A Journey for Family

Today, in the small city of Preili, Latvia, a ceremony will be held to dedicate the newly restored Jewish cemetery. The cemetery had fallen into disrepair over the decades and through the efforts of many of the descendants of the Jews of Preili and with the support and cooperation of the local authorities and citizens, the cemetery has been restored.

Here is the sermon I gave on the Rosh Hashana following my trip to visit Preili in 2011:


Let me begin this morning with a verse from a song called Sunday Morning Sunshine, written by Harry Chapin. In many ways, it describes some of what I feel, looking back on my 25 years here in Ann Arbor:

I came into town with a knapsack on my shoulder

And a pocket full of stories that I just had to tell.

You know I’d knocked around a bit and I’d had my share of small town glories.

It was time to hit the city and that crazy carousel…

These streets were never highways. I had not known the sky above.

These days were never my days for I had not known your love.

It’s funny how a city can put on a different face. When it holds the one you care for.

It becomes a different place

You brought your Sunday Morning Sunshine here into my Monday morning world.”

I have grown to know and to love this community. It holds the ones I care for, all of you whom I have gotten to know over 25 years. And, of course, the one whose love sustains me every day.

I did come into town with a pocketful of stories. Some were the classic rabbinic stories rabbis pick up along the way, but some were personal stories I chose to tell during classes or occasionally from the bima. Now, many years later, I have many more stories to share and today, I want to tell you the story of one of the most significant experiences of my life.

It is a story about darkness and a story about sunshine.

One Shabbat morning in January, I was at home, having taken that Shabbat off for vacation, when the doorbell rang. The mail carrier was at the door with a registered letter.

I had been expecting the letter. It was from the governmental archives of the nation of Latvia. A few months before, I had submitted a request for information about my paternal grandfather’s family. My grandfather came to America from Latvia in 1907 and died when my father was a young man.

Our family had been fascinated with the history of the Dobrusins for decades and the search for information had been a true adventure. Despite significant effort, we were unable to find any meaningful information about the family until an extraordinary experience brought progress to our search for our roots.

A friend from college whom I hadn’t been in contact with for 30 years suddenly emailed me one day telling me that she had just learned that her husband’s maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Dobrusin. She wondered if we might be related. It turned out her husband’s grandmother was my grandfather’s sister. We were second cousins. A rift in the family had occurred in the 1940s and there was very little contact between the first cousins for decades. Now, through this coincidence, a generation of second cousins a generation removed from the rift found each other and combined our knowledge about the family’s past.

Then, in another extraordinary coincidence, I found out that a good friend’s father had come from the same city of D’vinsk that my family had come from, and he knew exactly to whom I had to write to get the information I wanted.

And here the letter was in my hand.

I sat for a few moments staring at it and then opened and began to read.

The letter contained the details of the family from the Russian census of 1897. It listed my great grandparents Itzik and Hilda, whose father’s name was Hayim, and apparently the one for whom my father was named. It listed four sons and daughters; Julius, my grandfather; and his two siblings, Annie and Louis, who also came to America. It noted their sister Rebecca who died at a young age in Latvia. The census records listed their occupations, education level, and even their street addresses in D’vinsk (now known as Daugavpils). Immediately I decided I had to go to Latvia and stand on those streets and see where I came from.

But something was missing. We knew there was another brother. We knew his name was Shael. Where was he?

I turned the page and found that, in fact, Shael and his family had moved to a different town. He had moved with his wife and children, one of whom, my father’s first cousin, shared his name Hayim, to a town called Preili, 30 kilometers to the north. There, Shael lived with his wife Luba who was to die young, three children, their spouses, and three grandchildren.

So what happened to them? According to documents taken from the Soviet Archives of the 1940s, Shael, his children, and his grandchildren were all killed during the first days of the Nazi occupation of Latvia in a massacre of the Jews of Preili on August 9, 1941. All of them were murdered simply because they were Jews.

You might know of a TV program which deals with genealogical searches of celebrities called; “Who Do You Think You Are?” At that moment, I realized my answer to that question “Who Do You Think You Are?” had forever changed. I could no longer say as I had said for years: “No one in my close family died in the Holocaust.” In that one moment, the Shoah became more than the Jewish story. It was now my family’s story and virulent anti-Semitism was not just a concept but a family reality.

Now, I had to go Latvia, go to Preili to stand in that place, and immediately after Shabbat, I began to make plans to go during the summer.

In the next months as I did more research, I learned quite a bit. First, I discovered that my great uncle’s and cousins’ deaths had been recorded at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and testimony was accessible on the Internet. Why hadn’t we looked? No one in our family had thought to look at the records of Yad Vashem in searching for information about Shael. Were we escaping what we knew in our hearts to be true?

