(photo credit: Reuters)
Having just published a book, Children of Dolhinov, on my paternal grandparents’
town, Dolhinov, Poland (now Belarus), I want to share with you some of the
things that brought about that project and the ways it changed me.
at the end how to access the full text online for free.) When I was about 10
years old (a halfcentury ago), our class was given one of those exercises,
typical even in those days, of making a presentation about our genealogical
“roots.” It made a deep impression on me and was one of the two things
motivating a multi-year effort to find out about my own “pre-history.”
the time, I began my search with only two words: Poland and 1908 (the year of my
grandparents’ arrival in America). That was it. My parents gave me no names of
people or places and I literally had no relatives.
But, my parents said,
we hadn’t lost anyone in the Holocaust. From what I’ve heard, that isn’t an
atypical pattern among American Jews.
A second experience that ultimately
led to this effort happened in the Paris flea market in 1963, a trip that was my
bar mitzvah present. At one of the stalls, a woman who saw me gasped and started
crying. She explained that I looked just like the son she had lost 20 years
She held up an old photograph. She was right.
historian, I decided years later that it was ridiculous for me not to have
researched my own history. And given the massive amount of help available on the
Internet now – especially Jewishgen and Ancestory.com – what was unimaginable a
short time ago is now achievable. And so unrolled the story of
I WANT to stress that this isn’t just a book about the
Holocaust – which takes up a relatively small, albeit emotionally intense part
of the book – but rather about the far longer and more complex history of Jews
in eastern Europe. But it is also two other things: an attempt to explain to
people how events that took place before they were born formed them, and how a
small town interrelated with far grander events and trends in world
It is hard to convey the people, stories and happenings that
populate this book. I had the thrill of meeting remarkable people, the unequaled
experience of being “reunited” with distant relatives after a century, the
insights into my own character and life as being shaped by individuals I had
never heard of and events I never knew about.
Such a project is also
something of an adventure and a detective story, and took me to six countries,
including to Dolhinov itself, where I had the moving experience of cleaning my
Many of the things I experienced I had
already “known” about from books. But such knowledge is shallow compared to
learning and seeing on a personal basis. For example, one thing I learned
firsthand was the tremendous love and mental involvement of those shtetl Jews
with the Land of Israel in their art, religion and education (both religious and
Another was the complex relationship between the Jews and
their neighbors as, on the very same day, some of the latter saved Jewish
townspeople and others turned them over to the Nazis, not only due to hatred but
to a desire to loot their possessions.
Then, too, there was the
profoundly important role of the individual in history.
My book was only
possible because a Soviet commissar, a tremendously decent man who had Jewish
friends from before the German invasion, saved hundreds of lives both on his own
and, at tremendous personal risk, with his partisan group; because three Polish
policemen let two dozen Jews escape, as their comrades machine-gunned others a
few blocks away; and because of the courage of Jews who became partisans or
performed selfless deeds.
As I said, though, the Jewish history of the
period was comprised of far more than the Holocaust. It was amazing to see a
town whose Jewish community had almost all been involved in some sort of adult
education, from discussing psalms to studying Talmud.
And while Dolhinov
was never a secular town – the main act of rebellion prior to the 1930s was
maybe sneaking a cigarette on Shabbat – the creation of a Polish-funded, Zionist
yet Yiddish-speaking school continued that tradition of exalting
And it was a place where the community’s basic unity was so
tremendous that the local branch of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth
movement was completely composed of fully Orthodox Jews.
I’m sorry if
space constraints here force me to speak in images that might already be all too
familiar to you. The breadth of the book enables the telling of individual
stories, which is what this is all about. If I had to condense all this down to
a single sentence, it would be what I told the contemporary residents of
Dolhinov – with no Jews left after a 400-year-long stay – while standing in the
old Jewish graveyard.
But the point applied to them as well: “If we don’t
respect those who came before us, and who made our existence possible, how can
we expect anyone to respect us?” The writer is the director of the Global
Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center www.gloria-center.org