|Volume 3, Issue
1 (August 2009 / Av 5769)
Remembering Through Dolginov What
the World Has Forgotten
By Barry Rubin
Abstract: The Jews of Dolginov, Belarus,
commemorate in Israel their once thriving community, the rescue of a remnant
after most had been massacred by the Nazis, and the tragic loss of their family
members on one day in 1942.
Why is this shtetl unlike all other shtetls? Once a
year, the children of Dolginov and their descendents gather to remember the
It is the anniversary of the destruction of the town’s
last ghetto. There were 3,000 Jews living in Dolginov when World War II began,
amounting to 80 percent of the population.he population.
On June 5, 1942, those still left were massacred by the Nazis and their
helpers, who included Poles, Lithuanians, and Latvians. On June 6, there weren’t
any Jews left alive in Dolginov at all.
Then how is it that the long, low-ceilinged hall in
Tel Aviv’s Vilna House is full to capacity, with about 150 people, the survivors
and descendents of the Dolginov Jews in the town on June 5? Why has this
particular shtetl been kept alive with a special kind of communal spirit? “There
are more people here,” said Ariel Rubin, one of the survivors, “then at the
Vilna memorial meetings,” even though Vilna had many times more Jewish
The answer is one of the many remarkable stories of
the Shoah, in this case the heroism—or perhaps it should just be called human
decency—of the Soviet Red Army and in particular of three individual soldiers.
Dolginov is a small town once in Lithuania, later in
Poland (until 1793), Russia (until 1918), Poland again (until 1945), the USSR
(until 1991), and then Belarus. North of Minsk, there was absolutely nothing to
distinguish the place, except a grinding poverty which could compete with the
more ragged precincts of the contemporary Third World. On the eve of World War
II, it was walking distance from the Polish-Soviet border. There were five
synagogues; a couple of market places for the small Jewish merchants and
peasants selling their produce; a Zionist-run school; and a Bund-directed loan
society. No intelligentsia, nor famous rabbis. Even in 1939 there was hardly a
telephone or an automobile.
On September 17, 1939, the Soviet army marched in, as
part of Moscow’s partition deal with the Nazis. And on June 28, 1941, the
Germans arrived. The Jews were forced into a tiny ghetto, overcrowded in a small
part of the town. There were a number of murders by the regular German troops.
As one survivor recalled, they beat and killed people during the day, especially
in March and April 1942, but at a certain hour they regarded themselves off duty
Then on May 21, SS troops, including Lithuanians and
Latvians helped to some extent by the Polish police, wiped out the ghetto. By
the end of the day, only around 250 to 300 Jews were left alive, some who had
been outside the town when the killing began, or fled at the last minute, or hid
in concealed underground chambers they had prepared in advance.
Somehow it seems even more horrible that not a single
Dolginov Jew was deported to a concentration camp; most weren’t even taken out
of town and shot. They were gunned down inside and in front of their own homes.
The SS left and the survivors were free to enter the town and see the bodies of
their families, or in a few blessed cases to find them emerging from tunnels.
But what could they do next? Into the forest they
went, begging food from peasants, who sometimes helped but were badly
frightened. Ultimately the survivors joined the Soviet partisan fighters in the
forest. But what could the Soviet fighters do, saddled with around 250 Jews, few
of them of military use, and having to forage for food themselves?
Perhaps they would have chased them away to their
ultimate deaths. Yet the commander of the partisan unit, “Revenge,” was Timchuk.
He had been sent by Moscow as part of the Soviet occupation army to run the
confiscated estates and, in this capacity, had dealt with the Jewish livestock
merchants and artisans of Dolginov. Timchuk decided to ask Moscow what to do.
Headquarters sent some paratroopers for the mission and Timchuk asked for a
young officer to lead an escort party to take the Jews across the front lines to
safety. This meant a two-month journey, traveling only at night, of more than
750 miles through German-infested territory, leading a column of 300 people
clearly unfit physically for such a march. Two men turned down the mission, the
third, Lieutenant Gregory Kisilev, accepted.
To tell the story briefly, Kisilev and a young woman
partisan scout named Anna who also volunteered were sent along with two
professional soldiers and a group of partisans. of partisans.
Finally, they came to the front line. A few people
were killed trying to cross over but in the end 218 of the original 300 arrived
safely. They said goodbye to Kisilev and none of them ever saw him again. He
survived the war, married the scout, and had a nice career working in
international trade for the Soviet government. His daughter explained, long
after his death, that he only mentioned the experience once, to say that he
wondered what happened to all those people he saved.
Sometimes, it seems that too much emphasis is put on
those who survived—about 200 people related to me died; perhaps a dozen escaped.
My great aunt, y great aunt, Haya Doba
Rubin, her husband Aharon Perlmutter, and their sons, Haim, 12, and Jacob, 10;
my great uncle, Samuel Grosbein, his wife, Rivka Markman, and their children,
Leah Rivka, 18, and Lev, 23,; my great aunt,
Rahel Grosbein, her husband, Yirimayahu Dimenshtein and their son Moshe, 21. All
murdered on the same day and practically within sight of each other.
