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[Page ix]

Introduction

My father, Jacob Rassen (1905-1986), loved to tell stories. In 1985, I asked Jacob to tell his own story. He agreed, requesting a question-and-answer format. My sister, Rachel Rassen, participated in much of the interview. Jeremy Rassen, my son, then twelve years old, videotaped the interview. My daughter, Elisa Rassen, then eight years old, also participated. The interview was recorded over nine hours in 1986. Jacob had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 1985 and was undergoing cancer treatment. He did not mention his cancer in the interview, nor did it ever seem to diminish his enthusiasm.

Jacob's life spanned most of the twentieth century and reflects much of the Jewish history of that century, from the last years of the Eastern European shtetl to the modern American world. His life was shaped by four wars: two local wars and particularly the two world wars. While in Europe, he studied agronomy, taught, and wrote extensively. He traveled to Denmark, Palestine, and the Soviet Union.

Jacob wrote about his experiences during World War II in Mir Veln Lebn (We Want to Live), which was published in Yiddish in 1949. In 1985, we did not have an account of his earlier life, nor could we read his book, as it had not yet been translated.

Due to the length of the interview, we transcribed the contents and present them here for family members and other interested readers. Jacob's oral narrative ends in 1945, just as he escapes from Nazi captivity. To complete his story, I have added chapters thirteen through eighteen of Mir Veln Lebn. That book was translated into English by Professor Murray Sachs of Brandeis University in 2007 and was published privately.

I have folded into Jacob's story an interview with Goldie Rassen, my mother, with whom Jacob spent the last forty years ofhis life. These chapters record her memories of the shtetl and her own story of survival. In addition, her story brings my parents to the United States.

In America, Jacob taught Hebrew, but he also learned about real estate and the stock market and provided well for his family. He continued his

[Page x]

interest in agronomy, planting trees and gardens in Worcester, Boston, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and in California. Goldie learned to be a successful baleboste (homemaker) and taught, too. She received a bachelor's and then a master's degree in education from Boston's Hebrew Teachers College.

With the births of a son, a daughter, and, eventually, two grandchildren, Jacob and Goldie realized their dream that their family continue after the decimation of the Holocaust. Jacob and Goldie lived in Worcester for ten years; in Providence, Rhode Island, and Brighton, Massachusetts, for one year each; and in Brookline, Massachusetts, for twenty-six years. In 1985, they moved to San Francisco, where Jacob spent the last year of his life. Goldie lived there for twenty-two years more, developing many friendships, traveling, and teaching to the end ofher life.

Jacob had an excellent memory and was always organized in his thinking. When we interviewed him, he never used notes. He was a teacher by nature, very patient and clear, repeating key points. Unfortunately, the transcript cannot capture the twinkle in Jacob's eyes as he told his story, nor his engaging manner. He spoke with great animation, laughing at many memories. He was, of course, deeply moved by many others. We have retained as much of his language as possible, editing his words lightly for clarity. We have also added a few screen prints from the videotape.

I wish to add my deep appreciation for the remarkable editing and passionate interest of Pamela Feinsilber. Pamela confessed that-she dreamed about Jacob and perhaps fell in love with him as well. Also, I wish to thank Aleta Delacruz, who created the first transcript of the recording, struggling bravely with Jacob's many languages and rich expression.

I am not sure who will read this book, perhaps only our extended family. However, in telling his personal story, Jacob left a rich history of European Jewish life. He tried not to dwell on the stories of pain and suffering, fearing that it would become unbearable for readers to continue. He would want you, the reader, to enjoy and to learn.

Joshua Rassen
San Francisco, 2009


[Page xi]

Chronology

January 19, 1905: Jacob Rasein born in Pumpyan, Lithuania
1905: “Failed” Russian revolution against Tsar Nicholas II
1909: Revolutionaries sought in Lithuania
1910: Jacob starts cheder with Reb Pinchas
        -followed by cheder with Reb Alter
        -followed by cheder with Yehne Bold, the Lehrer
        -followed by Russian-Jewish school in Pumpyan
        -followed by Hebrew-Russian school, living with Luntz family in Shavel
1912-1914: Summers in Dubel, Baltic seashore; family returns home after World War I comes to Riga
May 25, 1914: Goldie Chiatovitz born in Abel [Obelai], Lithuania
1914-1918: World War I
1915: Jacob's family expelled from Lithuania, travels into Russia
1915-1920: Rasein family lives in Pochep, Ukraine; Jacob attends gymnasia
1917: Russian Revolution begins
1918-1940: Period of Lithuanian independence
1923: Reactivation of Memel dispute with Poland; Jacob graduates from gymnasia in Ponevezh
1924: Attends university at Kovno, studying medicine; Getzel Rasein dies in Pumpyan, age 71

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1925-1930: Attends Agricultural Academy in Dotnuva; receives master's degree in agronomy
1931: Works in the field during a one-year practicum, Dotnuva
1932: Joins Lithuanian Agricultural Commerce Department, lives in Kovno
1932: Studies sugar beet production for six months in Denmark
1932: Marries Chava Zacks
1935: Begins work for ORT at Mariampol and then at the Kalinova estate
1936-1937: Establishes agricultural school at Kibbutz Dagania, Palestine
1937-1940: Works for ORT, writes “Agronome Rasein” publications and newspaper columm
1939-1940: End of Lithuanian independence; Russian occupation begins
1939-1945: World War II
1940-1941: Becomes director of Kovno sovchoz, Russian collective farm
1941: Wins “Ideal Worker” award; sent to Moscow for All-Russian Agricultural Exhibition; visits brother Yosef
June 22, 1941: Operation Barbarossa (Unternehmen Barbarossa): Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union
June 1941: Germans attack Latvia; flees with family through Latvia to Byelorussia; encircled by German troops; the family imprisoned in Dvinsk ghetto, in Latvia
Summer 1941-November 1943: In the Dvinsk ghetto

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November 9, 1943: Chava and the children, Gideon and Avraham, murdered at Dvinsk (Polulanka)
Late 1943: Germans retreat from Dvinsk; Jacob taken to Riga ghetto
        -followed by transfer to the Kaiserwald transition camp for three weeks
        -followed by transfer to establish a new camp at Popervalen
1944: Failed escape attempt with four companions from Popervalen
        -followed by closure of Popervalen, march to Windau, and failed escape attempt en route
        -followed by capture, four-day imprisonment, escape from edge of burial pit, and execution of companions
        -followed by living alone in a barn for almost a month
1944-August 1945: With a Russian partisan group in the forests of Kurland, Latvia
May 9, 1945: Germany surrenders to the Allies
Summer 1945: Jacob Rasein and Goldie Chiatovitz meet again, in Lithuania, and marry
July 1946: Joshua Rasein born in Germany
August 1946: Jacob and Goldie emigrate to Worcester, Massachusetts; family name becomes Rassen
September 1949: Rachel Rassen born in Worcester
1956: Rassen family moves to Providence, Rhode Island
1957: Rassen family moves to Brighton, Massachusetts; Jacob teaches Hebrew at Temple Bnai Moshe, synagogue of Rabbi Joseph Shubow
1958: Rassen family moves to Brookline, Massachusetts

[Page xiv]

1970: Jacob visits Yosef in Moscow
1985: Jacob and Goldie Rassen move to San Francisco
June 21, 1986: Jacob dies in San Francisco, age 81
November 19, 2007: Goldie Rassen dies in San Francisco, age 93

 

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