Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 3-Imagined Lives
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.”
–William Blake, “To see a world”
Cold. Cold. Cold. But that’s hardly surprising since it’s the Ice Age. From Scandinavia, too far north for any human eye to see then, ice sheets move ever south and east, cutting down everything in their path, flattening hills, overturning trees. They rock and roll boulders, making them smoother and rounder as they journey onward. Ice carves lakes and swamps on its march, scoops up earth in one place and lays it down many miles later as a carpet of rich soil.
Flat. Flat. Flat. Up to a point, topography is destiny. That was, literally, the foundation on which Dolginov would stand: lakes, swamps, dense forests, rich farmland, but also a path–a long, narrow corridor of dry, firm land– among ice-dug valleys filled with water. A natural crossroads.
Oh, and one more thing. The glaciers left behind a very impressive boulder, tall as a woman and a yard wide. Two hundred thousand years later, a Lithuanian tribesman drifting into that harsh but promising land looks at this rock and notes the resemblance. To a pagan eye, it seems magical. A vague figure is carved into it at some time between 1100 and 1300: mortal woman or female goddess.
The rock sculpture is a prayer to promote the fertility of people, animals, and crops. After the people become Christian, around 1400, the carved stone is reinterpreted as a cross, ensuring God’s favor on that place. Fertility, protection, prosperity, that holy trinity works for a long time. But in the end, the magic wears away. In the supposed Age of Reason, the boulder is carted off to the Academy of Science’s Institute of Geology in Minsk. Life is frozen into history; passionate belief becomes museum exhibit.
It was a good location for a town, convenient to Minsk to the south, Vilna in the northwest, and Moscow to the northeast. The main road of the kingdom runs through it for merchants and armies, the way going dry and easy between swamps, across the bridge over the thirty-foot-wide Sarchista river on the town’s eastern edge. Clean, sweet drinking water can be heaved up from wells. Dolhinov was in the middle of nowhere but on the route to many somewheres. In 1495, when Princess Helena, daughter of Ivan III, grand duke of Moscow, travels to Vilna to marry Prince Alexander Jagiellon of Lithuania and seal the peace between their two domains, both battling Muslim invaders, what other way would she possibly want to go?
The forest was plentiful, pines, spruce, and birch closer together yet thinner in girth than in North American woods. Gleaming silvery-white bark of the birches make the woods themselves seem magical, providing that beauty so beloved by Russian poets. For more earthly needs, the forests provided plentiful firewood and cheap construction material. Wheat grew well in spring, snow grew deep in winter. Not the most hospitable of places by any means, but before the industrial age it supplied anything one could need.
From far-off Asia, the very frontier of China come Mongol horsemen to slice and dice the Slavic and Baltic tribes in the twelfth and thirteen centuries. Out of the debris rose Lithuania and Poland, two kingdoms which joined fortunes in 1386 when fifteen-year-old Queen Jadwiga of the former married Grand Duke Jagiello of the latter. Their child was the Catholic kingdom of Lithuania-Poland, second only to France in the size of its population. The kingdom’s high point came in the early 1600s when its armies briefly seized Moscow after Czar Ivan was so terrible as to murder his only son and heir.
Soon, however, the path was ever downward due to invasions by Muslim Tatars, Ukrainian revolts, endless wars, indefensible frontiers, and incredible internal conflict as spoiled-brat nobles pursued personal interests at the country’s expense. The Lithuanian-Poles created a parliament whose unique and fatal feature was that even a single aristocratic member could veto any decision. Not surprisingly, paralysis ensued, and their Russian neighbors to the east used these self-inflicted wounds to grind them down, eventually, to nothing.
What of Dolhinov in all this? A continent, civilization, country, history is not all heroic men and powerful suprahuman forces. It’s made of small people and places. Crossroads get walked on as well as walked through. That’s its blessing and curse. And that’s what first drew then doomed my ancestors.
In the 1100s the Russian principality of Polotsk arises to the east and brings the Russian Orthodox church to the area. But by the 1250s, the Lithuanians are pushing back from the west and control the crossroads. They bring many Polish and a few Tatar prisoners, after a victory over them in 1397, to the area as slaves. Seven hundred years later, there’s still a street in Dolhinov named for the Tatars and rumors of them living in the town as leather workers persist. The strange thing, though, is that no name is ever recorded and no one has ever seen them. Probably–along with some of the other Poles, Russians, and Lithuanians–they were already absorbed into the mass of Christian serfs whose blending together became the Byelorussian people.
By 1440, the border between Lithuanian-Polish Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy is established in this area, which will remain a borderland ever after. Dolhinov is ruled by the Catholics and now has a name, derived from the Lithuanian word for many people, which later becomes the Byelorussian word for “long village” as it is compressed by the surrounding swamps and forests. The glacier-sculpted lakes are long and thin; so is the road; so is the town. Dolginov may have been a crossroads’ grouping of small buildings earlier but it only became a town with the arrival of the Jews, including my ancestors.
It makes sense since the oldest communities of Jews in the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom was established in 1388. The Black Plague hit Germany in the 1340s. Jews, accused of spreading the disease, were expelled from city after city. An economic crash also ensued. Waves of persecution in the following decades included burnings at the stake for those refusing to convert to Christianity. The sole direct clue about where and why Jews around Dolhinov came to be there was a mural in a nearby Jewish house of worship portraying the synagogue at Worms, Germany, seized in a dragon’s jaws.
Despite the flames and catastrophe pursuing them, those Jews of seemingly otherwise civilized Germany needed courage to move to an eastern frontier ravaged not long before by horsemen from the Asian steppes who raised pyramids of severed heads and razed cities to the ground. But Lithuanian nobles promised protection against their own peasants, other aristocrats, and not least important from persecution by the church.
And so my ancestors loaded up their wagons and headed east, excited at getting in on the ground floor of a promising new country, not realizing this decision would shape their descendants’ fates for 500 years, until another cataclysm intervened.
Who issued that invite? Very likely it was Dolhinov’s first owner, Jan Dovgird, Lithuanian noble and royal army commander. If Dovgird had used the later art of advertising, he might have issued posters proclaiming: “Uncle Jan wants Jews.”
Dovgird was clearly a man of great abilities. He had been the one who arranged the murder of the previous Polish king, then the royal marriage which created the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom. As Shakespeare described similar circumstances in his fictional Denmark, “The funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Dolhinov was part of his reward, a peaceful place for a bloody deed.
During 1453, the year mighty Byzantium fell to the Turks and the Roman Empire’s last vestige vanished, Dolhinov passed to Duke Ivashka Monividovich, another favorite of the throne; then, in 1486 to his successor Duke Bogdan Andreyevich Sakowicz, a successful ambassador; and by 1525 to Bogdan’s daughter, Alzhbet Bogdanona Sakowicz. In 1567, Dolhinov went to Yuri Aleksandrovich Hodkevich, whose brother was deputy army commander, and, when he died just two years later, to his wife, Yurieva.
In those days, the nobles owned towns and countryside alike. They received their estates from the king, who could give them to someone else in future, as payment for services rendered. They took the peasants’ crops as rent and their unpaid labor to build manor houses and repair roads. In exchange, the aristocrats protected the serfs from other nobles. That is, unless the other nobles won and then became the new masters. The Middle Ages lasted long in this part of the world.
There were logical reasons why nobles in this region might have been indifferent to economic development or material progress. With so many holdings in different places, they had less personal interest or time to devote to any one of them. Since ownership was temporary, they had no stake in raising productivity. They simply took as much as they wanted—ignoring whether the countryside became impoverished–and ruled.
Even if they had been interested in improving their estates, who could they find to help them do so? The locals were peasants, priests, or warriors, knowing nothing about management, making things, or commerce.
There was, however, a solution: to hire the commercial and financial consultants of the day, the Jews. Having your own Jews was a guarantee for prosperity. They were among the few who could read and write. With connections and relatives throughout Europe, uninvolved in local disputes, they could trade far and wide. Being outside of the political system, barred from owning land or being aristocrats, and having no military power, they couldn’t challenge you for power.
Today, the empire of Lithuania and Poland is long forgotten. But with a lucky break or two it might be a major player in today’s world while Russia and Germany would be names known only to antiquarians. After all, that state once ruled a broad swath across the east end of Europe all the way from Lithuania on the Baltic to the Black Sea. In retrospect, one can find many reasons for that area’s impoverishment to seem inevitable. Yet history is inevitable only after it happens. In those days the Lithuania-Polish kingdom was a contender to be Europe’s leading power.
Alas, however, the economic boom of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries soon gave way to the cannon’s boom. At the very moment when Eastern Europe looked like the place where Jews should boldly go where no Jews had been before, the area fell further and further behind. A cold climate and short growing season meant less of a food surplus to support more non-peasants. Competition among so many bickering nobles and quarreling kingdoms brought conflicts which flattened, burned down, and used up any wealth accumulated. War followed by rebellion, invasion succeeded by plague.
The first of these wars, as wars often do, created conditions for a relatively long peace. It was a war I’d never heard of, despite being a history professor, yet one my ancestors had seen first-hand. The Livonian War of 1558 to 1582 pitted Czar Ivan the Terrible’s rising Russian state against Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania and Poland. These seemed uneven odds but Ivan was as tough as he was terrible. He demanded his own Baltic seaports and to be supreme in the north. What Ivan wanted, he usually got. Each time, these armies marched too and fro, they stirred up the dust in Dolhinov’s streets.
Ivan himself swept through town during his initially successful 1563 campaign when he captured his enemy’s capital, Vilna. So well was the war going that Ivan rejected peace proposals. Big mistake. His victories brought all his enemies together into an alliance against him.
Then everything went wrong for Russia in a virtually Biblical series of plagues: Tatars invaded and burned down Moscow, rains failed, deadly diseases spread. Ivan also now faced Stephen Batory, a rival as strategically brilliant and tactically ruthless as himself. Through Dolhinov, Batory, Poland’s national hero, marched three times between 1579 and 1581 on his way to smash Russia.
