My grandfather lived in Rezekne, Latvia until he was a teenager, and my wife’s grandfather lived as a boy in Kovno, Lithuania, both countries were a part of the Russian Empire. My wife and I both grew up hearing stories of ‘the old country’, and my late father, Z”tl, had always wished he could visit the scenes of his father’s boyhood. In August, 2006, our family visited Lithuania and Latvia fulfilling that wish.
But I think our trip really began on my grandfather’s knee.
My grandfather, George Dietz, grew up in Rezekne, a town in central Latvia. He was one of seven children -Frada, Moshe, Shlava, Avram, Shlomo Yaacov (George), and Naftoli- all brilliant. His mother, Libbe Ada- her maiden name was Passov- did everything- raised the children, ran a general store, kept the house, made the meals, everything. My great-grandfather, Chaim Dietz (the name was originally Deitsch, meaning German), was a Talmud chacham (wise man), and sat all day in the House of Study and read the holy books.
Shlomo Yaacov in those days (the early 1880’s) went to the village cheder -and hated every minute of it. I think he spent a lot of time skipping school. It was often cold, too- he used to say that his skin would stick to the iron fence rails on the way to school, it was so cold. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for ‘formal’ education, he could speak Yiddish, Russian, German, and later also Dutch and English. He was always a great talker; a natural-born salesman.
When he was about sixteen, he decided he was sick of cheder, of the town, of Judaism, of everything. He ran away, and volunteered for the Czar’s army. Mind you, in those days, every other Jewish boy was trying to evade being drafted into the Russian Army (Jewish boys would be seized and made to serve for twenty years).
After a short time, however, he discovered that it wasn’t so much fun in the Army (no wonder everyone else was trying to avoid it!), and wanted out. Fortunately, he was an excellent poker player. One day a Prussian officer came to visit the troops. He challenged him to a game, and won everything from the officer- his uniform, his passport, the works. He decided to become the officer, and ran away from the army passing himself off as Count Von So-and-So (he had blond hair, blue eyes, and spoke perfect German, which helped). Using the passport, he went to Dusseldorf, Germany, and set himself up as a Prussian gentleman, interested in art, and went to art school. He even joined a Prussian fencing club (though he never got the de riguer scar). While in Dusseldorf, he attended art school, and was even able to make money selling his paintings.
One night, however, his landlady woke him up in the middle of the night, and told him that the police were coming to arrest him; the authorities had discovered that he wasn’t really a Count, only Shlomo Yaacov from Latvia. He ran away that night, and went to Utrecht, in Holland, where he lived for a time with his brother Avram, who had also left Latvian Russia. Later on, they went to England, where his brother settled down. He changed his name to George, naming himself after the king. He always believed in starting at the top.
In 1929, when his business was doing well (this was just before the stock market crash), my grandparents went back to Latvia to visit my grandfather’s hometown of Rezekne.
They landed in England, and continued to all the places George had lived in Europe- Holland (Utrecht), Germany (Dusseldorf and Berlin) and Latvia.
In Berlin, while walking in the park, they saw a man excitedly speaking to a crowd. “Who is that?” my grandfather asked a man.
“That’s the man who will be our next Chancellor, Adolph Hitler,” he was told.
In Russia, the Bolshevik officials wouldn’t give my grandparents back their passports for several days.
Finally, they reached my grandfather’s old home town, Rezekne, where my grandfather’s mother, Libbe Ada, was still living, as well as his younger brother Naftoli and his family.
Naftoli, the only one of Chaim and Libbe Ada’s children to stay home, was very religious, like his father. He had become the Rebbe of the Rezekne Jewish community, as well as working for the government as a flax inspector.
Naftoli was much loved by the community as a leader and teacher; however, he was very poor. My grandparents gave Naftoli all their extra clothes and belongings, and all the money they could spare.
George, who had been quite anti-religious since running away from the shtetl, was transformed by meeting his brother, and became quite religious- a baal teshuvah. He convinced Naftoli to let him take a Sefer Torah back to Boston with him, and he gave his brother enough money to purchase a replacement.
When he came home to Newton, my grandfather set up the torah in an ark in his house, and davened before it every morning for the rest of his life.
Naftoli had several daughters, including Toba, and Reswa, who had gone to the university in Riga and became a physician. Reswa and her husband, Joseph Arshon, who lived in Riga, had two children of their own, Deborah and Yitzhak. My grandparents used to hear from them regularly.
In the late 1930’s, when things began to look foreboding for the Jews of Europe, my grandfather wrote letters to his brother, pleading for him to come to America, even sending him the tickets and everything he would need.
Naftoli refused. His community, his Hasidim, depended on him. If their rebbe left, he wrote, they would lose all hope. And he somehow imagined that his job as a government flax inspector would help protect him.
Naftoli did send one daughter, Toba, to America. She stayed with my father’s family for a while, eventually settling in New York City.
Soon after the war began correspondence ended and Naftoli and his family were never heard from again. Years later a letter from an unknown witness said that they had all been burned alive. This probably referred to the massacre of July 4th, 1941- four days after the German invasion, in which the Germans burned down the Great Choral synagogue in Riga, in which the Jews of the city had gathered in refuge. A memorial to the Holocaust stands at the spot today, surrounded by the houses of the former Riga Ghetto.
Jonathan Dietz is a middle school science and technology-education teacher who lives in Newtonville, Massachusetts.
- Visit Lithuania.net (Travel Agency), http://www.tourslithuania.com/pages/tours_jewish_trail.shtml . Provide outstanding customized travel arrangements, including all hotel bookings, drivers, and English-speaking guides
- Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, http://www.jmuseum.lt/ Jewish Museum in Vilnius(Vilna)
- JewishGen.org, http://jewishgen.org/ Jewish Geneaology information
- Aleksandrs Feigmanis, http://www.balticgen.com/ Expert Guide and Geneaologist based in Riga, Latvia
- Cyndi’s List, http://www.cyndislist.com/jewish.htm Geneaology Links
- Daniel Mendelson, The Lost- A Search for Six of Six Million (Harper Collins), http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Search-Six-Million/dp/0060542977 One man’s incredible odyssey to find out what happened to his relatives who perished in the Holocaust. Highly recommended.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
Like this article?
Sign up for our Shabbat Shalom e-newsletter, a weekly roundup of inspirational thoughts, insight into current events, divrei torah, relationship advice, recipes and so much more!