Translated by David Goldman
Before the Russian-Communist revolution, at the beginning of World War I, Olyka was still a very obscure and enfeebled town similar to most other town in the areas of Jewish settlement.
There was no organized Jewish community, not even as the concept is commonly understood. There was an appointed rabbi (he was Shimonyu, one of the sons of the Rebbe). No one knew who appointed him, and no one even had any need of him.
Adults found the focal point of their social lives in the synagogues and Houses of Study. Following prayer services – usually between the afternoon and evening services at the end of the day – men would chat amongst themselves, talking about day-to-day mundane matters as well as high-minded matters. They sighed bitterly from the governmental decrees and oppression afflicting the Jews; they were very careful about their words, lest an inappropriate word get them into trouble since walls have ears. With no other choice available, they accepted the burden of the empire.
Among the members of our Jewish community were a few individuals who had connections in the government. These were the advocates who spoke with high-level officials, and could approach them. Their role was to generously bribe those officials – the amount depended on the official's role and position – as needed at certain times, and with a special holiday bonus so that they would refrain from accusing us, would ignore piles of animal dung outside town and garbage piling up along the streets, and would turn their heads about all the commerce being conducted on Sundays and being conducted illegally. The advocates were the only real institution in town, and were self-appointed: anyone with the impudence would take on that role. It was they who set the amounts everyone had to contribute for public purposes, and did not have to justify their actions. Of course behind their backs everyone was complaining about them.
Years went by without any event changing anything significant in the life of the community. Life went by at a slow pace, similar to the flow of the river that ran through town. On one side of the river lived the Jews, and on the other side lived the local non-Jewish peasants.
The river was not alone in dividing the worlds of the Jew and the gentile. It appeared that the air we breathed was different in the two communities, not to mention the way of life that differed totally between the two communities, both spiritually and materially. The non-Jew proceeded confidently and with strength. After all, he was in his own country, rooted in the earth of his homeland for a very long time – a land that he planted, cultivated and harvested, where he ate the fruit of his labor. His bread came from heaven and from his dedicated work. The fertile land of Ukraine provided him with its produce despite the primitive farming methods used over many generations. The Ukrainian built his hut with his own hands from planed wood sheets, covered with a roof of straw. The barn and the stable where fowl also lived, the doghouse and the pigpen were all near his hut, and everyone was fed generously from the farmer's plentiful grain.
In the springtime the fields were harvested from one end to the other, and the scent of flowers in the gardens wafted a long way. The vegetable gardens were a sight to behold.
In the warm summer nights, after a day's work in the fields, the young people would get together. These gentile young men and women would sing their songs, songs of Ukraine, songs harkening back to days long ago. These sounds made their way to the ears of the Jews. Their lyrics spoke about love and bravery in war. The Jews would nod their heads, This is the way of the gentiles who are steeped in this physical world.
On the other hand, Jewish life was totally different. There were no gardens and no trees, just dust in the summer, deep mud in the autumn and melting snow in the spring. Jews were not interested in any of these mundane issues. Jews were interested in things pertaining to their livelihoods, and to putting food on the table for the large family. Making a living was a difficult endeavor – as the rabbis said, like splitting the Red Sea. So making a living always distracted the Jews, but the more a person pursued his livelihood, the further it got away from him, preventing tranquility by day and a peaceful sleep at night. Jews made their living from the local farmers. Most Jews were small shopkeepers, including peddlers who traveled through the villages all week, with their sacks on their backs, selling anything to the farmers. Most of what they sold was things like grain and flour, poultry and eggs, pig hair (something permitted under Jewish law
for making a living although the animal itself is forbidden) and horse tails – which Jews bartered for fabric, haberdashery, etc. Horse and cattle traders also traveled through the villages, as did artisans such as tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, harness-makers, carpenters, builders, furniture makers, construction workers, baking and heating oven makers, as well as locksmiths, hatters, watchmakers, barbers, etc. Most of these Jews were simple people who were really poor, but who were pious Jews. They were religious people and were G-d-fearing. However, they were always in need, and some of them had to rely on anonymous charitable donations. They also did not lack religious ritual objects. As mentioned, most of these Jews had a difficult time making a living, even while pretending to be important businessmen in town. Poverty is an embarrassment, and as our mothers used to say, Pinch your cheeks to keep them rosy. The people hid their poverty from others so as not to draw attention to themselves. There were various degrees of poverty: the poor, the destitute, and worst of all, the beggars.
