1941: Nazis Murder a Great Historian in the Street

Legendary last words of Simon Dubnow before being shot – possibly by a former student: 'If you survive, never forget what is happening here.'

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Russian historian and public figure Semyon (Simon) Markovich Dubnov. September 10, 1860
Russian historian and public figure Semyon (Simon) Markovich Dubnov, September 10, 1860Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On December 8, 1941, an elderly and infirm Simon Dubnow, possibly considered too weak even to survive the short ride from the Jewish ghetto of Riga, Latvia, to the Rumbula forest outside the city, was shot to death in the street.

Dubnow, who was 81 at his death, was one of the greatest of Jewish historians. He was also a serious and profound participant in the heated discussions going on at the time about the future of the Jewish people.

Exposed to the enlightenment

Simon Meyerovich Dubnow was born on September 10, 1860, in Mstislaw, in the Russian Pale of Settlement (today Belarus). His father, Meir-Jacob Dubnow, came from a long line of rabbis who traced their history back to the town of Dubno, in Volhynia. Meir-Jacob managed the lumber business owned by the father of his wife, Sheyne.

The Dubnow family was observant. Simon attended yeshiva but following his bar mitzvah, he convinced his parents to let him study in one of the state-sponsored Jewish schools, where the language of instruction was Russian. It was here that he became exposed to the Jewish Enlightenment.

After the post-1881 crackdown on Jews in the empire, his school closed and Dubnow began to educate himself, reading widely in philosophy and economics. While still young, he realized he did not believe in God, though later as a historian, he would recognize religion's role in preserving Jewish identity. Only in 1887, however, did he decide to focus on Jewish history.

In 1880, using forged documents, Dubnow moved to St. Petersburg, the imperial capital, which was off-limits to most Jews and where he would begin writing for the Jewish-Russian journal Voskhod, a relationship that went on for nearly  25 years. In 1885, he married Ida Friedlin.

In 1890, St. Petersburg's few Jews were expelled. Dubnow moved to Odessa, where many other important Jewish cultural figures were then based, including Ahad Ha’am, Sholom Aleichem and Haim Nachman Bialik.

The beautiful messianic dream

After translating the Jewish histories of others, Dubnow then published his own 10-volume Weltgeschichte, a “World History of the Jewish People,” written in Russian but first published in German, between 1925 and 1929. He also published his own study about the origins of Hasidism, and edited Jewish encyclopedias in both Russian and English.

The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 initially gave him optimism that Jews could be accepted into society, but ongoing anti-Semitism made him consider a solution other than integration. Though sympathetic to Zionism – a “beautiful messianic dream,” he called it – Dubnow was sure that large numbers of Jews would never agree to move to Palestine. Neither did he believe that salvation would come via either socialism or assimilation.

Eventually, Dubnow, who appreciated the “spiritual” nature of the Jews’ identity, came to promote what he called “autonomism,” which imagined the Jews being granted self-rule in various parts of the Diaspora where they had a large presence.

National autonomy was in vogue following World War I, and even in the Soviet Union, Stalin briefly flirted with the idea of giving the Jews their own physical home, Birobidzhan, at the far-eastern edges of the empire. 

Dubnow himself was a victim of the Jews’ perpetual powerlessness. He moved back to St. Petersburg in 1906, but got permission to depart the Soviet Union in 1922 when he became disillusioned with communism.

An invitation to teach at the University of Kaunas was foiled by non-Jewish faculty there, and he settled in Berlin. After the rise of Hitler, in 1933, he relocated to Riga. Then Germany declared war on the Soviets and occupied that city, in July 1941.

The Nazis seized Dubnow’s home and his library, and confined him and the city’s other Jews to the ghetto. From there, on November 30 and December 8, they transported the Jews to the nearby Rumbula forest and massacred nearly 25,000 of them.

Dubnow, however, was murdered before boarding the bus for Rumbula, either by a Latvian guard or a Gestapo officer who, according to one version, was a former student of his.

The legend says that the great historian, just before his death, turned to other Jews surrounding him and implored them: "If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear!"