At any rate, though, there is much more that can be
told about these events and what happened to the Dolginov refugees immediately
afterward. One young man returned to the town, tried to reclaim his family home,
and was murdered. Virtually every single survivor made his way to Israel, though
it took some of my cousins ten years.
But I am telling you about this not primarily to
recount another story of the Shoah but to explain something very profound about
Israel. It has been rightly said that for a long time after its founding,
Israelis did not want to talk about these events, partly for ideological factors
(the focus on the new Jew and on the building up of the land); partly for
psychological reasons (it was just too painful).
This era is long past. is long past.
If Kisilev was one example of how much difference one person could make,
the same is true of Leon Rubin who founded the Dolginov Cemetery Project to
build a memorial in the town to those who perished there and organized three
visits by Israeli delegations. Similarly, one of the speakers was Ziva Lisitzki,
a kibbutznik, whose mother had left Dolginov a few years before the war to the
land of Israel, recounted the stories about Dolginov she had heard as a little
girl. Yuval Rubin, who seemed to be about as typical an Israeli as one could
find, told about his discoveries of his own family’s experiences, including a
trip to Dolhinov with a group.
A Russian film was shown about the story, made by a
Soviet Jewish filmmaker named Yaakov Kolar who, by coincidence, had met
Kisilev’s daughter in school in Moscow and heard her father’s story. It was a
shock to see a rather jovial and very well-preserved man I had met before,
describing on the screen how he had survived three years in the forest as a wild
child, living on snakes and live fish he caught by hand. The little girl who had
come so close to death because of her crying was shown with her children and
grandchildren, now living a few minutes away from me.
Watching all this, my elderly aunt, who had seen the
bodies of her parents and older brother, able only to snatch three photographs
from their house before fleeing, dissolved into tears, to be comforted by my
teenage daughter. In Dolginov, some of my relatives had been in Hashomer
Hatzair, the left-wing youth group, and in Israel had worked at the Histadrut,
the trade union federation. Others had been in Betar, the right-wing youth
group, and Menahem Begin had attended their weddings. The differences weren’t so
important after all.
These people sitting in the hall were the people who
make up Israel, along with the Sephardic Jews who have their own stories of
dispossession and flight. Almost 90 percent of the Jews of continental Europe
were murdered; well over 90 percent of the Jews of the Middle East were turned
And these are the people daily demonized around the
world as monsters, told by well-paid academics, intellectuals, and journalists,
that Israel had no right to exist or was some kind of mistake.
The meeting ended with Hatikvah, the Israeli national
anthem. anthem.When we sang the words, “As
long as the heart of a Jew beats and his eye is turned to the east,” I thought
of these people who had marched—unarmed, impoverished, pursued, close to
friendless—750 miles eastward. They had rebuilt their lives and brought up their
families, not wasting time on bitterness or seeking revenge but acting
When we sang the lines, “Our ancient hope is not lost,
the hope of two thousand years,” I thought of what these people had hoped as
they trudged through the forest, with horrors in their thoughts and trying to
believe there was some hope at the end of the journey.
Professor Yehuda Bauer, the great historian who
practically founded the field of Holocaust studies, once told me about a
conversation he had with one of Israel’s founding leaders, a man frequently in
government cabinets during the country’s early years. He explained to Bauer that
he could simply not believe in his heart that six million Jews had been murdered
in Europe, that somehow they were still out there and would some day arrive.
It is important to understand that Israel is not
merely a product of the Shoah, a consolation prize handed to the Jews by a
guilty world, but rather the result of its people’s desires and labor. For what
marvels couldn’t we have achieved, Bauer’s interlocutor continued, if we had the
energy, strength, and either presence or support of those murdered millions?
Similarly, for the Dolginov Jews, stuck in the corner
of the corner of a forgotten back alley of Europe, Zionism and the land of
Israel was not something they dreamed up merely as a result of the Shoah. They
thought of their lives as good before the war but knew where their future lay,
and they had already sent about 50 of their children there.
Nahum Lenkin, one of those who escaped through the
forest, later recalled how parents often “went without food so they could pay
the tuition for their children” to go to the town’s Zionist school. “They made
these sacrifices because the school provided young people their first
preparation to one day go as pioneers to Eretz Israel, the land of the workers,
and the renewed land.”
Or in the words of the song, they would go there in
order “To be a free people in our land.”
Standing there in the hall of Vilna House--amidst
photos of vanished places in Europe; next to those who had survived, rebuilt,
and fought; alongside those who had such a varied set of lifestyles, religious
views, and character—never had the words of “Hatikvah” seemed more meaningful,
nor living up to that heritage more essential.
Barry Rubin is director of the rector of the
Global Research in
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the
Middle East Review of International Affairs
(MERIA) Journal. His latest books are
The Israel-Arab Reader
(seventh edition), with Walter
Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of
The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological
History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and
The Long War for Freedom: The
Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East
(Wiley). To read and subscribe
to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit