A Section of a Jewish Town
Translated by David Goldman
I am touching a map of pre-World War I Europe. Here's western Ukraine a fruitful and fertile land that was breathing life and growth. Train tracks and wagons from cities and towns, and rivers, etc. I am looking it over to find my town, Olyka, the town where I was born and spent half of my youth.
Olyka has a history of hundreds of years and its fortresses were already famous many years before Chmelnitsky's bloody invasion together with his hordes. It was difficult for him to break through these fortresses, and Olyka was the middle point of three large cities in the Volyhn region Rovno, Lutsk and Dubno. Olyka was among Volyhn's major communities even though it was off the main road, about ten kilometers from the train station that passed between Rovno and Kovel. A town legend that was passed from one generation to another says that the Russian government's decree that the train should pass through or nearby Olyka was cancelled thanks strenuous efforts by Jewish community business leaders and rabbis with the government which resulted in substantial gifts. The Jewish leaders worried that the train route through town would result in Sabbath desecration, attacks on Jews in wartime and other various and assorted incidents that could face the Jewish community at various times. Nevertheless, the town prospered, and developed and expanded its economic life something that also brought along growth in Torah study. Commercial contacts with places far and wide developed over time; original and unique Jewish ways of life based on the Torah and faith also developed. Jews were known to be careful in observation all aspects of Jewish law, and eventually great scholars were produced, righteous teachers and rabbis who shined in those days, and, in recent times, followers of the Enlightenment, activists and outstanding leaders involved in national rebirth and the Zionist pioneer movement.
The beginning of Jewish settlement in Olyka is somewhat obscure, but according to one source,
the first arrivals were refugees fleeing Ukrainian uprisings in the second half of the 17th century (in 1655), but another tradition states that Jews had settled in Olyka even earlier. There is testimony to the fact that on October 6, 1655, Jews were being buried outside of town according to their traditions and the gentile populace suddenly attacked the procession and maliciously desecrated the corpse.
The Jewish community council filed a complaint about this event with the district authorities in Lutsk, and the complaint was listed in district records. However, the same source does not indicate whether the hooligans were punished as a result of the complaint. Prince Karl Radziwill, who owned the land in Olyka, issued a decree prohibiting the Jews from employing non-Jewish household servants. The cause of this decree is unknown and whether it was officially cancelled later or merely expired.
Olyka was under Polish rule until 1795, and Jewish cemeteries in Rovno and other surrounding towns in Volhyn district contained ancient individual graves from the 16th and 17th centuries that even had the names of the deceased engraved on them in Polish. When Marshal Yozef Pilsudsky re-established Poland he brought Jews and Ukrainians to the Rovno cemetery to show them the graves, proving that Volhyn always belonged to Poland. However, until Poland was re-established as an independent country after being subjugated and ruled by Russia, Prussia and Austria, Olyka was put under Russian rule.
From 1674 to 1693, the Polish king, Jan Sobeisky (the Third) dealt kindly with the Jews and allowed them to vote in elections to the Sejmek (Legislature) for Municipal Affairs. This indicated that even then there were significant numbers of Jews in Olyka. The Russian census performed in 1797 indicated 2606 Jews in Olyka.
The town endured much suffering, ups and downs and problems during this century, massacres, plagues, fires, outbreaks and many wars that destroyed property and killed many people, especially the Jews, who were victim to uprisings, murders and destruction during the war.
In those days Rabbi David, son of Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Segal and the author of the responsa TA"Z [Turei Zahav Rows of Gold] came to Olyka from Ludmir. Rabbi David was the nephew of the Maharsha [Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels]. He
succeeded in fleeing from Ostrog in Volhyn because of the fear of uprisings and massacres against Jews by groups affiliated with Chmelnitsky (known as the Decrees of 1648-49). He found refuge in the castle of Prince Radziwill in a narrow room at the top, near the clock the symbol of the Polish eagle that could be seen for miles. A folktale says that when Chmelnitsky and his hooligans approached Olyka, the rabbi and a large number of Olyka Jews took refuge in the Prince's castle and prayed to G-d. They fought alongside the Prince's men against the cruel enemy. Two ancient huge cannons that were not even usable suddenly shot out by themselves and killed off many of the enemy. In any event, the fear of G-d befell the hooligans and the quickly retreated and ran away. In memory of this miracle, Rabbi David composed special penitential prayers for the 20th of Nisan, the day the miracle occurred.
The Community Re-organizes
The Jews of Olyka, the surviving refugees of those days, had trouble withstanding the decrees and oppression. There were a number of courageous and undaunted individuals who took community matters into their own hands and re-established the community. Thus, it was the courageous spirit of a handful of people that determined the fate of the community for generations to come.
[Photo:] Students of the Talmud Torah school in Olyka (1930)
They were able to protect the community from falling apart. Authority was established for individuals and the community as a whole, but the primary activities were concentrated, as usual in those days, in the hands of the religious officials: rabbis, slaughterers, burial society officials, etc. Over the years, there emerged the famous taxi owners [ba'alei taksi I don't know what he means by this] and other such institutions. and people of physical strength. Alongside them there were also the institutions devoted to aiding the poor, visiting the sick, funding the synagogue, charity funds, and most importantly, the religious school and yeshiva. Secular studies were strictly prohibited, and a decree of excommunication was awaiting anyone who violated this prohibition. With regard to girls, only the daughters of highbrow families knew how to read and write, but then only in the gentile language.
