Voice 2010

The Jewish Voice and Herald

Serving Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts Since 1973

Beth Levine of Lexington, Mass., Bonnie Erbe of Falls Church, Va., and Aaron Ginsburg, Beth’s brother, of Natick, Mass. at the Dokshitsy reunion. Beth and Aaron’s grandparents were from Dokshitsy. /Source: Benjamin Ginsburg

Descendants of shtetl reunite

by Aaron Ginsburg

October 01, 2010

A ‘roots reunion’ in Warwick

WARWICK – During the weekend of Aug. 20-22, 57 people – from cities across the United States – gathered at Warwick’s Radisson Hotel for the Dokshitsy Diaspora Reunion. This “roots reunion” – bringing together people who trace their origins to the same town, the same ethnic group, even the same family – included individuals who traced their origins to the shtetl of Dokshitsy and its nearby towns in what is now Belarus.

A Jewish roots reunion for those from Eastern European towns is, well, different. 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 and Mexican-Americans descended from Oaxaca.

Unlike towns still filled with Italians, Irish or Mexicans, Dokshitsy no longer has a Jewish community – it 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 3,000 people, were murdered by German troops and their local collaborators. When the shtetl became a mass grave, the few remaining survivors left, never to return.

Jews had lived in Dokshitsy at least since the 17th century, and until 1942, about half of Dokshitsy’s residents were Jews. From around 1881 until the beginning of World War II, 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, others went to Israel.

The vast majority, though, came to the United States; it was here where descendants of those Jews came together. At the reunion, Marvin Kabakoff of Jamaica Plain, Mass., an historian, described how Dokshitsers gathered together in such communities as Newport and Sheboygan, Wis., among others.

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

A few attendees and their ancestors emigrated after World War II – and brought very different memories of that era. They shared their stories of flight, pursuit, deprivation – and ultimately survival. Sam Katzovicz and Mina Rasis shared stories about their father, Dov Katzovicz (now deceased), a Dokshitsy survivor, partisan and leader of a Dokshitser group in Israel that published the Dokshitsy Yikzor book.

Hundreds of Yizkor books, written by Holocaust survivors and published after World War II, describe a way of life that ended suddenly.

Dov, like the Jews of the Bielski Brigade of partisans, fled into the forests of Belarus to escape the Nazis. For more than two years, Dov hid and fought as a partisan; during that time, he and his wife had a “child of the woods,” Sam. Now a resident of Providence, Sam grinned and raised his hands like Rocky Balboa, as he told the story with humor and poignancy.

Stories of attendees’ relatives fighting with the counterattacking Red Army or escaping to Palestine filled the meeting rooms. The entire weekend, though, wasn’t devoted to family histories – some Dokshitsy descendants talked about the larger issues that had created the Dokshitsy Diaspora.

Speaking about the importance of remembrance, psychologist Eva Fogelman said, “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. There won’t be room for the ghost stories to take over.”

Two immigrants from the Soviet Union, Sofia Kapalyan, whose mother was a partisan during World War II, and Inna Spitserev, who was from a shtetl 80 kilometers from Dokshitsy, and whose grandmother and mother survived the Holocaust by pretending to be gentiles, shared their stories.

The weekend’s events ended with a 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.

Elizabeth Albert, of Belmont, Mass., said, “[This weekend] started me on a quest to find more information about my family ancestors.”

Aaron Ginsburg of Natick, Mass. the president of The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy, organized this reunion. For more information, visit jewishdokshitsy.org or contact Aaron Ginsburg at info@jewishdokshitsy.org or 508-682-3115.

Learn more about the reunion at Dokshitsy Diaspora Reunion