The Region: ‘Children of Dolhinov’

Being a historian, I decided that it was ridiculous for me not to have researched my own history.

Dolhinov370 (photo credit: Reuters)
(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.
(See 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.”
At 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 earlier.
She held up an old photograph. She was right.
Being a 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 – what was unimaginable a short time ago is now achievable. And so unrolled the story of Dolhinov.
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 history.
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 great-grandfather’s tombstone.
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 later secular).
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 study.
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