Childhood and Youthful Behavior
Were the children and youth in those days like the devoted students described by Bialik, who spent most of their youth as lifeless shadows or as people oblivious to the earth's lovely natural beauty, as if there were no clear day or moonlit night, etc.? Absolutely and positively not! The youth in town in those days also knew how to have fun, and enjoyed playing various games and even running wild, rock throwing, target shooting, and engaged in all types of winter and summer sports including swimming in the river. However, kindergartens and spacious schools were unknown in Olyka, and the Jewish children and youth didn't know anything about movies, theaters, clubs or summer camps. They received their education in the primary and advanced Jewish religious schools, and in individual instruction at the synagogue and study hall. Nevertheless, they were full of life and energy, and many knew how not to become spiritually and physically frozen - they even developed their muscles and ideas.
Religious Teachers and Cheders [Religious Schools for Children]
Let me jump ahead on this subject to the era that I remember myself. Even in those days there was primary and secondary education. The cheder teachers only taught 3-5 year-olds rudimentary Hebrew reading and writing. Who were the teachers in my day? I have fond memories of my first teachers Isser Melamed and Yerucham Melamed. The teachers for 10-12 year-olds (advanced) taught Bible with the Rashi commentary and a little Talmud: Alter Talmud-Torah, David Odesser, Binyamin Melamed, Hirsh Melamed, Berl Tibels, and others [I think Melamed is not the last name, but the term Teacher.]
At Bar-Mitzvah, we had real scholars for teachers who were G-d fearing: Moshe Notta's, Avrahamchik Shochet (Slaughterer and Cantor), Yechiel Shochet [shochet=slaughterer], Wolf Melamed Buber these were all teachers of older students and newly married men.
Teenagers and young married men and their parents who were unable to afford tuition paid to these teachers were banished to study in the study hall on their own (that is, self-study); anything they couldn't understand was asked of the full-time scholars who were always in the study hall, and who explained the information to them.
[Photo:] Teachers of the Tarbut School at the entrance to the Radziwill castle (1937).
These young boys, who knew about the outdoors, forest and river, knew how to have fun, but they also knew how to study very hard in the tiny poorly lit classroom, sitting at a large table and surrounding benches that took up the entire room. There were 20-30 children in dank air until sundown. When they got older, they returned in the evening, holding candles in their hands as they returned home, tired but with songs on their lips, even after being in dank classrooms.
More than a few continued their studies and turned into real scholars and geniuses with proud parents. These students went off to the great Lithuanian yeshivas or closer ones in the Volhyn region. Several of these students were: Shmuel, Yitzchak and Aharon Rosenstein, Chananiah Sharfstein, Moshe Tsam and otheres.
The First World War ended. Worn-out wanderers returned home, including the secularly educated brothers, Shmuel and Yitzchak Rosenstein, Sharfstein and Tsam. They introduced new ideas and values into the community. They shaped the life of the community among the youth and young adults, and spread Zionism in the community. Moshe Tsam (who died in the Holocaust) and Chananiah Sharfstein (the Poles exiled him to Soviet Russia, and today he is a professor and scientist) established the first Hebrew nationalist school in Olyka, and began disseminating Zionism among the youth; the ideology became very popular among and its influence increased. Slowly but surely, this new ideology even penetrated the Study Halls, which couldn't counter its effects. The stream toward the Hebrew School increased, and soon a general gymnazia high school was also established by teachers from out of town who were assisted by maskilim [followers of Enlightenment] such as the Rosenstein brothers, Yaakov Gorbaty and others. As a result, the Zionist movement began to make waves, and a strong party of Tseirei Zion [Youth of Zion] headed by Yitzchak Rosenstein, Chananiah Sharfstein, Yaakov Gorbaty, Shimon Katz, Simcha Glickman and others. It was the only party that became the main intellectual organization in town. They developed secular culture in town with great momentum and propagated Zionism. The party also handled all the activities related to it: the Jewish National Fund and Foundation Fund of the Zionist Organization; the local Palestine office and the Zionist Shekel. They started a large library, a reading room (operated by Friedel Stillerman, Shoshana Rosenstein, Manya Rosenbaum and Rachel Zisel Gorbaty).
After a protracted struggle with religious officials and the Rebbe, a regular Tarbut Culture School was established with a principal and outstanding teachers and educators: Briach Rosenbaum, Avigdor Burstein, Aharon Rosenstein, Albert Tennen, Papa Rosenbaum, Kit Zbuldovsky
and Kalman Burstein (who now lives in Israel and continues his profession). Hundreds of students of the school now live in Israel and many of them in major institutions and positions.
As previously mentioned, it wasn't easy to overcome the many obstacles to establishing a progressive Hebrew School in a longstanding Chasidic town such as Olyka. First of all, deep ploughing among the parents of the school-age children was needed. Of course, when we succeeded in our task thanks to the best among the scholars and maskilim in Olyka who assisted in this Zionist educational project from those days up to the present day, and were a blessing to the youth of the town. Hundreds of parents were recruited to help with the project, and unfortunately they were killed in the Holocaust and didn't have the privilege to see the reconstruction of Zion and Jerusalem, may their blood be avenged. May this be a testimony to the pioneering work they did.
