Children of Dolhinov: Our Ancestors and Ourselves » Chapter 4-Polish Power
“The delightful Charles Haas, the most likeable and glittering socialite, the best of friends, had nothing Jewish about him except his origins and was not afflicted, as far as I know, with any of the faults of his race….”
–Gustave Schlumberger, writing of his old friend Charles Haas, the model for Marcel Proust’s character, Swann,
It’s May 3, 1938, in downtown Dolhinov, though the town’s central square is a rather modest affair, surrounded by low, small, somewhat decrepit buildings. Down Pilsudski Street toward its intersection with, appropriately enough, May 3 Street, come the Polish townspeople in their best clothes, men in suits and ties, red-and-white flags flying, and banners held high.
Along the narrow sidewalk are few bystanders, as if all those who feel they have something to celebrate are already marching. Above their heads hang the stores’ signs, each bearing the Jewish proprietors’ name. Many are lettered neither in Russian Cyrillic nor Polish Roman scripts but in Hebrew letters, the language not Polish but Yiddish.
The event being celebrated is Polish National Day, marked in Dolhinov during the time of Polish rule—what the locals call the era of “Polish power”—between 1921 and 1939. The Poles are free, lucky not to know this is merely a brief respite between 150 years of servitude to Russia and the half-century more of slavery to Russia’s Soviet incarnation about to begin in little over a year.
Next door, the czar is gone and it’s not called Russia any more but the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Dolhinov is the closest town in the world to the Communist iron curtain. A twenty-minute walk, not even a hurried one but a sauntering polka step, would have brought the cheering parade participants a view of the Worker’s Homeland itself. Indeed, from the veranda of the Niezabytowsky estate house, just outside town, one could sip a drink and watch Soviet border guards across the river patrolling
The countryside has a Byelorussian majority; the town a Jewish majority. Polish is the language taught in schools but in Dolhinov’s streets and stores, when Jews weren’t speaking Yiddish, they’re talking the Byelorussian language, a dialect of Russian. Dolhinov was still, as it had been for a half-millennium, a front-line outpost in the endless strife of Russian against Pole. And neither Russia nor other mighty nations were yet, by a long shot, finished with Dolhinov.
A third of a century before that happy Polish Independence Day march of 1937, Dolhinov had still been part of Russia’s empire. True, before World War One, the Polish nationalist movement was active underground even in Dolhinov and Józef Sawicki carried messages from the headquarters in Vilna in a hollowed-out walking stick, travelling under the pretense of being a merchant.
Still, the transformation from Czarist province to Polish power took seven years, three wars, and a series of accidents. Czarist Russian, then German, again Czarist, then again German, next Byelorussian, then Bolshevik Russian, next Polish, then Bolshevik Russian, and then again Polish armies had marched into—and all but the last had run back down—Vileika Street, Dolhinov’s main, cobblestoned, road.
It all began, as did so many things, in August 1914, World War One, a worldwide competition for conquest, had nothing directly to do with daily life in Dolhinov. Yet its battles would soon run through the center of town.
Our images of World War One today are defined by the Western Front. Hundreds of miles of trenches where the machinegun’s dictatorship is imposed for four years on millions of soldiers huddled in trenches. Terror and boredom was punctuated by suicidal mad-dash attacks across no-man’s land ordered by generals bewitched by romantic memories of gallant charges sweeping an enemy off the battlefield. Commanders still fought by the historic rule: to be on the offensive was heroic, on the defensive unmanly. But the technology of rapid-firing, more accurate weapons had reversed the odds, making each attack disastrous. Instead of the defender being overwhelmed by a massive onrush, the attackers are mown down by the tens of thousands in desolate no-man’s-land for no gain whatsoever.
Things were different in the east. Armies maneuvered, victories won, dramatic advances made by huge masses of infantry. True, merely capturing ground didn’t bring victory until the other side—Russia in 1917; Germany and Austria in 1918–collapsed from within. Also, casualties there were as shocking, or more so, than in the west. But at least it looked more like history-book warfare. Napoleon would have recognized it; and so would the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses Grant, and William Sherman.
But that eastern front was less a place of brilliant generalship than a competition of incompetence between Russia and Austria-Hungary. The Germans had the good fortune of having the former as enemy and the curse of having the latter as ally. In the end, the great empires of czar, kaiser, and emperor would all end in collapse. Most significant for world history, Russia’s fell to Communism’s 70-year-long global detour, modern history’s second-worst system which also inspired fascism, the first-place winner.
Dolhinov would be in the middle of these events, especially when armies were on the march. In 1914, the war began with huge Russian defeats at Tannenberg in August and the Masurian Lakes in September. In May 1915, the Germans advanced even further east, capturing 240,000 Russian prisoners and killing an equal number, at the cost of only 90,000 casualties for themselves. One million Russian soldiers—the numbers quickly become unimaginable—were captured that year alone. Entire divisions disintegrated.
As always, Jews tried to be optimistic in the face of turmoil. Aharon Rubin, a Dolhinov lumber dealer, returned home from a July 1915 sales’ trip to Vilna just in time to see the Russian army retreating through the town. His friend, Josef Sawicki, told him that the Germans would soon arrive. Rubin smiled and replied: “The era of the Russian czar and his empire is over, now they will no longer punish and discriminate against us Jews and you Poles.”
His words were prophetic but the course of events was not to be so simple. The front-line was now just west of Dolhinov and the town was transformed into a military zone. Pack mules, marching men, and the occasional car or track—the first motorized vehicles ever seen in those parts—pass endlessly through its otherwise empty streets. Artillery fire boomed in the distance. Much of the town is destroyed in the fighting, houses, shops, and mills all gone; the possessions and work of many lifetimes wiped out in a few hours. For 76 Russian soldiers from General Nesviataev’s 115th Viazemsky infantry brigade, Dolhinov became permanent residence and final resting place.
Those residents who could still do so, however, fled eastward. Russian officials, scared and angry, treat local Jews with hostility and sometimes violence. So bad is the situation, noted a British observer on the scene, that “even the most extreme antisemites have been moved to complain at treatment of the Jews.” While the French ambassador to Russia wrote in his diary, “for the Jews of Poland…the war is one of the greatest disasters they have known.”
For decades in the nineteenth century, forcible induction into the Russian army, from which my great-grandfather barely escaped and his brother didn’t, had been Jews’ single greatest complaint against the government. Now several Dolhinov Jews were serving in the ranks to protect a regime which had always oppressed them.
One of my relatives was captured by the Germans and ever after declared that they treated him better than the Russians. Another, Aaron Grosbein, drafted in 1917, declared himself a pacifist. Hoping his mother wouldn’t hear about his decision and worry about his fate, Grosbein waited until his unit was far away from Dolhinov before refusing to fight. But when he was sentenced to two months in military prison, she found out any way and suffered greatly from anxiety. Released after six weeks, he’d been unable to change his clothes all that time because a guard stole the clean underwear that a friend sent him. But Grosbein found jail to be the easier alternative. Once back at the front, he had to face the anger of his fellow soldiers who resented his behavior as making their own lives harder and more dangerous.
The Russian army had dealt with hundreds of thousands of deserters, soldiers who preferred to surrender, inflict wounds on themselves to escape duty, ran away, and even openly rebel. Yet so baffled were the officers by a man who simply declared he wouldn’t fight and was ready to accept punishment that they just left him alone. They didn’t expect Jews to be good soldiers even if they were willing to try.
You didn’t need to be a military genius, or even a soldier, to stand in the middle of Dolhinov during the war and understand why the Russians were losing. Let’s lean against this closed and shuttered Jewish storefront for a moment and watch the military traffic heading up to the front. Here this great empire’s weakness is revealed.
When the Swedes had marched through Dolhinov they were a small professional, even mercenary, army. Napoleon had led a massive force, product of the new patriotic nationalism that mobilized an entire country for war. Yet carts pulled by animals along muddy roads could not feed, clothe, and arm either army in the face of Russia’s vast space and terrible infrastructure.
It was now the twentieth century but things had changed around Dolhinov far less than in the west of Europe. Railroads there didn’t have enough track, cars, or locomotives. Roads hadn’t improved that much from Napoleon’s day. And while there were such things as automobiles and trucks, there weren’t many on the eastern front.
Given the flat land, long distance, and lack of motorized vehicles, cavalry units were still effective, at least for getting soldiers to the fight. But fodder for the Russian army’s one million cargo and cavalry horses filled twice the number of railroad cars needed for feeding the men at the front. Corruption and incompetence contributed to the mess. So did the lack of Russian officers, poor training, and low morale. Food spoiled before it could be eaten; even the sergeants’ weapons were dirty.
One shouldn’t exaggerate. The armies, even those of the Russians and Austrians, fought often well and bravely for three years. Still, by 1915 the Germans could move four army corps in five days the same distance that it took the Russians three weeks to shift just one corps. Due to conflicting orders, a Russian force evacuated the fortress of Libau and destroyed its telegraph lines, at the same moment as another unit was moving in to defend it. Taking advantage of the confusion, Germans attacked and took the town.
In the Russian army, trenches were badly dug, fallback positions weren’t prepared, and reinforcements poorly positioned. When a general suggested building a series of strong defense lines in the face of an imminent German offensive, commanders couldn’t agree where to put them, how to man them, and whether implying retreat might be necessary would so damage morale as to make it inevitable. It wasn’t that the Russian army had no good generals, but there was no effective decision-making system.
The German high command was much better organized. Even more important, it had learned the lesson that Napoleon had neglected and that Hitler wouldn’t remember: the way to achieve victory was to destroy Russia’s army, not to strike as deep as possible into Russian territory. As a result, of all the assaults on Russia in modern history, Germany’s World War One campaign was the most effective.