Those Yad Vashem records also contained the name of the man who had submitted the testimony concerning my family. He was a resident of Preili who was in the Russian army at the time of the massacre. He lived in Haifa, Israel and I found his phone number and called him. After a moment of hesitation, he spoke to me briefly and he acknowledged that he knew my family. He said: “Shael Dobrushin was the gabbai (the assistant to the rabbi) in the old shul in Preili.”

When I heard him call my uncle by his name, I cried.

I also learned that there was a Holocaust memorial in the town of Preili, alongside the abandoned Jewish cemetery, the site of the massacre where my family members were slaughtered. The names of the victims were buried in a capsule under the monument and my family’s names were there.

At that moment, the focus of my planned trip became Preili and one June day, after a four-hour train ride from Riga, and a 45-minute bumpy drive across the back roads of southeastern Latvia, I arrived in Preili.

As I walked from the car to the monument, a line from a movie suddenly came to my mind. It was an odd movie to think of at that time. It wasn’t Schindler’s List or any other Shoah movie. Rather, it was a line from the children’s movie “Lilo and Stitch” which at one time was a favorite in our family. The movie features a comment on the Hawaiian word for family: “Ohana means family. Family means no one left behind or forgotten.”

I thought of that line and cried again. My family members had been left behind. But now they would no longer be forgotten.

I walked up to the monument and performed the simple act of remembering: placing stones I had brought from Ann Arbor on the memorial. Then, I stood for a few moments in silence.

After those few moments, I found myself wanting to say something to Shael and his family and the words that came out of my mouth surprised even me. I said: “I am ashamed that in over 70 years no one from the family came to visit you. I apologize but I came as soon as I heard.”

“I came as soon as I heard.” Those were the words that came to me – words that we say to people when they think we haven’t cared when in fact we didn’t know. But sometimes we don’t know because we don’t try hard enough to know and, deep in my heart, I knew we had blinded ourselves for several decades. We should have known. Whether we knew the details or not, we should have realized what had happened to our family.

After saying the memorial prayer and walking around the abandoned cemetery for a few minutes, I left and, truthfully, if I had gone right back to the airport in Riga and had flown home, my trip would have been worthwhile. But I was in Latvia for another few days and so I visited Daugavpils, my grandfather’s birthplace.

With the help of my guide and a local Jewish historian, I learned about the city, a place of great Jewish learning and serious intellectual debate. It was the town where my grandfather came to reject his family’s Jewish tradition and embraced socialism and Zionism. It was the town where his eyes had been opened to seeing something more than the closed, shtetl-like Judaism of his father and his brother, the gabbai of Preili. It was the town from which he left to come to America, and that is exactly what occurred to me while standing on the street where the family lived in Daugavpils.

I didn’t think to myself: “This is where he lived” but “This is the town he left.” This is the town he escaped from to start a new life in America. After seeing what there was to see, I couldn’t wait to join him in leaving.

It was a pleasant enough city and people were friendly, but it was not my place. There was no one and nothing there that made it my place. To paraphrase Harry Chapin: “Those streets were never my ways and I had not known this sky above.”

I spent my second and last night in Daugavpils tossing and turning as voices I didn’t recognize and didn’t understand bounced around in my head. Some of this was brought on by the exhaustion of travel but it was more likely emotional turmoil as I felt as if my grandfather and all of the others who left like him were telling me to go home, back to America, the place they came to. I couldn’t stop thinking about it or watching the clock. It was the longest, most unsettling night of my life. As much as I had needed to go to Daugavpils and as much as I was glad I had done so, that was how deeply I needed to leave.

It was raining when I boarded the early morning express train to Riga. I fell asleep almost immediately, a deep blessed sleep. I woke up when the train made its first stop an hour and a half later to see the sun shining. I smiled from ear to ear.

That day, Friday, was a great day. I thoroughly enjoyed Riga: a lovely city. The sun was shining. I went to the city’s central market and on an architectural walking tour and basked in the sunshine of the city which was once called: “The Paris of the North.”

On Shabbat morning, the sun was still shining when I went to the one active shul in Riga to say Kaddish for Uncle Shael and his family.

As I was settling into my seat, I looked around the synagogue and my eye was drawn to the Hebrew inscription around the aron kodesh. It shocked me. It wasn’t the type of quotation you usually see above the ark, expressing spiritual yearning or simple faith. It was a verse from Psalms: “Blessed be God who did not abandon us to become prey for their teeth.”

Being survivors defined this community’s existence as Jews and I could not turn away from the inscription.

I focused on two Hebrew letters: nun and vav,“us,” who did not abandon us. I asked myself: how had the knowledge I had gained in the past six months changed me? Who do I think I am? Am I part of that us?

In the sense that all Jews are intertwined, of course, we are all part of that us. But beyond the platitudes, what does the story of my great uncle’s death mean to me? Am I now, in some distant way to consider myself and my family as survivors? How does knowing the fact that there were more second cousins that I would never meet because they died in the most horrible ways imaginable affect who I am and how I see the world?

