Growing up with the surname Zangwill elicited interest in various circles largely owing to the noteworthiness of the English author and Zionist, Israel Zangwill, who was my great grandfather’s first cousin. What I did not expect on a recent trip to Latvia to visit Riga and Riebini- in Yiddish Ribinishki- the village of my ancestors, was to learn about another noteworthy Zangwill writer and relative, Sheina Gramm.
From the 1897 All Russia Census, I knew that my 3rd great grandparents Menachem and Leska Zangwill lived in a home with first cousins, Wulf and Sheina Zangwill. In June of 1941, the Nazis occupied Latvia and in the nearby town of Preili, near Riebini, Wulf and Sheina’s granddaughter started to keep a diary.
The diary of Sheina Gramm, sometimes referred to as the Anne Frank of Latvia, is a not a memoir as much as a daily chronicling of the day-to-day events of the German occupation from June 22, the day the Nazis invaded the USSR until August 8, the day before she and her family were killed.
Sheina titles her diary in Latvian but makes daily entries in Yiddish. Sheina recounts a confusing and terrifying situation in which, one day she is instructed to clean the home of a close friend killed the day before. In another entry, Sheina recounts how 250 Jews were taken to the forest and shot and wonders, like others in her community, if the murderers would be satisfied; that maybe 250 dead Jews is enough.
Sheina’s diary is an important record of the terror and murder of the Jews repeated in town after town aided by local police that may have survived because of its Latvian title. It was found by a military journalist after the war although the original no longer exists today.
At the Museum of the Jews of Latvia in Riga, one can listen to the audio recreation of the diary and in a book called the The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories, by Indiana University Press in 2008, one can find excerpts from Sheina’s diary.