World War I
Now let's return to those times, shortly after the outbreak of World War I. The front was getting closer to our town, and the Olyka Jews were worried and fearful. It was clear that destruction and catastrophe was just behind the wall. Pillage and robbery, attacks and fires and maybe even worse than that. Jews started to hide some of their property in cellars and attics. Perhaps G-d would have mercy and something would be left after it was all over. However, their main worry was, of course, concern for life and limb.
Refugees from surrounding towns Rozhits, Turchin, Brastechko, Burmil and others flooded into Olyka. Everyone was welcomed warmly like brothers in trouble, and there were refugee families in almost every house. The enemy's cannons cannons of the Austrians and Germans started pounding close by. Security forces and police ran off and left the civilians on their own. Fear of revenge caused many of the Ukrainian residents in town and surrounding villages abandoned their homes and possessions and ran for their lives. Russian and Cossack soldiers retreated in confusion after rioting in town. The broke into stores and pillaged everything they could, and frightened the Jewish residents. The commander of the retreating Russian army demanding a head ransom of 25 thousand rubles and a large amount of food from the community leaders, threatening to burn down the whole town.
The local leaders, Asher Schwartzblatt, Leibke Kolton, Mordechai Glickman, Shlomo Yudel, Hershel Schneider, Kalman Bett, Yaakov Shnitzer, Yehoshua Gorbaty, Alter Waldman, as well as the Olyka rabbi and
community activists organized emergency assistance by young and old (young men and women hid in bunkers and attics) in order to help with baking bread and rolling cigarettes. Food supplies were stored in the house of Mr. Glickman. The emergency aid workers endangered their own lives by distributing food to the retreating army. The town was like a place of executions. From their places of hiding, ears heard, and fearful eyes got glimpses of, crying from the houses broken into by the soldiers. Everyone hoped the Germans would get to Olyka as soon as possible.
The cannon shells did their work. The first victim was the wife of the town elder, Leibke Kolton, a marvelous woman. A shell fell into Yitzchak Zeichik's cellar and killed 20 people, including Ben-Zion Schorr's wife and 4 children (Ben-Zion was in the United States). One of the wounded, Shmuel Schorr, was saved miraculously and was able to move to Palestine in 1934. He set down roots and raised a family. One shell also hit the military headquarters, and the cruel general was killed, and his officers escaped from town. The Orthodox Jews and Chassidim saw this as a sign from heaven and miracle performed by the saint of Olyka. Every breathed with relief.
[Photo:] A meeting on the 20th of Tammuz during the German conquest in World War I.
At dawn the Austrian-German forces entered Olyka and called a meeting with the local leaders and
chose 4 officials (Kolton, Glickman, Schwartzblatt and Waldman) and appointed 20 Jewish policemen. They ordered the stores open and that no one should fear the rioters; any pillaging by soldiers was to be reported to headquarters that was located in the Radziwill castle. The Jews started to feel encouraged. Business with the soldiers became regularized and they paid in cash for their purchases. Since the Jewish population was suffering from hunger, the soldiers proceeded to help them take whatever they wanted from the abandoned farmers' fields and gardens. There wasn't a single non-Jewish resident left in Olyka.
However, this joyful situation didn't last long, and peaceful life soon came to an end. Within seven days, the Austrians and Germans retreated and suggested the Jews depart with them. Indeed, a large percentage of them more than 50% - escaped with them. The community leaders and the rebbe closed the gates to the rest: they encouraged them to overcome their fear and to trust in G-d. These Jews returned crestfallen to their hidden property in their cellars. It was now exactly the eve of Yom Kippur (1915) and a difficult battle was going on in town, and cannon shells took many lives. At that time I was only 11 years old, and I shall never forget that Yom Kippur recitation of Kol Nidrei. Hundreds of people men, women and children crowded into Oser Erga's the dank, wet and dingy cellar. The men, covered in their prayer shawls, pour out their hearts in the Kol Nidrei prayer. In the middle of this sad prayer some wailing women and children ran into the cellar and told us that the whole town was in flames. Before their departure the Austrians set one house after another on fire. The community leaders and town residents endangered their own lives and ran among the officers responsible for the withdrawal and redeemed the remaining property with large bribes. Fortunately the withdrawal was confused, and the Austrians suffered many losses, and to make matters worse, they set the line of retreat at 2 kilometers outside of town. The Russians took Olyka.
The way the Russian army and Cossacks treated the Jewish residents much better than before. There was a rumor that Czar Nicholas himself issued a warning decree to the army not to pillage. The fear of the Cossacks dissipated and again we breathed a sigh of relief. The army sealed off a large number of remaining houses and the family members were confined to one room. Our house was turned into the Cossacks' headquarters because it contained 9 large rooms, storage rooms and alot of open space. Some 100 Cossacks stayed in our house. I learned to recognize the Cossacks who were all big strong men with huge muscles and large rough hands. Most of the Cossacks were very coarse but handsome and without physical defects. They were also
good natured and generous. They protected us and treated us well. They were friendly to me and gave me all kinds of things, as if I were their own child.
