Today I don't just want to talk about my efforts to save a small, sad synagogue in a corner of Eastern Latvia. I also want to talk about why I am trying to save that synagogue. It is a story that, for me, looks at the thorny question of Jewish identity and Jewish heritage and the value of preserving that identity and heritage.
2. "Your origin and your birth are of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, you're your mother a Hittite." (Ezekiel 16:3)
Genetic evidence confirms the belief that most Jews are closely related and that ultimately we all have roots in the land of Israel or at least its general region. Even an isolated black South African tribe that claims Jewish descent, the Lemba, have genetic traits that point to a common Jewish ancestry. Archaeology shows that the original Jews, if I can use that term for people living so long ago, lived in a small group of poor and isolated villages from around 1200 BCE in what is now the West Bank whose only unique characteristic we can detect archaeologically is that they didn't eat pork. In all other ways these original Jews were typical Canaanites archaeologically. But they gave up pork. In those tiny, pork-shunning villages we all probably have distant ancestors.
But genetic, biblical, historical and archaeological evidence show that we all are also probably of some mixed origins. At least since the first Diaspora, and even from the earliest passages in the bible, mixed marriage and mixing with local populations have been major issues for Jews. Archaeologically, those earliest Jews were Canaanites. But some of the 12 tribes described in the bible seem to have different origins. Did some people come from Egypt? Did some come from Haran or Babylon? Did the tribe of Dan, as some think, come from a people who were related to the Philistines and hence may ultimately have been Greeks? The bible, genetics and archaeology give us tiny hints at a mixed origin as well as common roots. And of course each Diaspora that we suffered brought up anew the controversies of mixed marriage, assimilation and the fundamental question of what does it mean to be a "Jew." Is our identity primarily genetic, religious, national or cultural? This is not a new question but can be found throughout the bible. In some ways being Jewish seems bound up in this identity crisis of just who we are and how we define ourselves.
What is the core of Jewish identity?
3. And why is this question one of such vital importance?
There is a politician in Brooklyn named Bill Batson. He is a good guy, running for office not out of ambition but because he is concerned about what is happening to Brooklyn. He fears that modern development is destroying the soul of Brooklyn in very real ways. Historic neighborhoods are being uprooted to make room for skyscrapers. Families who have lived in Brooklyn for generations are being forced out. And, the heritage of Brooklyn, particularly, in his view, the heritage of the black community in Brooklyn, is being destroyed. He points to an old graveyard where black veterans were buried. He points to the Harriet Tubman museum. He points to buildings that were stopping points along the Underground Railroad. These are among many sites of cultural importance that are the first places to be lost to modern development. Cultural sites are lost first, then the rest of the community.
He fears this because he fears that a loss of heritage means a loss of identity. He says it this way: "If you take away a person's heritage, you can do anything you want to them."
This phrase struck me. He was referring to black heritage in Brooklyn. But it made a huge impression. Why? Because in that phrase you have the history of Judaism in a nutshell. From the Babylonian exile to Nazi Germany, you have an attempt to destroy our identity by destroying not just our lives but also our heritage.
4. What does it mean to be a Jew? Genetics, religion, culture, nationality... My wife once put it most starkly. My wife and I are both only half Jewish with Jewish mothers and Christian fathers. We are not very religious. Yet we define ourselves very consciously as Jews. Why? I am still in the process of answering this question for myself, but my wife once put it this way: "We are Jewish because there are people out there who would kill us because of it."
To the average American, my wife and I just look like white Americans. But many Jews and many Eastern Europeans and everyone in Israel took one look at us and knew we were Jewish. We were glared at and jeered at in St. Petersburg and in Latvia by people who saw us and knew immediately we were Jewish. We need our heritage because without it those who hate us for who we are have that much more power over us. Our heritage, anyone's heritage, is what helps define our identity and that identity helps us survive in a hostile world. Heritage gives us the roots to stand up to society's sometimes very violent storms.
That is why this synagogue means something to me. It is part of my family heritage and a part of the heritage of all Eastern European Jews. Hitler tried to destroy that heritage and his attempts still echo to this very day. That also struck me when I visited Latvia: the events that Hitler set in motion are still playing out for many small, dying Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. If we let this and similar synagogues go, it is one more success by Hitler, though long dead, to destroy our heritage and thus our identity. My wanting to preserve this synagogue is an effort to connect with and preserve my personal identity as well as our collective identity as Jews. And it is my personal act of defiance against Hitler and all who would destroy our identity.
5. What is the core of Jewish identity?
This is a question I never thought much about until a few years ago. In this I am typical of my family. My distant cousin was Harry Danning, a famous baseball player in the 1930's. His father was the brother of my great-grandmother. I talked to him about a year before he died when I had just started getting into my genealogy. I was hoping that he, as one of the oldest surviving relatives at the time, would remember things about our past. He remembered very little. What he said to me was this: "When I was a kid I was never interested in that stuff. I was only interested in playing baseball." Often, American Jews don't care about their heritage until they are adults, often only when they have children.
For me a simple question asked by a professor I worked with got me on the track of my genealogy. He simply wanted to know if there was a website I knew where he could look up biographies of historical individuals. He knew I was competent on the Internet, so he asked me to find him some sites. I did a quick search, found him some sites that met his needs. But also noticed something called the SS death index, something which is probably familiar to many in this room. I was curious so I clicked on the link.
I found I could look up any dead person who had a SSN and get a little info on that person. On a whim, I entered my father's name. My parents divorced when I was a year old and I never knew my real father other than knowing that he wasn't Jewish and that my original last name was Kunkel, a German name. I entered my father's name and found that he had died.
I never knew my father, so this had only a vague emotional impact on me. But the thought that I could use the Internet to find out about my origins fascinated me. From there, and from my mother's memory, I not only tracked my father's lineage back to the 16th century, thanks to the fact that German Lutherans keep perfect church records, but I also...
6. ...traced my maternal grandmother's ancestry back a couple of generations to two towns in Latvia: Daugavpils, also known as Dvinsk, where my great-grandmother Dora was born, and Rezekne, also known as Rezhitzka, where my great grandfather Solomon was born.
I found our addresses in the 1897 "All Russia Census" and was able to visit our homes in Rezekne. I found near by...
7. a condemned, run-down synagogue that just might have been the synagogue my family used.
I have since spent a great deal of time trying to raise the needed funds to save and restore that synagogue. My decision to do this was purely an emotional one. I wasn't really sure why I wanted to at the time. But somehow I knew it had to do with my identity, with both my family's past and the past of Eastern European Jews. Now I know that it has to do with Bill Batson's comment: I want to preserve our heritage so that we have one more deep root to help us withstand those who hate us for what we are.
In 1845, the small East Latvian town of Rezekne (or Rezhitsa in Russian) was part of the massive Russian Empire that stretched from Poland to Siberia. In that year, a small wooden synagogue was built in Rezekne. This synagogue was one of about a dozen synagogues in the city of Rezekne in the middle years of the 19th century, synagogues that served a large Jewish population, about half the total population of Rezekne at that time. This particular synagogue was painted green, and hence the building has been known ever since, rather prosaically, as the "Green Synagogue." The Green Synagogue is the only synagogue in Rezekne to survive World War II, and even now it stands, though only as an empty, condemned building. Like the Jewish population in many corners of Eastern Europe today, the Green Synagogue is in danger of being forgotten and lost.
9. Rezekne is a city that was shaped by an interaction of cultures: native Latvian, German, Russian and Jewish cultures mixing both peacefully and violently. Rezekne was originally a castle town and the ruins of its castle, possibly dating as far back as the 9th century, remain today. This castle was one of the first buildings built in Rezekne. But signs of a Jewish presence are just as old since right next to the ruined castle is another old building that is thought to have been the town's first inn, and this inn was thought to be run by Jews from very early on.
This was a very common pattern in Eastern Europe, with Jews running local inns and taverns next to the local castle. The Jewish population of Rezekne grew as the city grew until half the city was Jewish.
This was no little shetl, but neither was it a big city. Here I show an example of the beautiful brick architecture that made up the center of Rezekne in the 19th Century. This building was once a pharmacy in the main area of old Rezekne, very near the synagogue.
Jews participated fully in city life, including sitting on the city council. This building used to be a Jewish bank just across the street from the synagogue. Jews were an integral part of Rezekne's life until World War II.
Though of course most Jews remained poor, living in wooden houses like this.
13. My great-great grandfather, Schmuila Jankel Luban, was 24 years old when the Green Synagogue was built. Jankel's last name, Luban, was probably only recently adopted by the family, since it was only around that time that Jews commonly took last names in Eastern Europe. "Luban" indicates that the family was originally from a shtetl near Lake Lubanas in Eastern Latvia. The Lubans were a family of craftsmen, not well off, but not so poor either. They lived mostly in the brick buildings in central Rezenke, not in the run-down wooden homes of the poorer class. Jankel married a woman named Kreine and they lived not too far from the Green Synagogue.
Jankel is the earliest Jewish ancestor of mine I can trace. In his honor, my wife and I named our son "Jacob," linking my son with his Latvian-Jewish heritage.
But we soon discovered that little Jacob, when he was crying, looked very much like a cranky old Jewish man, so we still think of him as "Little Jankel" when he is in a cranky mood.
16. We don't know when Jankel and Kreine Luban, died but there is no record that they ever left Rezekne. They almost certainly are buried in the run-down Jewish cemetery just outside Rezekne that I show here.
The last record of their existence is their entry in the 1897 "All Russia" census where I was able to learn of their existence and the address where they lived.
17. But two of their sons, Sawel and Henach, fled Russia for America with their families by 1905, fleeing political unrest, military conscription and pogroms. Henach had been forced to serve in the Russian army in the ill-fated Russo-Japanese war and when on leave he fled Russia rather than being sent back to the front. Both Sawel and Henach had married and had children by the time they fled Russia. In fact, my grandmother, Celia, was the last member of these two families to be born in Rezekne. Since both families lived near the Green Synagogue, it is very likely that when they married, Sawel and Henach had their weddings at the Green Synagogue. Both families settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where some of my distant relatives still live. Sawel became Solomon Luban in America and was my great grandfather.
18. Henach became Henry Luban in America and many of his children, grandchildren and further descendents are still alive. One such descendent of Henry Luban's is his great-grandson Henry Garfield, better known to many of us as the punk rocker Henry Rollins, shown on the right. Here I also show on the left the Maltinskies, the family Henach's wife came from.
19. There is one hint that another Luban brother may have existed. There is a single record of a Berko Luban running a store in Rezekne in 1911. Who Berko was and if he has any descendents are unknown. By the time I was born, all memory of Berko had faded, as had any memory of the Green Synagogue. By the time I was an adult and searching for my roots, many of us had even forgotten that we were from Rezekne at all. As an aside, if anyone can help track down who Berko Luban from Rezekne was and what happened to him, I would love to talk with you. And as an aside to my aside, I also would love to track down my great-grandmother's family, named either Misrach or Diamondstein, from Dvinsk, Latvia.
20. While my family was thriving in America and forgetting about Rezekne, the Jewish population left behind suffered terribly. Emigration, starvation, pogroms and forced relocation reduced the Jewish population of Rezkne considerably by the time World War II started. But the Green Synagogue survived. It was even renovated in the 1930's. When the Germans came, in one single day, 5000 Jews and the Latvians who tried to help them were machine-gunned just outside of town.
I visited the place, the only actual Holocaust site I have ever visited. Walking along the grassy space that is the mass grave, walking for a very long time along that grave, the impact of "5000 killed in one day" hit me very hard and I had tears in my eyes and a great deal of anger in my heart.
The Jewish population of Rezekne was almost wiped out on that single day. Only a handful survived, protected by some local Latvians. By the time many members of my family were returning to Europe as soldiers in the US military fighting the Nazis, those Nazis had all but wiped out any of our relatives who had remained in Rezekne.
Even the graves in the Jewish cemetery were shot by the Nazis, like this headstone But somehow, the Green Synagogue survived. All other synagogues in Rezekne were destroyed.
But the Green Synagogue still stands. Some remember that it was used as a holding pen for Jews on their way to death camps and that this is why it survived. Rezekne is on the major railroad route between St. Petersburg and Warsaw, so Jews from all over the region were brought into town to await transport to the camps. Rezekne was one small node on a massive railroad network feeding the death camps. The Green Synagogue may have been the last synagogue many of those people would ever see.
In 2003, after I had rediscovered my family's past and found the addresses where we had lived in 1897 Rezekne, I went to visit the city of my great-great grandfather to see where we had come from. I took my wife and stepdaughter and we met with Rashel (pictured here), the head of the Jewish community of Rezekne, to see the city and to learn what it was like when my family had lived there.
23. Rashel showed me the addresses where my family used to live. Some buildings, like the one where my great grandparents lived, are gone.
But some, like the brick apartment building where Henry Rollin's great grandmother's family lived, still stand. And many of those addresses are near the Green Synagogue, suggesting to me that the Green Synagogue was our family's synagogue.
24. The city itself is beautiful, though we saw some remnants of lingering anti-Semitism. But overall our brief stay in Rezekne was very pleasant. The countryside is beautiful, the town small and quiet. It is a part of Latvia that is more Russian than Latvian, and most restaurants had Russian menus and served Russian food.
Some of the best Russian food I have ever tasted was in a restaurant (shown in this picture) just down the street from
25. ...where Henry Rollins' great grandmother's family, the Maltinskies and Galbraiths, had lived
(shown here as the street looked in the 1920's...across from the pharmacy I showed earlier)
And here is the building where the Maltinsky and Galbraith ancestors of Henry Rollins lived as it looked when I visited in 2003.
27. Today only about 50 Jews remain in Rezekne. They have no proper synagogue since the Green Synagogue was condemned in the 1990's due to severe water damage.
Their shul is a handful of rooms in an office building.
28. Our tour of Jewish Rezekne ended at the Synagogue and it was there that Rashel told me much of what I have told you today.
We saw the synagogue by candlelight. The inside is dusty and water damaged with many windows boarded up and parts of the ceiling falling down.
28. It was a very sad building, but some old painted decoration from the 1930's, if not earlier,
and even a few fragments of the original stained glass still remain.
30. I stood there that day in the condemned Green Synagogue and imagined the wedding of my great grandparents. My ancestors had probably stood in that same synagogue more than 100 years before I did. And then I imagined thousands of terrified Jews in the 1940's spending one night in that same synagogue before being sent to almost certain death.
31. The joys of weddings and the fear of death surrounded me in that dark, sad building. It was at that moment that I decided that I would try and save the Green Synagogue. As a monument to the Jews who had helped shape Rezekne from its early days as a castle town to its later days as a stop along a major Russian rail line, I wanted to save that synagogue.
32. As a place for my family to return to see where we came from, I wanted to save that synagogue.
33. As an act of defiance against the Nazis who practically wiped out the Jews of Rezekne, I wanted to save that synagogue. And as a symbol of hope for the surviving Jews of Latvia, I wanted to save that synagogue.
I had never undertaken this kind of project before and had no idea how to go about it. I still have only a vague idea of how to complete the project. But I was very lucky that the local government of Rezekne had already taken an interest in restoring the Green Synagogue.
34. One of the adjacent streets was renamed "Israel Street" in honor of the synagogue and they had looked into what it would take to restore.
Sadly, they dropped the plan due to lack of funds. So I decided that maybe I could help find at least some of the funds needed to restore the Green Synagogue and so, soon after returning to the US after my trip to Rezekne, I went online to find funding agencies that might be interested and to find descendents of Rezekne Jews who might be able to help me. I was able to find some two-dozen descendents of Rezekne Jews who were interested in helping restore the Green Synagogue and without their help and advice, I would never have even been able to begin. And it is through this network of Jewish descendents of Rezekne Jews that I was able to get the ball rolling.
35. About a year after returning from Rezekne, I was able to get a small grant (about $14,000) from the World Monuments Fund's Jewish Heritage Grant ProgramTM that would cover the cost of hiring an architect to survey the site of the Green Synagogue and determine what work needed to be done and how much a full restoration would cost.
36. Here is a sample page of the plans the architect made:
That phase of the project has recently been completed and now the real work can begin. The local government in Latvia, inspired by the interest that I and the World Monuments Fund were showing, was able to find more than $40,000 to repair the roof, so that no further water damage will occur, and to repair the timbers that have been most damaged. But this is only the beginning. The site survey that the World Monuments Fund supported has found that nearly $200,000 worth of repairs will be needed to restore the synagogue to the way it was in the 1930's.
I am hoping to find people who are interested in preserving this small piece of Eastern European heritage, in defying the Nazi attempts to eradicate all signs of Judaism in Europe and in giving hope to the surviving Jews of Latvia.
38. I invite anyone who can help raise money or interest in this project to contact me so that the Green Synagogue, which has stood for 160 years of both joy and despair, can continue to stand for the Jews of Rezekne and as part of our surviving heritage. Thank you.