Fortunately for Dolhinov, it was friendly territory, so he neither looted nor pillaged there. Not so the lands of Russia just up the road. When Batory’s army took a city it massacred everyone. His cavalry looted and burned. In the end, Russia lost but the blood enmity endured between Russian and Pole. Dolhinov was on the border between them. When they were at peace, trade was good; when they were in conflict, it was first to suffer.
By 1622, Dolhinov passed to 22-year-old Janusz Kiszka, brand-new duke of Polotsk. He sold it a dozen years later, perhaps to raise money for a career that would end with his being the country’s most powerful noble before his heirless death in 1653. The buyer was Iosif Rutskoy, who got it as a consolation prize. The 61-year-old priest had been leader in a royal experiment, the Uniate church, by which the Lithuania-Poland Catholics hoped to subvert Russian rule by pulling peasants out of the czar’s Russian Orthodox Church.
The town’s Trinity Uniate church is the place of worship for the elite. Wealthy local families bequest it no less than three bells, in 1667, 1669, and 1679. People speak in a mixture of Byelorussian and Polish. Yet the strategy failed. Rutskoy’s patron, King Sigizmund III, died and his royal successor gave it up. Rutskoy had retired on his income from Dolhinov and himself passed on four years later. The distinction between Catholic and Orthodox would remain the boundary between the two Christian communities in Dolhinov and everywhere along the Russian-Polish borderland
Back in town was the previous ruler, the Kiszka family, through the former owner’s nephew, Count Michael Drucki-Sokolinski of Vyalyachsk. Things were still tense along the border. Another Russo-Polish war took place between 1654 and 1657 during which Dolhinov was burned to the ground.
Dolhinov, the last Lithuanian-Polish outpost before Russia, became a trading center closely linked to the capital in Vilna. It was so important that the king assigned a noble, Sir D. Kostrovackis, to watch over the two cities’ trade in the 1660s and 1670s. When he died, his brothers and widow took over.
By this time, the Jewish community in Dolhinov included 485 people. Many worked for aristocratic landlords. Others were merchants dealing in potatoes, hops, flax, and oats from the fields, fruit from the orchards; hemp for fabricating rope and leather to Vilna and through the port of Danzig to places far away. During the wars with Russia, the Polish-Lithuanians had left the Jews alone, but the Russian Cossacks had persecuted them. And so a number of Jews converted temporarily to Christianity, 90 percent returning to their own religion after the danger was passed.
And so when the roads were passable, merchants set off in their swaying horse-drawn wagons on long journeys, stopping at nightfall in Jewish inns or on the road itself if they couldn’t arrive before Sabbath began. Perhaps a lucky son would go along in preparation for the day when he took the reins.
Arriving in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania it was called, is a magical experience. Fine buildings of stone lined the streets, gold lined the pockets and fur the coat linings of the city’s rich merchants. Still, Vilna was not revered for wealth alone but for the brilliance of its rabbinical scholars, too.
Those from a dusty town of cramped wooden houses that could be crossed on foot in a few minutes must have felt timid, or perhaps they walked proud at being able to straddle these two worlds. What presents did they bring home for families, what tales did they tell when finally back at each journey’s end, a trip whose survival could never be taken for granted due to weather, bandits, disease, and breakdowns along the way?
Back in Dolhinov, individuals walked the cycle of brit millah, bar mitzvah, marriage, and the birth of children. Communal life travelled from sunrise to sunset in the cycle of the holy year, from Sabbath to Sabbath, to and from the synagogue for prayer and study, to and from the mikvah for renewal. This was a life so similar to that lived by Jews elsewhere that they could step into another such community thousands of miles away or even in a different century with ease. After all, their bodies were in the cold northeast Europe of the Middle Ages, but their minds were in their homeland in ancient times, and their souls exalted in the world to come and future return to their homeland.
Few of the town’s inhabitants ever went more than a day’s travel in their lives, at least except for weddings. Many or most Jewish daughters of Dolhinov would wed men from nearby towns, marriages arranged through already existing family connections with those places.
The boys studied until they were around 13, a task parents thought the most important in their lives. The less studious or poorer would then be apprenticed to craftsmen or work with their fathers. Those with an aptitude for learning continued, perhaps going to a better yeshiva elsewhere. But sooner or later, except for the very few who became rabbis, they will work as merchants or storekeepers, continuing to learn part-time.
Education for the girls was far less developed though far higher than what existed elsewhere. They were to learn literacy in Yiddish and the laws they would have to fulfill as wives, mothers, and household managers. In storekeeper families, though, Jewish women were more likely to work than any other non-farming people in the world at that time. And they, too, would imbibe a great respect for learning, to be lavished on a yeshiva student who had dinner with the family, sacrificing so their own sons could study, and urging their children to marry those of education.
It was true, no doubt, that Dolhinov was in many ways an isolated backwater. Yet it also had a front-row seat to history. When powerful states and rulers contended, the route to victory lay on Dolhinov’s road. First had come terrible Ivan and his rival Batory in the 1670s and 1680s, then the Swedes in 1708, followed by Napoleon in 1812, Germans in 1916, battling Poles and Russians in 1920 and 1921, Soviets conquering Poland in 1939, Nazis invading Russia in 1941, and finally Soviets throwing out the Germans—and Poles, too, as it turned out–in 1944.
The second round between Russia’s ambitious czars and their neighbors was fought by Czar Peter the Great, and Sweden’s King Charles XII. If Ivan largely created Russia, Peter built it into a great European power. But Charles, an intellectual as well as a warrior, was no slouch either. These two monarchs were such modernizing giants that the French philosopher Voltaire rhapsodized about them as, “The most remarkable men to have appeared in over 2,000 years.” Young Charles eschewed luxury and lived for war, glorying in taking on and defeating bigger armies, running to the hottest part of a battlefield to gamble his life. It isn’t surprising he died at 36.
In 1697 he climbed onto Sweden’s throne as a mere 15-year-old boy. Thinking this young man no match for their guile and experience, Denmark, Poland, Saxony, and Russia combined and came at him. He defeated them all while still a teenager.
But Czar Peter the Great was also a formidable character. In 1703 he founded Russia’s new capital, St. Petersburg, and named it after himself. The twenty-six year-old Charles, however, was not easily impressed. He bragged that he’d capture Moscow then tell Russia his surrender terms. On New Year’s Day 1708 he set forth with 45,000 men and 30,000 horses.
Just south of Dolhinov, he defeated the Russians. Peter ordered a retreat and a scorched- earth policy: all crops were destroyed; any peasant who sold food to the enemy would be hanged, the village where he lived burned to the ground. It was a strategy his successors would imitate when Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia. Dolhinov was lucky that it was already behind Swedish lines, shielded from the czar’s pyromania.
Onward went the Swedes until, by the end of July, they halted, out of food, to await their supply train and its accompanying army of reinforcements. Why was it taking so long to arrive? The 49-year-old General Adam Ludvig Lewenhaupt, old enough to be the king’s father, was his best officer. But it wasn’t easy to keep moving forward over truly terrible roads with so many unruly men, stubborn oxen, and crude carts.
The desperate king sent a trusted officer on a fast horse with a simple but urgent order for his general: Advance faster! The lieutenant rode 20 miles west to Belynichi, then the same distance southwest to the road junction at Berezino. He turned north through Borisov, Zembin, Pleschenitsi, another 40 miles. At every moment he peered down the road looking for a column of dust. Nothing! Weary, hot, nursing along his horse, his sky blue and sunflower yellow uniform stained with dust, for 20 miles more he turned north, and then, dodging the swamps followed the road west.
It was August 29, 1708. From the western end of Dolhinov, with its new wooden Catholic church and 150 houses, could be seen a dust column rising high into the air. The Jews must have compared it to the pillar of fire that guided their ancestors in Sinai. Did they flee in fear or did they watch in awe as 11,000 Swedes marched through the tiny town, 20 times more people than they’d ever seen assembled in their lives?
The Jews watched the line infantry in tricornered hats, dressed in the colors of the evening sky, carrying long guns such as they had never seen. Grenadiers in tall hats, Swedes already towering above the short townspeople; pikemen dwarfed by their spear-capped poles. The proud cavalry on fine mounts—did the horse-dealers appraise them favorably? Such finery of clothing and so many coats of many colors! Such masses of cattle and wagons! Such piles of supplies, like the migration across Sinai or the march of Pharoah’s army! What Bible references did they use in talking about it, for years afterward no doubt, to fit it into their world?
But one thing they knew: this was a battle of king against king that had nothing to do with them. This was not a time of national patriotism on anyone’s part, least of all Jews enjoined by God to stay out of such pointless quarrels. Fortunately, the Swedes are disciplined, even friendly, already loaded with all the food they need, no time for looting, and grateful to find sweet, clean water.
Suddenly, into the town from the east dashes in the lone rider on a lathered horse! Still more wonders to dazzle watching villagers. He talks to an officer, is conducted to the general, whose uniform is dazzling. The whispers expand outward among the troops in ripples until it perhaps reaches the Jewish onlookers watching along the road. A message from the king!
Lewenhaupt reads it. The order is clear. What does he think? I am doing the best that I can? Is he annoyed, fearful? What can he say? The general promises to be quick.
After a night’s rest, the messenger leaps onto a fresh horse. With a hurried look back and a wave; he sinks in his spurs and gallops back in the opposite direction.
Charles was right to worriy. Two days later, just as the messenger is arriving back to report, the Russians attack in full force. Taking advantage of morning fog, they hit the Swedes hard for two hours. While Russian casualties are much higher, the skirmish shows they’re learning how to fight better.
Yet Charles, still confident, continues to advance. Every day, the supply train must go further to catch up with him. Two weeks later it still hasn’t found the king’s troops. His army starves; winter is nigh. Tempted by a Ukrainian offer of alliance against the Russians, he turns south.
Every day, Lewenhaupt is left even further behind. On the morning of September 28, his luck runs out. As his column crosses a river at the village of Lesnaia, not far beyond where the king’s messenger set out a month earlier, Peter’s army finds the supply train. The Russians charge. Both sides are bloodied in the all-day battle, losing one-third of their men. As the sun sets, though, Lewenhaupt’s men have had enough. They run for their lives, abandoning cannon, cattle, wagons, and food, but not the liquor. Lewnehaupt’s army turns into a drunken mob as Russian soldiers seize the supplies and many prisoners. It’s the first time Russians defeat Swedes, a historic turning point.
