Monday, September 5, 2011

Saving Heritage: Jewish Roots and a Small Synagogue in Latvia

This is one of many adaptations I have made from a talk I gave to the Latvia Special Interest Group luncheon at the Jewish Genealigical Conference in NYC in 2006. My personal story began when I started exploring my ancestry in 2003, both my non-Jewish father's side and my Jewish mother's side. I was able to make some pretty major connections on both sides. I discuss my conclusions for my Jewish side here, and my conclusions for my German side here.

This is the story of my mother's side, particularly the Luban family from Rezekne, Latvia, and a synagogue that they would have known that still, barely, survives in 2009. To me that synagogue and my desire to save it are the symbols of what Jewish identity means to me, and so, in answer to the question of why I am so interested in this one synagogue, I explore the question of heritage in general, and Jewish identity in particular.

BEING JEWISH: It all began with the pork

"Your origin and your birth are of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite...your mother a Hittite."-- (Ezekiel 16:3)

Genetic evidence confirms the belief that most, though not all, mainstream Jews are closely related, and that ultimately we 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 suggests 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 highlands of Israel and the West Bank and 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. All the surrounding Canaanite trash piles included pig bones. In the highland villages those bones suddenly disappear from the archaeological record. No one knows why those Canaanites gave up pork, the meat that all other Canaanites loved. Some, including myself, have envisioned a local strongman who got sick after eating pork, or a whole group that got sick after eating pork, leading to a prohibition on pork. Others have hypothesized that the fact that all Canaanites ate pork might mean that the proto-Jews were specifically distinguishing themselves from their neighbors by abandoning pork. To me this would only make sense if a Canaanite religious ceremony of considerable importance involved pork, and emerging monotheists rejecting that ceremony threw the pork baby out with the polytheist bathwater. But I recently, in a single offhand, but perhaps critical, fact mentioned in the book Salt by Mark Kurlansky, may have found the key to why pork bones disappeared from the trash piles of those villages right about the time when the bible suggests Judaism was forming as a national identity.

The truth is, rejection of pork was NOT unique at that time, even if it was unique among the Canaanites. It was a characteristic of one of the region's major Empires...Egypt, according to Salt by Mark Kurlansky. In this book there is an offhand reference to the fact that ham would have probably been invented by the salt-cured fanatics, the ancient Egyptians, had they not been averse to eating pork. Egyptians apparantly salt cured everything...but not pork. The religious leadership of ancient Egypt considered pigs carriers of leprosy and considered pig farmers social outcasts. This is a critical piece of evidence in considering the origin of Jewish beliefs! The very first archaeologically attested characteristics of the proto-Jews was abandonment of pork. The biblically attested founder of the Jewish identity and law was supposedly someone with an Egyptian name, ending in "Moses." And ancient Egyptians rejected pork and invented monotheism (though then rejected it) in the century prior to the Exodus. This starts to be too much evidence to be ignored. It seems that there really was an Egyptian origin to at least some of Jewish beliefs even if the current genetic evidence points to a strictly Canaanite origin.

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?

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. As I write this in Spring 2009, despite years of trying to save it, one of those Underground Railroad sites (231 Duffiel St. in Brooklyn) has just been demolished to build a hotel. Cultural sites are lost first, then the rest of the community withers away.

Bill Batson fears this process 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 on me. 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.

What does it mean to be a Jew? Genetics, religion, culture, nationality...More recently, through the organization Kulanu, I have learned about people in Uganada and Ghana who have chosen on their own to be Jews, in many ways recreating the development of Judaism on their own, initially in isolation. These people reach Judaism through a completely different path than I have. It is my genetics, on my mother's side, and my culture. And, if I chose to accept Israel's open invitation, it could be my nationality. For the Abayudaya of Uganda, they chose Judaism as their religion because it made sense to them as a religion, and have negotiated ever since to be included in the wider cultural sea of Judaism and to be accepted by Israel as natioanlly Jewish even though they do not share the genetic link many of us do. By contrast, another Brooklyn politician, Brand Lander, who does share that genetic link, accepts the cultural and religious aspects of Judaism while rejecting the nationalist aspects. Where in all this is the core of Judaism? To me, ALL of these threads are legitimate, if contradictary, aspects of Judaism.

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 s small, condemned synagogue in Latvia 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.

What is the core of Jewish identity?


--Harry "the Horse" Danning, Cousin and Major League Baseball Player

This is a question I never thought much about until about six 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 in that phone call was this:

"When I was a kid I was never interested in that stuff. I was only interested in playing baseball. Ya follow me?"

Often, American Jews don't care about their heritage until they are adults, often only when they have children, if even then.

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 Social Security Death Index. 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 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.


--Dora (Dviera) and Solomon (Sawel) Luban

And I found our addresses in the 1897 "All Russia Census" and was able to visit our homes in Rezekne.

Luban, Sawel, Father: Jankel; Occupation: Joiner; Age: 28; Birthplace: Rezekne; address: Rezenke, Volkov lane 11-2

Luban, Dwiera, Father: Awsey; Age 26; Birthplace: Daugavpils (same as Dvinsk); address: Rezenke, Volkov Lane 11-2. Comment: wife of Sawel.

I found where their home used to is now mostly an empty lot:

Sawel Luban's parents also lived in Rezene at the time:

LUBAN, Schmuila Jankel, Age: 76; Birthplace: Rezenke, address Plekshenskaya 24-2

LUBAN, Kreine, Age: 55; Birthplace: Rezenke, address same as Jankel; comment: wife of Schmuila Jankel

Eslewhere I found a record indicating that Kreine was Jankel's second wife. I have no idea whether there were children from his previous marriage.

I found near these sites a condemned, run-down synagogue that just might have been the synagogue my family used.

For a few years after finding this synagogue, I spent a great deal of time trying to raise the needed funds to save and restore that synagogue. I have only partly been successful. 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.

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. Above 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. Here is a picture down the same street showing the same pharmacy on the left:

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:

The records I can find indicate that the Green Synagogue was built in 1845. I recently came across another reference to the Green Synagogue on someone else's website. There is a document that links a Rabbi of the Green Synagogue to Yehudah ben Bezalel Levai, the Talmudic scholar from Prague also known as the MaHaRaL, known for the golem story. Here is the text and the description from the website I found it on:

A page from a book on Latvia Jewry citing the scripture from Green Synagogue

Ziska born in Resekne in 1919, survived the war in Russia and lived in Resekne until 70s, in 70s moved to Israel, where he lives now with a big family. Ziska speaks Yiddish, Russian and some Hebrew. Ziska is a great grandson of Aaron Azriel Jafet. Garav Aaron Azriel JAFET (1810 (appr.) -1861) was the head of the Resekne rabbinic court and the Rabbi in Green Synagogue in Resekne, and was the father of another Ziska (Zisl) JAFET (appr. 1830-appr.1880), who was the father of Azriel JAFET (1880-1937), the director of school, who was the father of .Ziska (Zisl, Alex) JAFET (b. appr. 1919). Ziska grew up in pre-war Rezekne and was fully immersed in Jewish life before the war. Both Ziska and his father Azriel, the respected director of Rezekne school attended Green Synagogue. The Green Synagogue was known to be build some time before by their respected relative Yimyanitov, who had houses along the street where Green Synagogue is located. The old books of Gemar in the Sinagogue also belonged to Yimyanitov. One of the Gemar Books had a handwritten inscription that was tracing genealogy of Rabbi Aaron Azriel JAFET to Maharal of Prague. Every new generation added their record to this inscription. Ziska's father copied the inscription and gave it to the author of the book on history of Jews in Latvia. A friend of Ziska found this page (above) and made a copy for Ziska.

Here is the line connecting Jafet line to Maharal as described in Hebrew text.

