The town was located in a fertile region, was surrounded by many villages. Most Jews owned stores and were involved in purchasing agricultural produce that the farmers brought to town. Most business was conducted on a specific day of the week, known as Market Day. On that day businessmen and peddlers would come from great distances; they were also involved in barter.
The non-Jews, who were usually farmers, would bring their whole families on Market Day, as well as wheat, fruit and cattle to sell to the Jewish businessman. Then they would go off to the tavern and make as many purchases as they could in the Jewish stores.
Jewish youth got most of their education in the cheder school; the synagogue was the center of live for most Jews. They didn't only pray there, but also held meetings and talmudic and Bible study groups. Commercial contact with the larger cities brought cultural influences to town. Slowly but surely, individuals went off to the big cities where they developed cultural contact outside of town. Soon there was a group of activist parents who established a Tarbut school in town and brought in teachers from elsewhere. At first they fixed up an old house to hold four grades, from 1 to 4.
I was privileged to be accepted into Grade 3 as appropriate for my age and for the knowledge I obtained in cheder. The lower grades were full, and each year a new class was added. There were also double classes. Things developed so rapidly that another, large house had to be renovated; finally the school had seven grades.
Among the first teachers in town was Kalman Burstein (he lives in Israel) who contributed a great deal to learning Hebrew and education in general. After the school had existed for a few years, there was a serious change in culture and society. Youth groups were established, a large library was opened, and Zionist institutions became active among the Jews. Within a relatively short time, they succeeded in imbuing a Zionist pioneering spirit among the Jews.
Zionist activity had a great influence on daily life. I began to understand the meaning of not having our own land, and we longed for our homeland. Many felt the same way, without even having studied the writings of Borochov.
I still remember the events of 1929. Every drop of blood spilled in Palestine spurred us on even in far away towns. It intensified our Zionist activity and imbued the consciousness among the first pioneers who moved to Palestine.
Among the first pioneers were Yitzchak and Shoshana Rosenstein, who paved the way for hundreds to move to Palestine after them. The days they left were like holidays. The pioneers were carried with song and dance the entire distance of 8 kilometers to the train station.
In the meantime, there were crises in Palestine, conflicts and starvation. Some left Palestine and returned home. The Rosensteins were among those who deepened their roots in the country the worse things got, opening their house to many new immigrants who arrived after them.
The pioneer movement around the world, and especially in Poland, made waves everywhere, and emissaries arrived in Olyka as well. A large youth pioneer movement was established and became very active. The first organization was Hashomer Hatsa'ir [Young Guard] which was initiated and led by the teachers Avigdor Burstein and his wife Munya (now it can be revealed that if this fact had been known, they would have been expelled from the school). Later the Young Pioneer and Pioneer movements were founded, as well as all the other Zionist movements. In its last years our town was able to even establish a place to train pioneers who came to get training in preparation for moving to Palestine.
There were some families who emigrated earlier, and although their financial situation was difficult, they were able to absorb any new immigrant. I am not exaggerating when I say that they knew how to share their bread. Their home was a kind of commune for anyone, either settled or not yet settled. This house belonged to Mother Goldstein and her daughters in the Nordiya neighborhood in Tel Aviv.
[Photo] A party for the Reznick sisters who immigrated to Palestine and America.
The more the idea of moving to Palestine developed among the Jewish youth and adults, the situation in Palestine worsened. The Mandate government limited immigration and only a few got certificates. The more the English imposed limits, the stronger the desire to emigrate to Palestine grew. We were among the first immigrants of the Fourth Immigration. It was no easy task to get to Palestine.
When World War II began, there were about 200 people from Olyka. Most of the pioneer youth who were educated in the movement and who wanted to get to Palestine never got there. The Palestine government didn't let any Jews be saved, and some youth escaped into Russia with the withdrawal of Russian forces. At war's end, most survivors were spread throughout Russia. Most of them started looking to move to Palestine together. Many had opportunities to go to the United States, Canada or Brazil, but most came to Palestine where over the years we knew how to absorb and assist all these broken souls who got here exhausted, or who came from DP camps that were administered badly.
For many years, the house of Manya and Simcha Glickman on 7 Congress Road in Tel Aviv warmly hosted dozens of survivors from our town. Thanks to devoted and charitable Mother and Father, many got settled and established families and homes in the homeland.
Today, when you come to meetings, assemblies and parties, you will find that the number of people from our town has multiplied and has grown to hundreds. We are proud that thanks to pioneer education the young people knew where to go and where to build their homes when they were forced to make a choice.
I live on Kibbutz Ein Hashofet for over fifty years, and it is considered to be mostly an American kibbutz. People joke that they didn't know that Olyka was bigger than New York, meaning that there are many people from Olyka in the kibbutz. We should all be proud of that.
[Photo] Y. B. Dekelbaum family. They died in the Holocaust. The son, Sender is in Kibbutz Ein Hashofet and the daughter Vella is in Rehovot.
I sit here and think back to the days of my childhood. It seems as if a hand is taking me back to the place of my youth. I can still see my father's fatherly image, his black beard covering his face, his strong body, his good heart which couldn't turn anyone away, and the image of my mother and the rest of the family. No one expected such a cruel end, unparalleled in all of human history. Nevertheless, the courage of the Jewish People will go down as one of the most tragic and heroic pages in history. Certainly this book will also recount the many memories of heroism.
May this book serve as a treasure house of memories about each of our martyrs. I cannot end my article without remembering the family I left in Olyka during the Holocaust. My family's suffering and their pictures, and those of many dear friends, remains with me. For years and years I thought about them with deep pain, like an orphaned child. I dreamed about the day I would bring my family to Palestine; now, my heart is torn to shreds. I will always remember them: my dear father, Yaakov-Dov, my mother Esther, my eldest brother, Yitzchak and his wife Golda, my eldest sister Breindel and her devoted husband Yitzchak Gorbaty and their children, my brother Meir and his wife Elka and their children, my sister Ethel and youngest brother Mosheleh, who served as a soldier in the Polish army and died in captivity at the Lublin front. He was buried somewhere Germany. Perhaps in their merit we had and will have a complete Redemption.
[Photo:] Families of Yitzchak Kofietvsky and Yosef Drishpon. A large Zionist family. Killed in the Holocaust.
Of course there were various degrees of poverty, and as we heard from our forefathers, we should never know worse than that. We should not fall to the lowest level, which is the status of a beggar. Whenever a Jew blessed his bread, his eyes looked towards our Heavenly Father when after the meal he pronounces the phrase “Do not make me dependent on the gifts of Flesh and Blood, and not even on their loans.” To that extent? This was because the Jew was always focused on having enough for the Sabbath day, without having to be forced to live then like he did the rest of the week, when he had to be satisfied with little.
At the end of the Sabbath when he recited the Havdalah blessings and the Saturday night blessings for the new week, Jews reminded G-d of his promise to provide us with “the fat of the land” and “much grain and new wine.” However, where was all of this supposed to come from when the wealth was in the hands of the non-Jews and we were still in Exile? At the end of Havdalah, Jews would dip their fingers into the wine cup, dab the wine on his eyes and ears, and into his pockets as a omen for a good livelihood. Perhaps G-d would have mercy.
The next morning people would again start worrying about earning a living. Where would he find what he needed for the next Sabbath? So he scrimped and saved every cent to have enough for meat, fish and the other delicacies.
It was customary for Sabbath preparations to begin as early as Wednesday night. In most homes the housewife would wake up in the wee hours of the night before Friday morning, and thriftily begin her Sabbath preparations to the light of an oil lantern. There is much work to do and because Friday is a short day, everything has to be finished early to add a little time from Friday afternoon to the Sabbath day.
By daybreak the house wafts with the aroma of blintzes crackling in the pan in oil. This is the time to hurry up and get going, to make sure to attend the morning prayer service in order to eat the blintzes while they are still hot – right from the pan to the mouth. There are also pitas baking over the flame rising from the oven, reminding you of what is to come.