By the time the surviving, demoralized and starving, half of Lewenhaupt’s force finally find their king on October 8 it’s too late. Instead of being resupplied, the king has even more men to feed on what he has left. Meanwhile, the Russians crush the Ukrainian rebellion with great brutality, so there’s no hope of help from there. Charles camps for the winter. His army whittled down by fighting and hunger he has only one-third of his soldiers left. Their powder is wet; morale is low. In the spring, he desperately besieges the rich city of Poltava, south of Moscow, where there’s plenty of food and gunpowder. It’s a case of conquer or die.
But the city doesn’t fall. Instead, in June, Peter arrives with an army double the size of Charles’s. Lewenhaupt wisely counsels retreat. Instead, typically, Charles, though wounded, outnumbered, and lacking both artillery and gunpower decides, Viking style, to attack on July 8, 1709. The Swedes charge with fixed bayonets. Charles has to be carried into battle by his men. Just on the point of victory, confusion among the Swedes gives Peter a second chance. Charles’s army is soundly defeated, thousands are taken prisoner.
It is the beginning of the end for Sweden’s ambitions and the start of Russia’s. The Swedes won’t return to Dolhinov; the Russians will. For another 75 years, Dolhinov will remain in Lithuania-Poland but the Russian influence there grows stedily.
The town’s basic pattern of life was set and would endure until the coming of the Nazis almost two and a half centuries later. Dolhinov would be a virtual sociological laboratory of three different nations’ coexistence in independent interdependence, until outside forces would destroy them simultaneously during World War Two.
Most of residents are Jews. In the manor houses live Polish nobles. In the villages, Byelorussian peasants from Slavic tribes shaped by Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian influences, living barely above subsistence and almost entirely illiterate;. Each had their own religion, respectively Judaism, Catholicism, and Russian Orthodoxy. Each group had its own language, respectively Yiddish, Polish, and Byelorussian. There was little intermixing; no intermarriage. Yet there was, by and large—perhaps precisely because of that separation and the clear rules governing their lives–reasonably amiable coexistence.
No one would suggest that Byelorussians were merely a religious group who followed the Eastern Orthodox faith, or that Poles were just Catholics and not a national and ethnic community. The concept of Jews as merely members of a religion would arise from nineteenth-century assimilationist thought. In historic terms, no matter how widely accepted it is today, the idea is completely absurd.
Prosperity and peace was enhanced largely due to the relative enlightenment of the last noble owners of Dolhinov, the Kaminsky family. Their association with the town, began in the 1720s, would endure 200 years, and their estate remained intact another half-century more. The dynasty had good relations with Jews—my ancestors worked for them—and promoted the town’s economic development.
The Jews would celebrate their good fortune in a special way. In the 1740s, an artist named Chaim ben Isaac Segal from nearby Slutzk is gaining a reputation after painting amazing murals for a synagogue in Mohilev. It’s often claimed that Jews didn’t develop painting because the commandment not to worship idols barred any representation of the human form. But Jewish use of decorative arts was common, albeit only for religious purposes (which was also largely true for Christians) and without picturing people.
Some citizens of Dolhinov heard about Segal’s reputation and perhaps saw his work on visits elsewhere. Thinking their town also deserved the best, wealthy men hired him. He came to Dolhinov, stayed some weeks, and created a masterpiece for its oak-walled building. There is a probably apocryphal story that his career was ended by a fatal fall off the ladder just as he was finishing. That was probably a way of claiming he could never equal the masterpiece he created there.
So respected was Segal that150 years later he would be the inspiration for the greatest of all Jewish painters. The young Marc Segal, a local boy but probably no relative. Marc was fascinated by Chaim’s work that he made up the story that he was the old painter’s grandson. And when he started painting adults gave him the compliment of telling him that he was just as good. The fact that they had the same last name, however, can be easily overlooked since the young man spelled his name a bit differently, Chagall, Mark Chagall.
We can see a bit of the original Segal’s work today due to what must be called a miracle in its own right. A Russian Jewish artist visiting Mohilev just before World War One, made a careful copy of some of those murals, a German Jewish magazine reproduced them in 1923, and the illustrations were discovered decades later by accident. Yet by such remarkably fortuitous windows on the pact we can vividly experience what the Jews of Dolhinov and other towns saw.
Remember, they had nothing else that visually took them beyond their immediate environment. There was no television, radio, periodicals, photography, other illustrations in books or on walls. That’s why it is so very hard for us today to comprehend the incredible impact of paintings on even the most sophisticated circles of pre-modern people. All you had was your imagination, the most immediate reality around you, and the few sights offered on walls, canvas, or sculptures of a completely different world, from someone else’s vision.
Even a first glance at the surviving copies of Segal’s work cries out the name of Chagall and of magic realism. Painted in red and pearl, olive green and brown, they are primitive, or to use the more polite word, naïve, representations, yet of enormous power. And they have nothing in common with contemporary European painting.
The tablets of the Ten Commandments stand on a pedestal; lions hold shields, one of which carries the artist’s name; zodiac signs circle up above. Jerusalem is imagined as a swirl of palaces and towers, centering on the Temple crowned by its roof. No people are depicted but the sky is alive with birds, whose flight seems to symbolize freedom and might have reminded viewers of the wings of eagles on which they would one day ride back to the Land of Israel.
There are two particularly interesting symbolic touches. One is a painting of Worms, Germany along with a dragon. The dragon is the symbol of Worms and the source of its name, being the place where Siegfried killed a dragon. The Mogilev Jews had been driven out of the city or decided they must leave. The Dolhinov Jews probably had a similar story.
The other is a three-headed eagle, a hybrid of the symbols for the Poles and Russians, a wonderful embodiment of the traditional Jewish management of politics, committing to none of the contending nations as either ally or enemy. It’s also a prophetic theme, prefiguring the two great peoples and powers which would fight over Dolhinov, demanding the Jew’s allegiance and punishing them for not extinguishing themselves in satisfying their nationalist appetites.
Eli Lisitsky, the artist who made the copies, was stunned to see these paintings, recalling, “It was equal to astonishment which I felt when I first visited Roman basilica, Gothic chapel, baroque church in Germany, France and Italy. It is like the children’s bed with stitched bedspread, butterflies and birds where prince suddenly wakes up surrounded by splashes of sun. That’s how we felt inside the synagogue.”
The way Lisitsky was so enraptured at Segal’s work went beyond a detached critic’s judgment. As a culturally assimilated Jew who’d accepted the notion that his people produced nothing of cultural or intellectual value, he was flabbergasted to find out differently. Having lost the sense of being an insider in his own culture, such people worked to elevate Jews by bringing them into the European (Christian) mainstream. This was the situation of Jews who were indeed outsiders, because they’d dwelt in their own house and were not fully able to live in someone else’s.
Lisitsky was discovering that he did indeed have a house of his own and one well worth inhabiting. The Dolhinov Jews had never thought otherwise. They had lived in homes of their own which provided all they needed, without obsessively staring out the windows, or trying to break or talk their way into their neighbors’ dwellings.
The Jews of Dolhinov, of course, saw their murals daily. They knew nothing about great art, had nothing to which they could compare these pictures. But what was important for them was not the aesthetic but the spiritual-psychological aspect. They were living in a land of snow and birches, at the very edge of Europe, but their minds still dwelt in the land of Israel. Segal allowed their eyes to do so as well. There was no sharp break between their current existence and that of their ancestors many centuries before. No outsiders they. Their spirits flew through time and space as easily—perhaps more so given they were not so jaded and overwhelmed—than those living in the era of jet planes and Internet.
What later happened to Segal’s work, however, sums up the destruction of that independent world and the tragedy of Europe’s east generally. The Mohilev synagogue was closed down by the Soviet Communist authorities in a campaign to destroy religion. In 1938, they dismantled it and used the wood for building farm sheds, which they thought a more useful employment for the timber than as a house of prayer or cultural monument. Three years later, the Nazis burned the Dolhinov synagogue. Those were the hammer and anvil—Germany and Russia, fascism and Communism—that extinguished this world and almost all of its people.
But about the time Segal was happily, we hope, standing safely on his ladder and creating works that would indeed have an heir, the individual people of Dolhinov emerge for us by name. In 1765, a census was taken that shows 265 people, all Jews, living there. No one even knew such a document existed, but the conscientious archivist of modern Lithuania’s state archives, Russian section, found it for me and meticulously translated it. Quietly, for 350 years, it had waited for someone to care enough to come and recall that such people once lived, prayed, loved, hoped, and cried on the face of this earth.
Appropriately, the list begins with the family of the rabbi, Norech son of Aron, his wife Feiga, and their daughters Nachanka and Ester. At first, these names sound strange to me. Only months’ later do I realize why: while all are Yiddish, these are Polish not the Russian forms we are used to and which people adopted only after the Czars came to Dolhinov.
None of those in the list have family names, which came into use later, but by patronyms, their father’s first names. Some are listed by occupations, which will soon become last names, whose variations you might even bear yourself: cyrulnik (Srolnik, barber), szklerz (Glazier, worker with windows), rzeznik (Resnick, cutter, of wood), szkolnik (Skolnik, rabbi’s helper).
By 1800, all the Dolhinov Jews gained last names. Perhaps this came with Russian rule, the new regime’s demand for its new subjects to be easily identifiable. Ancestors on my father’s side—and thus the name I bear–took Rubin, meaning ruby or red and also referring to Rubin, son of Jacob and Leah, father himself to an Israelite tribe.
There is, however, a simpler more likely origin of the name. Many Jewish men in the eighteenth century carried the first name Reuven, or Rubin in the vernacular. Their sons were ben Rubins; their daughters, bat Rubins. It would have been obvious for the offspring to shorten this to Rubin alone, and to keep it ever after.
