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Episode 2

Isaac Zieman

“We were sent to a kolkhoz, a collective farm, called Svobodnyi Trud, which means “free labor,” and we were free laborers. We were laborers that were only given to eat, but not paid anything else.”


Isaac Zieman was a passionate young Zionist with plans to make a life in Palestine. Instead, the Nazi invasion of Latvia propelled him on a years-long journey that took him across the Soviet Union and Europe and finally to the United States.

Photos and Artifacts

Six-year-old Isaac Zieman, standing behind his siblings, Līvāni, Latvia, 1926. His sister Tsilia is sitting on the chair and holding Miriam. Reuben is seated on the bicycle. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

Chapter of the Gordonia Youth Movement in Riga, Latvia, ca. 1932. Credit: Photo courtesy of Museum of Family History.

Soviet BT tank, truck, and troops in the center of Riga, Latvia, 1940. Credit: Public domain photo via Wikipedia.

Isaac Zieman with his second wife, Sabina (prior to their marriage), Frankfurt, Germany, 1954. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

Isaac and Sabina Zieman on their wedding day, Frankfurt, Germany, 1955. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

Isaac and Sabina Zieman on their wedding day, Frankfurt, Germany, 1955. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

Isaac and Sabina Zieman in the United States, 1959. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

Isaac Zieman with his third wife, Ingeborg, at their Jewish wedding 25 years after their civil wedding, New York City, 2006. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

Isaac and Ingeborg Zieman at their Jewish wedding, 25 years after their civil wedding, with Isaac’s grandchildren, New York City, 2006. Credit: Courtesy of the Zieman Family.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

Isaac Zelig Zieman was born in Riga, Latvia, in May 1920 and grew up in the town of Līvāni in a traditionally observant family. In 1935, 981 Jews lived in Līvāni, out of a total population of 3,571. Līvāni’s Jews were shopkeepers and artisans, and they owned most of the stores in the center of the town. Isaac’s religious father ran a grocery store and was active in local Zionist politics. Isaac was the oldest of four children. He was the only member of his immediate family to survive World War II.

On the eve of the war, there were just under 100,000 Jews in Latvia—about 4.8 percent of the population. Half of them lived in Riga, the capital. Latvian Jewry, which had been under Tsarist rule before World War I, consisted of three distinct cultural groupings: Courland in the southwest; Livonia (which included Riga) in the northwest; and Latgalia (which included Līvāni) in the southeast, which was less developed economically. In Courland and Livonia, which had not been in the Tsarist Pale of Settlement, many Jews spoke Russian or German as their first language; Latgalian Jews, on the other hand, were proud members of the Yiddish-speaking Litvak tribe that spanned Lithuania, White Russia, and northeast Poland.

There was little social interaction between Jews and Latvians, and, as Isaac noted, Jews found Latvian culture, with its peasant roots, unappealing. Interwar Latvian Jewry, like Lithuanian Jewry to the south, nurtured a strong, largely self-contained Jewish identity reflected in Jewish political parties, schools, welfare institutions, hospitals, newspapers, and youth groups. Bundism and Zionism, along with the traditional orthodoxy of the Agudat Yisroel, were all strong. In a 1934 coup, Karlis Ulmanis established a semi-dictatorship in Latvia, and threw the government’s support behind the orthodox Aguda, which dominated Jewish political life on the eve of the war. While there was little anti-Jewish violence, antisemitism ran deep, and the slogan “Latvia for the Latvians” became increasingly popular.

In interwar Latvia the overwhelming majority of Jewish children attended Jewish schools, which were supported in part by the state. Isaac first attended Līvāni’s Yiddish-language elementary school (which later shifted to Hebrew) and then went to a local public high school that also had Latvian and Russian students. He was an excellent student and became an enthusiastic member of Gordonia, a Labor Zionist youth movement dedicated to the promotion of a pioneering kibbutz life in Palestine. While Isaac’s father was no religious fanatic, he demanded a level of observance and Talmudic study that Isaac refused to accept. Tensions between father and son grew more serious as Isaac grew older.

Isaac finished high school in 1937. His family could not afford to send him to university, so he entered a teacher’s college in Riga. In June 1940, just after Isaac had graduated, the Soviets occupied Latvia, along with the other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia. The new regime quickly established a ruthless dictatorship, carried out mass arrests, and nationalized the economy. The Communists shut down all other parties and youth movements, including Isaac’s beloved Gordonia. They also took over his father’s store. Just as Isaac was finally about to begin university, his parents asked him to return home to help support the family. He became a bookkeeper in a slaughterhouse—hardly the job of his dreams.

Latvian Jews received their new Soviet rulers with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Soviet economic policies ruined many Jewish families, while political repression and arrests shut down Jewish religious education and all Zionist and Bundist activity. On the other hand, new opportunities opened up for many young Jews: they could now get a higher education, and there were jobs in state and local government that had been off-limits before the war. The new rulers condemned antisemitism and offered the prospect of social mobility. And many Jews believed that, however bad the Soviets were, they were still better than the Nazis.

