On the Eve of the Holocaust/ The Holocaust
TWO FATEFUL YEARS IN OLYKA
Dr. Elisheva Cohen Dr. Elisheva Cohen, a graduate in the Faculty of Law in Prague, fled with a group of 60 people from Czechoslovakia on August 15, 1939, and ended up in Olyka. She worked as a teacher in the Jewish school for two years, until the outbreak of the Russian-German War in 1941. Mrs. Sarah Kafri, of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, recently interviewed Dr. Cohen about her memories of those days, and turned the taped interview over to the editors of this book.
How did I get to Olyka? When I fled from Czechoslovakia through the Carpathian Mountains, I arrived in Olyka. There were many Czech Jews who had fled from there, and intended to keep going. It was in August, 1939, two weeks before the war broke out. In the meantime (on 9/1/39), the Germans invaded Poland, and World War II broke out. They started bombing the cities. We fled together with the Polish population.
The roads were filled with people loaded with bundles and packages, just like we saw in drawings and pictures. We continued day and night, joined escaping Poles, and kept on going. I didn't have a map, but I bought a notebook that had a map of Poland on it. A few days went by, and it became impossible to travel during the day, because the German bombers would descend and firing on people. We hid in the forests and in the fields during the day, and at night we would travel 30-35 kilometers until we got to Lutsk. I didn't sleep for two weeks except for a few winks among the bushes, and I didn't eat anything except some carrots, beets and radishes that we found along the way. We saw people eating bread in Lutsk, and I stood in line. A lady named Mrs. Oxman stood next to me. She asked me where I was from, and I told her I was from Czechoslovakia. She invited me to her home; I hesitated because I didn't want to be a burden on her,
but she insisted, and took me home by "force." She offered me mushroom soup, a food I hadn't eaten in a very long time. I was so overwhelmed by how well she treated me that I started crying. My tears mixed with the soup; she then asked me where I was going. Of course, I had no idea. I only knew that I was running away from the Germans, and that I had to keep going. She answered: "Stay with us, it's already evening." So I stayed with her. She brought out some white and freshly ironed sheets; it was so nice after two weeks of not seeing a real bed. For a moment I forget that I was a refugee and on the run.
[Photo:] Sonia and Yavova Trivitsch. They were killed in the Holocaust. Their bereaved mother managed to get to Palestine alone.
The next morning my host informed me that the Russians had entered Poland, and that they would arrive in Lutsk in the afternoon. Suddenly I found myself in the Soviet Union. I was a girl with no home, hanging between heaven and earth. Suddenly I was in the Soviet Union, and so, I was told, I had a place to live.
Other refugees from Czechoslovakia started arriving in Lutsk. We went to the Russian authorities and told them we would like to find work. They sent us to Olyka.
We were temporarily housed in the Radziwill Castle for a week. Afterwards,
they took us out and put us up in the house of the rebbe. We just watched what would happen next. The local Jews took care of us. We were a group of 60 people. Olyka appeared to be a poor town, whose inhabitants struggled to put bread on the table.
It was already autumn, and we didn't have any proper warm clothes. We received some money, and I went shopping. Shopping was a very complicated matter.
[Photo:] Sarah Galprin and her daughter Sheindel. They were killed in the Holocaust. The son, Gershon, lives on a kibbutz in Israel.
The stores were closed and didn't sell anything, however, it was still possible to buy on the black market. Who would help us? Suddenly local communists appeared, including, of course, Jews. One of them was a hunchbacked man named Itsik, a shoemaker by profession. They called him, "Itsik the Crimean." He was the biggest man in Olyka, but a simple, even primitive man. However, he behaved like a big man. He took us to a few stores, told them to open up, and helped us buy things we needed.
We asked for, and demanded work. Since I was educated, I found work in the Jewish school in its new building; it used to be known as the Tarbut School. The director was a Jew named Bechlinsky. He was highly educated and an enthusiastic Zionist. Even though Zionism was forbidden, he spoke to the children in Hebrew. I was accepted warmly and courteously.
[Photo:] Yudel and Sprinza Sadeh. A devoted Zionist family.
The school building had two floors. Teachers included Katzavman, a very sensitive, quiet and lovely girl
who was a very good teacher, and a second teacher, someone named Glauberman. Genya Leibor ("Tchuzhaya") was also a very good teacher. The scene I beheld was so tragic and touching. She gave birth after several miscarriages, and invited me to see the baby. It was close to the outbreak of the Russian-German War. She was happy but filled with worry, like all of us were.
[Photo:] Motka Eisenberg (grandson of Shlomo David Shorr). At 7 years old he was the sole survivor of his whole family.
