HIT THE ROAD






In late October 2001, my cousin Connie Avner Buchanan and I went to Poland and Lithuania. Connie did all of the preparatory work and research and we went through the JewishGen ShtetlSchleppers organization. These are my observations from that experience.     

I could read about the history of the area and see photographs of the time.  However, seeing it, understanding the geography and topography of it, is what pulls it all together. I wanted to make this journey because of my curiosity and my desire to grasp what my roots were. My father never spoke about his childhood, his siblings died before I was old enough to know to ask and his parents died before I was born.  My mother’s parents died before I was old enough to know to ask, and my mother was born and raised in the USA.  





In 1968, a week prior to my father’s death, I interviewed him for the Pittsburgh National Council of Jewish Women’s oral history project. Those are the only notes I have of his background. A couple of hours following the interview, his heart gave out and he was hospitalized. My father was precise in his description of his childhood home in the interview. That interview and other memories of my childhood and my aunts in Brownsville left me with a feeling of unfinished business, an eternal question mark.

During the years when I could have asked relatives to fill in missing details, I did not. Most unfortunate. My mother, while hospitalized and critically ill in February 1986 (two months prior to her death) of her own volition tried to recall names and people from her family; none made sense.  One cousin, Y, was already in Israel during the years that my mother would visit regularly, but I never made the effort to ask and prod. When I met my cousin, R,  ca 1994, I started to get a better picture of the extent of the Ofchinskas heritage.  My past was so fuzzy that it’s a wonder I could go forward.

I grew up knowing that my parents were first cousins: my father’s mother, Beile, and my mother’s mother, Fannie (Feigle), were sisters. I had been told (or at least think I was) that they had grown up in the same village where my father was born and raised.

"Seeing is believing.” 

Kapciamiestas (Kopcheve in Yiddish) is a very small village located in the Suwalki region of Lithuania.  The region changed hands frequently: Poland, Germany, Prussia, Russia and Lithuania. The area is  characterized by forests of birch and maple trees, rivers, lakes and rolling hills. It is predominantly rural in nature.   Scenically, the Suwalki region is beautiful, pastoral and green. The lakes are glimmering glass. In the fall the leaves turn golden and red.  There are no highways, railroad tracks or airport in the area. Roads are typically rural, two lanes. Most of the structures are wooden; some new building is either white brick or concrete block facing over wood. Today the Suwalki region is split between four countries: Poland (west), Russia (north), Belarus(south east) and Lithuania.  In my father’s time, it was Russian.  

 The shtetl was actually a neighborhood in the center of the village.  The Jews spoke Yiddish between themselves and Russian with the non-Jewish population. At the turn of the 20th century the total population of the village was about 1200 with an estimated 50% being Jewish.  The population today is 750 with no Jews living there. Kopcheve had a shul and cheder, but my father traveled to cheder in another village. There was no high school in the village then but today there is a comprehensive school.  My father went to a secular Gymnasia (high school) in Grodno (now in Belarus) and boarded with a non-Jewish family. Homes were wooden, livelihood was either farming or local trade, much as it is today.  A typical home would include a house, a separate shed for storage (wood and grains) and a small shack for livestock.  Because it is so isolated, information outside of the village would have come from either travelers to and from, post or perhaps and outdated occasional newspaper.  It is safe to assume that information between the Jewish communities flowed by word-of-mouth.  The small villages in the area, although scattered, are about 15-20 kilometers apart.  Travel in my father’s time was then was done by horse and wagon.  Winters are harsh, very cold and plenty of snow; lakes and rivers freeze.

Now, having seen the area of Kapciamiestas, it is understandable why at the turn of the 20th century Jews traveled was either west or south.  On rare occasions some went north because of a "shitach”[prearranged marriage] in Kaunas.At the turn of the 20th century all young men in the area were faced with obligatory conscription to the Czar’s army. Probably word, via post, was reaching the Jews in the village that America was paved in gold, "The golden medina” (Yiddish for "Golden Country”.  Jewish families aspired to escaping the Czar’s army and/or  Cossacks’ tyranny (Pogroms); they dreamed of getting to America.  So, they went west to find a port from which to sail.  The Bund was active at that time, and those so inclined, dreamt of getting to Palestine; they went south. At the turn of the 20th century Bialystok had a very large, thriving and prosperous Jewish community. Close to 60% of Bialystok was Jewish with a large textile industry.  The ride today from Kapciamiestas to Bialystok is two hours. 

And so it came to be that my paternal grandfather's children left home for the golden streets of America.  His oldest daughter was the first to leave in 1908 and travelled with an aunt to New York; she was betrothed to a cousin also in NY.  My grandparents received mail saying that their oldest daughter was desperately lonely in the new world; the new son-in-law feared for her health.  So, the next daughter was sent to take care of her, leaving Kapciamiestis in 1910 alone and on foot.  Their only son, my father, left in 1911 as soon as he completed his Gymnasia studies; he left Kapciamiestis hidden under a wagon with two other Jewish boys.  All of the travel arrangements had been made by their father.  








Remaining at home were my grandparents with their youngest daughter, and a very sickly daughter, who subsequently died in Kapciamiestis in 1912.  Ultimately, my grandparents and their surviving youngest daughter did come to the US with all of them being in the Brownsville, PA (Pittsburgh, PA area) by 1919.  My grandmother died in Brownsville in 1923, and my grandfather returned to Kapciamiestis, longed for his brother, David, and decided to "go home”.  The last correspondence between grandfather and son was March 1936. 


"There but for the grace of G-d go I.” 

World War I came and went (my father served in the US army in the chemical division making mustard gas), the Russian revolution passed, US immigration gates closed in 1924, and World War II was approaching. 

In October 2001 elderly residents of Kapciamiestas helped recreate the 1930’s by recalling various Jews in the village.  Following are memories of their early school years (retold as heard)

"Lezer Hoffman sat next to me [Sigmund] in school, and Faivke Ofchinskas sat next to Aleksas.”

"Yehuda Fridovsky’s father got an infection from having a tooth pulled and died. We all went to the funeral.”

"Avraham Ofchinskas had horses. His children were David and Faivke.”

"Greshevsky was a blacksmith, and he also had a bus. The bus went to Kaunas; it cost 5 LT, the same price as a sack of grain.”

"Zelig was a miller.”

"Alterke had a shop at the corner.”

"Yoshke had a shop.  His two sons came to visit after the war.”

"Shmulke was a blacksmith.”

"Sender was a shoemaker.”

"Avromke and Pesach had an inn. They had herring and beer.”

"Yitske was a tailor.”

"Ostromski was a pharmacist with a beautiful daughter.”

"There were Kvetkovsky; Batulis had two daughters.”

"Chambe had black hair, and we called her Yodo (black) Chambe.”

"Kofschulius was a wood merchant.” 

(see the article on "Kopcheve” by Joseph Rosen  with Yehuda Fridovsky’s details of the times.)

During that period between the two world wars some of the Veisiejai branch of the Ofchinskas family, relocated to South Africa, England and the US. They adopted new countries, new names, new lives.  Some of my grandfather Ofchinskas’ siblings spread out to the US, Israel and Mexico.  

June 22, 1941 the Nazis entered Kapciamiestis burning most of the village.  August 15, 1941 all of the Jews in the village were carted off and taken away.  On November 3, 1941 (chilling to realize that in the US it was my parents 6th wedding anniversary) 1535 Jews of the area were massacred in the mass grave of Katkishes outside of Lazdijai; may their souls be a blessed memory. 

Some of the Jews, by luck, were able to survive. Y was visiting family in another village on August 15th and subsequently was spared. Lezer Hoffman hid in a dugout with Kibilanski (father and 3 other children) for the following 4 years.  Townspeople told us that villagers took them food and water.  Villagers related that Lezer’s survival was a miracle. Sara Elka  passed the war years serving in the Lithuanian division #16 of the Soviet army.  Lezer Hoffman returned to Kapciamiestis where he lived another twenty years, working as a tailor; he never married but lived with his beloved (Y says she wasn’t Jewish….).  Sara Elke married a Russian, Vasilijev, lived in Vilnius and worked for the passport department; they had a daughter, Tanya, who went to Russia; she had a daughter, Lida, who is supposedly somewhere in Israel; Sara Elke died in Vilnius where she is buried in the new Jewish cemetery.  Yehuda F’s family escaped as the Nazis were entering the village.