* MaHaRaL of Prague
* daughter married Rabbie Yosif Yoska the head of the (Dubno or Lublin?) rabbinic court, Rabbi of all Diaspora.
* Reb Tsvi Sabal (or Tsvi Hersh?) the kabbalist
* Gaon, tsadik Moshe
* Gaon Kabbalist Yudul, the head of Kael (Kayuk?)court and region
* Head of Rabbinic Court and of Yeshiva of Minsk - Galil Shmilevich of shtetl Pierda
* Moisha ZE'EV VOLF the head of Minsk and Smolensk Region, later of Fiod. region
* Akiva the head of the Borisov rabbinic court.
* Shlomo
* Menachem Nohum
* Abraham Itsak KATZ
* Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel YAFET [Rabbi in Rezekne]

I checked the available information on Internet and found that some connections are mentioned elsewhere. I also tried to reconstruct the years in this line to see if they make sense.

* Yehuda LOEW, the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) married Perla Shmelkes. For genealogy, see N'tiv Hoalom. Children: Rabbi Betzalel Loewe, Vogele Bezalel, Rachel Lowe.
* Tila LOEW, the 5th Maharal's daughter married Rabbie Yosif Yoska (b. appr. 1540), the head of the Dubno rabbinic court.
* Reb Tsvi Sabal (b. appr. 1570), the kabbalist
* Gaon, tsadik Moshe (b. appr. 1600)
* Yehuda Yudul (b. appr. 1630), the head of Kael court and region
* Moisha ZE'EV VOLF (b. appr. 1660) - the Jewish head of Minsk and Smolensk Region, later of Fiod. reg.
* Akiva (b. appr. 1685), the head of the Borisov rabbinic court.
* Shlomo (b. appr. 1710)
* Menachem Nohum
* Abraham Itsak KATZ (b. appr. 1780)
* Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel YAFET (1810 (appr.) -1861), the head of the Resekne rabbinic court.

Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel Yafet would have been the main rabbi of Rezenke during the time my great-great grandfather was around.

My great-great grandfather, Schmuila Jankel Luban (born in 1820), was 24 years old when the Green Synagogue was built by Yimyanitov, the relative of Rabbi Garav Aaron Azriel Yafet, descendent of the MaHaRaL. Jankel's last name, Luban, was probably only recently adopted by the family, since it was only around that time that Jews of the lower classes 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.

Until recently, Jankel was 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. We soon discovered that little Jacob sometimes looked very much like a cranky old Jewish man, living up to the name "Jankel":

Of course now a days he is older and has taken on a more modern NYC attitude:

More recently I found an entry for an older brother of Schmuila Jankel Luban named Abram Luban (born in 1814), married to a woman named Golda with a son named David Luban (born in 1852), married to a woman named Sora Zipa. The father of Abram and Schmuila Jankel Luban was named Genuch, which is the same as Henoch/Henry, a name I will come across later.

We don't know when Schmuila Jankel and his wife, Kreine, 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.

But two of their sons, Sawel and Henach (same as Genuch, presumably named for his grandfather Genuch discussed above), 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.

--Celia Jacobson, my grandmother and daughter of Dora and Solomon Luban (picture taken in 1987)


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.

--The Statendam (from Rootsweb)

There is a ship’s manifest (from the Ellis Island database, which can be accessed through that might document Solomon’s entry into US. Hard to say. The ship is the Statendam out of Rotterdam, leaving Feb. 6 1904, arriving Feb 17, 1904. The entry reads something like:

Schlime Lewin, age 37, married, Russian-Hebrew, Occupaation: Joiner, Last residence looks like something like Swislocs (???) and the destination seems to be New York.

The age and occupation are correct, but we have no record of the Lubans being in New York (though Lubans from Jekapils did indeed settle in New York) and I have no clue where “Swislocs” might be. This is the only entry I can find for someone with the initials S.L. entering the US in 1904 who has a name remotely like “Solomon Luban” who also is a joiner/carpenter. Other entries may be more similar in name (e.g. Samuel Lewin…) but don’t match occupation at all.

--Kroonland (from Rootsweb)

Even more tenuous is a ship’s manifest that might indicate Henry Luban’s family, Esther, Belle and Sarah’s, entry into the US. The manifest for the ship Kroonland from Antwerp (Aug. 20, 1904 arriving Aug. 29, 1904, has the following entries:

Rachel Liebstein, age 37, married, Russian-Hebrew, from “Mosty?” Russia, going to join her husband, Ephraim (?) Liebstein in Brooklyn, NY. If Solomon was on his way to New York (see above) sailing from Holland, maybe Esther would have followed a similar path. Problem is, “Rachel” isn’t “Esther” and Esther would have been more like 26-27. BUT notice the last two children, below:

Rachel was sailing with her children:

Moische, age 9; Feiwel age 7; Leib age 3; Beile age 2; and Sore, age 11 months.

In the 1920 census record, Henry and Esther’s elsdest kids were Belle and Sarah. They would have been age 2 and about 1 in 1904. No elder brothers are listed in 1920. No older brothers are mentioned by Henry Luban’s family. So this makes it unlikely that this record is of Esther and her family. Considering this entry to be referring to Henry’s family is based only on the names Belle and Sarah with about the right ages. Note also that Ephraim could well have been anglicized to Henry. I can find no better candidate entry for their immigration, though we certainly know they came. I can also find no evidence for Henry’s entry to the US. Remember, he was fleeing Russia to escape returning to the Russo-Japanese war. Did he come via the Pacific rather than the Atlantic? Was his immigration comlpetely above board? Interestingly, we remember moving to Milwaukee because we already had relatives there...I assumed Henry and his family. But one of his family told me they had moved to Milwaukee because Solomon's family (mine) were already there. Muddled stories.

There are two ship’s manifests that might document the arrival of Dora, Dora’s three oldest children and Ida to Ellis Island. The first manifest contains appropriate first names and mostly appropriate ages, but the names are crossed out. A latter manifest for a second ship has the same names, but the ages are different (and less appropriate). In either case it takes some imagination.

Manifest for the Corina, leaving Liverpool, England, November 17, 1906, arriving in New York November 26, 1906. There is no record of how they got from Russia to Liverpool.

Transcribed from this manifest (though on the real manifest the place of residence is hard to read):

Name Gender Age Married Ethnicity Place of Residence

0005. Lande, Bassje D. F 46y M Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0006. Lande, Ente B. F 23y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0007. Lande, Simon M 8y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0008. Lande, Sara F 7y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

0009. Lande, Chaje F 2y S Russian, Hebrew, Kansilow

The “D” in Bassje D Lande could be Dvora/Dwieva, though she SHOULD be 36 in 1906. Bassje may be a version of Basya/Batyah. Ente could be Ida (who is not a Luban, but probably traveled with Dora and her family from Russia and hence would have used the same name for easier immigration) and she would have been about 23 in 1906. Simon and Sara are the correct names and ages. Chaje could be Celia, who would have been about 2 in 1906. Her real name may well have been Chaya (the feminine of Chayim, “life”). Oddly, their destination is Chicago, IL, where they are joining Bassje’s husband. Chicago is quite close to Milwaukee, of course, but I have never heard that we were in Chicago at any point. Bassje’s hair is listed as black and eyes as blue, unusual for a Jew but not uncommon in our family. She is 5’ even. Their place of origin on the original manifest looks to me more like “Sherpoli, Russia” rather than Kanislow which is shown in the transcript.

These names are crossed out, along with the three above them, on the manifest. The Corina is not even listed as a ship that went to Ellis Island on the Rootsweb Ship list. They show up again on a manifest for the Campania, leaving Liverpool November 24, 1906 and arriving in New York December 6, 1906. Perhaps for some reason they switched ships.

