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.
“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.
Connie & Carol visit Kapciamiestis, October 2001
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