But Germany’s victory in the east during 1917 would be mainly due to its adversary’s internal collapse. In March, Russia’s first revolution produced a broad democratic regime determined to stay in the war. But, in April, the Germans helped Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, return home, hoping his priority on revolution, even at the cost of losing the war, would ensure its own victory. The plan worked. In November, Lenin’s Bolshevik party staged a coup against the democratically elected parliament and seized state power.
The Communist takeover wasn’t inevitable. Communism was a disease of modernization, an attack on a system weakened by the difficult transition to big cities; industrialization; the growth first of a working and then of a huge middle class; democracy; and other features that shook but didn’t wreck America, Britain, or France. History could have turned out differently. The Czarist system might have survived the war and made gradual reforms, or Russia could have had a democratic republic. Eventually, progress could have exceeded what the Soviets achieved by violent repression and at such a high human cost. Without the Communist example and Soviet help, Germany might not have rebuilt itself through Nazism. The Holocaust might never have taken place. But, of course, things didn’t happen that way.
In 1918, Lenin was trying to save his infant revolution from enemies at home and abroad but couldn’t succeed without giving Germany whatever it demanded. German soldiers seized a wide swath of territory in Western Russia, including Dolhinov, and there was nothing between its bayonets and Lenin’s office.
He ordered his delegates to sign anything and what they accepted was a March 9, 1918 agreement in which the Soviets gave up Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, as well as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—in short, the whole western slice of the Russian empire. With Russia out of the war, the Germans could concentrate all their troops on the Western front. With Russia out of the war, Lenin could focus on keeping power.
Germany expected to dictate the new international boundaries at the peace conference ending World War One. Meanwhile, though, no one knew where the USSR’s borders began and those of Poland ended or even whether there would be a country called Poland. At this confused moment a wild card was thrown down. A new nationalist movement arose to declare the establishment of a Byelorussian People’s Republic on behalf of that long-quiescent people. Along with left-wing and Christian Democratic parties, the Jewish Bund threw its lot in with this movement, in exchange for promises of full autonomy and in preference to Bolshevik rule. A new war began between the Byelorussian People’s Volunteer Army and the Soviet Red Army.
One son of Dolhinov in particular took sides enthusiastically in this confrontation. His name was Samuil Plaunik, but he was better known under his penname as Zmitrok Biadula. Born in 1886, Plaunik moved to Dolhinov at a young age with his family. More interested in writing poetry than learning ritual, he was expelled from his heder class. In 1910, he switched from Yiddish to Byelorussian. Plaunik was fascinated by the idea that the Jews of the region should hook their wagon to Byelorussian nationalism. Toward this end, he wrote poems, stories, and essays arguing that the Jews and Byelorussians had achieved some cultural synthesis.
What was unique about Plaunik is that while many Jews would advocate assimilation to with the Russians—both wealthy people seeking to become part of the dominant society or revolutionaries proposing to overthrow it hand in hand with the Russian proletariat—or later with the Poles, Plaunik was virtually alone in his allegiance. Yet his variation throws light on the more popular paths taken by others.
Jews were unlikely, however, to favor a movement whose prospects seemed dim and whose forces were involved in antisemitic attacks when it finally did gain some power, as happened during the short-lived Byelorussian revolt. The fact that Plaunik married a non-Jewish woman and had to function under a non-Jewish name was also evidence of where this road led. He died in 1941 while fleeing the Nazis, but if Plaunik lived a bit longer he would have seen the surviving and reviving Byelorussian nationalists become Nazi collaborators. While a curiosity of history, Plaunik, the most important literary figure Dolhinov would produce, merely represented one more betrayed and unrequited loyalty.
At any rate, the Byelorussian uprising would be short lived. On November 2, 1920, the Byelorussians launched an offensive and ten days later proclaimed an independent Belarus that included Dolhinov. But the peasants remained passive and, within three weeks, politically Red Russians defeated ethnic White Russians. Apparently, Belarus—and Dolhinov with it–would become part of Lenin’s USSR.
Before the Soviet-Byelorussian war ended, however, a Polish-Soviet war began. The Poles had taken advantage of Russia’s revolution to declare their own independence. Poland’s new leader Józef Piłsudski wanted to recapture historic Polish territories and lead an alliance of new eastern European countries to balance off both Germany and the USSR. Lenin, whose proletarian internationalism was indistinguishable from traditional Russian imperialism, rejected his own now unnecessary territorial concessions. If Poland became his, the Soviets would have a border with Germany from which revolution could be spread throughout all of Europe. .
In February 1919, broke out what would have been border skirmishes if anyone had known where the border was located. The next month Polish units advanced steadily to capture Minsk, 50 miles from Dolhinov, on August 8, and kept going. It was the first time Polish authority had returned to Dolhinov in 130 years. But the Poles wouldn’t cooperate with the counterrevolutionary Russian forces trying to bring down Lenin. From a Polish standpoint, these anti-communists were even worse, militant Russian nationalists who’d never permit an independent Poland. So the Polish forces stopped advancing after conquering all the territory they claimed and let the Bolshevik regime survive.
That turned out to be a terrible mistake. Once the Communists defeated their rivals at home in the civil war, they returned to fighting the Poles. In summer 1920, the Red Army attacked across the Berezina River just east of Dolhinov and broke through, advancing as fast as their legs or horses could carry them. Dolhinov was quickly captured by the Soviets, who slapped a high tax on its people to finance their war effort and plunged on toward Warsaw. Here was the Red Army’s 27-year-old General Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s order of the day to his Third Army for July 4, 1920: “In the west the fate of world revolution is being decided in the west: the way leads over the corpse of Poland to a universal conflagration!…On to Vilna, Minsk and Warsaw—forward!”
The Poles were totally defeated, scattered, in headlong retreat. At each river they dug in, sometimes using left over German trenches from the recent world war, only to be outflanked and to flee once again. In August, the Reds were within 60 miles of Warsaw and ignoring Polish pleas for peace-at-any-price. Soviet victory seemed inevitable, to be followed perhaps by a wave of Communist revolutions throughout a Europe flattened and bankrupted by six years of wars.
Yet at the last possible moment, with the Soviet army almost in the suburbs of Warsaw, the Poles counterattacked, saved their capital, and destroyed their enemy. Now the Soviets fled; the Poles in hot pursuit.
How this military miracle happened remained a secret for more than 80 years. Now we know how it happened: Polish soldiers intercepted and decoded Tukhachevsky’s orders and laid a trap. They pulled out of areas into which the Soviets were advancing and concentrated their forces for an all-out flank attack. Achieving complete surprise, they hit the Soviets on the northern and southern tips of their lines, encircling and wiping out the Soviet forces, while suffering almost no casualties of their own.
Within days the Poles advanced 300 miles eastward, surging through Dolhinov. What did all this fighting leave behind in Dolhinov? The graves of 65 Polish and 4 Red Army soldiers from 1920. It is strange to think that Karl Kursakovsky, Frank Novak, Bronislav Wozny, and Vaslav Kozak happened into Dolhinov one day by happenstance and now it is their fate to lie there for all eternity.
Onward advanced the Poles, capturing Red Army headquarters in Minsk, only moments after the over-confident Tukhachevsky scurried out the door and ran for his life. Poland had won.
Precisely as he had done two years earlier, Lenin was willing once again to pay anything for peace. As the British ambassador to Germany put it at the time, had the Poles lost, “The very existence of Western civilization would have been imperiled [under] the fanatical tyranny of the Soviet.” Of course, the first time, it had taken Lenin only two years to take back all the territory he’d given to the Germans. Nineteen years later, in 1939, Stalin would do the same regarding what the USSR had been forced to yield to the Poles.
The Soviet triumph, however, would have to come on the point of the Red Army’s bayonets on both occasions, not from the revolt of the working masses. Among the Poles, nationalism had trumped social class. Lenin even admitted this privately, saying that the Polish “workers and peasants defended their class enemy.”
But he was still wrong. The Polish people had not acted to defend a rich ruling class; they had fought to defend their own nation and religion, their primary identity and loyalty. For them, the enemy was not Polish plutocrats but the Russians, whatever they were calling themselves now, along with the Marxism, atheism, and dictatorship that the Soviet state embodied. It was a foretaste of both what Communism had become and why it would fail.
But what would happen to Dolhinov? Would it be Soviet or Polish? There were no revolutionaries in Dolhinov worth speaking about; the Jews were indifferent; the peasants had no strong political sentiment, having refused to fight on behalf of Byelorussian nationalism. Everything depended on where Poland’s eastern, and the USSR’s western, border would be drawn. The Versailles conference of the victors, meeting in a French palace to end World War One, favored what was called the “Curzon line.” According to this, the Poles would rule where they were an ethnic majority. And that would leave Dolhinov in Soviet territory.
Pilsudski, like most statesmen, wanted as much land as he could get. But the ups and downs of war had left him out of favor and his National Democrat rivals, now in power, did something unprecedented. As militant nationalists who remembered Poland’s previous downfall, they wanted no territory where Poles weren’t the majority. Consequently, when the Soviets—desperate for peace—offered Poland even more land as a way to get immediate agreement, the Polish government turned them down and insisted on taking less.
One result of this decision was that more than a million Poles were left in the Soviet Union, where they would be harshly oppressed. The Soviets turned the territory they kept into the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Sixty percent of the area’s Jews—numbering one million by 1939—were on the Polish side; the other forty percent were on the Soviet side. As in Poland’s partition a century and a half earlier, their fates would be quite different.