--Campania (from Rootsweb)

On the manifest for the Campania they are listed:
Name Gender Age Married Ethnicity Place of Residence

0024. Lande, Bassin F 46y M Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0025. Lande, Ente F 28y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0026. Lande, Sura F 8y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0027. Lande, Simon M 6y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

0028. Lande, Chaja M 3y S Russia, Hebrew ...isslov, Russia

These are clearly the same people as on the manifest above but Bassin’s age is still wrong, but now all the other ages are also off. Simon and Sara’s relative ages are reversed. Chaja is now male. On this manifest, Bassin is listed as being from something like “Therpole” (could this be Daugavpils?) and Ida from “Charnovsky” or something like that. Ida’s occupation is listed as “tailoress.”

Such is the mess that are immigration records for the early 20th century.

Henach became Henry Luban in America, and many of his children, grandchildren and further descendents are still alive. I found the 1920 American census records for both families in Milwaukee, WI: (Sorry...the pictures I have are readable but didn't upload well)

--Solomon Luban household, 1920 U.S. census, Milwakee, Milwakee County, Wisconsin, page 35A, sheet 8 A, lines 24-30; T625-1999. Listed with wife, Dora; daughters Sarah, Celia, and Norma; and sons Simon and Jacob

--Henry Luban household, 1920 U.S. census, Milwakee, Milwakee County, Wisconsin, page 201, sheet 10 B, lines 28-35; T625-2000. Listed with wife, Ester; daughters Belle, Sarah, Minnie, Sophia and Helen; and son John.

They lived in a German Catholic neighborhood, according to my grandmother. So they did face some anti-Semitism, but because they were all fair skinned and green or blue eyed, and many had red hair, they were considered "almost one of us" by the Germans.

One 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 in the picture below. I also show on the left the Maltinskies, the family Henach's wife, Esther (Menucha), came from.

I think of this as the epitome of "before" and "after" coming to America pictures.

There are other branches of the Luban family in the same records for Rezenke and Jakobpils, Latvia, and the names "Jankel" and "Schmuila" repeat within them, suggesting a possible link among these families in earlier generations. But I have no data direcly linking them and no idea what became of them. Among the last records is a store owner named "Berko Luban" in Rezekne in 1911. His father was a Jankel Luban, but not the same as Shmuila Jankel Luban.


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 this place, the only actual Holocaust site I have ever visited. Walking along the grassy space that is the mass grave, walking for a very, 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. But somehow, the Green Synagogue survived. All other synagogues in Rezekne were destroyed. But the Green Synagogue still stands.


Some remember that the Green Synagogue survived because 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, 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:

--Rashel, Joy, Sarah and myself before the Green Synagogue

Some of the buildings where we lived are long gone (like the building where Sawel and Dwiera lived, shown as a largely empty lot earlier in this article)

But some, like the brick apartment building where Henry Rollin's great grandmother's family (the Maltinskys and Galbraichs) lived, still stand (see below). And many of those addresses are near the Green Synagogue, suggesting to me that the Green Synagogue was our family's synagogue.

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 the above picture) just down the street from where Henry Rollins' great grandmother's family, the Maltinskies and Galbraiths, had lived:

(shown above as the street looked in the 1920's across from the pharmacy I showed earlier)

And this is the building where the Maltinsky and Galbraith ancestors of Henry Rollins lived as it looked when I visited in 2003.

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 in another part of town.

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. 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.

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.

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.

As a place for my family to return to see where we came from, I wanted to save that synagogue.

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.

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.

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 Program 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.

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.

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.

All photographs of the Green Synagogue of Rezekne, Latvia, photographed either by Joy Romanski in 2003, by Lavi Soloway November 27, 2003, or on October 31, 2005, by AIG ("Arhitektoniskās izpētes grupa" Ltd.) Architectural firm (Riga, Latvia). US Census information thanks to Patricia Liebham. A great deal of this info comes from and Some information and pictures from the Rezekne civic website.

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