Not only did most people not really have a way to earn a living, they toiled for what they did have. However, we did have a few wealthy people, and presumably their wealth was relatively predetermined in comparison to most of the people in town.
The shopkeepers sought customers all day, from sunrise to sunset. There were very few local farmers shopping in the market. The shopkeepers invited every one to their shops, pulling them by the sleeve, smiling and ingratiating themselves with their prospective customer, hoping to make a sale. The farmer know his own worth and importance, and would offer prices under cost, and it did not help the shopkeeper to swear that he had paid more for the merchandise.
Things were different at the market that took place very Wednesday. It was a day everyone was anxiously awaiting. People would wake up early, before dawn, and each person would finish his prayers quickly and set off for his shop. Even the women left their kitchen work and got eagerly involved. During the early morning hours the nearby village farmers, and those from further away, would make their way to town with wagons filled with produce, barley, wheat and other agricultural products. A farmer's wife say in the wagon dressed in her finery, with a flowery kerchief on her head, and her hair parted down the middle, giving off the smell of pig fat that she had spread on it. She was
surrounded by garden produce that she had chosen herself, plus fowl, eggs, etc. In exchange of them she would purchase fabric for dresses for herself and her daughters, blouses, kerchiefs and other things needed at home.
The market soon became crowded with wagons and horses as Jews buzzed about among the wagons, finding customers, and patting them on the shoulder as a sign of friendship. They shook hands and said 'hello.' They sought customers energetically and loudly, still surrounded by noise and crowds. Those farmers whose wagons had already become empty gather together by one of the other wagons to enjoy themselves. They pass around one bottle of vodka after the other, emptying each one together with some salt fish in both hands, swallowing everything, heads and tails.
The shops were filled with shoppers, and business was transacted skillfully. Even children were enlisted to assist their parents, and they were responsible to make sure no one stole any merchandise or left without paying.
At the end of town there was a large open area for business transactions involving animals: horses, colts, cows, calves, fattened pigs and one day-old piglets. Horse and cattle traders ran around everywhere, examining, testing. They opened the mouths of the horses like real experts, peering inside at their teeth, etc. They made the horses run so they could expertly check the quality and strength of the animal. These Jewish horse traders had a great deal of experience and knowledge about the quality of the animals. On the other hand, because of their expertise they were able to present even an old or weak horse as beautiful and strong in the eyes of the farmer. Soon, however, the farmer realized his error, and was burning with a desire for revenge. He cursed the lying Jews and his eyes were filled with a desire for blood.
There were both days of joy and days of sadness in town. There were holidays and family celebrations: weddings, bar mitzvahs and circumcisions. Everyone celebrated these events at home depending on his ability and position. Of course the main family celebrations were weddings, which held a special position among all other celebrations.
Our ancestors knew how to involve their friends and relatives in such celebrations. A lot of preparation went into a wedding. The house had to be whitewashed and scrubbed from the floor to the ceiling, becoming sparkling clean. One woman who was a real expert in baking and cooking prepared the finest delicacies and the sumptuous
banquet following the wedding ceremony. Important members of the community gathered in the home of the groom in holiday attire, sitting at a table together with the groom, and enjoying assorted light refreshments of drinks and delicacies. They raised their cup for a blessing, and chatted about various events spiced with the words of Jewish religious scholars.
At the home of the bride, women adorned themselves in their finest dresses and jewelry. Escorted by his father and future father-in-law, the groom arrived to cover the bride's face with a veil before the wedding ceremony. He was followed by the couple's other friends and relatives as a fiddler played lively tunes, accompanied by the rest of the musical troupe. The bride wept under her veil, and the other women dabbed their eyes and wiped their noses.