For nine straight months battles continued over Olyka. The Russian newspapers, especially Posledniye Novisti [Latest News] repeatedly reported the bitter battles over the zolotoya gurka [gold hill] that on one day was captured by both sides seven times. Both sides suffered many losses until the Russians finally succeed in defeating the enemy. We were in the center of events and would sleep in our clothes. We got used to suffering. Indeed, a person can even get used to the harshest conditions. Fortunately, there was no shortage of food. Business with the soldiers continued as usual, without any problems, and even though there was much loss of life they held on. At the end of 1916, after exactly nine months of fighting, the Russians launched a major assault and broke the German-Austrian front, forcing them to retreat to the second line of defense near Kovel-Golob up to the Stochod River. The city was almost completely destroyed, and most of the houses were turned into horse stables. However, with the front lines pushed further back, a large portion of the residents returned to town. Many of them found their property that had been hidden and started to turn their poor dwellings into habitable residences. They started rebuilding their lives. Within a short time, the enemy front was completely broken, and shortly thereafter the Russian Revolution took place.
The Russian Revolution in Olyka
The revolution had a great effect on the Jewish community, evoking fresh hopes after everything they had been through: the pogroms and the horrendous World War. The young people were excited and longed for freedom and liberty. It was as if the poor, the working class and the downtrodden had sprouted wings. The ideas of the Russian revolution spread among Jewish youth like a bright light across the world at dawn. The eternal values of improving society and humanity were expressed in songs and fiery speeches. On one day in May of 1917, thousands of Jews went out to demonstrate men, women and children, workers and ordinary people. Thousands of red flags fluttered over every house, tree and fence (I remember how stores ran out of red fabric, and my mother tore up her red scarf into red ribbons). Gentiles of various backgrounds celebrated together with the Jews, almost fulfilling the prophet's words that a wolf and a sheep will dwell together.
Great leaders arose from among the people, and a beautiful platform was erected across from the Radziwill castle.
Dr. Sakedkin, the gentlemanly head of the council was a special envoy from the politburo in Petrograd, and was the first to speak before the crowds. He was an outstanding and graceful speaker, and was received enthusiastically. He was followed by Shmuel Rosenstein, one of the maskilim in Olyka, and who would eventually become one of the finest teachers at the Katznelson Gymnazia in Lodz and a member of the editorial board of Heint. He spoke in juicy Yiddish. The third speaker was Yitzchak Rosenstein, then only seventeen years old (years later founded a Hebrew school in Zdolovnov, and attracted many students. He had the privilege of migrating to Palestine and became one of the founders and director of Bank HaPoalim) and spoke fluent Russian and with skilled oratory. He succeeded in inflaming the crowd with desire to oppose the tyrannical regime and to become a free nation. The large crowd paid close attention to his words and absorbed everything he said.
Who is that little Jew? people asked each other. They applauded him for a long time and the gentiles carried him on their shoulders to show him to the crowd. He earned respect among the Jews and gentiles, and succeeded in improving the status of the Jews in town and in the region. People talked about his speech for a long time afterward.
[Photo:] Members of the Tarbut organization in Olyka with chairman Yitzchak Rosenstein. 1924.
However, the political situation after the Revolution changed all this. The Bolsheviks hardly had a chance to establish themselves in power when their opponents arose throughout the region and coalesced into gangs under the leadership of Petlyura Balchovich and Mukha. There were also local gangs appeared in the village of Mitlana Bielo, around Klieben and elsewhere. The Bolshevik authorities
left Olyka and the gangs took advantage of the situation to engage in daily acts of robbery and looting. Whoever opposed them was killed on the spot.
[Photo:] Yaakov Katz, head of the Olyka defense group from 1918-1920.
The town was covered in blood and fire victims and death. Among the first victims were Nisan Yosels, Aryeh Nekonetschnik and Devorah Bakovsky. Life became exceedingly hard.
The town leaders, especially the Zionist activists, called a meeting to find a solution to the catastrophe that had hit the Jews of Olyka. Together with the Ukrainian socialists headed by the student Ifton (a friend of the Jews) they decided to set up a self-defense unit.
The leader selected to head the unit was Eliezer Stillerman, assisted by Yaakov Katz. Many young people signed up to join the unit, and in only a few days they were put to the test.
On Sunday morning, a cold winter day, a famous gang from Klieben arrived and started looting and killing. Some 30 members of the defense unit appeared on the scene armed with weapons. We closed off their access to the bridge over the river, which was the only way they could get out of town. The battle took place on the frozen river. The gang members ran for their lives (about 25 people), carrying their wounded with them. From then on other gangs learned their lesson and would not come to Olyka. The members of the defense unit stood guard day and night and were honored by the Jewish community. The Jews continued, however, to live in fear and worry which kept them up at night.
The Polish Conquest
At the beginning of 1920 it was announced that the Polish army was approaching Olyka, and on a Sunday a large group of soldiers approached the town. At the same time, the head of the famous Lebed gang from the village of Mitlana and a large number of his followers took advantage of the situation and decided to attack the Jews. They went after the Jews living on the edge of town, on Meshansky Road at the home of Kreindel Melamed. Kreindel was a tough woman, active in community affairs, and wise and valiant. By deceptive means she managed to report the attack to the defense unit, who immediately contacted the head of the Polish forces, which acted swiftly. Their forces closed off the gang's escape route, captured their leader, tied him to a horse and dragged him to the Radziwill castle. They gathered the Jews to watch this hero's execution.
At first the Jews reacted with relief to the Polish conquest, however, within a short time the situation reversed itself. The conquering soldiers, the Herlchiks, started looting the town, mocking the religious Jews and cutting off their beards, etc. This continued until the authorities slowly were able to impose their control of the situation and keep the soldiers away from the Jews. The Poles knew that most of the local population were Ukrainians, sworn eternal enemies of the Poles, and the authorities thus needed to have a good relationship with the Jews so the Jews would help them.
The Poles started by setting up a city council, and appointed the local landowner of Olyka, Count Goloitsch as its head. The Count was no friend of the Jews, but was also not known as one of their enemies either because he had business dealings with them, especially with my father the merchant, Mordechai Glickman. He made contacts among the leaders of the Jewish community and started paving roads, since all the roads were full
of potholes, puddles and mud. He opened a Polish elementary school (Povshchana) and closed the Russian and Ukrainian gymnazia high school, as well as permitted elections for the Community Council and if the community so desired, the establishment of a Hebrew school. He also allowed various Jewish collection funds to operate.
Before World War Two
Commerce, industry and crafts. At first, life developed slowly under the Polish regime, but it did continue unabated. Economic life, especially small businesses, craft professions, etc. developed. The community grew, and prior to the Holocaust the Jewish population rose to 5000. Half of the non-Jewish population was Ukrainians, Poles, Germans and others. Commerce centered mostly on grains, flour and lumber. Most of the businessmen were peddlers and shopkeepers, while there were even more artisans, laborers and various professionals.
The craft that grew the most among the mixed populace was shoemaking. There were around 500 shoemakers in Olyka, including real experts. Most of what the produced was sold locally, in the region and mainly at fairs. Wednesday was the big fair day. No fewer than 100,000 people, mostly Ukrainian villagers, would arrive in town on their wagons and horses from far and wide. Olyka was buzzing with activity and crowded from one end of town to the other. The wagons were full of grain, cattle, pigs, fowl and eggs, as well as fruit, vegetables and milk products. The fair was also the place to sell horses and cows. So this was the day that the Jews made their main living, and the day served as the foundation for economic life in Olyka.
Two banks were also opened in town: Bank Kupat Am [National Fund Bank - Folksbank] under the management of Yaakov Gorbaty, and the Commerce Bank, under the management of Aharon Sadeh. In addition, there were two other flour mills in addition to the Zeilengold brothers' flour mill. One was built by Gershon Gelberg, Avraham Flusker and Shlomo Nudler, and the other was owned by Glickman, Kindelman and Greenspan (Yafonitz) from Klieben (the latter later emigrated to Palestine with his family and built the large flour mill in Afula).
They also re-established Shmuel Fidel's beer factory managed by a tailor from Rovno. Building construction grew, and many new houses were built and old ones repaired as well as those damaged in the war. Nevertheless, a large part of the Jewish community were in dire economic circumstances.
Community Life. New life was breathed into Jewish community life in Olyka. The veteran devoted Zionist, Yitzchak Rosenbaum, was elected head of the community, and most of the members of the community council were also outstanding Zionists. The new head of the community took an aggressive role in working in all the institutions, and undertook that work with great wisdom. With G-d's help he succeeded in absolutely everything he did. He knew how to deal with great people and worked with the authorities as a proud Jew and as an excellent public figure.
[Photo:] Zionist Community Committee. Chairman Yitzchak Rosenbaum; Secretary Shimon Katz.
There were, however, householders in town rabbis, religious officials and veteran synagogue leaders who didn't like the new modernized Zionist community, which was supporting the Tarbut School and all the Zionist appeal organizations, but every effort to oppose these activities met with failure.
The Join and the American Committee. The activities of the Joint and of the American Committee that worked through the community, including under leaders such as Kalman Bett, Chaim Polishok and Yaakov Gorbaty, as well as the Polish consul, who provided assistance, aided the community in supporting various charity institutions that the town couldn't fund sufficiently.
This included aid for refugees and orphans, inexpensive kitchens or free meals.
Zionist education, culture, youth organizations, and public charity institutions. Following the nationalist revival, large changes occurred among the young people. After they became exposed to the studies offered by the Tarbut School and the government Polish school, many young people aspired to continue their studies. Thus, many graduates went off to study in the large cities such as Rovno and Vilna at high schools and teachers seminaries. I remember that among those young people were Papa and Lemel Rosenbaum, Katsavman, Kaliner, Nechama Tsam, Moshe Levy, Shocher and others.
[Photo:] In the children and youth camp in Olyka. 1937.
All types of Zionist groups sprouted up in Olyka: Poalei Zion [Workers of Zion], Tse'irei Zion [Youth of Zion], General Zionists, Pioneer and Young Pioneer, Hashomer Hatsa'ir [Young Guard], Beitar [Revisionist Covenant of Trumpeldor] and HaPoel HaMizrachi [Religious Zionist Mizrachi Workers]. There were also a drama club, an orphan association, a women's association and Aid for the Poor Society.
The Zionist movement succeeding in making a large harvest. The spark that it lit soon turned to a huge bonfire. The young people were restless, and they streamed by the hundreds to the training kibbutzes (Kolosova and others); they even established or helped to establish training kibbutzes in Olyka. After enormous struggles and effort, many were able to move to Palestine. This is how some 200 members got to Palestine and settled in various kibbutzim and other places. We were impelled by our strong desire to plant roots in our homeland and live in freedom, happiness and health, which was different than life in Olyka. The seed was planted and roots developed.
[Photo:] Michael Hanegbi (Kofiteivsky), originally from Olyka, and governor of the Negev (with Mrs. Roosevelt, Michael Comay and David David Tovihu, mayor of Be'er Sheva).
The immigrants settled in Palestine and raised a magnificent generation, including people who were important in towns and villages, and who contributed to the individual and to the State of Israel. Nevertheless, a previous life of suffering outweighs all the joy. Memories of our parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, friends and acquaintances who died a horrible death at the hands of the Nazi butchers and their collaborators in our faraway, but nearby Olyka are always in our minds, even as I write these lines. These memories fill cups of tears and keep you awake at night, experiencing nightmares day and night, in dreams and while awake. You see their shining faces and feel their caresses. Suddenly you think you hear their screaming and you shudder. You hear their dying groans, and you become filled with rage, cursing the inhuman creatures who behaved like savage animals and killed totally innocent children, babies, men and women. May fear and dread and G-d's curses fall upon them to the ends of the earth.
A special cultural affairs committee, made up of representatives of the various movements, training kibbutzes, etc. was set up in Olyka. Of course, a great deal of manpower and activists were needed for a cultural undertaking of this magnitude. Such people were found, and they were the inspiration in town, and led the way, defending public and Zionist interests.
The Drama Club
This club was organized spontaneously by two brothers, Shmuel and Yitzchak Rosenstein and Chananiah Sharfstein. They were joined by Esther Glickberg, Devorah Katz, Shimon Katz, Heshy Bauman, Tuvia Kaplan, Meir and Yudel Greenspan, Yeshayahu Candelman, Kendel, and others. The purpose of the club was to promote culture among young people and inculcate artistic values. The plays that were presented in Yiddish were mainly the favorites of the same period that were put on by all the other theater troupes in the cities and towns of Volhyn: Shany Kony-Lemel, Chasya the Orphan, Fishke the Lame, Stampanyu, The Dybbuk and others. Although these were, as mentioned, the favorites of the period, nevertheless,
[photo:] Presentation of Hirshke Muzikant directed by and starring Shimon Katz (1935)
most were extremely popular, and enthralled audiences of all age groups, who often left the theater only in the early hours of the morning. This was because artistic theatrical productions were the main form of entertainment before the advent of radio and television.
I remember that Yitzchak Rosenstein and Shimon Katz (member of this book's editorial board) appeared in the play, The Doorposts Shook, that they had developed from their own imagination, and which amazed audiences and garnered calls of Maestro! When they appeared in the comedy, the play continued endlessly because of the barrels of endless laughter in the auditorium. This was an event that we rarely experienced over the years, and those being in large theaters. Perhaps this was because we were more hungry and open to the influence of theatrical artistry.
[Photo:] Drama studio in a training group. (1935)
Over time the drama club developed and grew, and this was to the credit of the active young people, the youth organizations, training kibbutz, etc., not to mention the Mizrachi Working Youth movement. Almost all the revenue was dedicated to the nationalist funds.
[Photo:] Kony Lemel : Shimon Katz, Kendel, Finkelstein (1935)
[Photo:] The Flower Day Committee of the Jewish National Fund (1935)
Many oral commentaries, symposiums and much praise, on the one hand, and extensive criticism was offered about the actors just as everywhere else in the world right up until today.
Rabbis and Holy Men
The background of the rebbe of Olyka included famous holy men, their courts and their many chassidim. They spread all the way to the borders of Romania and Austria. Thousands of chassidim filled Olyka at particular times, and it wasn't always easy to arrange a meeting with the rebbe or get his blessing. People waited for days and weeks on end in the wide corridors as the rebbes conducted their activities: a wide courtyard, a large house surrounded by walls in the center of town, a fruit tree orchard, horse stables. It was all reminiscent of the surroundings of the gentile counts. The rebbes would go out on a trip accompanied by marvelous chariots with at least 2 pairs of horses, one behind the other; bottles of wine hundreds of years old were kept in their cellars.
I happen to remember in particular the evenings of the Passover Seders in the rebbe's courtyard. The whole house was surrounded by great magnificence, especially the rebbe's synagogue, where the Seder was performed, and where a wondrous light was shining - the hidden light as it was described by the chassidim. It was such a festive atmosphere. The local Jews used to stream to this synagogue just like opera fans flock to the opera house, and not just to see the rebbe's face when he conducted the seder. Long tables that could seat dozens of people were covered with snow-white tablecloths, set with crystal, gold and silver vessels, some of which hundreds of years old. There were precious stones and diamonds set in the candelabra; at the head of the table sat the holy man himself, dressed in his long robe and his expensive streimel [round fur hat] on his head. He was surrounded by his sons and sons-in-law as well as his many chassidim, while the other local Jews, who were lucky enough to get in, were standing nearby. A few yards away, at her own table, sat the righteous rebbetzin [the rebbe's wife] surrounded by her daughters and daughters-in-law, crowned with a diadem filled with precious stones and diamonds.
The rebbe himself chanted the Passover Haggadah, and words of mystical Torah teachings flowed from his mouth like from a spring. After the Seder, they poured a few barrels of water in memory of the waters of the Red Sea [literally: Sea of Reeds], through which the Children of Israel passed after leaving Egypt. Then the rebbe and his followers would proceed to walk through the puddles of water while they recited the biblical verses relating to the division of the Red Sea: He passes his Children through the pathways of the Red Sea.
The joy climaxed on the last day of Passover, and there is really no joy anywhere like the joy of that day. The singing and dancing continued all day long; the chassid Shimon Moshe Tsiffes would sing Chad Gadya [One Kid] in Aramaic and Yiddish as well as Polish and Ukrainian. At sunset, a roasted turkey was brought in, and the rebbe himself would cut it up and distribute it to the chassidim. The struggle over who would get the tail was sharp and aggressive. Nevertheless, it all ended peacefully without any injury. The chassidim used to say that this was due to the miraculous acts of the rebbe.
The great rebbe, Shimele died at a young age, and he left behind many children. His righteous widow, Friedele, was a marvelous woman and extremely wise. She knew the Torah by heart and was able to swim in the sea of the Talmud. Indeed, it was she who continued with the rebbe's work until her children grew up.
However, their light began to fade. The influence of new ideas starting penetrating the Jewish people, and not just by abject secularists and heretics. Maybe this was because the enthusiasm for chassidism gave way to enthusiasm for pioneering Zionism.
May their memory be blessed! The last rebbe, Alteronye, was the first among some 500 important local Jews, among whom were my father, Motel Blume, and my father-in-law, Yitzchak Rosenbaum, the head of the community. Both were taken by Hitler's murderers to the camp in Olyka, and buried there alive. How did this happen to you, O holy ones? Each one of you was worth an entire world and the world didn't care. They were all great scholars, great wise men, students of the Torah and observant Jews. Their sun never set. I am trying to imagine that they didn't actually die that way, and just like anyone else, were brought to their graves with great honor.
I am trying to imagine walking among their gravestones at the cemetery where everyone else was buried, reading their stones: Here is buried, Moshe Noteh's who was great in Torah and careful in his observance of all commandments; Moshe Tsemriner, honest and righteous, doing good; Fishel Bluma's, my grandfather, one of the famous scholars in town, a merciful and friendly man; Lemel Nache Noteh's, my wife's grandfather, a handsome man, an honest merchant, who had a warm Jewish heart and who did charitable acts for hundreds of Jews; Luzer (Elazar) Rebbe Itze's, an honest man who had a warm heart, and who didn't lose his self-respect when facing the murderers of Tolsky Otryad in 1919, when he was kidnapped with a demand for 25 thousand rubles from the Jewish community. Even though he was wounded, his only concern was for the fate of the community not of his own life.
There was R. Ephraim son of Rebbe Itze's, a wise merchant who possessed great character traits and love of his fellow;
R. Moshe Mordna, a clever man full of wisdom; R. Berl Mordna, a righteous G-d-fearing chassid; R. Yaakov Shlomo, a wise man who studied in the synagogue; R. Motel Shochet, a truthful chassid; Shlomo Mendel, a handsome and fine individual, wise and beloved by all; R. Yitzchak David, a full barrel that didn't lose a drop; R. Shlomo Hirsch Katsavman, righteous and honest who spoke the truth and felt the truth in his heart; R. Avraham Lana's, an overflowing spring; R. Meir Leib, who opened his house to scholars, and who was one himself; R. Chaim Yesod, who had a charity fund, prosperous and who acquired a good name for the charity he distributed; R. Mendel (the White One) Rabinowitz, a descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, judged every person favorably; Rabbi Moshe Rottenberg, who studied literally day and night; R. Yosef Feivesher Fifel, a Torah Jew and pure tzaddik (holy man) with all his heart and strength; Rabbi Yudel Metchilker, a tzaddik in his generation; R. Ephraim Kemach, like a tree planted by a brook, who always spoke words of Torah; R. Motel Glickman, my father, a proud scholar, outstanding merchant, rooted in Jewish tradition; R. Yehoshua Gorbaty, wise and honest, great in Torah and good acts, etc. etc. Rows and rows of gravestones, and I walk among them -----
Who will avenge your spilled blood you, who were righteous men, lovers of the Jewish People and man with all your heart and soul, glory of the generation.
In recent times the word nostalgia has come to be considered cynically in quotation marks, like the word Zionism. I am not ashamed to be provincial, and to throw away the quotation marks! I readily admit and confess: I greatly miss my hometown, the people who lived there, its streets, houses, alleys and lanes.
My Olyka! I roam your streets, see the houses, their owners and residents. Here's the ancient garden of Radziwill in the middle of town; here's the beautiful house of the rebbe and his courtyard. Even if I wasn't your chassid. When you pass his house, you experience a mysterious light sparkling from within the light of chassidism which illuminated thousands of homes in Volhyn; here's my father's house. The motto there was: Enter hungry, leave satisfied! The Sabbath candles shining
through the windows and doors. There were Jews, just returning from the public bath, wearing their chassidic silk coats and silk hats; their children around them dashing off to synagogue to receive the Sabbath. Even the gentiles respected the Sabbath Queen and left town quickly with the arrival of the Sabbath. You went home from the synagogue relaxed, sensing the refreshing smell of the trees in the palace garden next to my father's house. Then the nightingales started singing their symphonic melodies in honor of the Sabbath
Many of the synagogues and study halls in Olyka were named after various rebbes (the Strisker, Olvesker, Stefany, etc.) or various crafts there was the synagogue of the tailors, of the shoemakers, the large synagogue, etc.). My father built the Stefany synagogue, and until I moved to Palestine in 1935, my father was chosen as the treasurer of the synagogue 25 times. On the Sabbath, the householders, scholars and Stefany and other chassidim would visit our home and make a toast [Le'chaim] and listen to the melodies of R. Yehoshua the Cantor and Ritual Slaughterer, the grandfather of my son-in-law, who moved people's hearts. Everyone drank and had a good time, but never did any Jew in Olyka get intoxicated.
I used to hear the heart-warming stories from the Yiddish work Tseina Ureina [A famous work of Jewish ethical and religious teachings mainly intended for women] from my mother as far back as I can remember. A magical world, the way she used to look up at the starts and say, G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the end of the Sabbath. [This was a famous prayer written by the famous rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to be recited at the end of the Sabbath in Yiddish].
The days of penitential prayers before Rosh Hashanah in the autumn when it was chilly and cloudy, and the powerful and chanting voice of Velvel the Tall (one of the world's 36 hidden holy men), reciting through the shutters (Holy nation, rise to serve your Creator etc.), the penetrating and heart-rending voice filled with awe. I stood up quickly and walked with my father to the synagogue; the street was filled with people flocking to recite their penitential prayers. There were even veteran Olyka chassidim of the rebbe who came here from far and wide to rush to the rebbe's synagogue. The synagogue was filled with the fear of Judgement Day, resembling a forest in the autumn. The winds carried the fuzz of the trees, and the branches quivered and shook, shook and quivered
Ten Days of Repentance [between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur]. These days evoked fear and awe they were days of judgement and Yom Kippur was almost here. The day arrived, and young and old rushed to the afternoon prayer at synagogue. The charity plates were set on a special table, and nearby, the treasurer,
Mordechai Glickman, took the money of the congregants. Every person contributed his promised amount into each plate. Since I was the person responsible for the Jewish National Fund in town, I prayed and encouraged them to put their money into my plate, which I had set in a respectable spot on the table (in those days this was a form of having connections). Many plates performed valiantly, and mine above all others [he uses a pun derived from verses of the biblical poem, Woman of Valor ]
The honored householders bowed and prostrated themselves on the ground. There was straw spread out on the floor to make bowing easier. Everyone struck his chest during the recitation of sins, and the synagogue caretaker, Moshe Berlis, stood over them and lashed them lightly 39 times [commemorating the 39 lashings that an inadvertent sinner received from a whip]. He lashed each person on his rear end with his whip. One, one and two, one and three the penitent straightened up and handed the caretaker a generous contribution for his great efforts. Berlis' facial expression showed how he felt about each contributor, that is, about the person who gave him the most money. At exactly 4:00, father returned home, and we ate the final meal. Mother lit and blessed the candles and recited her supplicatory prayers. We then left our remaining family members at home and with tears and a blessing departed with awe for synagogue.
Kol Nidrei The synagogue was packed. The elders of the congregation stood next to the Ark, wrapped in kittels [white gowns] and prayer shawls, prepared to open the Ark and begin the Kol Nidrei prayer. The cantor, Yehoshua Vieder, and his choir of boys stood before the Torah reading table, with faces as white as the kittel. Father began reciting According to the will of G-d and the will of the congregation, and the cantor and children immediately followed with Kol Nidrei . The children's voices kept rising, and you could really see how those voices rose way up to the Throne of Glory, and you had the feeling that the children's voices were doing something up there in heaven.
Tu Bishvat The streets in Olyka were covered in snow. There was special pleasure in trekking through the melting snow to empty Jewish National Fund charity collection boxes around town, and then get Tu Bishvat fruits wrapped in transparent paper. Actually, you felt the spirit of the day more in the poor and working-class neighborhoods who would open the door with a warm welcome and the happy eyes of excited children. They would take the little wrapped package and then take down the charity box from the wall and run to bring the box and add additional coins to it. These houses would eventually produce pioneers who would get to Palestine following great upheaval.
That was a different kind of Tu Bishvat. Don't be ashamed to wipe a tear from your eye. Don't be ashamed to start crying, for it was precisely on this very day in 1941, as mentioned earlier, that the first several hundreds of Jews were taken away to be murdered and massacred, something which continued until the end of the summer month of Av. The heavens were covered in clouds; it seemed like the heavens were also trying to beg for mercy for the wretched creatures. As the poet wrote Heaven, ask for mercy for me.
There are other memories of my childhood in Olyka that I can still see. There remains some measure of warmth from there that affects my life to this very day: whether it's the image of the warm river waters in the hot summer, where we would engage in swimming races, or images of the winter sleds that often warmed our hearts; or images of the hidden warmth that flowed mutually from the hearts of loved ones loved ones who are no longer here. We can't even make a gravestone for them, except as a memorial in the form of a book.
We are consoled ever so slightly (or a great deal!) by the survivors: the first ones, and the remnant, who had the privilege of seeing another generation grow up. Yes, another generation in our ancestral land. How lucky you are that you were able to settle in your homeland, that was redeemed in blood and sweat, and if you ever think about your relatives and parents who died a martyr's death in that town, don't crown the martyrs in quotation marks. They too included people who were heroic and courageous, and who died an honorable death. There were even some who managed to kill some of the enemy, the Germans. May their souls be bound with our lives, and may their lifelong dream to touch the soil of the Land of Israel, our ancestral home illuminate our paths.
Meir Ben Yishai (Greenspan)
Translated by David Goldman
|During my lifetime, I would still like to be able to see
my hometown Olyk,
how it looked fifty years ago.
With that radiance and charm and magic,
When goats with full udders
I long for all the streets and alleys,
There, where my friends and I used to tread
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