Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Ed Asner died this week, aged 91, and while our politics were miles apart, his passing was not without impact on this writer. Ed’s father, you see, was from Eisiskes, Lithuania, some thirty miles away from Vasilishki, the shtetl where my maternal grandfather was born. Back then, Vashilishok, as the Jews called it, was part of Lithuania, and now it is not.

It’s funny to think that Eishyshok (as the Jews called it) and Vashilishok are no longer in the same country.  But the latter changed hands 7 times between the two world wars with the result that Vashilishok is now in Belarus. The fact that both towns were once in the same district of Lida meant that there was a great deal of interaction between the residents. So much so that when I began to research my mother’s maiden name, KOPELMAN, I was directed to a big fat coffee table book called There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok, by Yaffa Eliach. I was told that therein I would find stories and references to the Kopelman family, and I hastened to procure a copy (I really need to replace it—the book went missing during a move between apartments, to my great distress).

This comprehensive history of the town of Eisiskes and its environs gave me a profound shock. Growing up, my late father had made sure to educate me on the Holocaust and the cruelty of the German people. But somehow I connected this only to my people, and never to my personal family. Eliach’s book once and for all disabused me of that notion.

Within the pages of There Once Was a World was the story of a Koppelman (variation of the same name) family that met a terrible end. The family of seven begged a non-Jewish farmer, a neighbor, to take them in during their attempts to escape the Nazi slaughter. The farmer hid the Koppelmans with their five children in his barn and in the middle of the night, when they were sound asleep, hacked them to death with his ax, and then fed their remains to his pigs.

A page from Eliach's book. The Koppelman children as in the story above, posing with some of their/my cousins.

In telling this story, I’m actually getting a little ahead of myself. Because the slaughter that came to Vashilishok came to Eishyshok, first. Yaffa was a little girl at the time, just 6 years old. Her family fled to Vashilishok, and took refuge with the same Koppelman family, my cousins, the ones who were later hacked to death and fed to pigs by a non-Jewish farmer.

There was so much about the Kopelman family and Vashilishok in Eliach’s book that I felt compelled to reach out to her. I found the author’s contact information and sent her a letter (snail mail!). I figured she might be too important or too busy to write back, but I had to try.

One month later, the phone rang and it was Yaffa. My letter had arrived on the eve of her current trip to Israel, and she took it as a sign that she should call me. Yaffa knew MY Kopelmans. She knew my great grandparents. She knew my grandfather and his siblings, and even my cousin Jimmy, the last male Kopelman of our line, who lives in New Kensington, Pennsylvania.  

We had a warm phone call, and later, continued to correspond and talk about Eishyshok, Vashilishok and the Vashilishker Kopelman clan. I liked to hear Yaffa’s voice and imagined I could hear my late grandfather in her slightly accented English. The historian, writer, and teacher was able to tell me many things about my ancestral shtetl. I attended a fundraiser for the shtetl museum Eliach hoped to create in Israel, where I briefly met her in person.

When Yaffa died some years back, I learned that she was to be brought to Israel for burial. My husband and I paid her the final honor of attending her funeral. Eliach left all her papers to Yad Vashem where we later attended the ceremony marking the opening of this collection. I was glad to have a chance to speak to her children and tell them how much it meant to me to correspond with and get to know their mother.

As a result of reading Yaffa’s book and getting to know her; Eishyshok, and the descendants of that town, became as dear to me as my own landsleit. My husband, knowing this, took note that the US Holocaust Museum was to present a live lecture about Eishyshok on August 19th. I saw Dov’s text just in time and tuned in as the lecture was starting.

When Ed Asner died just ten days later—possibly the most famous son of Eishyshok in popular culture—it just seemed like an amazing coincidence. I had just refreshed my memory of all things Eishyshok in that live Facebook video. I had followed the links to an interview with Yaffa Eliach, and to interviews of other Eishyshkers including a member of the Asner clan. There was something so odd about the timing of the USHMM event and the death of Ed Asner that I’m still trying to process what, if anything, it meant.

I loved watching Ed Asner on TV once upon a time. Even more so once I knew that our personal histories were connected. I even imagined I saw something of my family in his face, heard them in his voice. Why not? There were Kopelmans in Eishyshok as well as in Vashilishok. There were marriages between Eisyshkers and Vashilshkers. We may well have been related.

But then I was saddened to learn that Asner was a liberal who served on the advisory committee of the virulently anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a group with the mission of boycotting and destroying Israel. The knowledge of this ruined everything for me. No one could have been more pro-Israel than my great grandfather Kopelman, who attended the First Zionist Congress in Vienna, and was an early member of the Zionist organization, Mizrachi. He would have been livid to hear of Asner’s support for the destruction of the State of Israel, having worked so hard—and successfully so—toward its ultimate establishment.

My great grandfather KopelmanYaffa wanted this photo for her exhibition, but needed a higher resolution than I could provide.
But there is some consolation in that Asner disavowed his support for BDS in 2017, after receiving criticism in the Jewish community. Ed was to receive an award at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, and the handful of voices speaking out against him threatened to rob him of this honor. As a result, Asner released a statement clarifying his support for Israel. “I have a deep commitment to Jewish life, the Jewish people and the unity of the Jewish people worldwide,” Asner said in the statement. “I do not support BDS. I just want peace.”

In spite of any other political differences we might have had, for Ed Asner’s disavowal of BDS, at least, I commend him. The name “Ed Asner” is no longer on the advisory board of the JVP, even in memoriam. As someone with roots in the same small corner of Eastern Europe, with both our ancestors from Lida Uezd, I can only hope that Ed Asner’s change of heart regarding BDS made a difference as he stood before the judgment of the heavenly throne. 


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