Yet since all these children of men named Rubin throughout Jewish communities all over Europe were not related, that name itself does not signify a single family. In Dolhinov, though, all the Rubins—a point proven by DNA tests—are related, meaning they are descendants of a single couple in that town.
This family’s founding patriarch was Gabriel, probably Gabriel ben Rubin, though he was never called Gabriel Rubin in his lifetime. He, my eight times great-grandfather, was born in the late 1600s and was dead by 1765, but his son Leib, born in 1735 just three years after George Washington, would call himself Leib ben Gabriel Rubin and, along with his wife Roda, they named their first son Gabriel. In 1765, Leib and Roda, Gabriel and his wife Basia, and two other married sons—Nosen and Rysia, Zelig and Bluma—all lived together in a small wooden house.
They would produce the largest extended family in Dolhinov. So valued was Gabriel’s legacy that during the 18th century, about 40 percent of Rubin men were either named Gabriel or carried the patronym ben Gabriel–meaning they were his children or children of those named after him. On his successes the Rubin family flourished and thus I was born at all.
On my copy of the original census, the only one in existence, you can see my thumb prints from riffling back and forth, back and forth comparing those ancestors I know—because their lives or deaths were recorded in 1811 or after–to find the right combination of father and son, mother and father, to identify people. It is tedious and obsessive but the only way back to what my genes were doing at the moment the British General Edward Braddock and a militia officer named George Washington are marching off to a catastrophic ambush in the French and Indian war, past the spot where I would be growing up two centuries late.
You might ask: How did I find them? The answer is a little genealogical detective work. In the beginning, all I knew about my great grandfather was that he was Haim Shimon Rubin, his name from the headstone of my grandfather’s grave. According to the 1885 Russian tax records, dug out of the Minsk archives for me by a researcher who used to be in the KGB (and thus knew how to get things out of archives), Haim Shimon’s father was Yankel. And according to the 1850 census of Dolhinov, preserved in Vilna and transcribed by the volunteers of the Jewish Gen organization, the only Yankel Rubin of that age was the son of Zalman Rubin who, the same census told me, was the son of Moshe Rubin who was the son of Zelig Rubin.
Thus, I knew Zelig Rubin had a son, Moshe, who lived from 1793 to 1845 and would be my four times great-grandfather. That meant by 1793 Zelig was at least 19 years old (18 plus about a year for pregnancy to result in a baby’s birth). So Zelig was born no later than 1774 but, of course, could have been much older, especially since Moshe might not have been his first child. Could he be in the 1765 census?
There are only two Zeligs in town at that time. One is already adult, born before 1747. But I know that Zelig is still alive in 1818, and perhaps much later, which means this man would have been in his mid-70s, a life span uncommon in those days. It is not impossible he is my ancestor but it is unlikely.
But the other one was listed as a child and, what clinched him as the forebear is his name: Zelig ben Moshe, Zelig son of Moshe. That is extremely important because my Zelig named his son Moshe, and in those days naming a son after your grandfather (or a daughter after a grandmother) was very common. The odds are as close to 100 percent as possible that this is my ancestor.
The tale of the census is thus: my great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Josiel (Joseph) ben-Rubin, born around 1720. His sons, my six-times-great grandfather Mowsza (Moshe) and my six-times-great grandmother Merja (Maria, a name more common among Jews of that period than you’d expect) are living with his older brother, my six-times-great uncle Abram (Abraham), and his wife, my six-times-great aunt Chasia. Abram and Chasia have a son, Favish and a daughter Breyna.
The last member of the household in the list is Moshe’s and Merja’s son, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Zelig Rubin. Before I discovered that fact, Zelig was a funny-sounding Yiddish name–its Hebrew equivalent is Asher–made famous by Woody Allen in his film, “Zelig.”
This reference is just right. Woody Allen’s Zelig is an enigmatic figure who shows up at a remarkable number of historic events. He has no personal identity and that’s just what Woody Allen—and huge numbers of people today, including Jews–thinks of as an archetypal Jew, someone who takes on other peoples’ appearance, mannerisms, and speech in a chameleon-like way as a means of, at least, surviving and, at most, assimilating.
So set is this image that many people, even Jews, believe that this has always been so. But it hasn’t. Just like the concept of the Jew as outsider it is a latter-day transference to the past. People like my grandfather to the seventh Josiel, and pretty much the eight following generations, did not adapt very much at all. They learned languages, altered trades, but always remained authentically themselves.
They had their own identity as individuals and as a people, were insiders of their own society. These Jews were not merely guests at other people’s multicultural picnic. Despite pressure, oppression, and temptation, they had the courage of continuity. If there’s anything that is the opposite of a chameleon, that’s what they were.
What does this matter, you can ask? Well, there’s no reason you should care about my ancestors but you should care about your own. First, they should be honored out of decency and duty. Most human beings seek at least that minimal form of immortality: to be remembered, to have someone care about them, to have their lives matter. If I owe this person, these people, a debt for everything I have, shouldn’t I keep his memory alive?
A second motive is a reasonable self-interest. If I would like to have some value and to be remembered, if I would want my children and children’s children to act as if my life mattered, should not I do that unto others as a role model for how people should behave?
Finally, there is self-knowledge. If this man was part of the process that produced me, if I carry some of his physical characteristics and even aspects of his personality—both biologically and through the collectivity of experience that shaped those who shaped me–shouldn’t I know as much as possible about him and ponder the implications for me and myself?
Obviously, there are no portraits or photos, no memoirs or details. But the most minimal historic record can tell us a lot about people. Moshe and his family lived in the house of his brother, Abram. Probably, Abram was older and more successful. One can imagine both gratitude and deference, perhaps some resentment at this state of affairs.
But why is Abram the head of the household and was the family well-off or poor? An additional clue answers those questions. To discover such things we are at the mercy of some ancient census-taker being energetic and conscientious rather than lazy. If he took one minute more to record an additional fact, if his hand-writing was clear, such are the things that determine our knowledge or ignorance. Fortunately, the minor official that day took the trouble to write after their names the words, Karolina of Kaminsky. This is the name of the noble family for whom he—along with at least two other heads of Dolhinov Jewish households–worked, Duke (Karol) Kaminsky, from one of the greatest Polish noble families, whose his local estate was in the village of Kamin only three miles from Dolhinov.
And so now we can easily imagine what Gabriel, and Leib, and Gabriel did over several generations. They managed the estate of a great Polish nobleman, visiting his manor house to get instructions, looking over accounts, buying everything needed, selling everything grown. This would have given them job security and a relatively high income. They could live well enough to ensure the survival of more children in better living conditions. Perhaps that was the secret of success for the founder of the Dolhinov Rubin family. Thanks then to the noble Kaminsky, as well as a thousand other instances of good and bad luck, coincidence and tragedy, I exist to write these words.
The ancestors of my grandmother’s family were also starting up at the same time, living probably less than 200 yards of the Rubins for 200 years, passing them in the street, talking together, and sitting next to each other in synagogue. They probably knew every detail of each other’s lives and personalities. My grandmother’s side took a quite distinctive name, Grosbein. All Grosbeins in the world come originally from Dolhinov and from a single couple who lived at the time of the 1765 census there.
Grosbein means big boned, long-legged, and hence “tall.” The requirements for being tall among the Jews of Dolhinov in 1765 were not challenging by today’s standards. Five feet six inches, perhaps a bit less, would probably do very nicely. Exercise they certainly didn’t lack but medicine was non-existent and good nutrition scanty. The tall ones in question were probably Yitzhak Grosbein and his wife Lipsha, whose children included Shmerko, married to Pesia, and Shmuel, married to Chaya. They worked for a nobleman named Bubma of Wolk and thus had the same relative privileges as the Rubins.
There is a great deal I do not and will not know, certainly not this side of the great mystery of the world to come, which might or might not exist. But the number of possibilities is limited and his life plays out like a film in my mind. And maybe, some day, I will get a chance to ask Zelig himself. Who knows?
The entries in the 1765 census were written in Polish, the Kingdom of Lithuania and Poland’s last gasp at grasping life. Still, the impression of having once lived in its borders was strong enough that forever after those Jews called themselves Litvaks—a term used by Lithuanians exclusively to indicate Jews–even after living two hundred years under Russian and Polish rule. Litvaks have a reputation as bright and scholarly, partly self-styled but also arising from a huge conflict within Jewish society at that time.
While Poles, Russians, and Swedes fought with pikes and swords, Jews struggled exclusively in the realm of spiritual ideas. Their war was between Hasidism and traditional Jewish ways, and Dolhinov was one of the battlefields. At the beginning the town had just one synagogue and one rabbi. There was consensus over the entire range of Jewish law that determined virtually every detail of life.
Yet a new Jewish movement was to shake up the life of Dolhinov Jews more than anything else before the twentieth century’s wars. A bloody, antisemitic uprising in Ukraine and the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom’s decline made Jews poorer, insecure, and inclined toward a mystical hope that Messiah would soon come to end their misery. Beginning in the 1740s, the Hassidic movement preached a combination of faith in wonder-working, charismatic holy men and infusion of joyous zeal as an antidote to what they saw as the status quo’s arid legalism.
Many Rabbis were horrified, fearing the Hassids were deviating too far and might cross forbidden borders. This opposition is led by Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, known far batter as the genius, Gaon, of Vilna. The Vilna Gaon’s great rival was his contemporary, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, who was enough of a Litvak to develop a hybrid Hassidism–the Chabad or Lubavitch movement—which included enough intellectual elements to appeal to those self-consciously studious northern Jews. Living not to far from Dolhinov, Zalman attracted many followers there.
For a time, the town must have been torn by dispute, contending rabbis, and the formation of a second synagogue. My direct ancestors stayed with the Vilna Gaon but some cousins went with Zalman. When the dust cleared, the Dolhinov Jews were divided into two groups, yet this was to have no effect on personal relationships and communal solidarity which was quickly reestablished.
After all, since both sides were completely observant, the differences between them were not so wide. And in a little town, ideological distinctions were less finely stressed than in big cities. The spirit of communal pragmatism and solidarity prevailed.
Not so with the outside world’s political battles. Life continued to get worse as the Lithuanian-Polish empire became weaker, died altogether, and was carved up by its neighbors, thrice in Zelig’s lifetime—1772, 1793, and 1795—until nothing was left. The middle of those partitions came on January 23, 1793, as President George Washington was sitting down to breakfast in Philadelphia. Dolhinov was part of the territory annexed by Russia, in whose hands it would remain precisely 125 years. The czar of the Russians proclaimed himself king of Poland.
Ironically, Poland’s downfall had been brought about by conservative Polish nobles so fearful of a constitutional regime being instituted at home that they preferred Russian autocratic rule to Polish democracy. Here is history at its most ironic. While the Communist USSR would later use this partition as a rationale for again seizing these lands, Russia got them in the first place for the most reactionary of reasons.
For Poles, partition brought heartbreak; for Jews, terrible fragmentation. One Jewish town became Russian, another German, and still another Austrian. Jews, however, had neither really lost a country nor found another one in Russia. The Jews in Dolhinov, and in thousands of other shtetls throughout the east of Europe, remained for all practical purposes, a separate nation.
This was due not only to their own preferences but to Russian policy, which strove to keep the Jews apart. Within the Russian elite there was a debate over whether to try to integrate the Jews into Russia but those opposed always won. In the 1770s, the Russian governor of the district called the Jews “parasites and useless members of society.” A local merchant replied that the Jews were merely backward, held back by “recalcitrance, superstition and licentiousness,” but could be turned into good subjects of the czar. The governor’s view won out.
Germany and Austria, which ruled the other two parts of what had been Poland, ultimately took a different course. They would eventually give Jews citizens’ rights. Jews seized the opportunity, abandoning Yiddish for German, heders for modern secular education, and community loyalty for patriotism. This improved their material lot but did not diminish antisemitism. On the contrary, the traditional warning about avoiding intervention in the world of the goyim was to prove true with terrifying results.
But most of those on the Russian side of the border had no such options and were far more likely to keep to their traditions. The kind of life and culture existing in Dolhinov in 1793 would still be recognizable—though this doesn’t mean there was no change at all—on the day the Nazis arrived in 1941.
In general terms, Jews on the Russian side were also poorer than their counterparts across the frontier. As I overheard an archivist in New York explain, albeit with some exaggeration, to a newbie researcher, “On the German side of the border they wore leather shoes; on the Russian side they wore rags.” Up to the 1917 revolution, Jews were kept in the areas where Russia had found them in the 1780s, making it first impossible for Jews to move elsewhere in the kingdom. In the mid-nineteenth century, some wealthier Jews were given special rights but in Dolhinov there were only to be two such families.
Those environments made the Jews, at the time identical, divided by these borders into completely, though certainly not totally, different people. My paternal great grandparents grew up in Dolhinov, spoke Yiddish, and were strictly observant. In contrast, my maternal great-grandparents came, respectively, from the German- and Austrian-ruled lands and spoke German. Neither was religious. They gave their children no education in these matters, and thought themselves superior to “eastern” Jews.
By the time these distinctions—created by the eighteenth-century partition of Poland–were transferred to my grandparents, they had a huge effect on my make-up, character, and life story. Therefore, remote as it seems, I was very much shaped by the eighteenth-century partition of Poland, and perhaps you were, too.
Further west, the last remnants of the medieval world were being wiped out by dramatic changes. The French revolution, new ideas of democracy, and a widening struggle to rule Europe first brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power in France and then to Dolhinov itself.
By 1812 Napoleon had been endlessly victorious, defeating every army that engaged him with such ease as to seem blessed by Heaven or in league with Hell. But now he made a fatal mistake by invading Russia. One rationale for the attack was to mobilize support among Poles, was a promise to liberate Poland and undo the partitions. But of course it was his own mastery of Europe that concerned the emperor.
Napoleon planned his campaign carefully but fell far short of taking Russian conditions into account, something any resident of Dolhinov might have explained to him. His army had always won by moving fast and living off the land. But, as the Swedes found a century earlier, the land of Russia was too poor and bad roads too impassable to feed a host of men and horses. And that’s not even mentioning diseases like typhus or dysentery and frigid weather beyond anything a Frenchman might imagine.
On June 24, Napoleon’s great army of about 600,000 men, the largest military force ever assembled in Europe, advanced into Russia, intent on capturing Moscow. Almost none of them ever returned. Rather than fight decisive battles, the Russian army retreated and let nature take its toll on the enemy.
As they marched, the Polish soldiers in Napoleon’s army sang the new national anthem, “Mazurek Dąbrowskiego,” written in their honor:
“Poland has not perished yet
So long as we still live
That which alien force has seized
We at swordpoint shall retrieve….
We’ve been shown by Bonaparte
The way to victory!”
The “way to victory” over Russia lay down two roads. The main body of Napoleon’s army took the northern one, passing 100 miles north of Dolhinov but its right flank came straight up the Dolhinov route. During July, cavalry units, foraging parties, and on the seventeenth of that month an entire brigade marched down the main street. One French officer wrote that Dolhinov seemed like a safe haven after the tedious passage through swamp country, where decent food and fresh water wasn’t available.
He described Dolhinov as a, “Small town with wooden houses and three churches that were black because of their old age.” Having probably never seen one before, he didn’t know that the third “church” was a synagogue, where—as his eyes peered at the outside—my ancestor Zelig and his nineteen-year-old son Moshe, with the rest of the family, may have been huddled inside waiting for the soldiers to pass. Possibly, like other town residents, they had fled for the duration of the war. Or perhaps they opened the 1812 equivalent of a lemonade stand for the thirsty soldiers. It sure wasn’t Paris or Moscow, even Vilna or Minsk. But to the 305 residents living in just 88 houses, it was the whole world–except perhaps for Jerusalem–that mattered to them.
There is also a mystery here. For Moshe’s second son, Gabriel, died aged 15 years old in 1812. Was he killed by the French soldiers or was he done in by flight and famine? However it happened it must have been an enormous family tragedy amidst hundreds of thousands of deaths. Still, when the deeds of Napoleon are weighed in the balance, perhaps the life of Gabriel ben Moshe Rubin can be added to the costs of one man’s ambition.
Like Peter the Great did against Charles, the Russians again used scorched-earth tactics. Dolhinov was too quickly captured by the French to be affected by the utter destruction of fields and crops that happened further east. Only when Napoleon approached Moscow itself, at Borodino on September 7, did the Russians stand and fight. They lost but inflicted even more casualties on the dwindling French. Napoleon entered Moscow one week later to find the city a ghost-town, most of its population having fled, and a fire soon to break out which destroyed what remained. In vain, emperor waited for czar to surrender. Finally, realizing he had dawdled too long, cut off from supply or reinforcements, Napoleon marched out again on October 19
In its two-month-long retreat out of Russia, the French army again crossed the same depleted ground they had already picked clean on their march into the country. Russian cavalry galloped in pursuit to kill stragglers; the plunging thermometer—intense cold from mid-November; snow after December 5–added to the woes of the already exhausted French. Russian peasants murdered, often in the most gruesome manner, any of the enemy within reach.
After much suffering, their numbers in steady decline, the once-mighty army came to the last station of its torment, the Berezina river near Borisov, on the road just 50 miles east of Dolhinov. It was already getting dark, four o’clock in the afternoon, November 24, 1812. To their horror, they discovered that the Russians had burned the bridge so recently that the remains were still smoking. One Russian army was staring at them from across the ice-choked river, another was approaching their rear. Napoleon, trapped, faced his career’s most perilous moment.
But the French leader didn’t lose his head. He dispatched, with much noise, a pretend detachment of bridge-builders to the south while quietly sending his best 400 engineers to build a real one to the north. The Russians fell for the trick and raced south. Quickly, the engineers took apart every building in four villages to make two makeshift wooden bridges. The walkway’s boards weren’t nailed down; the pillars stood on mud. They knew the bridges wouldn’t stand long, but it didn’t matter. Napoleon’s army would either cross fast or be captured.
And so for two days, in a temperature of fifty degrees below freezing, thousands of desperate men turned into a crazed mob to get across by any means necessary, in their haste pushing comrades to their deaths in the ice-choked river. Men and horses who stumbled were trampled in the rush. Twice, a bridge partly collapsed and engineers waded into the icy water to make repairs. Finally realizing they’d been fooled, the Russians raced up the western bank. Those who’d already crossed had to fight to hold them off.
By the morning of November 28, the last organized units had gone over. Tens of thousands of soldiers and camp followers, including women and children, remained on the eastern bank as the second Russian army bore down on them. Crazed with fear, they surged onto the bridges, one of which collapsed in the middle. Those in front fell into the frozen river; those behind pushed forward and plunged in to drown. Out-of-control wagons crashed into people crushing them.
For some hours more, people fought their way across the remaining bridge, but the second Russian army was within sight of the eastern bank. If they captured the span and used it, all that remained of the French army would be surrounded and destroyed. Despite the fact that the bridge was still packed with their own people, French troops set it on fire. Hundreds of people burned to death. Those trapped on the eastern shore added to the 100,000 prisoners taken by the unmerciful Russians. Few of them survived. About 30,000 corpses were left floating in the river. The crossing of the Berezina became one of the main symbols for European culture for the ultimate horror of war, until surpassed by World War One a century later.
Of the 600,000 soldiers who had invaded Russia, no more than 60,000 crossed the bridges of death and survived to stumble on toward Dolhinov. Cannons dragged across the Berezina with so much effort were abandoned. Westward fled Napoleon and his men, up the road to Zembin, on the 29th, and then to Pleschenitsi by the 30th. It took them four days to cover the remaining 50 miles. Almost half of them died as temperatures plunged further.
Even the always buoyant Napoleon began to despair. “We need,” he wrote on the November 29, “Two weeks to reform the men into regiments, and where can we get two weeks? Cold and privation have broken up the army….Food! food! food!” His army, not long before the world’s greatest, the conquerors of Europe, was now just an “undisciplined mob.”
Still, even now, Napoleon employed the brilliant propaganda that had played so large a part in his self-made legend. From Selitche, just south of Dolhinov, on December 2, he sent a messenger to Paris to announcing his great victory on the Berezina and capture of thousands of Russian prisoners. As a further assurance, Napoleon told his people, “His Majesty’s health has never been better.”
Within earshot of his imperial majesty, at that moment the right flank of his army arrived at Dolhinov. If villagers dared to peer at them at all, they saw men totally transformed from the proud, beautifully uniformed soldiers who had come proudly through five months earlier. Now they were ragged, shivering, and sick, at the very edge of human endurance. They were far more dangerous, too, frantic to grab any food possible and kill anyone who got in their way.
Fortunately, they had little time to linger in Dolhinov. Three thousand Russian cavalrymen charged into town, smashing into the French rearguard. No one recorded how many died on each side but the battle of Dolhinov was the campaign’s last. Napoleon’s fleeing men needed no Russians to kill them as weather and disease battled to claim credit for their deaths.
On December 3, at Molodechno, 20 miles down the road from Dolhinov, Napoleon received news that, despite his message, he was presumed dead in Paris, where an emboldened general seized power. Determined to reach the capital with all speed, he set off on a sleigh, accompanied only by a driver, bodyguard, and one aide, abandoning his army to its fate. He did get home safely and took back his throne. But while Napoleon raised another army and fought on for almost another year, Russia had broken him for good.
Undeterred by Poland’s partition and Napoleon invasion, Zelig lived on with his wife, her first name unknown but a member of the neighboring Ruderman family. Moshe Rubin grew up; Gabriel didn’t. Zelig and his wife died, their departures unrecorded by history, their tombs disappeared forever.
At some time between Napoleon’s fleeing Russia and his defeat at Waterloo, Moshe Rubin married Sarah, born in 1794 and a year younger than himself. They, too, had two sons: Zalman, born in 1816, and Leib, who entered the world in 1822. And Zalman grew up and married and had two children, the daughter Reyza, in 1835, and Yankel, in 1838. And it came to pass that his first wife died, probably in giving birth to Yankel, my great-great grandfather. Zalman remarried around 1841 to Chaya bat Gershon, born in 1823 and hence 29 years younger than himself, to be a mother for his children.
Tragedy didn’t require a war to happen. Zalman, age 29, and Moshe, age 48, died in 1845; Sarah had already passed, short of reaching 50. Little Reyza and Yankel had lost all their parents and grandparents by the time she was ten and he seven. It must have been terribly hard on them.
The survivors behaved as people in Dolhinov always did in such circumstances. In 1845, Reyza and Yankel, along with their 22-year-old stepmother, moved in with the children’s great-uncle, Zalman Ruderman, his 29-year-old son Kaplan, Kaplan’s 25-year-old wife Tauba, and their 8-year-old daughter Zelda. Seven people lived in a tiny house of at most two rooms. When Zalman Ruderman died in 1848, still another numbing tragedy though he had at least reached the respectable old age of 55, Kaplan became head of household
How did they survive since by then the family had probably long lost their position as estate managers? Chaya and Tauba took care of the children; Kaplan earned money, somehow enough to support a half-dozen people. Reyza, Yankel, and Zelda played together, though any toys must have been of their own devising. How Reyza must have cared for her little brother, the two of them so alone in the world, and he must have looked up to her. For love and dependence were the only antidotes to the suffering they had experienced. Did Yankel know that his life had caused his mother’s death? That would have been still another burden on him. All of these things shaped my great-great grandfather’s character, though precisely how I cannot say.
On the other side of my ancestry similar things were happening. In 1850, Yizhak ben Menahem Grosbein, born in 1818, was living at the home of his two-years’-younger brother Shlomo. Yitzhak married Feiga bat Yakov, born in 1820. Yitzhak and Feiga had two daughters: Chaya, six, and Khana, nine. These nine people lived together in a cramped tiny cottage. In 1857, Yitzhak and Feiga had another son, Pinkus Leib Grosbein, who was my great-grandfather. Without this baby born late in their lives, these words would not be written.
And so they lived and labored, probably never projecting their thoughts as to what would be in 150 years save to hope that the Messiah would have come by then. Given what was to happen in Dolhinov, it was better for them not to know what would be. Long before the Messiah came to Dolhinov, Haman and the Amalekites arrived. But that was still a long way off. Many good days would be lived in the meantime, many smaller tragedies suffered and endured.
True, it was the fashion for rabbis to cultivate an air of unworldly innocence, though many were by no means bereft of sophistication. One shouldn’t think that these people lived in some isolated backwater totally out of touch with events elsewhere. For the nature of Jewish life was awareness of time and space’s permeability. Nor did they ever lose sight of a homeland daily visible thanks to Segal’s paintings, their studies in the sacred writ, and their seasonal cycle timed to that in the land of Israel.
It is told that Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Khary, rabbi of Ilya, was once on his way to a rabbinical meeting in Dolhinov. The 20-mile journey by horse-pulled wagon took four hours. When they’d travelled about half the distance, he turned to the driver and asked, “Is this still Russia?
“Yes,” affirmed the driver.
The rabbi muttered in wonder, “It is indeed, then, a huge country.”
Yet, at that same time, the son of the Dolhinov rabbi was simultaneously a great scholar of Jewish law and a man of wider culture as well, an excellent violin player, and local representative of Count Jozel Ginszberg, the richest Jew in the Czarist empire, responsible for collecting the liquor tax.
In 1849, a cholera epidemic broke out in the land of Israel. At that time, there was in Jerusalem only a Christian missionary hospital which tried to convert its Jewish patients. Rabbi Shmuel of Dolhinov was one of those rabbis writing Sir Moses Montefiore, the great philanthropist, in England, urging him to finance the building of a Jewish hospital in Jerusalem. Shmuel warned that many Jews would go “to the conversionist hospital, and, alas in several instances follow the inducements held out, and forsake the religion of our fathers.” It took Montefiore years of effort but he finally succeeded in fulfilling the task the Dolhinov rabbi and others had urged on him.
Small towns in Eastern Europe like Dolhinov were not so isolated as to lose contact with the rest of the Jewish world. Rabbis were part of a far-flung intellectual network in which books and ideas passed from country to country, even continent to continent. Rabbi Shmuel’s own guide to Jewish laws, Minhat Shmuel, was praised by some of the most respected rabbis of his day. He also wrote prayers to say on visiting the Land of Israel, including the Temple’s Western Wall, Rachel’s tomb, and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Men like Shmuel were part of the eternal link between hundreds of places like Dolhinov and the millions of Jews who lived in them, with the land of Israel, a lifeline that would eventually lead the town’s survivors back to their ancestral home.
In this story, 1850 is a particularly important year, the only one in history where we have a full picture of the Dolhinov people, drawn up for us by the Russian census takers. In 158 houses live 1469 inhabitants, about 1187 of them Jews, with the names and relationships of them all; a list of who lived and who died, who left town and who stayed. They counted only 16 Grosbeins but more than 100 Rubins, the latter being Dolhinov’s most common name.
Among them was the orphaned Yankel Rubin who grew up, married Chaya bat Yitzhak Grosbein, a year older than himself, and at last was able to create a family of his own. They had three sons whose respective fates signaled that the world wasn’t just breaking into Dolhinov for one day each century but on a permanent basis, even though the pace of change continued to be slow. One of them would go unimaginably far away and never return; another would suffer a fate worse than death and never return. The third, my great-grandfather, made my life possible by reacting against this turmoil and just staying put.
Yankel’s family of five lived in a wooden cottage and paid for that privilege 2 rubles and 25 kopecks tax a year. So totally distinct were the town’s communities in the town, so disparate their lives that even the homes reflected those distinctions. A Jewish house had its entrance to the front, facing the street because many of them were also small shops. In contrast, Christian homes were entered from the side because they were agriculturally inclined, oriented to reach the gardens, animal pens, and storage sheds behind them.
The huge kitchen oven of the Rubin cottage was at the back of the house; the privy in the yard behind. Straight back from the street stretched a line of attached sheds for animals and firewood, with the cottage like a locomotive pulling the outbuildings. The wood, thrown into the oven, powered the buildings through the harsh winters. Today, with insulation, double-glazed windows, efficient heating systems, and closets full of winter clothes—not to mention cold remedies, indoor bathrooms, and other amenities—it’s hard to imagine how people could survive such terrible winters.
Those seasons of snow and ice were romanticized by the Dolhinov Jewish poet, Samuil Plaunik, in “A Winter’s Tale”:
“A snowy night hangs, a savage night hangs,
A grey pelt above forests’ wild tresses.
In white plumage of snow, in a white silk of snow,
Valleys, hills under rich snowy dresses….
Like a horse without rein, like a grey-and-white flame,
The blind snowstorm will rush, rearing, whirling.”
There’s a simple answer, of course as to how Dolhinov Jews survived: they were used to it. The body somehow adapts to the worst climate and they’d had centuries to make the transition from their tropical origins to their sub-arctic fates. Yet there were fates for which they could not have been prepared.
Such was what befell their first son. Zalman Ber Rubin, named after his grandfather, came into this world in 1862, as America fought its Civil War. Ironically, he’d be the first in his line for two millennia or more to be a soldier himself. On April 15, 1879, he was dragged off to the Russian army and assigned to an artillery unit in Kaluga, near Moscow. His family would never see him, and probably never heard from him, again.
Forcing Jews into the army was a policy begun by the Czarist regime in the 1820s. Jews considered that fate a living death, and they were right. Faced with 25 years of brutal treatment intensified by antisemitism, pressed to become Christian, and moved hundreds of miles eastward, those so shanghaied were lucky to survive at all and rarely ever returned home. The burden inevitably fell on the poorest and least influential. To avoid the draft was a major incentive for Jews in Dolhinov and elsewhere to migrate to America or other countries.
Traumatized at Zalman Ber’s fate, one brother would cross the Atlantic; the other would quickly marry to ensure deferment. The former, Yankel’s second son, was Leib, born in 1865. Leib was named after his uncle, with whom Yankel had lived as a child, making him like so many children then a living memorial to someone who’d been a link in the chain of their existence. A few days before, thousands of miles away, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Probably no one in Dolhinov heard about it, nor could they have imagined that Leib would one day be living a few yards from where Lincoln died, near the Capitol in Washington DC.