While only a small minority of the Jewish population actively supported the Communist regime, and although many Jews were among those arrested and deported by the Soviets, the perception that all Jews were Soviet sympathizers and betrayers of Latvia sparked a vicious backlash after the German invasion, reflected in large-scale Latvian participation in the robbing and killing of their Jewish neighbors.

The Germans attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and advanced so quickly that it took them only four days to reach the Latvian border at Daugavpils—a distance that took them four years to traverse in World War I. Only about 15,000 Latvian Jews were able to escape into the Soviet interior. Mass shootings began immediately and wiped out the Jews in the small towns of Latgalia during the summer of 1941. That’s when units of Einsatzgruppe A, aided by local Latvians, murdered the Jews of Līvāni in nearby shooting pits. After the last massacre on September 3, 1941, a sign at the entrance to the town proclaimed that Līvāni was “judenfrei.” A few Jews escaped to Daugavpils and Riga, where they were killed later. After the liberation in 1944, only seven Jews returned to Līvāni. Isaac lost his parents and his two brothers and sister.

In the chaos of the early days that followed the German invasion, Isaac had become separated from his family. Soon after, he found himself in a pick-up military unit on the former Latvian-Soviet border, where Soviet officials were turning back desperate Jewish refugees fleeing the German onslaught. Those who did manage to cross the border were usually cut off by the fast panzer divisions that could advance 50 miles a day. Fortunately for Isaac, there was a train that appeared just in the nick of time. It took him to Chelyabinsk, deep in the Soviet interior. Because he was already separated from his family, he was spared the agonizing choice between escape and staying with loved ones that cost so many young Jews their lives.

Like that of most Polish and Baltic Jews who survived in the Soviet Union, Isaac’s story is both fascinating and harrowing. His survival was a combination of luck and grim determination, aided by the help he received at critical moments from Soviet Jews. His experiences—long train journeys without food, grueling labor in a coal mine without adequate clothing or footwear, a short stint as a teacher in a remote Kazakh village, the grim conditions in the labor battalions of the Red Army—were comparable to those of thousands of other Jewish refugees. The hardship took its toll. Isaac worried that he had lost his humanity and struggled to hold on to his values.

Isaac showed a striking degree of agency in his determination not only to survive, but also to be able to leave the Soviet Union after the war. While Latvian and Lithuanian Jews could not leave the Soviet Union when the fighting stopped, Polish Jews could. A small number of Latvian and Lithuanian Jews, Isaac among them, managed to finagle fake documents that stated they were Polish citizens. The papers enabled Isaac to join the pro-Soviet Polish army of General Berling, leave for Poland, and eventually make his way to the DP camps of the American zone in Germany.

A key reason why Isaac’s testimony is so significant is that it deals with a very important, yet relatively neglected aspect of the Holocaust: the 350,000 Jews from Poland and the Baltic states who spent the war years in the Soviet Union. Many of these had been arrested or exiled before the German invasion; others, like Isaac, were able to flee with the retreating Red Army. The Jews in the wartime Soviet Union endured terrible privations—starvation, disease, exposure to harsh winters without adequate clothing, the casual neglect of callous and incompetent local officials—and most of the young Jews who joined the Red Army were either dead or wounded by the end of the war. Nonetheless, between 200,000 and 250,000 Polish and Baltic Jews in the wartime Soviet Union—or about 60 percent—survived. For the Polish and Baltic Jews who were under German occupation the survival rate was about 2 percent. By 1947, the vast majority of Jews in the displaced persons camps had spent the war years in the Soviet Union, not under Nazi rule.

Like so many other young DPs, Isaac found himself adrift, torn between his fervent Zionism and his desire to resume his education. He fought depression, married and divorced, and in a striking departure from the usual DP experience, he underwent psychoanalysis and then decided to make it his career. After his studies at the University of Zurich and the Munich Institute of Psychotherapy, he treated “hard cases,” DPs who did not leave the camps and who stayed in Germany until the last camp, Föhrenwald, closed in 1957. Isaac remarried in Germany in 1955 and arrived in the United States in 1957, where his two children were born.

Isaac was determined not to let his depression and the trauma he suffered in the war deflect him from his dedication to decency, empathy, and reconciliation. While he remained a staunch Zionist, he rejected Jewish nationalists who refused to recognize Palestinian suffering. In the early 1960s, Isaac met the eminent psychologist Ruth Cohn, who developed the concept of Theme-Centered Interaction (TCI), a humanistic approach that stressed the interplay of human autonomy and social interdependence. From that point on, Isaac found his true calling: he became a leading practitioner of TCI, and taught workshops all over the world, including workshops that brought together the children of Nazis and of Holocaust survivors. Isaac Zieman died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.


Additional readings and information

Isaac’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide):