Dokshitsy Diaspora Reunion

By Rob Benjamin

A shorter version of this story was published in the Rhode Island Jewish Voice and Herald

Roots reunions bring together people who trace their origins to the same town, the same ethnic group, even the same family. On the weekend of August 22, 2010, fifty-seven people gathered for the Dokshitsy Diaspora Reunion at the Radisson Hotel in Warwick, RI. All the attendees traced their family origins to Dokshitsy, a “shtetl”, or small town with a largely Jewish population, and neighboring towns in what is now Belarus. The Reunion brought together Dokshitsy descendants from across the United States, and connected them with others in Israel and South Africa. Attendees came from Los Angeles, St. Louis, Detroit, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Reunion was organized by Aaron Ginsburg of Natick, MA, President of The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy, who had previously organized a successful international effort to help the local government of Dokshitsy restore and re-dedicate the town’s all-but-destroyed Jewish cemetery. Mr. Ginsburg covered the turbulent geographical background of Dokshitsy, which had been ruled by four different countries since the 18th Century. Dr. Rochelle Ruthchild, a professor of Russian History, covered the historical, cultural and economic background of the Jewish communities that dotted the western possessions of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.

Among those present were broadcast journalist Bonnie Erbe, whose grandparents were from Dokshitsy and nearby Parfianova, and Joel Alpert, who traces his roots to Karolina, a small village near Begoml. Like many nearby villages and towns “just down the road”, Begoml was part of the extended local Jewish community that included Dokshitsy. Joel created a website about Dokshitsy, and arranged for the English translation of the Dokshitsy-Parafianova Yizkor (Memory) Book to be posted online. Hundreds of Yizkor books, written by Holocaust survivors and other descendants, were published after WWII and describe a way of life which ended so suddenly.

A Jewish roots reunion with an Eastern European town as its connecting thread is different from other hometown roots reunions. Descendants of Irish families from Cork can gather in a Cork that is essentially the same town, with many of the same families and recognizable communal culture that their ancestors had left. The same is true for Italian-Americans descended from Pisa, Norwegian-Americans descended from Oslo, Mexican-Americans descended from Oaxaca.

Unlike these towns, still filled with Italians, Irish, Mexicans, Dokshitsy’s Jewish population is gone, vanished during three dark days in 1942. Like their fellow Jews in the western part of the Soviet Union, most of Dokshitsy’s Jews, almost 3000 people, were murdered by German troops and their local collaborators. The shtetl disappeared into a mass grave. The few survivors left, never to return.

Jews had lived in Dokshitsy at least since the 17th century, and until 1942, about 50% of Dokshitsy’s residents were Jews. From around 1881 until the beginning of World War Two, many Dokshitsy Jews had left in search of better lives. Some went to Western Europe, Australia, South Africa, and other parts of the Soviet Union. Some went to Israel.

By far, the United States was the new homeland of choice for the Jews of Dokshitsy. It was those Dokshitsers whose descendants came together. Historian Marvin Kabakoff described how Dokshitsers collected in specific communities in the United States such as Newport, RI, Sheboygan, WI, and others.

Many who emigrated left more than a town behind. They left family members – parents, brothers, sisters and others – who now live in the photographs, letters, memoirs, and books their descendants brought to the reunion.

A few attendees and their ancestors emigrated AFTER the war, and brought very different memories – memories of flight, pursuit, deprivation – and ultimately survival. Sam Katzovicz, Mina Rasis and David Nathan shared stories about Sam and Mina's late father, Dov Katzovicz, a Dokshitsy survivor, partisan, and leader of a Dokshitser group in Israel that published the Yikzor book.

The story of Dov Katzovicz, who like the Jews who formed the Bielski Brigade of partisans, fled into the forests of Belarus to escape the Nazis, seemed almost like a movie. For over two years, Dov and Karen Nathan’s grandmother hid, fought as partisans, survived the worst that a design for genocide could throw at them, and even had a “Child of the Woods” in the process, David’s father-in-law, Sam Katzovicz. As he told the story, Sam Katzovicz grinned and raised his hands like Rocky Balboa. Then he told the story for himself, filling it as much with humor as poignancy.

Others told stories of their relatives who fought with the counterattacking Red Army, and of still others who had escaped to Palestine to fight for the birth of Israel.

While most of the program featured family histories, other Dokshitsy descendants talked about the larger issues that had created the Dokshitsy Diaspora and had brought the group together. Psychologist Eva Fogelman spoke about the importance of remembrance. Her moving speech concluded "And so, the next time someone asks Fun Vanen Kumt a Yid? (Where does a Jew come from?) 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."

Rochelle Ruthchild, whose grandfather had emigrated from Dokshitsy in 1910, pointed out that a 19th century population explosion fueled by improvements in public health supplied the migrants, yet enabled a substantial population to remain.

Dr. Ruthchild also discussed Jewish life in the postwar Soviet Union. As an American student in Leningrad during the 1970s, Rochelle had helped Soviet Jews who were trying to emigrate. Two immigrants from the Soviet Union, Sofia Kapalyan, whose mother was a partisan during WWII, and Inna Spitserev, who was from a shtetl 80 kilometers away, and whose grandmother and mother survived the Holocaust by pretending to be non-Jews during three years of German occupation then shared their stories.

A moving short film about the restoration of the Dokshitsy cemetery by the Dokshitsy District and The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy and a trip to dedicate the work in 2008 by 14 descendants ended the program.

Elizabeth Albert commented "It's started me on a quest to find out more information on my family ancestors!" Joel Alpert said: "Things went off without a hitch. I certainly enjoyed it and loved meeting all these fine people." Arlene Benjamin said “I was looking forward to this because it meant so much to my husband, Rob. But it really overwhelmed me and inspired me to research my own family history, especially my mother’s side.”

After it was all over, Aaron Ginsburg said “I was very nervous about our success, until the moment on Friday evening when a hubbub went out from the tables as people started to click". Then he started planning for the next project for the Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy.

Be sure to look at the attached program.