In the Dolhinov area, Poles were only one-third of the town itself and not more than 20 percent in the surrounding area. But when the border was set in the Riga treaty of March 18, 1921, Dolhinov landed in Poland by the skin of its teeth. The treaty stated that the border would run, “To the Vilya River up to a point east of Dolhinov…up to a highway running to the south of Dolhinov, hence further south….”
And so Dolhinov became part of Poland, Byelorussians, Jews and all. The Polish minority was ecstatic. The town’s name was altered to Dolhinów and it became the county seat. On the day in 1921 when all this became official, the town’s population was down to 1,747 Jews and 924 Christians. But the war refugees returned and life went back to normal. As a result, by 1929 there were 3,671 residents, a 40 percent increase over 1921. That number fell slightly to 3346 inhabitants living in 580 houses in 1931 and 3181 people in 547 houses by 1938, as people migrated to big cities or abroad.
The see-saw Soviet-Polish war had imposed tough choices on Jews. Polish nationalists varied in their attitudes—Pilsudski was tolerant, his National Democratic Party rivals openly antisemitic—but were generally hostile to Jews. Polish troops launched pogroms against Jews in several places. Pilsudski also allied with the Ukrainian nationalist leader, Symon Petlura, infamous for his murderous attacks on Jews in that area.
To make matters worse, many Soviet Communist leaders were Jews, including the architect of the Red Army itself, Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovitch Bronstein in a Ukrainian town very much like Dolhinov. When a Polish Communist puppet regime was formed in Soviet-occupied territory, most of its supporters were Jewish radicals. When the Soviets approached Warsaw, Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin, whose Jewish background was known to Poles, wrote that the Red Army should march through Warsaw “right up to London and Paris.” While other Jews backed the Poles, even fighting in their army, many Poles were suspicious of all Jews, a prejudice already strong from a host of religious, economic, and nationalist motives.
After the war ended, and in response to press reports about antisemitic violence in Poland, a U.S. investigating commission was formed headed by the American Jewish lawyer Henry Morgenthau. Trying to show its cooperation, the new Polish government hosted and cooperated with the commission. Morgenthau’s group documented the main antisemitic incident of the era. When the Polish army seized Minsk from the Soviets, on August 8, 1919, its soldiers murdered 31 Jews, looted 377 Jewish shops, broke into homes, and beat up people. But the commission concluded that most of these incidents stemmed more from anarchy than intention and praised the new Polish government and army for trying to stop such violence, punish perpetrators, and reduce antisemitism.
Following the commission’s report, the Polish government promised to provide its Jewish citizens with “justice and fair play?” During the republic’s first 15 years, as long as Pilsudski lived and periodically acted as Poland’s benevolent dictator, he largely kept this promise but when he died in 1935, extremists began to oppress the minorities. Over the next two years, an estimated 79 Jews were murdered and 500 injured in antisemitic attacks. In 1937, ethnic quotas were instituted in the universities, and Jewish students had to sit in a separate part of the classroom. Boycotts were launched against Jewish shops, even in Dolhinov.
Granted, the Jews were not part of the ethnic Polish nation and had no desire to integrate completely. Still, Polish antagonisms against Jews were far more intense and lasting than any ill-feeling toward Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and German minorities about which the same point can be made and who were in reality far more dangerous and troublesome for Poland.
On a personal basis, though, the Jews of Dolhinov had total freedom to go about their lives, think their thoughts, and practice their customs. They could create and maintain communal institutions, educate their children, and leave the country if they so chose. The Morgenthau report had concluded that Jews, while “disturbed by the anti-Jewish feeling…did not fear for their lives and liberty” and accepted their “full duty” as loyal Polish citizens and majority rule. The Jews of Poland, and of Dolhinov fulfilled that pledge, except of course for a tiny minority of Communists who themselves had broken from the community and were indifferent to its interests.
For his part, Pilsudski and his social democratic allies thought antisemitism dishonored Poland and undercut its desire to be a respected country enjoying international backing. They were also aware that the country’s prosperity in large part depended on the Jews who though only 10 percent of the population paid between 35 and 40 percent of the taxes.
In 1926, Pilsudski staged a coup and had full control to implement his policies. Of course there were limits. Jews were barred from civil service positions. But the government repealed the old Czarist laws against Jews, opened the universities to Jewish students, gave the community official recognition, and even subsidized its institutions. Jewish parties elected many members of parliament.
So overwhelming was his personality over Poland that he came to embody the nation. Seventy years after Polish rule forever left Dolhinov, an old Polish woman there proudly showed me the drawing of Pilsudski she had kept hidden throughout the Soviet period. On it was written a quote from the leader: “If a person lives his life very simply and not having high ideals to achieve, it’s a failure.”
For Pilsudski’s Poland—and most of all for its Jews–the problem came when he had finished living his life. Once Pilsudski died, however, the right-wing and army dominated the regime and, starting in 1936, officially sponsored an anti-Jewish economic boycott. Jews were not even allowed to join the governing party. Signs like, “Buy only in Polish shops” and, “A Poland free from Jews is a free Poland,” went up everywhere. Cardinal August Hlond, wrote, “It is a fact that Jews fight against the Catholic Church…constituting the advance guard of a godless life, of the Bolshevik movement, and of subversive action….It is a fact that the Jews are embezzlers and usurers and that they engage in the white-slave traffic.”
Professional associations of doctors, lawyers, and high school teachers excluded Jews, while Jewish university students were limited by quotas, forced into separate seating sections (called “ghetto benches”), and sometimes assaulted by Polish counterparts. There were a number of pogroms in which Jews were killed by their Polish neighbors. Licenses were denied to Jewish merchants. In Dolhinov, the lucrative beer brewery was taken away from its Jewish owner and put into ethnic Polish hands by the refusal to renew his license. Kosher slaughter of animals, a necessity for Jews, was banned. In Dolhinov, it had to be performed privately since no Jewish family would think of eating non-kosher meat. As one historian has written, there was, “No other European nation where [antisemitism] “affected so many persons.”
Still, Jews in Dolhinov continued to enjoy the extra insulation offered by the fact that they were less of a minority there than the Poles themselves. Moreover, Dolhinov—like a thousand other shtetls—was no longer sunk in stagnation. Progress, technology, and education were gradually transforming life there. Even within the Jewish community, modernity peeked in, though full religious observance and community loyalty remained overwhelmingly intact.
Next-door, literally, in the Soviet Union was a utopian experiment where nothing remained intact and life often turned into a nightmare. On the positive side, Soviet Jews as individuals were granted total equality and unlimited opportunities to gain education and hold any job. Yet their communal and religious institutions were crushed in a program of forcible assimilation beyond any czar’s dreams while personal freedoms were tightly limited.
Perhaps this paradox was best expressed by Ewald Ammende, a Baltic German businessman and minority rights’ defender who travelled widely in the USSR. “Leadership and administration of the Soviet state—in trade and industry, in diplomacy, in the press, etc.—is today,” he wrote in 1936, “to a considerable extent in the hands of Jews, is a fact which none can deny.” Ammende, however, called such people “non-national Jewry,” determined to destroy “those Jews who, unlike them, cling to their nationality, religion, and customs.”
Behind the veil of paradise was the leveling of everything outside the dictatorship’s control and increasingly the whim of the dictator himself, Joseph Stalin. The system, however, in this case was entirely approved of by Lenin, himself—though this was among the Soviet Union’s most restricted secrets–one-quarter Jewish. Synagogues were closed; the teaching of Hebrew banned; community organizations smashed; emigration barred; Zionists, Bundists, and religiously observant Jews, arrested and sent to concentration camps. Simultaneously, however, the Soviet government claimed to be protector and even promoter of Jewish rights and culture.
Ammende gave a perfect example of how this system worked, explaining, “The function of the Yiddish Institute in Kiev is to destroy Yiddish culture.” The institution’s apparent concern to preserve Yiddish seemed impressive to him until the director explained that the real purpose was to promote the Russian language.”
But, asked Ammende, “What kind of work are you doing?”
One of the officials showed him: he was translating secret police interrogation forms into Yiddish.
At that time, conditions were made worse by a famine created by the Soviet government’s insistence on forcing peasants onto collective farms and murdering the most successful among them. Whatever the Jews suffered, Ukrainians and Poles suffered even more. And this would be followed by the purges, mass arrests, and more deportations to concentration camps.
Harry Lang, a Jewish visitor posing as a businessman, described a Ukrainian shtetl in the 1930s that could easily have been the fate of Dolhinov. “The people are afraid of each other. They are afraid of every superfluous word….They are even afraid of relatives and acquaintances, and fear to tell them anything of their troubles.” A Jew whispered to him to come to the cemetery at 3 pm, where he witnessed an amazing scene. People stood by their family graves and prayed, interspersing whispers to him about the real news—arrests, killings, death by starvation–as he moved from grave to grave.
Deeply moved, Lang wrote a passionate plea that “the Jews of the whole world must not forget their brethren in Soviet Russia and must render them assistance in every way….[Their distress] passes all imagination.” But in the face of Soviet propaganda, accepted—partly even to this day–by Western intellectuals, many of them Jews themselves—this cry was ignored.
The Jews who became Communists, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, saw that choice as a way of solving simultaneously their society’s problems and the Jewish question. The specific oppression of Jews would be dissolved by an egalitarian society where everyone was treated equally. The price to be paid, however, was that they would have to give up all distinctiveness: religion, ethnicity, language, all subsumed into the proletariat’s dictatorship. At first, only the individual Jews choosing join the revolutionary cause voluntarily made those sacrifices but later, with the Communists in power, these same demands were imposed by force on all Jews in the country, often by the Jewish Communists themselves.
To make matters worse, while in theory Jews were to give up everything that made them Jews in order to merge into some overarching revolutionary collectivity. In practice, though, reality was much more banal: they were giving up being Jews in order to become Russians. What Communism achieved in the USSR was merely the historic objective of the czars: forcible assimilation to Russian culture and society, though not religion.
