A few months ago, I posted a detailed account of discoveries we had made concerning the history of my paternal grandfather’s family in Latvia. As I mentioned in those postings, I wanted to travel to Latvia to hopefully learn more and in some way connect with this family history more directly. I have just returned from a week in Latvia and I am still trying to process everything that I experienced and learned. It was a remarkable trip and while I didn’t come away with any more specific information concerning my family (although I might have establishes some connections which will result in some information in the future), it was an extraordinary experience on both the emotional and philosophical level. I will write more in the future here and in other places but for now, let me share one feeling that I have upon returning.
The city of Daugavpils is the 2nd largest city in Latvia, about 4 hours by train from the capital Riga. It was known as D’vinsk when my grandfather was born there and was a place of serious Jewish learning and observance and also a place of serious philosophical tension. In addition to those who were traditionally observant Jews, there were secular Jews, Zionists, great literary figures and those engaged in socialist and communist organizations. The community must have been a place of great excitement but it was also a place from which people were exposed to ideas that brought them a different vision and my grandfather and two of his siblings came to America and each established meaningful and productive lives here.
My father, alav hashalom, used to say that his father left D’vinsk one step ahead of the Russian Army and one step ahead of the Russian Police. I am not sure how accurate that is but it is certainly possible that it was not safe to express his socialist beliefs and yearnings and he certainly wanted to avoid serving in the army. So, he came to this country and was active in the Arbiter Ring, the Workmens’ Circle, Jewish secularists with similar political leanings.
It was fascinating to be in Daugavpils but it was also important for me to remember that this is where Grandpa Dobrusin left to find the freedom he sought in the USA. The later history of Daugavpils was not one of freedom. In 1980, I traveled to the former Soviet Union to visit Jewish refuseniks and experienced constant surveillance and a lack of privacy or freedom. This was my first time back in that part of the world since that trip. Daugavpils, and Riga as well, have some feelings of the Soviet era remaining in the architecture of certain public buildings which clearly remind one of the Soviet style. So, it was jarring for me to walk around Daugavpils early last Wednesday morning and not experience the slightest amount of fear or feeling of being watched as I had felt in Leningrad and Kishinev in 1980. I saw the buildings and almost instinctively started looking over my shoulder before realizing after a few minutes that no one was watching me. This was a free country, at least relative to what Latvians experienced during Soviet domination.
While pre-Soviet D’vinsk wasn’t quite the same as Soviet era Daugavpils, it clearly wasn’t America and it made me realize that what my grandparents and so many others yearned for was not “streets paved with gold”, but their own “yearning to be free”. And, this country provided that for them. And it provides it for us.
While I felt secure throughout Latvia (and thanks to the internet brought a lot of the USA with me, watching the Red Sox and “skyping” with my family), I said a loud shehecheyanu when the plane landed in Chicago. While my family history is fascinating, I do not want to be nostalgic about life in D’vinsk at the turn of the century. Grandpa Julius found a much better life here.
It is July 4, a time to celebrate and honor what we have in this country. No, things are not perfect and we have a long way to go as a nation to secure rights, freedoms and opportunity for all. But it was then and it is now, a place of great hope and freedom and one which we sometimes take for granted.
I was very sad yesterday upon hearing of the death of Andy Griffith. As I wrote on Facebook: “Admit it, you really wished you lived in Mayberry. I know I did. Rest in Peace Sheriff Andy”. His show gave us great characters (who could not love Barney Fife?) and an idealized portrait of small town America. The real Mayberry (Mt. Airy, NC) was probably not like that and America isn’t as perfect as presented on his show. But, our nation is a place of such greatness: hope, freedom and “the pursuit of happiness” for all. May always strive to live up to those values and may we, each of us, whose ancestors came here from somewhere else seeking something of meaning, embrace the promise this country stands for.
Happy July 4th!