By Tasha Ackerman
When I met with Dr. Ronnie Dunetz over Google Meets, the title of “Dr.” still felt new to him. Just over a month earlier, Ronnie defended his thesis for his PhD in Philosophy: “Reflections of children of Holocaust survivors in their second half of life, on their life experience” which was approved just three days before our interview. For his research, Ronnie interviewed 41 second-generation Holocaust survivors who were from or living in eleven countries. This subject was particularly close to him, as he too is the child of a survivor. His father’s survival and story have shaped his identity and influenced his path. Ronnie is interested in understanding how the impact on the second generation as they navigate their own lives and identities, particularly as they age.
Ronnie was born in Ohio and grew up in New York. His father, Mordechai Dunetz, was born in 1922 and grew up in Zhetl (“Dzyatlva” In Belarusian), a town in modern-day Belarus, though at the time of his birth, Zhetl was part of Poland, and his mother is a 9th-generation Israeli. Ronnie grew up in an American Jewish community but could sense the difference between the American Jews he grew up around and his family. His parents were older and spoke with accents, his family was more religious, and they carried his father’s Holocaust story, which was not a subject that was talked about much during the ’60s and ’70s when he was growing up. From his research, Ronnie discovered that while some parents shared their stories with their children about what they experienced, oftentimes, they did not share much at all. His father, he describes, landed somewhere in the middle. He was open about what he lived through but had his edges where Ronnie understood not to poke further.
Ronnie’s father, Mordechai, was a survivor of the second massacre in Zhetl, which was a three-day attack where 2,000 to 3,000 Jews were murdered in mass graves located in the Jewish cemetery. Around 200 craftsmen were spared, Mordechai being one of them. They were brought to a building called “The Cinema House,” where, for three nights, there was no light, water, or food. This was one of his father’s edges – a memory which he could not speak much about.
After three days, the people were transported to the labour camp at Novogrudok, 30 kilometres away. Mordechai and his sister, Fania, became prisoners of the camp. There, Mordechai worked in the carpentry shop making wooden soles for the boots of Nazi soldiers. His time at the Novogrudok camp was another area he never spoke much about.
The Bielski partisans were sending messengers into the labour camp to urge inmates to escape to the forest. However, many inside the camp were scared of the forest. They hoped that in the labour camp, they would survive, but, on May 7, 1943, the Nazis entered the camp and took half of the prisoners, mostly women and children, and transported them to the fields to be massacred. The remaining prisoners now knew that no one was safe there. One week later, on May 14th, Mordechai escaped with two other men, Fania deciding she would attempt to escape at a later time. They crawled for five hours on their stomachs, waited until nighttime, and eventually made their way to the intermediaries for the Bielskis. Eventually, Mordechai joined the Zhetl Jewish partisans. The group originally operated independently, but as the war progressed, was absorbed by Russian partisans.
This is the part of his father’s story that Ronnie knows well. Mordechai served as a partisan for three years. At the start of the war when his family was moved to the ghetto, they had entrusted a priest to collect their belongings such as clothing and linens from their house to guard them. By the time Mordechai joined the partisans, fabrics that could be used for clothing were of high value to the Belarusian peasants. Mordechai sent someone to retrieve some of his fabrics from the priest and traded them with a peasant for a gun. Interactions with the peasants were difficult because the partisans were dependent on them for food and resources, but the peasants could be persecuted by the Nazis if they were discovered for providing aid. Additionally, some peasants collaborated with the Nazis and informed on Jewish partisans.
Mordechai, however, was not a skilled fighter. He told his son of several close encounters, ways he nearly died though none in actual combat. Eventually, the gun he had traded for was confiscated by his commander and reallocated to another partisan fighter as a consequence of falling asleep on guard duty. Near the end of the war, when the Germans invaded the forest killing everyone in sight, his father and another man ran to the swamp. By hiding in a big log, the Germans never saw them.
After the Russian liberation, Mordechai returned to Zhetl. The last six months he had lived there before being transported to Novogrudok, he and his family had lived in the ghetto under terrible conditions, with little food and improper access to hygienic necessities. But when he returned, the ghetto no longer existed and there were no more Jews. His home was no longer his to return to. Around 150 Jews returned from the forest to find that their homes had been taken over by Belarusian peasants. However, when Mordechai returned to his home, he spoke to the new tenant who had come from an outside village, who offered for Mordechai to live in the store attached to the home. So he lived there, eventually the new tenant sold a cow to pay Mordechai for ownership of the house.
Mordechai and his sister Fania were reunited, and he learned that she had escaped through the Novogrudok tunnel, dug by the Jewish ghetto prisoners, and joined the Bielski partisans. After the war, they immigrated together to America. Mordechai became a Yiddish and Hebrew teacher. In 1954 he made his first trip to Israel for a seminar for teachers. On this trip, he met Tziona, and three weeks later he proposed. When Mordechai returned to Michigan and Tziona was still in Israel, they exchanged 230 letters during the nine months before she was able to join him in America. There, they had Ronnie and his two brothers and raised their family in Michigan, Ohio, and New York.