Finally, rather than make antisemitism extinct, the participation of Jews in Communism actually exacerbated it, making Jews more hated, both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. For the Jews as a whole were accused, and often made to pay, for Communism’s crimes of destroying other people’s religions, traditions, and nationhood. This resulting image played a huge role in the rise and appeal of Nazism and fascism, as well as confirming the Jews’ “treasonous” nature to east European nationalist movements hating both Communism and Russian imperialism.
In the words Morgenthau report’s words: “It is…often asserted that the chiefs of the Bolshevik movement in Russia are Jews of Poland or Lithuania and there is no doubt that they played a prominent part in the Bolshevik government of such cities as Vilna, Lida, and Minsk before the capture of these cities by the Polish Army.” This concept of Judeo-Communism was applied in the 1930s and even more so in the post-1945 period when Jews were associated with unpopular Communist regimes in their countries.
Yet east European antisemitism is so complex precisely because it simultaneously comes from so many, even contradictory, directions. Jews were too rich and too poor, too traditional and too modernistic, threatening when they were different but equally—or even more—dangerous when they entered into mainstream society. In the end, the issue could be resolved only by murder or emigration.
As the Morgenthau report explained, the long Polish struggle to regain their freedom, “Has caused them to look with hatred upon anything which might interfere with their aims.” And the existence of so many Jews did interfere with this project in the minds of many, understandably insecure, Poles who knew that their nationhood could easily vanish and that Jews were indeed a separate people.
Even paranoids have enemies, goes the saying. But no Pole had to be paranoid to perceive their country was surrounded by them: Russians to the east; Germans to the west. In Berlin and Moscow, rulers were determined to wipe Poland off the map and many throughout Europe believed the country’s freedom was only temporary. Poland’s strategic problem was almost unsolvable. Being flat, it had no geographical defenses except its many rivers and Poland’s only option was to hope that a French and British readiness to fight for its independence would deter the two powerful foreign enemies.
Then there was the fact that almost one-third of the population wasn’t Polish at all but Ukrainian, Jewish, Byelorussian, or German. The constitution guaranteed minorities’ equal rights and cultural autonomy. But that didn’t solve the problem, especially for Ukrainians, who were strongly nationalistic, and Germans who dreamed of a return of the fatherland’s rule.
Knowing the fragility of their independence, Polish leaders were determined to be united, even at the cost of sacrificing democracy and persecuting minorities. When the Soviets invaded in 1939, they explicitly claimed they were coming to liberate the oppressed Byelorussians and Ukrainians—but not the Jews. The Germans took a similar propaganda line. Ultimately, the situation in pre-war Poland drove Jews, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians into Soviet arms and, later, many Byelorussians, and most Ukrainians and ethnic Germans to collaborate with the Nazis.
Yet Jews were highly visible throughout Poland, while the other minorities lived only on its territorial fringes. It was easy to think that persecuting them could solve Poland’s other big problem, economic underdevelopment. By pushing the Jews out of business or out of the country altogether, space would be cleared for a stronger Polish middle class.
“Polish national feeling is irritated,” the Morgenthau report had noted, “by what is regarded as the `alien’ character of the great mass of the Jewish population. This is constantly brought home to the Poles by the fact that the majority of the Jews affect a distinctive dress, observe the Sabbath on Saturday, conduct business on Sunday, have separate dietary laws, wear long beards, and speak a language of their own.”
Many Poles on the right end of the political spectrum thought that Zionists, the Bund, or traditional Jews were a threat to their state but that simply wasn’t true. The first wanted to leave; the other two merely to be left alone. In the struggle for power within Poland, Jews preferred to be mere bystanders. In contrast to all the other groups, this attitude was due to their tradition, inward orientation, situation as an imperiled minority, and lack of any patron state.
And yet the Morgenthau report’s conclusion is accurate: “It is no more fair to brand all Jews as Bolsheviks because some of them support the Soviets than to class all Poles as Jew-baiters because some of their military forces or of their lawless civil elements have occasionally been guilty of depredations and violence.”
Nevertheless, Jews were also in a no-win situation. If they were Zionists, Bundists, or traditionalists they were seen as loyal to a different nation. If assimilationist, they competed with Poles for jobs and brought distinctive perspectives to bear in the national debate. If left, secular, or assimilationist, they were seen as enemies of Poland’s traditions, the Catholic Church, and established order. If they spoke Yiddish—a German-based dialect—this was used to accuse them of affinity for Poland’s number-two enemy, Germany.
How did this work in Dolhinov? Many Poles there, including the local priest, rejected antisemitism. Others embraced it. The young Eliezer Koton knew that he could not ride his bicycle down certain largely non-Jewish streets or stones would be thrown at him. Fist fights sometimes did break out between Poles and Jews.
The more positive side of coexistence was experienced by Ida Friedman. As a student in the state—which everyone called the Polish—school in Dolhinov, she was one of four Jewish girls (there were no Jewish boys) in her class. “They were very kind to us,” she recalled, “there was no antisemitism.” As an example she tells the following story:
“Once, we were playing hide-and-seek in the playground with the Polish girls. One of the Polish girls didn’t manage to catch me and so we started to hit each other on the head. She fell over and fainted. The headmistress came out and I thought I’d be in terrible trouble. Our parents were summoned, and I was surprised when instead of getting into trouble I was told by the headmistress that I was a very good student and that this was a one-time problem and wouldn’t happen again. I was always a little nervous of the Polish boys, that perhaps they would get angry at us and hit us. Every day we went to school with this fear but nothing ever happened in the end.”
The last sentence above is the key: people always expected more friction than took place. A major reason for this is precisely the fact that not only were there many people who wanted coexistence to work but there were many more who knew conflict could break out due even to the smallest misstep. The greatest departure from this pattern was the Polish boycott of Jewish shops in the late 1930s. Yet balance and communal peace survived until destroyed by outsiders.
In this system, Jews were the overwhelming majority of storekeepers and artisans. Poles comprised most of the professionals; all of the government employees, including teachers, and the prosperous farmers as well as some of the peasantry. The Byelorussians were the majority of peasants.
Dolhinov, like many other traditional societies, was obsessed with the concept of the “evil eye,” or what anthropologists have called the “limited good.” The former idea is that showing off one’s good fortune attracts demonic forces that would destroy it. But this idea has a very practical sociological aspect in Dolhinov: the tremendous danger from other people’s—and communities’–envy and covetousness. This attitude would later be the major source for the collaboration of local people with the Nazis to eliminate their Jewish neighbors, steal their homes, and loot their possessions.
According to the theory of the limited good, there’s only so much wealth to go around. If you have something, it’s because your neighbors don’t. In essentially static agricultural societies, before modern technology increased crop yields, this concept holds true. Elsewhere, one of the main factors promoting antisemitism through jealousy was that at least some Jews were relatively wealthy. In Dolhinov, they were just a bit better off than at least their peasant neighbors. But why should that bother anyone, unless Russian peasants or Polish town-dwellers believe it is at their expense?
Ethnic frictions in Eastern Europe were not mere matters of imagination but based on real economic and political clashes of interest. In the end, there was no solution to this problem and it was ultimately resolved only by mass murder, expulsion, and redrawing borders. This would be the outcome not only in Poland and large parts of Russia and Belarus but also in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, and Lithuania, among other countries.
Peasants complained when individual Jews bought up forested areas they wanted for themselves and sold the wood, sometimes back to them. Most transactions were less fraught with friction. While Jewish stores had a near-monopoly of commerce, the owners were obviously not becoming rich or even well-off. As a Byelorussian inhabitant of the time put it, the Jews were so poor that “I still wonder how they survived.” Nevertheless, any time a peasant rightly or wrongly thought himself cheated there was a potential for antisemitism and a possibility of violence.
Of course, many Poles thought they should take over these businesses and make the profit themselves. After all, it was their country and how else could a Polish middle class develop? On this point, the Byelorussian peasants, lacking such ambitions, more easily developed close cooperative relations with individual Jews. When Poles boycotted Dolhinov’s Jewish stores in the late 1930s, many Byelorussians ignore the campaign.
How did communal roles differ? In the Dolhinov of 1929, there were two doctors, a lawyer, and a veterinarian, all Poles. On the other hand, the dentist (Aron Shimshelevitz, one of whose relatives, Yitzhak Szymszelewicz, would, as Yitzhak ben Zvi, later be Israel’s second president) and pharmacist (my relative, Mendel Hefetz) were Jews. The credit union and cooperative store were Polish institutions, but the sole bank in town was the Zydowski Bank Ludowy, the Jewish People’s Bank.
One of that bank’s officials was the 39-year-old Wolf Sosensky, whose life reflects the path of upward mobility Dolhinov’s Jews could now take. Son of a poor tailor, he left heder to go to work in that profession at age 9, in 1899, after all his family’s home and everything in it had been destroyed by a fire. Thirsty for education, he continued to study on his own, collecting folktales and folksongs—which he loved to sing in his excellent voice. Drafted into the Russian army at age 20, he fought in World War One and was captured by the Germans. Returning home, he had become educated enough to get a job in the bank and became a community leader.
The relative shortage of Jews in the most skilled jobs reflected the low numbers of university graduates since higher education was closed to them in Czarist times and difficult in Poland due to discrimination. In addition, ethnic Polish institutions enjoyed state backing while Jews had to create their own community institutions.
Dolhinov’s Jews responded by building their own school and credit union. The arrival in town of Dr. Leonid (Eliezer) Kotler to run the new 40-bed hospital meant Dolhinov had a Jewish doctor as well as a Polish Catholic one. Kotler’s compassionate treatment of all the town’s people and refusal to charge poor patients, made him quite popular, a status his war-time record would later enhance further.
One of the most important factors ensuring separate community-based facilities was the Jewish dietary laws. Of two hotels and two restaurants, one each was Jewish, the other Polish. The Jewish hotel’s owners, Shayna and her brother Benjamin Ryjer, were such important figures in the community that the German occupation would later make him, involuntarily, head of the Jewish council. In contrast, all five cafes were Jewish-owned. A kosher cup of tea and bread roll would have been indistinguishable from what Poles had at home, where they were eating Jewish-baked bread any way since all the bakers’ dozen of bakers were Jews.
Similarly, there were four Jewish and one Polish butcher, corresponding roughly to their proportions in the population, since Polish cuisine required pork products; three Polish and two Jewish food stores, since the latter couldn’t sell non-kosher products; two Polish wine stores, since Jews drank little wine except for the Sabbath dinner, but both a Polish and a Jewish beer distiller and only a Jewish soda water vendor, since that was a Jewish delicacy. Appropriately, the main Polish grocery store is just outside the Catholic Church’s gate.
The sole writer of petitions and translator was a Pole, presumably dealing with his less literate community or those needing something done in Russian, a language Jews spoke better. The town had two barbers: one Jewish, one Polish. Take your choice so you could have a nice chat in Yiddish or Polish while having your hair cut. But for some reason the two women’s hairdressers were both Jews. The town’s sole full-time painting company was a Jewish family business, too.
It is equally significant that every single person listed in the town directory is either a Jew or an ethnic Pole with just one exception: the sole full-time midwife was a Byelorussian, presumably peasant wisdom was valued in such matters. Not a single storeowner or any professional whatsoever has a Byelorussian name. Equally, every town employee is an ethnic Pole. The state had no wish to employ Jews.
Not all Jews who live in the town work there. Jews were prohibited from owning land under the czar’s regime and it is almost impossible for them to do so now. But many rent property for harvesting the forests’ lumber; the orchard’s apples, pears, or cherries; or even to be farmers themselves on leased land.
Businesses that dealt with the peasants were overwhelmingly Jewish. This includes the 11 blacksmith shops, 10 owned by Jews and only 1 by a Pole. The same applied to the ironmongers and 13 grain merchants. The only miller of grains was Jewish until the local Polish nobleman opened a mill of his own. All the cattle and horse dealers are Jews. The former buy from peasants in surrounding villages, then sell the animals for beef; the latter go to towns where horses are raised, buy a horse for 150 to 200 zlotys and bring them back six to eight at a time to sell for 300 to 350 as pullers of plows and wagons.
Any peasant who needed to buy such a wagon or have one repaired went to Zalman Friedman. Even the two merchants who bought hog bristles from peasants to be used in making high-quality brushes—both quite religious, though I don’t know how they avoided physical contact with these items—were Jews.
All of the town’s 11 tailor shops, all but one of the clothing shops, all the cloth stores, hatmakers, shoemakers, and cobblers are Jews. Virtually all the 16 dry goods’ merchants, 18 general stores, and 2 leather-goods’, 2 hardware, and 2 ready-made clothing stores are also Jewish-owned.
Nevertheless, many a Jewish man in Dolhinov was a luftmensch, meaning he appeared to live from air or more realistically from anything that brought in a livelihood. The father of my Rubin cousins had a horse and wagon which carried him to the countryside where he sold cloth and soap in exchange for whatever crops or produce peasants could barter for it. When given the chance he bought animal hair for brushes, leather, or just about anything else. Not trusting banks, he kept his money hidden in the attic.
There is one final revealing detail in the official Polish national business association directory. Dolhinov is listed as having a Catholic and a Russian Orthodox church. The Polish editor did not think it worth mentioning the half-dozen synagogues in town.
What was life like during the Polish Power era? If in 1880 Dolhinov had been only one step up from a “Fiddler on the Roof” style shtetl, by the 1920s and 1930s it was on its way to being a moderately prosperous market town.
Still, Dolhinov suffered from its location. It was in the poorest part of a poor country, the neglected east, called Kresy, borderland, in Polish or, revealingly, Poland-B, the second-class region. It was such a frontier that following the Polish-Soviet war the government sent army veterans who had been particularly brave soldiers as settlers there, giving them land as a reward for their military service. Two-dozen such families were sent to the Dolhinov area. Like pioneers in the American West, these farmers built homesteads and were supposed to act as sentinels for the ethnic Polish presence. The Soviet invaders would later treat them as such, putting those families at the head of the deportation list.
Since it was right up against the dead end of the Soviet border, the historic trade between the two countries, so important in earlier centuries for the town’s existence, was legally non-existent. Some did make a living by cross-border smuggling and a few paid with their lives for trying, like Haim Katzovitz in 1924, killed by Soviet border guards . Motor vehicles were still scarce; and the closest railroad station was in Budslav, 12 miles away. To get there one would have to travel by horse-drawn coach. Later, there were two buses a week: No. 11 from Vilna through Dolhinov to Budslav, total journey six and a half hours, cost nine zloty; and No. 28 from Dzisna terminating in Dolhinov, for the same price. There was also a more frequently running local route to and from Vileika.
While Dolhinov as a whole was not culturally Jewish it certainly was so for the two-thirds of the population who were. Despite diverse organizations and orientations, along with growing changes imported from the outside, the Jewish community’s all-embracing role as center of life remained. All offices and stores closed for Jewish holidays which were also observed on the streets—including public Purim parades, complete with someone dressed up as Mordecai on horseback.
Esfira Dimenshtein, born in 1926, recalled:
“My favorite holiday was Pesach. We worked very hard before it to clean all the corners in our house. Then my grandfather came, checked everything, and said we were ready to celebrate Pesach. He always brought matzoh for us. There was a special bakery making it. My mother sometimes brought matzoh from Vilna where she went to buy cloth for the family’s store. The Seder was in my grandparents’ house for the entire family. It was always very beautiful and festive.”
There was no theater of stage or film. Going to synagogue fulfilled the function of diversion, social function, filler of free time, and edification we now know as public entertainment. But at home, people danced, sang songs, acted out plays, and enjoyed the incredible warmth of well-functioning, if far from perfect, families.
As Dolhinov had weathered the Mitnagdim-Hassidic battles of the 1700s and the rise of secular learning in the late 1800s, once again ideological variety didn’t produce lasting conflict. Any dispute was cushioned by many people being related by blood or marriage and close friendships among families. In regard to the Polish state or the prevailing European culture, these Jews might have been “outsiders,” yet in their daily lives they were complete “insiders,” within their own society, nation, and separate civilization.
On the religious level, traditional Judaism still reigned. Virtually no one was openly secular and, at most, young people would sneak off to smoke a cigarette on the Sabbath. Even the local members of the left-wing Zionist youth group, Hashomer Hatzair, known for being ferociously anti-religious elsewhere, were religiously observant. Yet this piety was largely taken for granted. Men who went to the villages took kosher food with them and they all prayed three times a day. Along with their uniform at the Tarbut school on Pilsudski street, the boys wore talit, the fringed vest, though far fewer wore payot, the long sidecurls.
Aside from religion, the community was dominated by Zionists and Bundists. It is easy to understand why these two political philosophies had such appeal in Dolhinov. After all, the Jews there were clearly a national group—like their Byelorussian and Polish neighbors—with their own language, culture, history, customs, and society. If someone had told them that Judaism was purely a religion with no implications about national identity, they would have laughed in his face.
The Bundists favored Jewish autonomy within Poland, which is essentially what already existed in Dolhinov and other Jewish-majority towns. The Zionists–divided among the explicitly religious (Mizrahi), left-wing (Hashomer Hatzair), mainstream socialist (Habonim), centrist (General Zionists), and militant nationalists (Betar)–educated young people in Hebrew and prepared them for making aliyah to the Land of Israel. In every house was a Jewish National Fund box for donations to the Jewish community in the Land of Israel.
From the 1920s onward, young people—Abba Axelrad and Eliyahu Halperin and his sister Dvora–left regularly to make aliya to the Land of Israel. They would prepare themselves at training farms or in an urban “kibbutz” near Vilna. It would be something of a holiday to accompany those going there, who were, indeed, far luckier to be getting away than any of those present realized. There was still some immigration to other places, like Canada and South Africa—America’s doors were pretty much closed– but far less than in earlier decades/
“My entire childhood was preparation for my arrival in Israel,” Dvora Halperin told me 72 years after she made that journey in 1937. In order to do so, despite the Jewish immigration quotas imposed by the British there, she underwent a fictitious marriage to a friend of her brother Eliyahu who came all the way from the land of Israel for that purpose. The rabbi knew all about it and sent the divorce paper on ahead of the “happy couple.”
As for those remaining behind in Dolhinov, assimilation was not a serious or sought-after option since every Jew there accepted loyalty to the community as a powerful identity. Intermarriage was simply unthinkable. This was even true among the few young Communists. Polish nationalism similarly held little attraction.
But why would Communism appeal to many in a population comprised largely of small businessmen? Why should one become a Communist or Polish nationalist since any wish to be a socialist or a nationalist could be expressed within the Zionist or Bundist movement? Moreover, one would have to be pretty obtuse to believe that a Jewish Communist could organize pious White Russians and religious Polish nationalists, or that ethnic Poles were ready to welcome Jews into their ranks.
Of course, things were quite different across the border in the Soviet Union, where Byelorussian Jews became avid Communists since that doctrine was in power and pressed them to do so. But while less than five miles away the USSR was in many ways the other side of the moon for Dolhinov residents. A couple of young people did sneak across and present themselves as loyal disciples of Stalin but a suspicious secret police quickly bundled them off to far-flung provincial towns or even to prison.
