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair. Clearly a powerful man, he is bearlike even at his advanced age, leaning most of the time on his cane,. He lives in a beautiful old-age home of marble and yellow awnings over balconies, built around some very well-kept gardens, a few steps from the Mediterranean Sea, about as far from Dolhinov in feel and geography as one can get.
On one wall of his small apartment are his fifteen wartime medals framed in an unobtrusive small case. The furniture is of light-colored wood and plenty of it, so favored by older Israelis from Eastern Europe. He shows me the interview he did for the Spielberg archives on just about the most modern flatscreen television I’ve ever seen. The young Israeli woman interviewing him is charmingly naïve about places like Dolhinov. She simly cannot believe that in Dolhinov all the members of Hashomer Hatzair, famed for its hardline secular stance, are religiously observant. nishment that Hashomer Hatzair members were religious.
As always in the homes of survivors who have lost so much of their families, family photos are prominently displayed. A small round clock ticks, proof that time isn’t finished with us yet. I sit on a couch in a red flower pattern, eating the mandatory cheesecake, hearing stories of long ago about people I feel I’ve already met though they are long dead and never encountered by me in person.
And the eddies of history–your history–swirl around you whether you know it or not. Eilat Gordon Levitan, born in Israel but who had relatives in Dolhinov, has done more than practically anyone to keep alive the memory of that town and other shtetls by creating Internet sites about them. Her mother has lived in Rehovot, Israel, in the same house for fifty years. One day, she proudly showed her neighbor, Chanik Golan (originally Goltz) the sites her daughter had created. Golan turned to her in astonishment and said, “My husband Yehezkel is from Dolhinov.” He and his sister, Miriam Goltz-Deutsch survived the Holocaust and came to Israel.
Or perhaps there really is something to genetics. My great-grandmother’s brother, named Nathan Hefetz, born in 1859, he had a son and a daughter. The daughter, Sarah, went to South Africa in 1936 while her brother, Mendel Hefetz, stayed in Dolhinov and perished in the Shoah. One of Sarah’s grandsons became a professor in Tel Aviv University’s Geophysics Department; one of Mendel’s grandsons became a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Geophysics Department. Neither Eyal Hefetz nor Dan Price knew each other until they met in the hallway, since their offices are only four doors apart.
Now I’m in the small but neat apartment of my fifth cousin, Asia Hefetz, the aunt of Eyal Hefetz, who I hadn’t known existed even a few months earlier even though she has been around since 1930. She lives in a beautiful new high-rise retirement building. As she talks about tragedies, I am practically sobbing about people who died eight years before I was born. I’m embarrassed since after all, it is her father who was murdered. Yet she is the only one I’ve met who knows my great aunt, Chaya Doba Rubin, and what became of her.
We go through at the memorial book. On page 74 is a picture of her first-grade class at a Chanukah party in the late 1930s. One of her fellow students is Chaya Doba’s son, my great uncle who was murdered in 1942, but she isn’t sure which one and so I will never know what he looks like. So close, yet so far.
In the photo’s center is the teacher, Ringa. I know Ringa already from the memoir of Esther Dokszycky, who was a young girl then. It’s a day in May 1942, Esther’s mother and sister have just been murdered and she sees a cousin, even younger than her, shot down before her eyes. Barely surviving herself, she is taken to one of the two remaining houses into which the last remaining Jews of Dolhinov, no more than 200 out of 4000, are being kept for a few last weeks of life.
She stumbles into a room where, to her astonishment, she is face to face with her former first-grade teacher from the Jewish school. The young woman is clutching her own four-year-old son, the last two survivors of their family. The teacher is equally astonished to see one of her students still in the land of the living. She hugs and kisses Esther, and with tears in her eyes, says to her: “Remember how I taught you about Israel. But we didn’t have the opportunity to go there.” A few days later, she and her little boy were murdered, too.
Yes, I’ve already met Ringa.
On this time machine journey, I’m travelling light but with an entire town inside my head.