The wedding canopy was set up in front of the large synagogue, and following the ceremony the newlyweds were accompanied to the home of the bride with gay music played by the musical troupe. One of the new female relatives danced in front of the ladies with a tray in her hand filled with bread and salt, a good omen for a life of fulfillment. The delicious wedding meal lasted until late into the night, accompanied by music and singing. Still in bed at the crack of dawn, those not attending the wedding could hear the singing and music accompany home the invited guests.
Our memories of childhood are engraved in our heart. The truth is that our childhood was oppressive. We were bound to the cheder class, the teacher, and his whip. We were under all kinds of prohibitions, but day and night we never stopped learning how to be good and loyal Jews. Our parents at home and our teachers at school kept working on us not to be like the young gentiles, who had nothing else in life but their mundane pursuits, following their impulses filled with worldly vanities, and lacking a share in the World to Come. Nevertheless, we too had impulses that pushed us into wild behavior unbecoming to Jewish children. Swimming and bathing in the river in the hot summer, and skating on the ice during the winter were pleasures we could never abandon, even though it meant staying away from our Torah studies. We would sneak out when the teacher dozed off in class and forgot about his charges. We even knew how to fool our parents. Of course whenever we were caught in our misbehavior we were hit by our fathers, and even worse, we had to listen to words of reproach and the tears of our mothers.
The river, which divided the Jewish and gentile children, served as a meeting place for the two groups. In the summer it was for swimming, and in the winter for skating. The gentile children would frequently start picking on us and calling us names.
We did not refrain from responding and hit back. We started verbally, and ended up throwing rocks and using our fists in this environment of mutual animosity and age-old hostility. Finally the adults got between our groups, and we returned home with heavy hearts, knowing what was waiting for us at home at the hands of our parents. Some of us returned home with a bloody nose, others with torn clothes. If the fights occurred on the Sabbath, it was much, much worse, because in addition to our youthful behavior not becoming Jewish young people, it involved violating the Sabbath. What a disgrace
In general, the Zionist movement was
still in its infancy. In Olyka we only heard faint echoes of Zionism. There
were rumors in town about a Jew, a doctor named Herzl, who was visiting
kings and rulers of the nations. He met with the Turkish government, which
held the key to our homeland. It was amazing: they negotiated with him
as an equal partner. However, it turned out that this doctor was not among
the pious and devoted, quite the opposite. Nevertheless, something great
had happened to the Jewish People – there were congresses, the shekel campaigns,
etc. Newspapers, including non-Jewish ones, covered all these things. Who
knows? Maybe G-d had varied emissaries
This is how the Jews were talking in the synagogues and houses of study between the afternoon and evening prayer services, and at every spare moment. Astonishment, sighs, and a ray of hope shone in their eyes. Yearnings for redemption and the inheritance of Jewish history were part of their lives during the entire period of exile. It was faith in the arrival of the Messiah, when the G-d's auspicious time would arrive to redeem us from the nations and gather us together from the four corners of the earth to our Land.
The non-Jews among whom we lived helped us not to forget, heaven forbid, the source of our origins. Hatred of Jews was deeply rooted, and it cannot be explained logically. It deepened in our own generation, and increased poisonously until it produced its rotten fruit, the ideology of Nazi hatred that sought the wipe out the Jewish People.
The Polish regime, which was took over our area after the Russian civil war in the disintegrating Russian Empire during the Bolshevik revolution, not only treated the Jews the way they were treated during the dark days of the Czar, but added their own personal touch of their hatred for Jews that was embedded in their blood, and transmitted from generation to generation. They decided to reproduce the oppression of the biblical
Pharoah, especially in the economic sphere. They made life difficult for the Jews, and imposed heavy taxes, sometimes several times the value of one's entire stock of shop merchandise. All other occupations and employment opportunities in the government and municipalities were closed to them. Every day the anti-semitic media promoted incitement against the vampires in the form of Jews who were sucking the blood of the Polish nation, swindling and cheating the vital force of their neighbors' hard work.