Another reason for the continuing appeal of religious identity, Zionism, Bundism, or emigration over assimilation or Communism was that the Dolhinov Jews had long learned to keep their nose out of the goyim’s business. History and religious doctrine taught them that any such intervention was dangerous not just to oneself but for the entire community. Why take up arms against Napoleon or become involved in World War One as if the French, or Czar, or Poles were going to do anything for them? Who knew when the pendulum might swing in the opposite direction? If one waited it out, the problem would go away. This had always been a successful strategy.
That view also reflected the surrounding peasantry’s philosophy of life. The peasant sows, the tailor sews, and the blacksmith pounds his hammer. Everyone needs them, no matter who sits on the distant throne. As a Russian peasant proverb puts it, “God is in heaven and the Czar is far away.” And the common people are like grass: he who sticks his head up has it cut off.
This idea is embodied in a folktale common to both the Jews and peasants of Dolhinov. A man rescues a snake, pinned down by a rock, from certain death. Yet instead of showing gratitude, the snake wraps around his neck and tries to strangle him. When the man asks, “I saved you and you want to repay me evil for good?” The snake answers, “There’s no justice in the world.”
The man persuades the snake to let a third party decide what to do. They find a horse, then a dog which both recount their woes at the hands of humanity and urge the snake to strangle him. Using all his powers, the main talks the snake into trying one more judge. This time they pick a fox who cleverly has them reenact the rescue. But once the snake is pinned down, the fox tells the man: “Leave him there to die.”
The fox then demands payment and the man promises to keep him well-supplied with chickens. But when the farmer runs out of chickens, he ambushes the fox and kills it with an ax. The story’s last line is: “From this we see that there is indeed no truth in the world.”
This kind of cynical thinking is a release from the contradiction between the Jews’ religious belief that the Holy One deals out justice fairly with their observation that this rarely seems to happen in the world around them. But the story also warns: Don’t get involved or you will be hurt. Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good results.
That philosophy—keep your mouth shut, work hard, don’t intervene in the outside world–would be central, too, in their response to the Nazis. The Jews of Dolhinov, as in other shtetls, really thought that if they proved themselves valuable workers and didn’t cause trouble they would survive a transient German occupation. This approach had worked for centuries with the Russians, Germans, Poles, Soviets—and even the French and Swedes. Indeed, if Nazism had not been such a crazed, anti-pragmatic ideology, the traditional Jewish strategy would have succeeded again.
Equally, every Jew knew, and perhaps only the few Communists among them forgot, that their every deed and word affected the entire community’s survival. A tremendous sense of self-consciousness and self-discipline was instilled, characteristics that would later serve their descendants well once they left Dolhinov for other countries. Leonid Andreyovich, a Byelorussian of peasant background born in Dolhinov in 1917 and at age 91 still a remarkably accurate source about life there, understood this well: “Jews always felt oppression but never showed what they thought.”
A story recounted by him is a perfect example of this whole style of existence. Down the street from Leonid lived the family of Mendel Rubin who, like many Dolhinov Jews, had relatives in America from whom he periodically received parcels. On one occasion, in 1929, non-Jewish neighbors seeing a package arrive came over to hint that they might get some of the “almost new” clothing it contained. But of course no one would ever ask for anything directly.
Leonid’s father said, “Oh, Mendel, you have again received clothes from America.”
Mendel scowled, “No one wants to wear it any more so they send it to me.” This was no expression of resentment toward cheap relatives but a dismissal to avoid envy, a strategy to avert the evil eye. The message was: this is nothing special; I’m not better off than you and so there is no cause for hatred or jealousy.
From his “outsider” viewpoint–for it was the non-Jews, and especially Byelorussians, who were “outsiders” in Dolhinov and shtetls like it–Leonid made another important observation about the Jews there: “I can’t help admiring their organization. They had their own synagogues, schools, teachers, and charity groups.”
A propensity toward organization, including philanthropy and public activity, were one of three core characteristics of shtetl Jews that their descendants would carry. The other two were a priority on education and a sense of self-consciousness far in excess of their neighbors. For later generations, what happened in towns like Dolhinov was not some alien world without connection to their present psychology and behavior but rather the very foundation of their character and world view no matter how far away they lived, how many years had passed, or how ignorant they were of having such ancestors.
Precisely because their customs were directed by an explicit, studied and understood set of rules, Jews were self-aware in every aspect of their behavior. Moreover, religious practice and knowledge was not delegated to a priest but was expected to be understood by every male to a high level and by every female on a practical one regarding all life activities.
For later generations of non-Orthodox Jews, the rabbi was made religious specialist; the laypeople mere clients. They became largely passive observers in religion, as in Christian practice, rather than minute-by-minute implementers of it. Yet this traditionally engendered self-consciousness—sometimes raised excruciatingly high—remained a well-known Jewish characteristic, whose religious and social roots were often forgotten. Jews easily became intellectual or cultural figures—as well as psychiatrists and their patients–due to the kind of extreme awareness that so typified their lives in places like Dolhinov.
The same point applies to the extremely intellectually oriented society which put the highest priority not only on study and learning but also on the use of dialectic logic. It was a social structure at least 1900 years old based on voluntary study, love of learning and the laying up of merit by such deeds. The pillars were formed by analytical intelligence: the derivation of meaning from the text and also its practical application. For while the laws of sacrifice at the Temple or the proper management of agricultural lands in the Land of Israel was only thought applicable when the Messiah came, much of this learning was concerned with the proper conduct of one’s life. And all of it sharpened the wits. Men who spent much of their time buying grain, hammering out tools, or selling tobacco, daily journeyed through the life of the mind, taking themselves back thousands of years and across thousands of miles.
In this manner, and incorporating the original writing of the Bible as well, Jews were every bit as much the authors of Western civilization as the Greeks. In contrast, however, Jews employed an inductive method—using reasoning on accepted first principles—rather than a deductive approach. It was Socrates who said that the unexamined life was not worth living, but it would be Jewish communities which collectively put that concept into practice.
The companion of systematic self-consciousness was its outward expression, organization. That is why Jews who lived within the traditional lifestyle had to be geographically concentrated, due to their own needs, not external pressure. Only thus could they have all the facilities needed: synagogue, mikvah, house of study for adults and schools for children, kosher food, employment in accord with Jewish laws and holidays, burial society, and so on. When their descendants abandoned that life-style, they projected backward the excuse that this society had only persisted due to outside compulsion. But that was patently untrue.
With no government or aristocracy of their own, Jewish organization was more bottom-up than top-down. True, the rabbi and wealthiest merchants had the most power but communal participation was still widespread and equality, at least of adult males, was accepted as proper. Dolhinov Jews don’t expect their social welfare to be delivered by the government. A communal council passes out food and other necessities to the most needy. If someone hadn’t enough money to pay taxes or buy business licenses and police carted off one’s possessions, the community would step in and provide rescue. Few are well-off but no one starves.
Now the community extended this approach further, with the Zionist movement and Bund key organizations in this modernization effort: the former concentrating on education; the latter on social welfare. Up until then, Jews had to choose between a purely religious education, and thus never being able to qualify for the more skilled jobs opening up, or going to the Polish school and being alienated from their own people.
In 1932, the Zionists established the Hebrew-language Tarbut (culture) school, a large wooden structure built by the Jews themselves. There 300 students studied in grades 1 through 9. The school was equivalent to a Jewish community day school today except that all the students came from fully observant families. This school was the most important innovation in Dolhinov Jewish life since it had begun four centuries earlier, symbolizing that the community was moving into the modern world rather than building a wall against it. To engage in the systematic study of secular subjects was a huge change especially since education was at the very core of Jewish life. Yet whatever grumbling had took place among rabbis and the pious, the revolution was accepted with little conflict. There is no record of any opposition to the school’s establishment or criticism of its conduct from the town’s rabbis or most pious circles.
Contrary to the traditional idea of remaining in Dolhinov until the Messiah came, Tarbut taught students that their future would be in the land of Israel. To be accredited, the school had to teach Polish one hour a day but the emphasis was on Hebrew instruction, the language needed for that purpose, and on the skills required by life there. More than 50 of these young people had indeed followed this path before 1939, and that basis in Hebrew would be very handy for the rest when–as no one foresaw–almost all the former students who survived the war did so.
Nahum Lenkin, one of them, later recalled how parents often, “Went without food so they could pay the tuition for their children. They made these sacrifices because the school provided young people their first preparation to go one day as pioneers to Eretz Israel, the land of the workers, the renewed land.”
None of this meant that there was a high level of friction between Jewish and Polish students in the state school. Itka Friedman, who came from a modern Orthodox (Mizrahi) Zionist family was one of four Jewish girls in her fourth grade class in the Polish school and had good relations with her Catholic counterparts. All Christian holidays were celebrated but the Jews did not have to participate. Still, she was happier the next year, 1938, to be sent to Tarbut.
By the time the first class was graduating, young Dolhinov Jews were also able to continue their educations outside of Dolhinov. Avi Yehmiel Yoffe obtained his teaching certificate in Vilna and in 1936 left for the land of Israel where he became a teacher. Avraham Friedman learned auto mechanics in another town, and in 1939, Buske Katzovitz travelled to far-off Grodno to attend a teacher’s college. Itke Friedman was planning like many to go to high school in Vilna.
In 1935, the Bund, since it expected Jews to stay in Dolhinov forever—and to be speaking Yiddish as well—took over the G’mach Foundation, funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, an American Jewish charitable organization. The 300 members, representing a large proportion of the Jewish households, held weekly and annual meetings to help businesses get started, expand, and survive. With the Polish boycott of Jewish stores and generally poor business conditions in the late 1930s, it was an especially vital organization.
These two institutions, the school and the credit union, were intended to be the basis for a new prosperous and educated Dolhinov.
Walking around its streets in the 1920s or 1930s, we find some things that match and others that contradict stereotypes. Much about Jewish life in eastern Europe assumed by its offspring derives from the late nineteenth century, when many of their ancestors left and the classics of Yiddish literature were composed. Clothing had changed a lot from the Russian to the Polish era. While pious men still wore beards and older people dressed in traditional clothes, the younger generation looked outwardly like their neighbors, though always wearing their vests with the ritual fringes and their hats. There they are around the town’s main square, a name rather too grand for the reality. Little two-story buildings line the square with shops almost smaller than the signs advertising them. Here, all the stores are Jewish: blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, cloth sellers, and those who vend a variety of goods. In the middle is an open, dirt-floored area where peasants set up stalls on market day.
Storekeeping families often followed the pattern of Batya Sosensky’s parents in their commercial partnership. Her mother, a good businesswoman, travelled to Vilna to buy fabric. Her father minded the store but was too generous in extending credit to customers. He had a special soft spot for families scraping together money to pay for bridegrooms’ suits. People would say, “Your father married many couples.” Two-thirds of a century later, a Polish resident still living in Dolhinov recalled that the Sosensky’s “material was so good, that a suit made from it would make even a humpback look handsome.”
But despite the Yiddish humor, these were not the fragile, neurotic Jews of the Woody Allen parody, spindly tailors, or pale young men who’d never been outside a study hall, but strong country Jews used to physical labor and outside work in one of the world’s most grueling climates. Indeed, they had more in common with the Israelis of today than with either the Israeli or American Jewish stereotype of the eastern European shtetl Jew.
Most live near the center of the town; others on the north side. But there is no ghetto and many Jews have Polish or Byelorussian neighbors. Almost everyone lives in small, single-floor wooden cottages. A few of the more prosperous live in uglier but no doubt better insulated brick homes, some even two stories high. There are still no town sewers or water system. All the toilets are outhouses; all water comes from wells, both located in backyards, though as far apart as possible. And while Dolhinov is proud to be a town, not a village, most families have chickens for eggs and dinners; a cow for milk; and, if they need it in their work, a horse and cart.
In the backyard, families grow beets, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peas, carrots, cauliflower, or potatoes. A lot of people have fruit, especially apple and cherry, trees, too. Women tend the gardens, serving fresh produce or preserving them in cellars for winter use. But they did not live by bread, or pickles, alone. The core of Jewish life was never mere subsistence as such but cultural. And though that culture was expressed in religious form, it was the most intellectually oriented mass religion in world history. It is no accident that the Yiddish word used for the synagogue, shul, is equivalent to “school.”
Five synagogues are scattered through the town, the core of social and intellectual life. Near the center is the sturdy red brick Big Shul with its matching mikvah next door, along with the Hassidic Shul, and two small ones for workers in the market area—the Market Shul and the humble Shoemakers Shul. On the north side is the New Market Shul. Outdoor weddings, preferable under Jewish law, are held in a space near the main square. On the appropriately named Bathing Street is another mikvah. Dolhinov is, after all, a respectably large place, not just a one-mikvah town.
Young boys still learn in tiny heders, literally rooms. As they got older, many go to the Tarbut school, where they sit in classrooms with girls. The dedicated yeshiva students go onto more senior courses, like the one conducted by the respected melamed Eidel Dokshitski, whose tenure would be fatally interrupted by the Germans. Yeshiva students, aged 18 to 22, meet in the synagogue, where they also sleep. On a less elevated plane, the synagogue is not well heated and there is a scramble for the benches closest to the stove. At least once, a fistfight broke out over the best places. They have “dining nights” with families, for whom it is an honor to host them. The students are expected to impart some Torah wisdom in exchange for the food.
The yeshiva’s head was Rabbi Shmaryahu Smorgonski, a highly regarded scholar. Two of his students, became well-known leaders of Orthodoxy in America, the two cousins Yakov Kamenetsky, born in 1891, and Yakov Halevi Ruderman, born ten years later. Kamenetsky would become known as the Dolhinov ilui, the genius from Dolhinov. His grandfather had been a wealthy timber merchant who also owned a flour mill but lost everything when Czarist anti-Jewish laws were tightened in the 1880s. The family moved to Dolhinov when Kamenetsky was a baby. There, he found his world at Smorgonski’s yeshiva which had about 100 students at the time. His mother packed an oil lamp so he could study late into the night.
After the dawn prayer at synagogue, laborers or those heading out to villages that day, rushed off while shopkeepers or merchants who had a more leisurely morning stayed to study a little Talmud, Mishnah, or Psalms, depending on personal interests and ability. Then the room was turned over to the yeshiva students, who enjoyed the luxury of spending the whole day with the holy books.
Later, those who’d finished their work participated in Talmud and Mishnah study groups taught by knowledgeable but otherwise average people. The less educated might study psalms, chanting and explicating them to each other. Then there were all the social aid groups and burial society. Now there were also Zionist and Bundist political groups which functioned as youth clubs. People worked for a living but their avocation was learning and their entertainment arguing.
Outside of listening to good preaching and study, there were life’s simple pleasures. Families gathered to drink black tea in tall glasses, sweetened with homemade cherry jam, made in a big pot boiling away on the stove. Dolhinov was good orchard country. The cherries—a prized child’s job is to remove the seeds–and apples are succulent.
In the summer, barrels of salted herring, cucumbers, and anything else that could be pickled was prepared for winter and laid down in the cool basement. Cabbages, salted and sliced, made fresh sauerkraut. All the usual chores of home had to be performed, including the endless battle against the mud and dust which were always invading homes. Against this enemy, most people wore pants legs tucked into boots.
Then there’s the joy of swimming in the summer; skating or sledding in the winter. Yet while the river was a playground in warm weather, in winter the ice along the banks made it dangerous to the unwary who might fall over the edge onto the frozen stream.
Family was everything, but this did not mean people were isolated in a nuclear family unit. Everyone had close relatives in many towns. For centuries, people—especially women—married and moved to places where they already had family connections. Thus, everyone knew cousins in half a dozen or more different places, while names like Rubin, Alperovitz, Kuzinitz, Freedman, and Sosensky, were found throughout the area.
Children were often sent to live with relatives elsewhere for a while. For example, worried about her poor appetite, Batia Sosensky’s parents sent her to Myadel, considered the region’s most naturally beautiful town, to stay with relatives in hope she’d eat more there. When Batya’s mother went to buy fabric in Vilna, she stayed with cousins. The family frequently visited to relatives in different towns. Every family was part of a regional network. Relatives in America kept in touch with letters and sent money.
Within each town, relatives often lived just a few doors apart. For example, there was just one house—that of the Katzovitzs—between that of Batya’s family and her mother’s sister. My grandfather’s sister lived next door to my grandmother’s uncle. As adults, my grandmother’s brother lived a few feet from his sister.
While the outside world is finding its way into Dolhinov, there is still a great deal of separation from it. There’s no local newspaper, though ones from Vilna are available by subscription; few people have radios or telephones. To make a call requires an appointment at the post office. Knowing the news can’t be taken for granted, including what that new leader in Germany is saying.
This being a small town, of course, everyone knows everyone, tradesmen and peasants have done business with each other all their adult lives. Everyone has their opinion on who’s the best at their trade, where quality is best, and prices lowest. Ready-made clothes are still rare so most people buy cloth, then take it to the tailor of their choice to turn it into clothing. At the counter they look at sample books—to see what’s fashionable in Warsaw, or do they already talk of Paris?—and make their orders.
Thursday was market day. Merchants bought wholesale; townspeople got what they needed. Carts clatter in over the rough paving stones, laden with eggs, chicken, and vegetables. Grain is taken to the mill. Peasants tie up their horses at the market square. The wives open their market stalls; the men visited Jewish shops, critically comparing prices.
What did they buy? Everything they couldn’t grow or make at home but wouldn’t do without: salted herring from barrels for a little variety at meals; kerosene for lamps; oil for frying food; spun flax , needles, buttons, and thread for making homespun clothes, along with cloth for the professional tailors to sew up something better; cheap tobacco, snuff, and pipes, since smoking was one of the few peasant pleasures; boots and shoes, a Dolhinov specialty.
My grandfather was a blacksmith, though he bore no resemblance to the stereotyped hulking, confident man of that trade, being rather small and mournful. He liked the challenge of making keys but horseshoes were probably one of his specialties. My two great uncles were horse traders, the auto dealers of their day. Much of their work was done on market day. They had wagons to travel the countryside, looking for horses to buy, chatting up the peasants in Byelorussian, opening equine jaws to inspect their health, perhaps taking a serious prospect for a test trot.
Every Thursday morning they woke expectantly. Did they employ a peasant to groom the horses, tie their tails nicely, or do it themselves? Had they a stock of funny tales and stories of adventure, true or fables, to warm up their customers? Did one of them mount expertly, putting the horse through its paces, galloping impressively down the street, exaggerating its virtues?
Then came the tough bargaining: two men looking in each other’s eyes and calculating precisely how low to offer; how high to demand. Living by their wits, they had to act crudely at times to get along with customers. Did such behavior become part of their rough character or like a garment they put on for working hours, sealing that part of themselves off from family and worship.
Everyone knows acquired traits cannot be transmitted unless, of course, taught. Still, in later life my father—American-born as he was—suddenly acquired an otherwise unaccountable fascination for horses, perhaps derived from stories about these relatives I never heard or passages read aloud from letters long-vanished.
There’s also an irony here of which we should be well aware. We’re proud of our degrees, our accomplishments. Yet the loss of ability to work metal, or judge a horse, or read a page of Talmud is the disappearance of skills that also produced virtues. There should be no room for snobbishness. Given our devolution in so many respects, one should never be too proud of advances in other areas, nor feel scorn for those who do the most basic types of labor, or for those, on whose shoulders we stand, who performed those feats every day for long decades.
My ancestors on my mother’s side, albeit in the Austrian-ruled part of partitioned Poland were, like a few of the Dolhinov Jews, innkeepers. Even if he didn’t buy a horse as an excuse, at the end the peasant stopped off at the inn to down some, at times too much, vodka, along with some bread and herring. Life was hard, requiring an artificially induced cloud of euphoria from cheap vodka to get through the next week. Sober or drunk, as night fell they had to manage the horses all the way back home. Or perhaps the horse did the navigating to the accompaniment of somewhat unsteady voices raised loud in song.
Given all that potential for dispute, only twice in a century of Thursdays had there been serious ethnic violence in the town. Such is an astonishing record attesting to the social structure’s stability.
Of course, everyone knows each other on a first-name basis, which helps keep things friendly. Yet other than business dealings and neighborhood small-talk, Jews have little contact with the minority Christian population. Lack of contact doesn’t signal hostility but merely each group’s desire to be apart, to follow its own customs and interests.
Dolhinov is a multicultural society—that obsessive buzzword of today—but it was not a cultural cafeteria where people who lacked any identity of their own patronized those who had one. The underlying philosophy can be summarized as: you have your culture. I have mine. Let’s keep it that way, with mutual respect. Religion and ethnicity, language and nation are all one and indivisible. A Pole is a Catholic of Polish descent who speaks Polish; a Jew is a Jew of Jewish descent who speaks Yiddish; a White Russian is Russian Orthodox and of White Russian descent who speaks Russian. There’s no fourth option.
The Poles have their fine Catholic church and the Russians their elegant Russian Orthodox one. As always in life, no matter what the institution, much depends on the individual. It just so happens that the Catholic priest is friendly toward Jews, while the Russian Orthodox priest preaches inciteful, anti-Semitic sermons. Is this difference due to some profound historical reason? No it just happens to be the personality and view of the man holding that office at that time.
By the time the Russia of the czars fell, the kaiser’s army had come and gone for the first time, and the Soviet Union and Poland were born, my grandparents had left. But almost all their siblings remained. Chaya Doba Rubin was my grandfather Yakov Yeremayahu’s sister, younger by 16 years. Since he left Dolhinov for America in 1909 when she was just three, she had no memory of him. She married Aharon Perlmutter and they had a son, Haim, in 1930. Letters were exchanged; my grandparents, Yaakov and Chaya, sent money home regularly. But no one in my family who once crossed the wide ocean ever again saw anyone who didn’t.
The letters are gone, misplaced by people who no longer valued them, the distancing of generations from tear-stained keepsakes to distant indifferences, or lost in a fire on the American side; abandoned with everything else in 1942 on a day when the recipients’ dead bodies paved Dolhinov’s streets. If one takes the trouble to look very hard, though, there are two clues of that emotional bond, like fossils buried deep, waiting to be painstakingly excavated.
The first clue is this: thousands of miles away from Dolhinov, in Washington DC, Yaakov, now Jacob, was rushed to the hospital in late January 1933, for an appendicitis operation, infection set in, and he died, aged only 42. In his will, he left $100 a month—a princely sum for Dolhinov in those days—to his mother and sister. When she heard of the death of the brother she’d never really met, Chaya was pregnant and immediately decided to name her child after him. And so he became Yakov, and my little great uncle carried that until his death nine years later from a Nazi bullet, probably fired by a Latvian or Lithuanian voluntary executioner.
My grandmother, Chaya Grosbein, also left behind a sister, Rachel, as well as a brother, Shmuel. The two siblings must have been close personally as they lived only four doors away from each other in the north part of town. Both Shmuel and Rahel’s husband, Yirimayahu Dimenshtein, were horse dealers. Shmuel’s partner was married to a Rubin and still another Rubin family lived between them. They all knew how they were related, each other’s character, habits, appearance. I don’t.
In the Dolhinov Jewish cemetery stands the second clue, the handsome tombstone closest to the gate, a place of honor, is that of Chaya’s, Shmuel’s, and Rahel’s father, Pinhas Leib Grosbein, who died in 1926. It is unexpectedly elegant in comparison to all the others. That cost money and Pinhas Leib was not rich, nor were Rahel or Shmuel. Clearly, the marble was paid for by money that crossed the Atlantic. Sometimes, love and respect can be carved in stone.
The unspeaking but all-remembering earth remains where the mourners stood that day, though their footprints have long blown away. Still, who knows what molecules of them have been left behind, stray strands of DNA, from dead or mourners whose copies still travel the earth. Yet of all the members of Chaya Doba’s, Shmuel’s, and Rahel’s immediate families who no doubt stood there that day, not one would survive what was to come.
Even without expecting such a horrible denouement, the Jews of Dolhinov had good reason to dread the outside world. There were enough experiences bringing to life their fears: tax collectors, armies seizing unwilling recruits, soldiers chasing loot, some word or gesture that set off an avalanche ending in a pogrom, dangerous engagement in politics, or losing one’s faith and identity.
There were also stories of events transcending life’s normal bounds. Why should that surprise those for whom heaven was so close; space and time might be leaped in a single mental bound; ghosts seemed to walk, and demons to prowl. What could be supernatural if what was natural could be defined in such different ways? There were local stories told and accepted which proved that very point.
One was of the Jewish stranger who arrived in Dolhinov pursuing a dream in which is a missing son revealed his burial place. He was invited to into a home; shared the family’s dinner of homemade bread, pickled herring, boiled potatoes, and cream; and given a soft, feather bed for the night. The next day, after prayers, a group of Jews accompanied him up the road to Vilna. And sure enough, at the very place the father pointed out, they found the son’s shallow grave, from which they returned as mourners and interred him in the Jewish cemetery.
The lack of names and dates make one skeptical. But if you’ve ever had a similar experience—in my case a terrible nightmare of imminent death which, only later and with no prior warning whatsoever, coincided with the moment of my grandmother’s death thousands of miles away—such an story cannot be ruled out entirely.
Unfortunately, there can be even less doubt of the horrors purveyed by humans directly. And so it was told by Miriam, then 14 years old, that one Friday as she was outside hanging up just-washed clothes to be clean for the oncoming Sabbath, she saw two srong young Polish men seize her 16-year-old brother Yankel and tie him to a horse with long ropes.
“Stop, stop! What are you doing”? She shouted in Polish.
As she tried to stop them, one pushed her and she fell. The other said, “Your miserable son stole a chicken from our backyard.”
“I’ll pay you anything, just let him go,” she cried, begging and pleading.
“Keep quiet, you old Jew, or we will take your daughter, too. Go and ask the priest for a letter saying that he is not a Bolshevik and we will let him go.” He slapped the horse and it galloped off, dragging the screaming Yankel behind it.
Miriam and her mother ran into the town to the big Catholic church, a place Jews never went. At the door she cried in terror, “Mr. Priest, Mr. Priest, I need you.”
He came out wearing his long robe and skullcap, asking gently, “What is the matter?” Sobbing, she explained, and he replied, “Of course I will write the letter. I remember how your father sewed all my clothes and my father’s. Whenever I came for a fitting he would give me a nice biscuit to eat.”
She took the note and raced home, with sympathetic townspeople, both Jewish and Polish, following. When they arrived, both men and horse were gone. Only Yankel’s corpse remained. The screaming mother, beyond consolation, was taken away by shocked neighbors.
Not all terrors were man-made or supernatural. For Batya Sosensky, her happy childhood ended when her mother died in an epidemic in 1939. “My life stopped at that moment.”
Still, these were the worst conceivable disasters imaginable because they all took place on an individual level. It wasn’t that the community had been coddled or was naive. The people of Dolhinov had lived through four wars in eight years, occupied by five different armies—Russian, German, Byelorussian, Soviet, and Polish—yet the town was little damaged, few had been hurt, and nothing much had changed. Three completely distinct groups had lived together almost always at peace from a time before the Protestant religion existed, Europeans lived in North America, or William Shakespeare was born.
Who could imagine their worst nightmares multiplied by a million, a situation in which every resident of the town, Catholic or Jewish, would either be killed, exiled, or flee for their lives never to return? The Jews of Dolhinov knew they were a people, not just a religious group. Even as they might hotly debate their future, they certainly expected to have one that would be a common future.
After all, to endure had always meant to survive. That was the lesson history had taught them, Jews, Byelorussians, and Poles alike. In passivity lay safety, the Jews had understood, the best way to avoid dangerous conflict was to stay out of the world of the majority. Yet traditional society remained remarkably intact. Even when modernity intruded it was successfully reinterpreted in the context of those communities.
Today, we think ourselves so secure and society so fail-safe as to recognize no boundaries. Guidelines of ten thousand years are abandoned with indifference, tremendous risks are taken without even realizing fate has been tempted. No value is sacred, no divine or social restriction worth respecting. Yet in our security we stumble.
“Tradition,” says Woody Allen, “is the illusion of permanence.” And what happens if one abandons even that illusion, one can ask a man who chose to have no offspring as the ultimate rejection of continuity. If permanence is an illusion, transience is even more so.
For the Jews of Dolhinov, tradition was no illusion of permanence but the preservation of it. Only when the community ceased to be—due to outside, not internal forces—could anyone believe such things. Inside the bubble—if bubble it was, then the walls were made of spiritual steel–it seemed immortal, though its citizens were so very much all too far from being so.