In those days there were only three schools in Olyka: a Polish one, a Russian one, and a Jewish one. I worked in the Jewish school, and put all my energy into it. I was responsible for 40 children who listened to me. Except for certain subjects, I taught them dancing, singing and drama. The Jewish children always received prizes in the joint performances with all three schools. We were invited to the auditorium. The children were very talented, and worked miracles with them. The school was like my own home. Whenever I was ill, all the children came to visit me, and we were virtually living together. Knowing what was going on in the world, I felt grateful for the chance to work with children, and especially these children.
The people of Olyka treated us well; they were warm-hearted and kind. I lived with a Jew named Benzion Teitel who was very patriarchal. He was prosperous and involved in manufacturing. He had a small son, who was loveable and sweet; we called Teiteleh. His wife, Sheva, had a darning machine. I went to live
in their house. At first they treated me with suspicion, but later we became close friends. I used to chat often with Benzion. He was very clever and very perceptive. He was a judge. I was like a member of the family. Boys of bar-mitzvah age used to come to study with him. I also got to know the Zuckerman family, who asked me to move in with them because they had a much larger room. I refused, however, despite the fact that my room was small and narrow. I didn't want to be ungrateful or to leave a "warm nest."
[Photo:] Tarbut School. Session 19182 [printing error?], with their Talmud teacher, Benzion Teitel.
The economic situation of the Jews was very bad. Most were involved in business, and once the stores closed, all they had left was the black market, which meant one thing: Siberia. Indeed, many were sent to Siberia. I felt so sorry for them, and frequently cried together with the deportees. Later, however, it proved to be good for them, since those who went to Siberia remained alive.
I was once interested in mathematics. I applied to go to summer school to study math. Mr. Bechlinsky sent me to a course in Lutsk. When I got to Lutsk I found out that it was a course in Yiddish! There was an exam in that class, and they had lecturers from Leningrad and Moscow, including Jewish writers who spoke about Yiddish literature. This was like the discovery of America for me. I discovered a new world that I could be part of. I had a good time, and wrote my essay in Latin letters,
because I didn't know how to write Yiddish. When I came back from the course, the director apologized to me for having misled me by sending me to a Yiddish course instead of a math course. I responded that actually I was grateful, because I had a large gap in my education from many points of view. I knew nothing about Yiddish literature. Today I am proud that I got to know writers like Sholom Aleichem, Y.L. Peretz, etc. This aroused the Jew within me. When I got a passport (there's a Russian saying: a person has a soul, a body and a passport), it was the first time in my life that I listed myself as a Jew.
When the Russian-German War broke out, I was staying in Lvov. I had decided to study philosophy, because law was a dangerous field in those days. I fled from Lvov to the Soviet Union on a military train. I joined the Czechoslovakian army of General Svoboda, the president of Czechoslovakia. I worked at his headquarters in the military court. When we returned from Russia and passed Lutsk, we went to visit Olyka, and searched for the families we knew. Unfortunately, we didn't find a single one. We were told that Bechlinsky was the first to be executed. He was brave man, and the Germans knew about him. They looked for him and killed him in the square across from the castle. When I was in Lvov before the Germans arrived, I didn't know whether to flee to Russia or to remain in Olyka to share my fate with its inhabitants. They had confidence in the Jews from Czechoslovakia they were merciful and had a Jewish heart. They left a warm impression on you. It was hard to decide to flee Olyka.
Olyka was almost an entirely Jewish town. The Ukrainians lived around it, and the Poles were new settlers. The Ukrainians behave badly and always frightened the Jews. One night, they took all the refugees from Olyka to the train station, and before that, they took us all to the police, who asked each of us where we wanted to go. They would help anyone who wanted to go to France or America. I said I didn't want to go anywhere, and that I wanted to stay in Olyka until the end of the war; afterwards, I wanted to return to a democratic Czechoslovakia. There was a Polish teacher from Lublin who also didn't want to go back to Germany. They left us in Olyka, and took everyone else to the train station. The next morning, Shammai Teitel told us that they put all the refugees into train cars and sent them to Siberia. I couldn't sleep that whole night. Suddenly someone was knocking on the door. Everyone was still asleep but me, and I opened the
door, shaking from fear. I didn't know what they wanted of us. A man entered and said "One of yours." Shammai asked him what he wanted, and he responded, "We have no electricity, and need oil lamps." We all gave him out oil lamps, and were able to calm down.
We endured insecurity and great poverty in Olyka. The community was organized. They used to collect money before the holidays and Passover and distribute it to the needy. When I started earning a salary, they came to me, and I also contributed, which they appreciated. I was amazed: didn't they realize that I felt I was one of the members of the Jewish community of Olyka, that I was one of them?
[Photo:] Beila Melamed-Kaufer. She was an active member of the Pioneer Youth in Olyka. She died at an early age in Israel.
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