The third son, Haim Shimon Rubin born in 1867, was my great-grandfather. Haim Shimon had his own brush with the Czar’s army. At age 21 he was still unmarried, a very dangerous situation. According to Article 16/1 of an 1872 law, any Jew under 25 could be drafted unless he was the family’s only son, student in a non-Jewish school, seriously ill, had a parent who died that year, or if he was wed.
By 1888, Haim Shimon was the only son left living at home but that didn’t count. His parents were living and he was well, thank God. No Jew in Dolhinov attended a non-Jewish school. Somehow, probably through bribery, he secured a one-year postponement on October 26. Shortly after that, he stood under the huppa next to Faiga Rivka Heifetz, daughter of a fine Dolhinov family. It seems that as the Jewish population increased, there was less incentive to exchange daughters in marriage with other towns. Haim Shimon might have been happy at last, having avoided a far worse fate. Yearning for a quiet life, he never left town and died peacefully in his own bed.
My other great-grandfather, Pinkus (Pini) Leib Grosbein, underwent worse travails before settling into the role of patriarch. In 1879, at age 22, he married Sima Mandel, 18. At first, things went well and they had a son named Hershel in 1880. The next year, they moved from Dolhinov to the nearby village of Rechki to open a store.
If Dolhinov was a backwater, Rechki was a pond, a place where a tiny Jewish community lived surrounded by illiterate peasants. Russia being essentially a dictatorial state, they had to obtain a permit to do so on May 6, 1881. Three years later, a second son, Itzko (Isaac), named after his grandfather, was born. The midwife did all she could but Sima died in terrible pain, at the age of only 23.
What was Pinkus to do, having no family in Rechki but a baby and four-year-old boy? He returned to Dolhinov, receiving a police permit to do so on February 1, 1885. His family helped him find a young bride named Lea Rivka. By 1889 they were a family of five—Pini Leib, Lea Rivka, Hershel, Itzko, and their new baby Shmuel–living in a wood one-story house even smaller than that of their Rubin neighbors. Over the next five years they would have three more children: Sarah; Chaya, my grandmother, and Rahel.
Pini Leib returned to a hometown really starting to develop. In 1823, Count S.L. Kaminsky, heir to the estate where my ancestors worked a century earlier, had founded a cloth factory at his manor with two looms. In 20 years, he had expanded using steam power to 28 machines. It was a sophisticated enterprise. Wool and dye was bought in far-off Riga. The high-quality cloth was sold all over the Russian empire. By 1866, there were 162 workers. Not resting on their laurels, the Kaminskys established a brick factory in 1898 which grew to employ 71 workers.
Change was finally thawing even this frozen land. But history was not to be so kind. In the 1880s, Dolhinov boasted five taverns, three inns, a medical clinic, a post and telegraph office, a bank, and a drugstore. Wooden board sidewalks connected sixty small Jewish shops around the central square from which five streets branched out. The town set out sixty benches for those who wanted to relax and contemplate the passing scene. A Russian-language government school, established in 1862, had 64 boys and 10 girls enrolled by 1890, all Christians, albeit with only two teachers. By 1902, the number of pupils had doubled. If history had allowed, Dolhinov would have become a prosperous center of commerce and industry.
The wooden Russian Orthodox church, which Napoleon’s soldiers forty years earlier had thought decrepit, was replaced with a new, stone St. Stanislav’s in 1853 right off the central market square. Overseen by Father Jozef Lvovich, it served 4623 people in his large parish. In 1870, the Catholic Poles also got a new stone Trinity church for 1500 people in the district. Both churches had high domes or steeples and an ample use of gold leaf. The Jews, too, built a new synagogue but, always mindful of keeping a low profile, used only red brick and kept it decidedly modest.
Politically, Russia’s hold was firm and Polish nationalism finally seemed permanently defeated. When Poland finally did regain independence from Russia after World War I, the declaration referred to this period as a “state of constant slavery” and the country’s situation during these years as a land that seemed “forgotten” by God.
It wasn’t that the Poles hadn’t tried hard to revive their country. In 1794, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, fresh from fighting for America’s freedom from Britain, had come home to lead a revolt. The czar crushed the revolt. Poles then put their faith in Napoleon to defeat the czar and father a new Poland, and lost again. In November 1830, they rose once more and this time Dolhinov joined the revolution. Local Poles seized the town, led by their Catholic priest and vicar. All were arrested by the Russians. Still more failed uprisings came in 1846 and 1863. Enough, said the czar, and began a Russification program to ensure Poland would never rise again. Jews stood aside through all these events, only watching, as their religion instructed them, not taking sides in the struggle among the nations.
But this very same tightening of control and Russian nationalist assertion intensified antisemitism. The Russians saw Jews as a threat, too alien to absorb and insufficiently loyal to the czar. Traditional religious antisemitism merged with the new nationalist version. During the 1870s and 1880s, Russian laws restricting Jews were tightened, forbidding their moving out of the far western provinces, excluding them from higher education, barring them from government jobs.
Of course, antisemitism had long been endemic to these parts. For Christian peasants, who knew little about Judaism—and nothing at all about the Jewish roots of their own religion, its founder, or their Bible—Jews were linked to witchcraft. According to a local peasant proverb, “Jew, Germans and the Devil are sons of one mother.” Thus, for example, in the late 1700s, serfs in the area dug up a grave of a Jewish child and cut off his hand believing it to be a magical object that could make one strong.
Observing the Purim celebration in a nearby town in 1827, local residents concluded that Jews were making fun of Christian practices, ridiculing priests, writing satires on Christian prayers, and profaning the cross. In 1836, the Russian Orthodox church investigated a Jew, Mordukh Velvelevich of Narev, for sacrilege because he used an icon left behind by previous tenants as a hatstand. In 1861, peasants and townspeople in the Sokolski district staged a pogrom after one of them incited a crowd by telling them that Jews were allies of the devil but Judgment Day, when they would all be killed, was at hand.
Now violence came to Dolhinov, too. It’s a beautiful spring day for a fair, May 8, 1886, the festival of Saint Stanislav Dolhinov’s Russian Orthodox patron saint and the local church’s namesake. Among those walking around in the crowd and enjoying the food and festivities is the Krasovsky family of Gabytatsya village. Somehow, their 12-year-old son, Stanislav, whose holy name day it is, wanders off or perhaps his parents—dazzled by the splendors around them, relaxed by drink or tending their other children—lose track of him.
He’s never seen alive again. Naturally, the parents launch a frantic search but he’s nowhere to be found in Dolhinov’s streets. Five days later, his body is discovered deep in the forest and many miles away, covered with tree branches. It is rumored that he had been stabbed in a dozen places. His funeral is held in Budslav, with lots of police to ensure no disturbances break out. You can still see his grave there, marked with a large pine cross.
Ritual murder is an old antisemitic accusation. It is one of the Canterbury Tales, that fourteenth-century classic of early English literature. In the Dolhinov area there is an account of such a story from 1603. The slander popped up as far away as Damascus, Syria, in 1840, and the long-time, Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass published a book in 1983 claiming Jews really do murder little children to turn their blood into matzoh. In Saudi Arabia it’s still claimed as true in newspapers, and the slander appears transmuted into modern political form through propaganda stories claiming deliberate Israeli murders of Palestinian children.
But I never thought one of my own ancestors was the accused in such a case, much less a famous case, of this sort.
For so the story ran, the rumor spread, though no evidence seemed to exist. The peasants whispered that one Leiba Katsovich from the village Matyki, found little Stanislav wandering alone in the crowd and promised to lead him back to his parents. Instead, he took him to a Dolhinov Jew named Rubin, described as a red-haired, florid man.
And so it was that on Easter Thursday, June 12, many Byelorussians arrived in town well-fortified with copious amounts of home-made vodka. The police, tipped off that a riot was imminent, arrived in force but then stood by and did nothing. Led by people from the villages of Pogost and Bitavsty set off to find the evil Rubin and put him to death. Armed with poles, stones, and even sheep-shears, they ran across the central square, just outside their church, and charged into the tailor, hairdresser, and other shops. Windows were smashed, shops looted, the contents of the synagogue were dragged outside or taken home by peasants.
Four Jews were covered with tar. Some accounts say none were killed, others that several were left dead. It is not reported whether one of them was the Rubin they sought. The police didn’t investigate, no one was charged or jailed. Jews could not expect the Russian authorities to protect them.
And none of the peasants saw anything wrong in the assault on defenseless people since, after all, they believed the Jews deserved it. They even wrote a proud song about it, still being sung, with accompaniment by accordion and cymbals, a half-century later in surrounding villages:
“In 1886 all the people revolted,
Even Poles in Dolhinov revolted,
They were eating bread, drinking vodka and beating and strangling Jews
When they drank more they started beating Jews harder….
The Jews were suffering for the boy, Stanislav.
The Jews caught the boy; they didn’t give him anything to eat for 3 days,
They put him in a barrel and were rocking him,
They pulled him from the barrel as from a bog; all his body was pricked….
And nailed to the wall, and thrust through the ears with wire….
Let’s beat Jews in revenge for Christian blood!”
No doubt, the nailing was suggested by the Christian story of crucifixion, which was much discussed at Easter time when these events took place. The barrel, which sounds like that medieval torture machine, the Iron Maiden, was a legendary device supposed to be used by Jews to remove the blood efficiently. The child was dropped into the barrel, which was then rolled, so the nails sticking out within it pierced him in many places and drained out the blood.
The word used for Jews in the song is the derogatory word “Zhid” and the song evinces some surprise that even the more sophisticated Polish town residents, the ones who lived near the Jews as neighbors, had joined in with the peasants. The police never investigated the murder nor the pogrom afterward. No one was ever charged or tried for the assaults and attempted or actual murders. There is another version of the song which is identical except that it begins, “In the year 1891” which seems to refer to a second, similar pogrom that year.
While violence like this rarely visited Dolhinov it was never far off. On June 14, 1886, just two days after the Dolhinov pogrom in a village named Tatarka not far away, five peasants were passing the house of Jacob Katz at 4 pm. Being already drunk, they broke into his house, grabbed him by his beard, and demanded, “Give us vodka, otherwise you’ll die and here will be your grave.” His wife and son tried to rescue him but the peasants attacked them with an iron rod and a wooden board, broke windows, tore up pillows, destroyed furniture, and stole what they could.
Captured by the police, they were tried five months later before a jury. Witnesses confirmed the above account but in the end the jury convicted only one of the men and urged that he be pardoned. The judge sentenced the convicted man to six months in jail and a 180 ruble payment to Katz, and a second suspect to five days in jail.
The murder and pogrom in Dolhinov lived on in memory and played a part in the most famous ritual murder case in history. In 1911, a 13-year-old boy was found murdered with his hands tied. A Jewish worker named Mendel Beilis was accused. That case is the best-known of all ritual murder stories today due to Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer, and a film of the same name. The killers were apparently criminals who robbed the boy, then killed him in a way they thought would make it look like ritual murder. According to court testimony, the Dolhinov killing, or at least stories passed down about it, was their role model.
As late as the 1930s, parents in the Dolhinov were warning children that if they strayed far, Jews would tear them up in order to make matzah. So when the Germans arrived for the biggest pogrom of all, hatreds were already deeply planted and ready for their cultivation.
But to return to the 1880s, the Russian empire was changing rapidly. The serfs in Belarus had been freed in 1861 though there was no dramatic change in the social relations. Now, however, following in the path of Western Europe, Russia was starting down the path of industrialization, urbanization, and all the other developments associated with modernization. Dolhinov and the surrounding area were relatively slow to participate in these trends, yet events elsewhere dragged them along. Such developments combined with rising food prices, increasing unemployment, and growing nationalism among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Poles, to fuel unrest. One of the results was intensified anti-Semitism and violent attacks against Jews.
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, the hatred was intensified, unintentionally but inevitably, by the efforts of a small minority of young Jews to bridge the gap to the Russian people through revolutionary activity. Their goal was to build a socialist Russia which would transcend all ethnic, religious, and class distinctions. Noble as this Jewish revolutionary tradition has been made to seem today it was in fact a road to catastrophe for both Jews and Russians, intensifying antisemitism and ultimately producing a murderous dictatorship.
After all, it was easy for the Russian masses, and European Christians in other countries to read leftist revolutionary activities by individual Jews as a malevolent, collective Jewish attempt to destroy Christianity, their country, and their culture. Following the involvement of a few such Jews in assassinating Czar Alexander II on March 1, 1881, there were rumors that the government wanted Christians to retaliate by attacking Jews as traitors. Alexander was himself a reformer who, if he lived, probably would have led the country in a more democratic direction including fairer treatment of the Jews.
The Russian and later Polish antagonism to the Jews as perceived political enemies merged with traditional religious hostility; nationalist views of Jews as aliens; and economic conflict over the Jews’ disproportionate share of mercantile, commercial, and sometimes professional or intellectual positions.
The Rubins, Grosbeins, and others in Dolhinov might have hovered on the edge of subsistence, but the Russian government classified them as “bourgeois” in its documents. They might be living six-people-to-a-room, with few possessions, and no economic security at all, but since they were neither peasantry nor aristocratic that was the only category left.
The modernization starting to transform the empire was also making their economic slots to politically important and economically profitable to leave in Jewish hands. With the number of people multiplying far faster than the bounty of the earth, the money and power was no longer in agriculture, either as a cultivator or as a landlord. The kingdoms reigned over by warriors who received land in exchange for service to the monarch and their ennoble descendants were on their way to extinction. Manufacturing and distribution, as well as jobs requiring a high degree of education—where Jews also had an advantage–were going to be the new sources of wealth and social influence.
Jews, impoverished as they were, sat at these crossroads of everything new and important. Everyone else wanted in. Open a store, transport with a wagon, make clothes, sell food. If one didn’t want to be a peasant, a tiller and toiler of the soil, what was the next step upward? Even better were jobs requiring advanced education—managers, lawyers, doctors. And if the Jews, who had a head start on education, already held or were flocking into those jobs or professions, where was the room for Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians to advance? The Jews must be eliminated in one way or another: expulsion or emigration; conversion or assimilation; dispossession or murder.
It was easy, then, to see Jews as threats to the spiritual and material survival of one’s own civilization—because liberals and radicals among them championed change, secularism, and other movements challenging the status quo—or to the interests of one’s nation—whose identity they diluted—or individuals—with whom they competed for money and status. On one hand, the Jews were hated as exploiters of the masses; on the other hand, they were hated as would-be agitators of the masses. The Jews who kept to their own society were alien; those who tried to assimilate into yours were subversive.
As against that, there were those who favored assimilating the Jews and those Jews who favored assimilating. Some Russian officials favored this scenario. Yet in a sense that solution was the problem. For how could the Jews enter society without changing it; and how could the Jews be accepted as equals and full participants if by doing so it doomed so many others from the majority to having less?
In this era, at least, the Jews of Dolhinov were lucky. Where Dolhinov was located, in Vilna province, things were relatively quieter than elsewhere in the empire, in part because its governor-general worked hard to keep the peace. Russian officials trying to stop pogroms were motivated by sentiments ranging from a sense of justice, to fear that disorders would threaten the empire’s stability, or belief that Jews were far less dangerous than the local Christian nationalisms challenging the empire. Many Russian bureaucrats, especially at lower levels, were hostile to Jews, blaming them for the violence that broke out against them. But they were held in line by their superiors.
In Belarus and throughout the Vilna province, fights between Christians and Jews often broke out over small incidents involving the former’s drunkenness and disagreements in business transactions. Whether a glass of vodka at an inn had been paid for or an apple had been tasted and not bought by a peasant could lead to fistfights. But in this area, in sharp contrast to places further south, pogroms remained small, battles short. The unrest was a warning to Jews in Dolhinov, but it was a warning that could be disregarded.
There were thus three main messages for the Jews of Dolhinov from their experience over the centuries at the onset of the twentieth century. First, they were a coherent community, not merely a religious group but a national one as distinctive as Russians, Poles, or Lithuanians. Not only were they the majority in town but the highest concentration of Jews in the region. There were almost twice as many Jews living in Dolhinov than in any nearby town. Jews were 10 percent of the population in the Vileika district but close to 75 percent in Dolhinov.
No wonder, then, that the Zionist movement would become the most powerful political force in Dolhinov with the Bund in second place.
In the early twentieth century, before World War One and the Russian Revolution, 15 percent of the people in Belarus were Jews, four times as much as in Russia generally; double the proportion in the Ukraine. But even this understates the intensity of Jewish society. In the cities and towns, 54 percent of the population was Jewish. They owned half the factories, were half the intellectuals, and comprised 84.5 percent of the merchants.
Second, basically relations between Jews and Byelorussian were generally good. Peasants saw Jews as “rich” and “successful,” sometimes dishonest and exploitative, but also good allies to have. One peasant petition argued, “We believe that the time is not yet ripe to give equal rights to Jews because we are not educated enough as to coexist peacefully with Jews who are mentally developed and well educated in all spheres.” Indeed, even when peasants complained to the czar and government—sometimes about individual Jews—half the scribes writing their petitions were Jewish.
The level of antisemitism in Belarus was much lower than in other places precisely because the large peasantry wasn’t in competition for the social roles held by Jews and since the Byelorussians had no strong nationalism of their own. In addition, the presence of four groups deflected a lot of the conflict that took place in areas where there were only Jews and a majority group. Polish nationalism was directed against Russians; Russian concern over subversion focused on Poles; the Poles feared Byelorussians; and Byelorussian anger centered on Polish landlords and Russian officials. When peasants wanted to send petitions to the Czar complaining about their situations, they often used Jewish scribes to write them. Relationships were just too complex and mutually beneficial to be embattled.
Yet the third factor and real immediate motivation for the transformation of Dolhinov Jews was the spread of new ideas, the transition from religious to national expressions of identity, whether in the form of communal consciousness, Bundism, or Zionism. In 1897, the same year that the Russian census counted Jews as 70 percent of Dolhinov residents—2,559 out of 3,552–Theodor Herzl convened the first Zionist congress in Basle, Switzerland, raising the vision of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, a place—like Dolhinov—where Jews would be a majority but where they would also have political power.
In comparison, though, Dolhinov’s Jews were still limited to living in only a small part of Russia, with no chance for advanced education or state employment, and fenced in by 650 Russian laws applying only to them. That number of such restrictions exceeded in number the rules they voluntarily accepted from the holy laws.
Then, though not later, the Jews of Dolhinov could not imagine that most of their descendents would be living in the state that Herzl had seemed to conjure from a fitful imagination. “In Basle,” proclaimed Herzl, “I founded the Jewish state….Maybe in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will realize it.” Even more remarkable, from Dolhinov’s standpoint: in fifty years its survivors were almost all living there.
There was, however, another destination that was immediately available. The outflow to America began. Leib Rubin was one of the first and what began in the 1880s intensified in the 1890s and continued to grow during the years up to World War One’s commencement in 1914. Of the next generation, two of Pini Leib’s and Leah Rivka’s daughters, one of them my grandmother, would go there in 1908 and 1909. The following year, one of Haim Shimon’s and Feiga Rivka’s sons, my grandmother would go there.
But if Zalman Ber’s life had not been destroyed by the czar’s army, and if the czar had not been assassinated and pogroms had not broken out, then Leib might not have gone to America, one day becoming the patron of his nephew, my grandfather, to help make his migration possible, then I would not exist. And if Sima Mandel had not died in childbirth so that Pini Leib Grosbein had to remarry and had as a daughter my grandmother than I would not exist either
Even after those people left, however, Dolhinov continued to exist, but the outside world would break in with a sledgehammer. The sleepy little town would be subjected to one of the most concentrated doses of war and upheaval suffered by anywhere in the world throughout history.