That was the key question for me. I started thinking: does it still make sense to do what I have done more ardently as the years have gone along: embracing the liberal perspective of the late 20th century American Jewry I was raised in, idealistic attitudes that were influenced by freedom and comfort? Here I am working for interfaith causes, spending time on more global concerns, believing we can form alliances with people who used to hate us or still may. Here I am now serving as the co-chair of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization which believes that high on our agenda as Jews, we must be addressing the human rights of all peoples throughout our country and throughout Israel and the territories? What do I say now that I am confronted with my family’s history? Is this a path I have to reconsider? Can I be as positive about the future? Should I still find time to reach out beyond the Jewish world in the work that I do? Or do I think of my great uncle and his family and focus entirely on the survival of our people knowing that the world stands against us and – that “if I am not for myself who will be for me”?

Of course, I recognize that many who came out of the Shoah are dedicated to those same idealistic values and, in some cases, it was the experience of the Shoah which led them to those commitments. But it does seem obvious that the values of trust and idealism are easier to come by if you have not experienced such pain. I have been told very often by people in this congregation that I would likely feel differently about the world if my parents had been born in Europe or if I had sat in the lap or at the feet of those whose had suffered unthinkable harm at the hands of the Nazis. I know it is not true for all survivors or children of Holocaust victims, but it is true for many that the pain and agony has led them, quite understandably, to be less open and trusting of others in the world. I understand and I acknowledge that. But how does this apply to me, and is the answer different than it was before I read the letter from Latvia and sat staring at the inscription in the Riga shul?

So I struggled with this question and tried to figure out where I fit in. I thought of what it means to grow up in freedom, what the benefits and potential dangers are. I thought of my parents, my teachers, my colleagues who have inspired me to fight against the apathy and selfishness that good fortune sometimes brings. Then, I thought of so many of my colleagues who see things so differently from me.

I spent several sleepless nights wrestling with these questions and after weeks and weeks of wrestling I came up with an answer. I cannot change who I have come to be.

Of course, this experience will have an impact on my thinking. It will strengthen the obligation I already feel and hopefully share with all of you to respond to incidents or threats of anti-Semitism at home or elsewhere. I will, I assume, respond a bit more quickly as my words to Shael: “I came as soon as I heard” echo in my mind.

This experience will also further solidify my commitment to Israel as I was reminded again how much safer a world this is for Jews with a Jewish state.

But even though that is true, I still worry about linking Israel too strongly with the Shoah. It is not enough to think of Israel solely from the perspective of Yad Vashem. We have to think about Israel in other ways than just a response to or the prevention of another holocaust. Jewish survival is not enough. We need to think about the values we embrace, the way we live, what we do with our survival, and what we teach the world.

This trip didn’t change how deeply I feel that. I am still an idealist.

Because my grandfather came to this great country, I have had the blessing of security which has given me a completely different set of experiences and a completely different perspective on what it means to be a Jew than Shael might have had.

So, ultimately, Shael’s life and death will never be as great an influence on my life as the story of my grandfather Julius.

When Grandpa Dobrusin left Latvia, he left for a place where he could give his children and grandchildren a better life, a place where three generations later, we live safely as Jews in a multi-cultural, more universalistic society. I have grown up nurtured by that freedom and that dream. That is who I am. And nothing, not even the tragic story of Shael’s life is going to change that. Nor should it.

I think of Mordecai Kaplan’s words; “The past has a vote but not a veto.”

My experience in Latvia will have a vote in how I view the world and my role as a Jew.

But it will not have a veto.

Whether I am part of the “us” who was saved from the Holocaust could be debated. But what can’t be debated is that I am part of the “us” whose life has been lived in freedom and comfort, and that has fostered in me to a set of priorities which I feel are critical and necessary for the Jewish people and for the world at large. Just as our people must hear with great reverence and respect the stories of those who have experienced anti-Semitism most directly to remind us of the threats to our people and urge us to be vigilant and protective of our own needs, so too do our people need to hear our stories: the lessons of those of us who have been blessed with a safer life and who have worked to advance the ideals and possibilities life can hold for us and all people. We need to tell our stories and to continue to embrace the perspective with which we have been raised.

I am indebted beyond words to my grandparents for giving me the opportunity to be who I have come to be. I didn’t do anything to deserve that gift, but I will not apologize for it. My life in America has been one of Sunday Morning Sunshine and my trip taught me not to take the sun for granted.

I am my grandfather’s grandson, and while I will never forget and never abandon my great uncle and his family’s memory, I will always be guided by the sunshine that has graced my life because my grandfather came here. I hope and pray that those of us who have been as fortunate as I have will be grateful for the sunshine that shines on us and find ultimate meaning, self definition, and obligation in that blessed light.


eed to grow up but never so old that we stop questioning who we are.

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