One Veisiejai Ofchinskas survived by rallying between Lithuanian and Russian soldiers and police officers, slipping in and out of Russia.  He married a girl from Kaunas (Kovno) and settled in Vilnius where he worked in a government position. They have two daughters. (The reunion with long lost family was the culmination of this trip.  It was both a closure and an aperture.)

To my amazement we Ofchinskas descendants are many.  We mourn those who have passed, those whom we never knew; and we look forward to becoming acquainted with the many new family members recently known to us.

"If you don’t know from where you came, you won’t know where to go.”  Our ancestors crawled, walked, rode under wagons and sailed rough seas to seek freedom: freedom to live in dignity, freedom to live our religion in whichever way they thought best, freedom to continue the traditional values with which we all were raised.  One-hundred years have passed. Our ancestors typify the "Wandering Jew” äéäåãé äðåãã .  We’ve seen continual movement throughout those past one-hundred years.  Aria Leib from Kapciamiestis had sons who sailed to America; of the sons in America, one son had two sons who migrated to Brazil. One Kapciamiestis Ofchinskas had a granddaughter who was born in NY, then relocated to Sao Paolo and now in lives in Jerusalem and another granddaughter who escaped communist Vilnius for Israel.  And, what goes around, comes around: My own grandfather Ofchinskas had a son who went to Pittsburgh, a great grandsons who went to Israel, one of whom returned to Pittsburgh; he has great great grandchildren living currently in various places in Israel and the United States!   

Carol Hoffman, 28 October 2001, 7am, Vilnius. 

PS. What about that nagging eternal question mark? Regarding Kapciamiestis, dayenu.  It has remained close to what it was during my father’s childhood. I am content with what I have learned from the experience.  The comfort of the scenery was familiar, calming.  Brownsville and Pittsburgh were extensions.

There still are mysteries and holes in the family tree.  They need to be explored and researched….even if I have no desire to return to Poland.  However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last night, while "surfing”, I found an archival record in the Jewish Records Indexing-Poland showing the marriage of my maternal grandparents 1897; next followed a record of the birth of their first daughter in 1899. 

Last post script before sending this to press: Yad V’Shem has emailed me that they have ten pages of Ofchinskas family in their records!  And so, "There but for the grace of G-d go I.”   

Carol Hoffman, 14 November, 11am, Tel Aviv

As I write this additional note 10 months later, many developments have taken place. We have pursued our search for ancestors, family and documentation. We have established contact with our South African distant relative and his family in England. We have tried to organize a "mini-reunion” in Oct. 2002, at which these notes will be available. 

Carol Hoffman, 4 September 2002, Tel Aviv


                                                              Connie & Carol visit Kapciamiestis, October 2001

    
Site of former synagogue    

         
Entrance to Kapciamiamiestis 

       
Typical house    

                         


Church


Regina Kopilevich reads tombstone

Kapciamiestis June 2005 - in depth study

A renewed trip to Kapciamiestis took place in June 2005. It coincided with an additional trip, a Kopchovsky family roots trip.  Dorothy Leivers and Carol Hoffman flew to Vilnius where they rented a car, met their guide and friend Regina Kopilevich and headed straight for Kapciamiestis. In time Rochelle Saidel joined us. We spent 5 days in the Kapciamiestis area. Photos follow:

                            

      



Rochelle Saidel and Esther Grodzin Hellman visited Lithuania in 2005. Esther focused on her birthtown, Vilnius, while Rochelle joined the rounds of Kopcheve and Lazdijai. See
Photo Journal and Report on my First Trip to Poland and Lithuania, Mary 25-June 9, 2005, by Rochelle G. Saidel


Catherine Kopciowski, summer 2011

Catherine Kopciowski is my third cousin. She found me for although I had a record of her father; I  could not place him on the family tree, and I had no evidence to suggest he had survived the war. This summer, Catherine contacted me and told me she had read the Jews of Kopcheve and was planning a visit there. We met before her trip and spent nearly a week exchanging stories of our family and filling in many gaps. She is beginning to write to me with her impressions and emotions. I have translated this to share with you and to mark the 70th anniversary of that dreadful day in September 1941. Dorothy Leivers


see Catherine's virtual tour of Kapciamiestis http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1eq43N4-BA

June 2012 Carol's visit to Kapciamiestis Marcia & Paul Greenbaum's visit Fall 2012



Kapciamiestis Museum

 

 

 
 

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