The Region: One day in my family’s Polish town

Every Holocaust Remembrance Day I try to write something from my family’s history as an illustration of wider themes.

Dolhinov, Poland 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Barry Rubin)
Dolhinov, Poland 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Barry Rubin)
Every Holocaust Remembrance Day I try to write something from my family’s history as an illustration of wider themes. The material below, events that happened almost 70 years ago to the day, is from my manuscript, Children of Dolhinov.
Before dawn on Monday, March 28, 1942, German SS and Einsatzgruppe B units accompanied by a Latvian police detachment boarded a convoy of vehicles.
Before dawn, they surrounded the town of Dolhinov, Poland.
The town awoke to stamping boots, barked commands, the wails of children, and the sobs of women.
The Kazovitz family hid, but David, the baby, was crying and his mother feared the noise would give away the hiding place. So she ran to a Christian neighbor, handed over her fur coat and promised that if the woman would conceal her she’d bring a gold watch afterward. The woman refused; the Germans killed the mother and baby.
Meanwhile, the rest of the family hid undisturbed. When night fell and the Germans left, Yankel Furman, stepfather of the Kazovitz family, returned, knocked on the door and let them out. They crawled out from the basement to find that few of their friends remained alive. Later, the Christian woman showed up at the Kazovitz’s house claiming she had helped and demanding the watch. A single misjudgment about a person’s character could cost your life.
Chana Brunstein might have had the easiest time that day. She was cooking when a German soldier entered. He should have forced her out to line up with the other Jews but instead – Humane? Hungry? Lazy? – he merely asked her for some eggs and left. Esfira Dimenshtein and her family were saved because a friendly Polish policeman named Maslovsky had warned them the Germans were coming the next day.
They made a big hole in their grandmother’s barn and stayed there until it was all over.
While most of the family hid in a tunnel, 82-year-old Rhoda Kaplan could take no more. Her son Gendel thought his status as a craftsman might protect her. She stayed seated in the parlor. When the police entered, Gendel handed them his document and said that as a relative his mother was also protected. They returned the document, nodded in agreement, then shot her dead in front of him.
One woman, driven mad by fear, ran from her shelter and was caught by the Germans.
They promised that if she showed them her family’s hideout they would let the Jews there go free. Out of her mind, she did so. The Germans promptly murdered her entire family then killed her, too.
Some Poles turned in their neighbors, looting their possessions; others risked their lives to help. Still others locked themselves in their homes, trembling for their own fate and thinking, as one Polish survivor told me, “that we might be next.”
Surrounded by armed police, the Jews who had been caught were marched down the street to the market square, where many had worked. They were ordered to sit and wait. Some fell prostrate onto the ground and wept. Many prayed. Most hoped it would just be some re-registration, minor humiliation, or even the execution of a small number who would be selected from the group.
A few ran for it, and were shot down.
Two men made a break for it and got pretty far. A submachine gun opened up on them; they fell down. But, when the shooting stopped, one got up and took off again. Police fire brought him down, too.
None of those who ran escaped.
Gdalia Levin whispered to Boris Kozinitz, “Take a good look at the trees and the houses; you shall not see them again. These will stay after we are gone. The world will keep on existing but many Jews will not be in it.”
One man, however, was given a choice. A German officer pulled aside Lipkind, a member of the Jewish council, and told him, “You, as an elder must see all your community being killed and we will kill you last.”
In response, Lipkind charged at a Polish policeman named Komolka, hit him in the face and then went back to his place among the others. The officer asked Komolka if he wanted Lipkind punished. The policeman replied, “No, there’s no need, he’ll be shot soon anyway.”
Esther Dokshitsky was among those marched to the square. She saw that a mother was holding a screaming baby. One of the Germans grabbed the baby and said, “We’re not going to waste a bullet on this one,” and smashed its head onto an electrical pole, then dropped the dead child on the ground.
The German commander read the names of men, technicians and professionals, who they still needed. Esther’s father and uncle were on the list. Since his own two daughters and wife were safely in hiding, the uncle grabbed his sister and her two children, claiming them as his. A policeman escorted them away as their own father watched them, grateful no doubt that although he would die that day they would not. Then the soldiers and police opened up with rifles and machine guns and mowed down hundreds of people.
They fell in place. Others were forced into two warehouses on which gasoline was poured and then set alight. Having been used so long to store hay the buildings went up fast.
Anyone trying to escape was machinegunned.
The screams of those burned were terrible, the cries of those who tried to escape were cut short by the bullets. At 6 p.m. it was quitting time, and the murders stopped. Any Jew caught after that was left completely alone, as if the Germans were indifferent to their continued existence.
One of the few survivors was Ringa, a first-grade teacher at the Zionist school who, along with her own four-year-old son, was the last one living in her family.
When she found Esther, one of her students, also still alive, she was astonished.
She hugged and kissed Esther, and with tears in her eyes, said to her: “Remember how I taught you about Israel. But we didn’t have the opportunity to go there.” A few days later, she and her little boy were murdered, too.
Others, however, did make it to Israel eventually, where they and their descendants would get to be called Nazis and oppressors by the descendants of those who had murdered and oppressed them or who had stood by and done nothing.
The writer’s new book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. He is director of global research in the International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at PJM and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.