At age 17, Ronnie came to Israel to study on a programme in Jerusalem and experience kibbutz life, was then back and forth between the US and Israel. At the age of 21, he made Aliyah and joined the IDF. At the time, coming to Israel was “the culmination of a dream,” Ronnie explained. Even though he was American, he never really felt that he belonged in America. He believed in the idea of the IDF as the equalizer, that when you join the army, you become part of the country. Plus, he already knew Hebrew from growing up in a Hebrew-speaking household.
Yet, serving was challenging. It was challenging culturally, and it was hard to find meaning through his assignments. Then, the First Lebanese War broke out, and though he wasn’t a combat soldier, he was stationed on the Syrian border. After his service, Ronnie left Israel on a backpacking trip to the Far East, where he ended up living for five years. On top of backpacking, exploring, studying martial arts, and teaching English, he became involved with learning about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy which has shaped his philosophical perspective. After studying again in the US, he returned to Israel again at age 30. He then married and had two children of his own.
Through his travels and academic and professional experiences, Ronnie could always sense how his father’s story has always influenced and impacted his own. He felt immensely connected to it and was always interested to learn more. While his father was alive, he asked questions, listened to stories, and recorded interviews. At 96 years old, Mordechai passed away. The night before his passing, Ronnie, who had returned in haste directly from travelling in India to his father’s deathbed promised to take responsibility for his story. “I’m going to be the one that’s going to make sure people don’t forget your family and what happened,” he promised him. And that’s what he did. From that point on, it was no longer a legacy that he was choosing, but a legacy that chose him.
Ronnie became committed to not only telling his father’s story but ensuring that he was telling it accurately. He turned to the footage from his family’s pilgrimage to Belarus in 2000, where he, his brothers, and his parents visited the cemetery, the site of the massacre which his father survived. The footage shows raw and vulnerable scenes of his father processing what he had survived and grieving the loss of his family and community. It was there that Ronnie saw for the first time that his father was holding a sense of survivor guilt. Click to watch Sacred Legacy.
When he returned to Belarus in 2023 as he was finishing his dissertation, Ronnie realised that his father’s story is also a Belarusian story. In Belarus 800,000 Jews were brutally murdered – a history that is largely unknown. Ronnie connected with Tamara Vershitskaya from The Together Plan to help coordinate his trip and learn about the Jewish history of the region. He wanted to write his final piece of the project on location. Tamara organised for him to stay with a family in Dzyatlava, the Belarusian name for Zhetl. Today there are four remaining Jews in the town. Four. During his time in the town, each day he would go past his grandfather’s home. He would recite kaddish as he visited the cemetery where everyone was killed.
Ronnie stood in the forest which protected his family and other Jews during the Holocaust and understood the meaning of this place and this landscape. It is where his history is, where his family had lived for hundreds of years. Yet now, all of the Jewish villages are gone. How easily a history can be forgotten when there is no one left to tell it. As part of the legacy of keeping his father’s story alive, and the history of what happened to the Jews in Belarus, he’s inspired to raise questions and create space for people to explore. How did Jews live in these ghettos? What was life like in these labour camps? How did they survive in the forest? What gave them hope to escape with great peril to the unknown forest in search of the partisans and the opportunity to revenge, survive, and to regain life?
After the trip, he was busy writing the end of his dissertation through September. Then, October 7th happened and it changed everything.
On October 7, in addition to the kibbutzim and neighbourhoods near the Gaza border, The Nova Music Festival was amongst the first attacked sites, as Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel killing around 1200 people and taking around 240 hostage. Early in the morning, festival-goers at the Nova Music Festival heard sirens warning of a rocket attack, causing them to seek shelter. Soon after, Hamas terrorists surrounded the festival. Gunmen shot at escaping cars and those hiding in trees. Some attendants were able to survive by hiding in bushes and orchards. Over 360 people were killed at the Nova Music Festival.
Ronnie could see the comparison between those hiding during the attack on the Nova Music Festival to his father hiding in the swamp in the forest when the Nazis invaded the forest – “the fact that you were hearing people were hiding out in their closets, hiding under beds, and being taken away and shot.” Ronnie set about creating a film with a volunteer editor in response to the attacks: Carrying the Second-Generation Legacy in the Hamas Massacres.
Now, through a culmination of his education, work experience, research, personal family story and journey of self-discovery, Ronnie finds himself in a unique position to offer support to those affected by the October 7th attacks. Since the war, he has connected with survivors and families of survivors to offer “Conversations of Meaning.” These conversations follow the approach and life philosophy of “logotherapy,” with the purpose of seeking meaning in order to cope with crisis and develop resilience. Logotherapy is a philosophy developed by Dr. Viktor Frankl who was an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
As a witness to both his father’s experiences and the unfolding tragedy in Israel, Ronnie honours Mordechai’s legacy by memorialising and sharing it as a symbol of resilience. By sharing this story with those navigating their own quests for meaning, Ronnie shows how his journey transcends the label of intergenerational trauma and becomes one of existential search for meaning and legacy. As the second generation and beyond become keepers of their family histories, the interwoven threads of these stories become our collective narrative and source of strength.