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[Page 70]

Shadows from the Past

Nachum Lankin, Givataim

Translated by Gil Benjamin Villa and Eilat Gordin Levitan

…I am far away from my hometown, Dolhinov, isolated in the frosts of the Ural mountains. It is evening time. The ice is thawing a little bit, I think that it is Passover time, but I am not sure since I have no Hebrew calendar here. Still, I feel as if it is the night of the Seder.

I close my eyes… Escape from the bitter reality that surrounds me. My eyes see the table set in splendid whiteness at the house of my father, the Seder plate placed in the middle of the table, and all the family members are reclining around me in a holiday spirit. Light and warmth spread from every corner, and I am in a sweet dream filled with creative imagination.

All of a sudden, this dream stops. The bitter reality prevents me from holding on to such illusions. I am here in prison, and I received five days in solitary confinement for trying to steal a piece of bread. I sit here doing nothing, and I can't even fall asleep. It's bitterly cold.

Previously I worked during nights, and when you worked you didn't feel the cold. But now I am in prison and the minutes dragged on, slowly becoming hours. Finally the night is behind me and dawn arrives, and I feel the hunger that I can't satisfy.

Suddenly, I remembered something. In my pocket I had two very stale pieces of bread from the day I escaped from the Germans. I kept them all this time for an emergency. Although I must admit that there were many times when I was practically starving, I always hesitated and didn't dare touch them…

I thought that maybe there would be a day when the situation would be even worse, but I knew that this had to be the worst hour. I could not take it anymore. Not only the fact that I was starving; add to that this was the night of the Seder and I did not do any of the commandments. One commandment is the Beur Chametz (clearing all the bread). So now I feel that by eating the food I would also be taking part in this commandment…

My teeth worked hard to chew the petrified pieces of bread, but still I enjoyed the meal, and with all my heart I said the blessing, “Ur hamira, zehamiras…”
And that is how Seder Pesach finished for me in March of 1942…

[This was from a diary I wrote in the 1940s]

Later on, I found out that all my family members in town were murdered on the 28th of March, 1942, two days before the evening of Passover, and were buried in one brotherly grave with all our martyrs.

I don't have the ability to write about the town Dolhinov during the dark days. The shock and the horror that hit me, when I found out the details, even today when I want to tell about what happened, I don't know where and how to begin…

I would like to start with the history but I cannot say much about other generations in town. Shadows and images and broken memories from the past never let me rest. They always come to me in my sleep. They move closer in my mind and they order me not to forget. Memories of the synagogue, the committees for aid, and volunteering all creep back to me, and not only the institutions in town, but also shadows and shades of personalities. I will try to describe in a few lines just a little bit from all that I know, but first I would like to share some information about how the community was established.

I don't know when the community of Dolhinov was established. Dolhinov was a shtetl in White Russia, located in the region between Vilna and Minsk. It was always a remote town. At the time when I was a child, it was 6 km from the border of the Soviet Union, on the Polish side. The region experienced many, many battles in the distant past, as well as in recent times, between the two World Wars. There were wars between the different Lithuanian and Belarussian tribes, and then there were wars between Lithuanians and Poles, and then the Poles and Russians. There was Napoleon and wars between Russia and Germany. There was World War I and then wars between the Polish and the Red Army until 1921 when the area became part of Poland. And then there was the Second World War…

I tried to find some historical documents. In Yad Vashem I found pages from Einikiyat, which was a periodical that was printed by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, and this is what it said:

“In the year 1793, in the Second Partition of Poland, the Russian Empire took the area away from the Poles (for more than 120 years), and after the peace treaty that was signed in Riga in March of 1921, the area returned to Poland. In September of 1939, once again it was ruled by the Soviets, until June 28 of 1941, the day that it was conquered by the Nazi Army.”

This source does not give any exact details of when the Jews arrived, but one thing I know: our community was the oldest in all the area. In the year 1847, there were 1,194 Jews in Dolhinov, and in the census of 1897, there were 2,559 Jews out of a total of population of 3,551.

Sometime during the 1880s to 1890s, there were incidents of violence of an anti-Semitic nature. According to the Einikiyat, it was in 1896, but all the older people of the town reported it in 1886.

In the year 1921, there were 1,747 Jews in the town, out of a total population of 2,671. We can explain this decline as a result of all the wars. This had been a battle zone during the First World War, and the different armies would advance and retreat, burning the town when they retreated. Most of the population fled the town, and even in 1921, most had still not returned.

As time passed, people returned, and the population at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 30s, including the number of Jews, was enlarged despite the fact that there were rules that made the financial situation of the Jews more difficult. Part of this was due to the village area being lessened, as the Soviet Union took some of it, Poland the rest, and also because of the policies of the Polish authorities.

The number of the Jews in Dolhinov was a little bit more than half of the general population. We can explain the reasons for this: the natural population growth, people moving there after marriage, and parents who encouraged their children to live near them. Despite the harsh policies against Jews, the lives of Jews continued like that until the 30s. However, because of these policies, many people became poor, and it seemed that in the late 30s, all the loopholes in the regulations that could be exploited had been shut.

As the Second World War started, Poland was divided between the Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union. At that time, many refugees arrived in town from the areas of Poland that were taken by the Germans. Also, some Jews who lived in shtetls that were across the border in the Soviet Union came into our area. So in the year 1940 to 1941, the number of the Jews in Dolhinov was almost 5,000.

After that, on the German attack of June 22nd, 1941, even more Jewish refugees came from the other towns. The Germans first killed Jews in towns that had always been in the Soviet Union, and those who escaped came to Dolhinov. The Germans arrived in Dolhinov on June 25th, 1941.

In August, a few weeks after they arrived, the Germans killed 22 Jews in Dolhinov, and amongst them the rabbi of Chabad. There were three German Actions, the first of which took place on March 28th, 1942, two days before Passover. During that Action, more then 800 Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered. Half-burned and half-charred, they were buried in a common grave. Ten days later, all the Jews were ordered to move to a ghetto that contained only a few homes on both sides of Borisov Street. When they were put in the ghetto, the rulers promised that there would be no more slaughters.

On the 29th and 30th of April, and the 1st of May, 1942, the murderers went on a killing spree in which they killed everyone in the ghetto except for three hundred that they designated as needed professionals. At that point, on the 21st of May 1942, they killed all the rest that they could find.

The whole community of Dolhinov became Judenrein (purified of Jews). About 200 Jews escaped and survived. Some of them joined the partisans, a few hid in the villages. There were also non-combatant camps near the partisan bases. At the order of the Soviet authorities from across the front, the civilian inhabitants of these camps were transferred into the Soviet Union. Also, there were others who had served in the Red Army before the war started.

Our community was never really re-established. This is the little information that I found in the history of the Jewish community in Dolhinov. Clearly it is very incomplete. They never mentioned the rabbis or the leaders of the community, or the yeshivas and other educational institutions. From what I could gather, the Einikiyat didn't care about such information. Looking at it from the distance of 40 years and more, shades and shadows of the synagogues in Dolhinov come to me. In front of my eyes come the shulhoys, the yards of the three different synagogues. There was the large synagogue of the Mitnagidim, the synagogue of the Chabad, and the synagogue of the shoemaker [usually there was a synagogue for the more simple people, called the shoemakers' here], which was shimmering in burgundy, since it was built from red brick.

Then my eyes bring me to the old central market, which was the center of the town and its main artery. There were stores lining the market, and also small kiosks set up by the farmers during the days of the market, and also during the fairs. From a world that once was and is now gone forever, only shades now come to my memory.

In front of my eyes arrives the synagogue in the new market, Nyamarkshul. And then arises the Tarbut school--I remember the youths digging holes to put the foundation in for its beautiful building. I remember the excitement of the people who had founded it and of the people who built it, the devoted teachers, and the prominent citizens of the town. I also remember the parents of the students, who many times went without food so they could pay the tuition for their children. 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.

Where are you, the organizers and the diligent builders? Where are you Chaim Halperin and all the people who spent so much time worrying about the funding for the school? The question received no answers, and once again I realized that this world would never return from oblivion.

I remember how they tried to establish a religious school in the spirit of the Mizrachi movement, which had a different philosophy than the Tarbut school. The Tarbut school was Zionist but not as religious as the Mizrachi, and it was also more modern and had a broader curriculum than the Mizrachi. At any rate, the Mizrachi school didn't last long; maybe only 2 years and then it had to be closed since the Tarbut school reached and pulled students from more families.

Slowly, other institutions in town come to me. I see the loan institution G'mach that was established to help small craftsmen as well as storeowners. Sometimes they would finance immigrants to Eretz Israel who did not have sufficient funds to accomplish their immigration. The G'mach Foundation was established in the beginning of the 1930s by a few homeowners in town. At first they asked people to pay membership dues, and then it was funded by loans from the American Joint. They had a representative in Vilna that visited the town a few times each year. Also, donations and loans from a few well-to-do people in town funded it.

Already in the very beginning of the Foundation, they had 250 to 300 members. They had a general meeting of all the members once a year in which they elected managers and also a board of overseers. Every week, usually on a Saturday night, they had a meeting of the managers in one of the members' houses. During those meetings they decided on the projects they would take, as well as the loan policy. They figured out new ways of getting funds, and ways of enlarging their membership too.

Once a week, three people would go to the synagogue of the shoemaker both to give loans and also to be repaid. One would be Abba Gitlitz (son of Faiga nee Deutsch; he perished with his entire family in 1942), who was the person responsible for collecting and dispensing the money. Another would be an accountant, and a third would be someone from the management. Their largest loans were between 100 and 200 zloti and it was returned without any interest in weekly payments.

During the year of 1935, there was some kind of revolution, since that year there were more proletarian Yiddish members. Now the Bund sympathizers controlled the operation. At the head of the committee, Ben Zion Hevlin the Watchmaker was chosen. Shmuel Sigelovich became his assistant. The rest of the members of the management were independent, non-political. The other members were Zvi Schreibman, Abba Gitlitz, Leibe Flant, Meir Kreins, Hirshl Horvitz, Avraham Forman. The accountants of the foundation were Zvi Hirshl Rapson and Yakov Lankin. After he was conscripted into the army, a service that he never returned from, I, the writer of these lines, replaced him. This foundation lasted until September 17th, 1939, the day the Red Army entered town.

The Yiddishe Folksbank

This was another institution for financial help, and it gave loans to merchants, craftsmen, and also small enterprises. The Yiddishe Folksbank was the local people's bank, and a few prominent Jews of the town established it in the late 1920s. They had contacted Mr. Moshe Shalit, who headed the Yakopo branch in Vilna. The Yakopo established funds for such enterprises in all the towns in the area, like Krivichi, Ilya, Dokshitz, Myadel, and also Globoki. Most of the projects of the bank were to give loans and also to collect the money. They also set up savings accounts for people.

The head of the bank was Shmuel Halperin, and the chief accountant was Yakov Mendel Shulman. When he retired, his son Yitzhak Reuven Shulman took his job. This was the only bank in town. It also functioned until September of 1939.

I must also mention the Committee Bikur Holim. (visiting the sick) There were a few volunteers in this committee, and their main mission was to take care of sick people who were poor. Many of the towns used volunteers for this committee. They would visit every home where there was a sick person who needed physical and emotional support.

Also I must mention Linat Hasedek, which arranged places for sleep for the destitute who came to town. Eli Miasel, the son of Shalom Miasel, who was the shohet, established this committee. Elie now lives in Tel Aviv. I don't remember much about their work, but I must mention that this enterprise contained only volunteers who worked without any reward.

I also must mention Achnasat Kala, which was established for donations for poor brides' dowries. The person who was the main force behind that organization was Raha Basha who was also known as Rachel Batya Friedman. She headed that committee and inspired many others to volunteer their services.

There was also Hesed Shel Emet, which was established by Hevreh Kadisheh. Its aim was to take care of the burials and to support the family members. My father was a volunteer in this committee, and he put all his heart and soul in its activities.

A few days before Passover, there was a committee that contained young women and men who would go to all the homes to collect money for Passover. They called it “The Flower of Passover”. For this they also received money from the town's residents who now lived in the US. Many families were helped by this organization. Many times, the Rabbi Mara De Atra distributed the money, and it would be done secretly, so that the families wouldn't be embarrassed about receiving donations. These missions were all done voluntarily without the backing of any of the other town's institutions.

Blind Luck

From the sources, “A rock fell on a bowl, woe to the bowl. A bowl fell on a rock, woe to the bowl.” As images of the world of the past swirled around me, I cannot complete my story without telling about two awful events from the dark, bloody days that have to do with children in the Holocaust in Dolhinov.

…A group of Jews built a very good hideout in one of their homes. During the Germans' cruel rampage of the Second Action, some people hid there to save themselves. All of a sudden, the baby of the owner of the house in which they were hiding started to cry. The father of that baby, without hesitation, put his hand on the mouth of the baby so the killers would not hear it and find the rest of the group. The baby suffocated and the Jews were saved.

The second incident that I will tell you about was in my family's bunker that was in the garden near the house. It was well hidden from all eyes, and was used by my family members as well as a few neighbors. It would be easy to assume that the killers would never find them, but the bitter fate of the Jews changed the circumstances. Nachamka, the wife of Aronchik, went around in a panic carrying a baby in her arms. She came by the bunker to look for shelter. Despite the fact that many of the people who hid there objected, my father could not turn her away, and he let her enter their hideout. After some time, the baby started crying. Some of the collaborators who came to look for the Jews heard him, and they notified the Germans. Each and every person in the hideout was murdered…

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