Why Remember Dokshitsy?

Why Remember Dokshitsy? by Eva Fogelman, PhD
delivered at the Dokshitsy Diaspora Reunion, Warwick, RI August, 2010

 The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy, Inc., a Massachusetts non-profit organization, was established to preserve the memory of the Jewish residents of Dokshitsy, Parafianov, and nearby villages in Belarus. The organization was created in 2006  when  the Dokshitsy District in Belarus sought help to preserve the Jewish cemetery which had been destroyed in 1965. Learn more at our home page.


            Fun Vanen Kumt a Yid? Where does a Jew come from?  This was the standard greeting of the Jew who arrived in the New Land.  To American Jews of third and fourth generation Eastern Europe, it is one big mishmash. Minsk? Pinsk? It is all the same.  Most American Jews conflate Eastern Europe into one romanticized vision of the shtetl and of the Jewish city.

            Nothing could be further from the truth.  Each community had its own distinct culture, heritage, language, ethnography, Halakhic religious tradition – in a word, its own identity.  But instead of knowing the vibrant Jewish life that was destroyed, we have ghost towns full of ghost stories.

Ghost stories are all about what happens when people and places are forgotten.  Ghosts come back to haunt the living because they want to be remembered, and they want to remind the living why and how they died, and sometimes to punish the living for causing their deaths.

             All Jewish towns in Eastern and Central Europe are ghost towns— they suffer from absence, they have all been forgotten.  The living always have an obligation to the Jewish dead to remember how these towns became so empty of Jewish life, and, if possible, to restore some life to those towns, or, at least, to remember them.

    For those of us who weren’t there, Fiddler on the Roof was our first introduction to what the shtetl must have been like. Let me tell you a story about Joseph. Joseph is thrilled to be taking Bracha, his  ninety-five year old mother to see the hit show, Fiddler on the Roof. He’s excited not only because Bracha hasn’t seen it before, but also because she came to America in the late 1930s from one of the many Anatevka-like Russian shtetls.

    Not only does Joseph book the most expensive seats in the theatre, but he also buys Bracha some smart new clothes to wear. And on the night of the show, he even orders a stretch limo to take them there and back. He wants it to be a memorable evening and doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.

    On the night of the show, they arrive in style, take their seats and watch the performance. And as soon as the final curtain comes down, Joseph asks Bracha, "Well Mom, what did you think of the show? Be honest. Did it bring back any memories for you?" Bracha sits there for a while, then turns to Joseph and gives both a nod and a classic JMS (Jewish Mother Shrug). "Yes bubbeleh, it did," she replies, "but I really don't remember that much singing."

    Broadway will not be writing our history.  The historian Sam Kassow, who wrote Who Will Write Our History: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, said that Ringelblum believed that Jews “needed NOT MYTH BUT HISTORY.” Others argued that Jews don’t need history but a covenantal memory.[1] In the Warsaw ghetto Ringelblum was on a mission to get people in the ghetto to write “from inside the event” in order for the writing of history not to be “skewed by the distorting lens of retrospective recollection and selective memory.”[2] This writing of Jewish history was important to Ringelblum because he believed that the suffering of the Jewish people was a “universal story and not just a Jewish one.  And evil, no matter how great, could not be placed outside of history.  …Jews were part of universal history, not outside of it. The archive not only recorded crimes; it was also part of the struggle for a better future.”[3]  Ringelblum was convinced that a better world will arise out of the rubble of Europe because “historical knowledge and awareness would arm the struggle for a better world.”[4] Job in the Bible also stresses that we learn from our ancestors.  He said:

For inquire, I pray thee, of the former generation,
And apply thyself to that which their fathers
            Have searched out—
For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing,
Because our days upon earth are a shadow—
Shall not they teach thee, and tell thee,
And utter words out of their heart?[5]

    The generation that left Dokshitsy, and other shtetls and cities from Eastern Europe, whether at the turn of the century or before or after liberation, wanted to forget after it was decimated. There was almost a collective desire consciously or unconsciously, “purposely or passively, out of rebellion, indifference, or indolence, or as the result of some disruptive historical catastrophe” not to transmit what they knew from the past to posterity.[6]

    In my own family, in 1907 my grandfather Beryl Fagelman brought his younger sister Gitta along with him on the ship to America, leaving behind his wife and two year old daughter.  He worked in a lumber yard across the street from Yale University and saved enough money to bring his wife and daughter to the States.  In order for his wife to recognize him at the port, he sent his picture. His father-in-law, a respected rabbi and head of a yeshiva in Dolinow forbade his daughter to come to America and resume her life with a man who lost his religious compass.  My grandmother was told to either ask her husband for a divorce or have him return to Dokshitsy.  In 1912 Beryl returned to Dokshitsy, leaving behind his sister who worked as a seamstress in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and lived in an East Side boarding house where she met and married Charles Kazin that same year.  In 1915 their son Alfred Kazin was born followed by Pearl Kazin Bell, both of whom became major literary critics.  Alfred’s daughter Kate remembers that her father was always looking for Dokshitsy on a map and could never find it.  Hearing the name would make her laugh.  Neither knew much about their roots.  The first generation and second generation were devoted to forgetting.  Gitta died before the zeitgeist of curiosity became prevalent in the third generation, which indeed wanted to connect to their roots.

    In 1912, Beryl Fagelman returned to Dokshitsy, opened up a general goods store with an added bonus of a tobacco license, and had four more children.  The family suffered through World War I and when Poland took over the area in 1920, my grandmother had a difficult time because she did not know Polish.  Studies in school shifted from Russian to Polish.  Dokshitsy did not have a high-school and the children’s education was curtailed.  My grandfather died in 1925, leaving behind five children.  My grandmother was a meek, pious, charitable woman who had limited strength, but no business acumen. Her oldest daughter worked in the store, my grandmother worked as a seamstress, the other two girls helped her and my dad, who was twelve years old was sent to live with an aunt in Vilna, and work in her family’s bakery in order to send money home. In addition, my father also studied in the Slobodka Yeshiva.

    My aunts and uncle were very disillusioned with God when their father died of pneumonia at such a young age.  They rejected religion, fought with their mother and joined Zionists groups, Hachalutz and Shomer Hatzair.  My father in those days was more of a Yiddishist and communist.  My aunt Sara was given an affidavit to go to Palestine in 1930.  After five years she got emigration papers for the rest of the family except my dad who was already conscripted into the Polish army.  My father was separated from his family yet again, and after the Germans invaded, and the Polish army disbanded, he escaped to live with his aunt and uncle in Ilya, Belarus.

    My aunt Malka, who is 95 years old and sharp as can be, was part of the generation that wanted to forget.  Dokshitsy for her holds very bad memories of loss, poverty, limited opportunity for education, and rebelling against her mother’s religious beliefs.  The only salvation was getting together with friends from Shomer Hatzair Friday evening and Saturday during the day.

    I, who have been consumed professionally with helping others remember their past, helping people reconnect with what has been lost, finding positive ways to remember the dead and bridging the gap between present and past, find myself like the shoemaker without shoes.  When I had an opportunity to ask about Dokshitsy, I was more concerned with the years of persecution.  I train other professionals to ask about the life before the German invasion, and I stress that everyone had a life before the mass killings and ghettos and concentrations camps and partisans.  What was the negligence on my part not to engage my father and other family members to tell me more about Dokshitsy?

    Like I said earlier, one shtetl is like another.  I thought I knew it from having seen Fiddler on the Roof.  My dad left when he was twelve so it was not as important to him as his life after in Vilna, the war years and the post-liberation years.   My dad had no interest in ever going back there.  He said there was nothing left of the Jewish life that existed before the Holocaust.  Most of the houses were burned down so I probably would not even be able to see where he lived.

    The vibrant Jewish life of 3,000 Jews, which was 49% of the shtetl, was decimated.  What will I see besides a ghost town?  My grandfather’s grave is probably not there because most of the Jewish cemetery was also destroyed.

    And now, a century later there is an urgency to write an authentic history, and not let the ghosts take over.  But history needs memory and the witnesses are almost all gone.  So we rely on the few that are alive and scavenge through documents of those who have left a few words or images here and there.  We gather at a reunion such as this to piece together the tidbits we are each accumulating to make an authentic whole.

    The historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi says in his book Zakhor: Jewish History & Jewish Memory:

For if it is knowledge of the past that you seek, who is to decide a priori which fact is not potentially valuable? [What historian hasn’t found an obscure detail that she needed to pursue a larger topic?] For the historian God, indeed, dwells in the details, though memory protests that the details have become gods.[7]

    Jewish tradition is very much against forgetting.  Yerushalmi goes so far as to say that forgetting is the “cardinal sin from which all others will flow.” [8] This is emphasized in the eighth chapter in Deuteronomy:

Beware lest you forget the Lord your God so that you do not keep His commandments and judgments and ordinances…lest you lift up your hearts and forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage….And it shall come to pass if you indeed forget the Lord your God… I bear witness against you this day that you shall utterly perish. (Deut. 8:11, 14, 19).

    Yerushalmi argues that peoples or groups “can only forget the present not the past.  That is to say, the individuals who compromise the group can forget events that occurred within their own lifetime, they are incapable of forgetting the past that preceded them, in the sense that the individual human being forgets earlier stages in his own life history.  When we say that a people ‘remembers’ we are really saying that a past has been accepted as meaningful.  Conversely, a people ‘forgets’ when the generation that now possesses the past does not convey it to the next, or when the latter rejects what it receives and does not pass it onward, which is to say the same thing.  The break in transmission can occur abruptly or by a process of erosion.  But the principle remains.  A people can never ‘forget’ what it has never received in the first place.”[9]

    Without inquiring about the past, the mimetic tradition of Judaism, which implies, my mother carried out traditions which her mother did, and her mother mimicked what her mother did, will be lost.  In reading parts in the Yizkor book of Dokshitsy certain elements of this shtetl came alive for me.  The Tarbut Ivri school was of utmost importance along with the Zionist youth movement groups.  While it may not be specific just to Dokshitsy, one can feel a Jewish holiday walking in the streets of Dokshitsy.  The challah is breaded in a ladder so that our prayers would go to heaven, Farfelekh were eaten for Rosh Hashana to symbolize the cyclical nature of the year.  Fruits from Israel were used for beginning of the New Year – watermelon, dates or grapes.

    We in the post-Holocaust generations are very vulnerable to falling into a trap of defining our Jewishness through a lachrymose lens – a Jewish identity based on the persecution of the Jews from one generation to another. The current effort to reconstruct our Jewish past begins at a time that witnesses a sharp break in the continuity of Jewish living and hence also an ever-growing decay of Jewish group memory. Yerushalmi suggests that history and not a sacred Jewish text is the arbiter of Judaism.[10]

    By remembering the vibrant life that existed in Dokshitsy and its surrounding shtetls and cities we will be prone to identify with a life-affirming Jewish culture and tradition.  By identifying with the vitality of Jewish life that permeated in Dokshitsy, we increase the likelihood that future generations will want to embrace their heritage rather than escape it, for fear of annihilation, yet again.

    Just imagine how many more Jews in the diaspora would be educated knowledgeable Jews, had they re-created more of the Tarbut Ivrit school that thrived in Dokshitsy?  How many more people sitting in this room would know Hebrew, and be able to enjoy the rich text based tradition which is a Jewish trademark? And how many more people whose families were Yiddishists would be able to read Shalom Aleichem and Y.L. Peretz in the original Yiddish?

    By neglecting our Dokshitsy ancestry all together, by ignoring where we came from, we also dishonor those who deserve our recognition for keeping the Jewish flame alive in the chain of a two thousand year history, and I might add, despite all odds.

    And how can we even dare to want to forget those Dokshitzers in our families who were murdered by the Germans or who so valiantly resisted with so little ammunition?  After the Germans invaded, they murdered a rabbi and twenty-two men.  Passover, Lag BaOmer, Shavuot were never the same in this shtetl again. The Germans chose to carry out their Aktions on each of these holidays.

    I have given you very lofty ideas of why we should remember.  For the sake of history, to fill up ghosts towns with authentic history rather than myths, to learn from the past not to repeat previous evils so that the present will be a better world, not to forget the dead and what was important in their lives, and to learn about the vibrant Jewish life that had existed.  All these motivations are a step removed from a more personal reason for remembering.

    Many of us sitting in this room have done just fine without remembering the past.  I know, this flies in the face of Judaism and common wisdom, but to be honest, wanting to remember Dokshitsy is a recent phenomenon.

    So why are we here?

  • We are here because we WANT to know, not because we need to know.
  • How can knowing Dokshitsy enrich our lives?
  • How can it shed light on who our family was?
  • How did this specific town shape our ancestors and how did it shape us, unwittingly?
  • Do we pronounce certain Yiddish words a certain way?
  • Do we have a custom that only a Landsmann would understand?
  • Did many of us become Zionists and feel or feel that we had to choose between religion – Tradition! – and Zionism?
        If we were to look into the past, we each might find that certain long-held assumptions that we got from our parents, and our parents got from their parents, all originated in this tiny shtetl, a long way from America’s shores, and even though, the shtetl is long gone, we carry it within us and it’s evidenced in the way we see the world.  My aunts who emigrated to Israel were ardent Zionists and very secular and anti-religious.  And yet, every Friday night and Saturday at lunch, a festive Shabbat meal was served and the family gathered. Growing up in a household with a religious mother this is how they reconciled the differences in the family. The vibrant Zionist movements in Dokshitsy gave my aunts and uncle a way to be Jewish when they stopped believing in God because their father was taken away from them at such a young age. My father lost his faith in God after witnessing the massacre of 1,000 Jews of Illya on Purim, 1942.  He survived the war by  hiding and later fighting with the partisans in Belarus.  He too was able to embrace his Jewishness by joining his siblings and mother in Israel after liberation.

    I am named after Leybele, my father’s brother, who was killed fighting to capture Jerusalem in Israel’s war of independence.

    The shtetl has been passed down from generation to generation, but probably invisibly, silently, without understanding that it was this particular town that you never knew that was still influencing you today.  We are all products of our past. The past is our collective unconscious. We are not aware of it but it is there nonetheless. When we bring the past into our present, we can be more in control of choices we make.

    Our past is not an illness that needs to be diagnosed. It is not a condition that requires therapy. So there goes my livelihood. But it is integral to every one of us. When you become aware that there is a whole world that existed before you and you are very much a part of it, a new consciousness and way of being in the world sets in. And finally, I think it is always important to say that as individual as each shtetl was, it ultimately saw itself as part of Klal Israel, and we cherish and celebrate what made our ancestors and us who we are, even as we embrace being a part of the bigger Jewish world.

    Civilizations come and go. Of all the peoples who are mentioned in the Bible, only the Jews remain as a distinct people, more than 5,000 years later because we transmit our history to the next generation. Even a tiny shtetl such as Dokshitsy with so few people is part of that transmission. Now that we have found each other thanks to the efforts of Joel Alpert and Aaron Ginsburg, we have an opportunity to continue to create a virtual Dokshitsy. The Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv is redoing its lost communities exhibition and we need to be present there. Yad Vashem is collecting names of Jews murdered in the Shoah and each of us needs to add to the testimonial pages of this history. Our Yizkor book needs more inserts.

    History is created in the details.

    And so, the next time someone asks Fun Vanen Kumt a Yid? we will not only be able to find it on a map, but we will enrich the person with the vibrant Jewish life that existed. And hence, there won’t be room for the ghost stories to take over.

[1]Kassow, S. (2007). Who Will Write Our History: Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 11-12.

[2]Ibid. 13.Ibid. 13.

[3]Ibid. 7-8.

[4]Ibid. 8.Ibid. 8.

[5]Margolis, M.”The Holy Scriptures according to the Masoreitc Text” Jewish Publication Society of America,1917. Job 8:8-10

[6]Yerushalmi, Y. H. (1983). Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 109.

[7]Ibid. 115.

[8]ibid, 108.

[9]Ibid. 108-109.

[10]Ibid. 86.