This incitement was gladly accepted by the inflamed masses buried under poverty and destitution because, except for developing hatred of Jews, the Poles did nothing to develop any industry worthy of the name, or to improve the conditions of the masses. The economy remained as it had when they inherited the country from their conquerors – backward and widespread. The hatred of Jews was a source of redirecting the masses from their own suffering to the vulnerable Jews.
In the years before World War I this was a reason for a number of Jews to emigrate to the United States and other countries. After the war, immigration laws became stricter in the United States, reducing the numbers of immigrants based on limited quotas. The fate of the Polish Jews turned into a nightmare, especially for the young people. It was a dark future, with nothing on the horizon.
It's no wonder why the call of Zionism, especially the pioneer movement, was an attractive option: from hopelessness to the only possibility containing a solution both for the individual and the nationalistic aspiration of the rebirth of the Jewish People in their land.
Did divine providence guide Zionism, or was the source of its growth and deep roots based on conditions of time and space in which human beings live? In our case it does not make any difference. Every historical objective is accompanied by some revolutionary cost. Some unchallenged personality arises, and he determines the direction of the nation. Many important people and his followers answer his call. This refers to what is called local leadership. The brothers Shmuel and Yitzchak Rosenstein personified this type of leadership. They were among those who laid the foundation for organized community life, especially for all branches of Zionist activities in the renewed town. They were prominent in providing intellect and imagination, and enlivened the community.
Eventually Shmuel moved to Lodz and worked under the poet Yitzchak Katznelson as a teacher in a gymnasia high school named for Katznelson. Yitzchak Rosenstein carried out his activities indefatigably in two areas: as both director and guide of the school's day-to-day activities. He was gifted with personal charm and good speaking skills. He knew how to speak in a way that excited his listeners.
Under the guidance of the Rosensteins, and at their initiative, a drama group was established. It should be noted that our town had never produced works of art, not to mention theater productions. The theater productions of the drama group served as a gift from heaven for the young people, and despite the fact that we eventually enjoyed performances of outstanding productions in great auditoriums in Israel and worldwide, nevertheless the enjoyment we had from our local performances are unforgettable, even now. A barn was used for the performances, and was fixed up as a theater. People sat on makeshift wooden benches with no backs. The time needed to redo the stage from one scene to the next seemed to take forever, and the performances would end as sunlight peeked through the cracks. Nevertheless, the critical audience accepted the discomfort willingly in exchange for the enjoyment they had from the theater productions. The income was used to support the Tarbut Jewish school and the local library, which was created out of nothing. It, too, was the fruit of the work of the Rosenstein brothers.
The entire audience, and especially the youth, adored and admired the Rosenstein brothers, which they deserved. When Yitzchak and his wife moved to Palestine everyone accompanied them to the train station, at a distance of eight kilometers, and he was lifted up. We bade farewell to him with joy and sadness: joy – because Yitzchak was able to realize his life's dream; sadness – because his departure was difficult for us.
In Israel, too, we were fond of him because of our memories of what he did in his youth. However, he was unable to continue his work in Palestine. Apart from his work at a loan company, Bank Poalim, and some involvement with émigrés from Olyka, Yitzchak terminated all public activities. We had expected more from him knowing his abilities, skills and how well he got along with people. It was most unfortunate that he left us without acquiring his proper position in public affairs and in Israel.
Political parties that existed in Jewish communities in Poland did not exist in Olyka, not even Zionist parties. The General Zionist Party, created by the Rosenstein brothers, existed more on paper than in fact. This was also the case for the ephemeral
[photo:] Founders of the Pioneer Movement in Olyka: [appears to be from right to left] P. Glickberg, P. Glickman, A. Kaufman, S. Glickman), 1925.
youth party, Zeirei Zion, which was no different than the General Zionists apart from the stamp. The Zeirei Zion was also founded by the two brothers, who abandoned their previous party with the approval of the activists, except for Yaakov Gorbata, a prominent personality in town who remained loyal to his party, the General Zionists. Party activism in the fullest sense of the word, i.e. activism the way it was known in the large cities did not exist in our town – not to mention party fanaticism. This could be explained by the distance of the adults from public political interest, even tough their hearts were with Zion, and their sympathies were expressed in contributions to Zionist causes: the Jewish National Fund and the Foundation Fund [Keren Hayesod]. They even contributed to the Pioneer Fund, and in the Polish parliamentary elections, the Zionist grouping organized by Yitzchak Greenbaum won all the votes.
On the other hand, the youth movements were very active and vigorous: Hechalutz [Pioneer], Hechalutz Hatsair [Young Pioneer], and Hashomer Hatsair [The Young Guard] attracted most of the youth. The Zionist revisionist movement and its youth wing, Betar, were not represented in Olyka, except for a handful of sympathizers who were not organized.
Prior to the advent of the Zionist youth groups there was the Tarbut school, which trained the young people from childhood for their pioneering goals in Palestine. Thus,
their move to the pioneer youth movements when they got older was a natural choice. They joined those movements enthusiastically and devotedly, as is typical of young people.
Their educational program was aimed at freeing them from the Diaspora orientation of submissiveness and adaptation to fate, to fill them with the spirit of national pride, as is befitting the descendants of the Maccabees, and to fortify them and immunize them against the difficulties of deprivation, difficult work and self-defense, just as is befitting a pioneer who is setting out to rebuild the ruins of Palestine, and to prepare it as the homeland for the masses of Jews. Afterwards they attended a training camp, a kibbutz, which prepared them physically, socially, etc. for their destiny in Palestine.
Weeknights, Sabbaths and festival were devoted to educational activity. They discussed varied topics based on the essence of the movements, and had lectures on topics such as the history and problems of the Zionist movement; Zionist ideologies, socialism and nationalism; types of settlement in Palestine such as the kibbutz and workers settlement; the general workers federation, its foundations and areas of activity; the independent economy of people organized within the workers federation; defense and its goals. They also discussed current events from the newspapers, especially newspapers from Palestine, and worked on behalf of the various charity funds, social and local needs, etc.
The parents were sympathetic to their children's activities: the modernized and Zionist elements expressed strong understanding, and others felt these activities were better than hanging around town unrestrained, until the time came for them to marry and earn a living. However, when it came time for the first young people to join the training camp at Kalusov for backbreaking work in the stone quarry, parents started shouting, How can you do this? Could their delicate son or daughter do such harsh work of a non-Jew in a quarry, work they were not used to, far from the watchful eyes of their parents? The parents then suddenly heard all kinds of rumors in the gardens of the training camps concerning the apples of their eyes that they were so concerned about who would be going off to an empty desert land. However, their hearts and minds were sympathetic to the pioneers going off to Palestine to rebuild the ruins; they blessed them for their efforts. They wished them success in their endeavors, and even contributed from their meager resources to build up Palestine. However, this was all good and well as long as it involved others, but when it involved their very own children
This was their first test that was to challenge them on their new journey. Was it easy to engage in arguments with one's parents? To be tough enough to ignore one's mother's tears, and to have no satisfactory responses to our parents' justified concerns?
That same night many people slept in the homes of their friends. At sunrise the sneaked out of town, sat down in the wagon waiting for them, and headed for Kalusov. However, after the first pioneers had already paved the way, the wall of parental opposition had also been broken. Many following them acquired the consent of their parents.
After some time, not only did parental opposition cease, but the parents even started encouraging their children to move to Palestine, even if it meant they had to go through the experience of the training camps. They understood that the children had no attachment to their hometown. It is possible that this was a subconscious premonition of what was awaiting the Jewish People in the near future.
The overwhelming majority of the graduates of the youth groups succeed in realizing their life's dream. They live throughout our land in various locations, in cities and in kibbutzim. Some lost their way and ended up in foreign lands, primarily in Latin America.
Today's generation is unable, even if they wished it, to ignore the horrific Holocaust that afflicted our nation. It does not take much imagination to figure out what our state, the Jewish People of Zion and its conditions were it not for the destruction of so many young people in the European Diaspora. At one time the Jewish People in the European Diaspora were alive, alert and active. The young people were magnificent; they carried the hope of imminent redemption that they wished to help along with their own hands. They are no longer. Even in a thousand years we shall not be consoled.
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