After baking the hallahs, (large families also baked loaves of bread for the rest of the week), there are all types of cake, as well as kichel and kurzhyakes, round cookies with a rising middle like a skullcap that melt in your mouth. Now comes the moment to place the Sabbath cholent stew into the oven, remembering there is a special angel in heaven appointed over the cholent, who makes sure the cholent does not get watery, or heaven forbid, burnt or bitter. It cooks just right, absorbing the fat and spices so that it would taste like something out of the Garden of Eden. Next comes the cleaning, to scrub and polish the house and copper/silverware until it all shines in the honor of the Sabbath.
After the housework it’s the children’s turn to be cleaned up of all the dust and dirt so that they would look like civilized human beings. The children express strong disapproval of submitting to their mother’s hot water and soap. They know that their bath meant the end of their fun rolling around outside in the dust. They especially dislike washing their face and hair with the intolerable soap that burned their eyes. Therefore, they escape their mother’s grasp, which gets them a good slap and makes them settle down.
Businessmen end their week early and ran off to the public bath to clean themselves up from the impurities of the week, and to refresh their bones in hot water, thereby enjoying themselves and forgetting about all their troubles. The public bath is rather the first taste of the delicacies saved for the Sabbath day.
After rinsing off the first time, they now enjoy the warmth produced in the bathhouse. The strongest men get to work, increasing the heat to the maximum in the sauna room, with their usual enthusiasm and efficiency. They fill up the pails with boiling water, pass them from person to person until they got to the “expert.” He stands across from the belly of the oven containing large fiery stones and pours the boiling water on them with increasingly rapid momentum, occasionally jumping aside so as not to be injured by the hot steam that escaped from the oven and fills the area of the sauna room. A thick fog hiding the light fills the entire space. The air becomes compressed and heavy,
burning your lungs. However, these workers do not stop their work until the heat rises to the temperature that only people accustomed to it could tolerate it. They ignore calls around them to stop so that people could breathe. They are not concerned about the weak, forcing the “weak” to head for the cool bath where the mikvah [ritual bath] is located. Those remaining in the sauna take bunches of twigs held together in the form of a broom, and go up the stairs along the wall facing the oven, which is where the heat is strongest. They carry the twigs in one hand and pails of cold water in the other. The boldest go up to the very top, where only a very few are able to tolerate the heat. They wave the twigs up and down as if to conquer the heat and redirect it toward the irritated areas of their bodies to obtain relief, letting out groans of satisfaction as if to say “Good fellow, make it hotter!”
Two Jews make an agreement between themselves to lash each other with straps, and when they are done and covered in sweat, they go back down the stairs like people who had been blinded. Their bodies are very red, just like a column of fire on two legs, and they proceed into the cool room where they lie down on the floor on their backs, occasionally wiping their forehead with cold water as their chests rose and fell after stressful experience.
Craftsmen are already at the public bath by noon, having stopped working early. They rush to the public bath so as not to lose out on the fun. Jews not only purify their bodies in the public bath, but also cast out all their weekday worries, leaving them behind – as if they never existed. Nothing is going to interfere with their rest and tranquility on the Sabbath, even though they know that everything would start again after the Sabbath. But they decide to take one day at a time. They are able to start enjoying their rest early with calmness of mind, and to review the weekly Torah portion with the Aramaic translation as was customary among Jews, with enough time for a cup of tea.
Friday is almost over, and the Sabbath Queen is almost at the door. It is time to light the candles.
The lady of the house sets up the candles in polished candlesticks, lights them, and spreads out her arms to greet and embrace them, as if to absorb their modest light in her palms as she covers her face and quietly recites the blessing. She then turns to her children with shining eyes and face and greets them with Good Shabbos.
The head of the house gathers together his sons and heads for the synagogue for the Sabbath prayer service. The synagogue is filled with light from oil candelabras and shining candelabras. Large candles are placed before the cantor in silver candlesticks, illuminating the scriptural verse of I place G-d before me always on the wall facing the cantor. The aura of the Sabbath spreads its splendor in the synagogue with the festive air reserved for the Sabbath and holidays. A quiet and confined stir passes among the congregation until the cantor begins chanting the prayers of this evening. The prayers of the start of the Sabbath in the traditional format rise in a clear and yearning manner, spreading waves of pleasure in one’s heart.
At the end of the service the congregants remain to chat; they are in no rush, and walk home slowly, feeling calm and relaxed. Where does a person turn during the gloomy weekdays, when he is overwhelmed by his problems, and has a wrinkled forehead? Now that same person has a totally different face, as if he has no problems in the world. He now feels totally relaxed, like someone without a care in the world.
His wife and children wait for him at home, washed and dressed in honor of the Sabbath, with the light of the Sabbath pouring into the house. The table is covered with a white tablecloth, as white as snow before anyone had had a chance to walk over it. At the head of the table are two braided hallahs baked by the lady of the house, and covered with a cover bearing the word Shabbos embroidered on it. A canister of raisin wine produced by the head of the house sparkles across from the Sabbath candles at the other end of the table.
Upon arriving home, everyone greets each other with “A peaceful and blessed Sabbath,” and the angels who accompanied them home from the synagogue are greeted with the song Shalom Aleichem. The father approached the table with the others, and everyone takes his place, and he fills up the silver wine cup that he received as an inheritance from his ancestors, and recites the Sabbath kiddush blessing in the style of the chassidic sect of which he is a member. Everyone answers amen, and takes a sip from the cup that the head of the house used for the blessing, so that they fulfill their own obligation in the pronouncement of the kiddush blessing.
After the ritual handwashing and blessing over the bread on behalf of everybody gathered at the table, the father slices the hallah and distributed pieces to everyone at the table.
Gefilte fish spiced with pepper and other spices is brought to the table. The delicacies are mouth-watering – the delicious sauce together with the fresh hallah is eaten heartily. The lady of the house received many compliments about the way she prepared these delicacies as compensation for her devotion in preparing the Sabbath in all its details and specifications. The mother listened to the warm and spontaneous words of praise, and whispers back to her husband and children, “May you all be well.”
The family sings the well-known Sabbath melodies joyously, and the remaining dishes are served while the Sabbath melodies are sung between dishes. Body and soul merge into one entity, and after dessert the family recites the grace blessings. In families where the boys have attained the age of Bar mitzvah, they all participate in a quorum of at least three males to recite the so-called “invitation to bless” (zimun). If a guest is present at the meal, etiquette requires him to be honored with leading the quorum in the blessings. The guest will refuse according to etiquette, “Let the head of the house lead” in his own broken Hebrew. After a debate, the guest finally relents, and pronounces in Yiddish: “Gentlemen, let’s bless,” and the other males answer after him as required. The children leave the table one by one after the meal and are off to their own devices as is customary. The head of the house sings Song of Songs until the end, and then studies some Talmud until he falls asleep.
The next morning, on the Sabbath morning, some businessmen get up early to immerse in the mikvah and to chat with scholars. From there it is on to the synagogue to recite some psalms and to study some Talmud. One hour before the start of the morning prayer service he returns home to drink some tea with sugar and milk that cooked until yellow on the stove, and from which the cream rose to the top, thick and creamy. Nothing like it.
In the synagogue each person sits in his regular place, depending on his position and finances. Sometimes he is called for a blessing on the Torah, depending on how respected he is. The distribution of the aliyahs [being called to recite the Torah blessings] for the weekly Torah portion gives the synagogue beadle [gabbai] more than his share of stress and aggravation to the congregants, who believe they have been slighted. Among them are bigmouths and arrogant men, who cannot restrain themselves even in a holy place, and start yelling and cursing the beadle, to the point of violating the Sabbath and coming to blows. What a disgrace!
After the prayer services one of the businessmen who has a family celebration invites his friends and relatives to join him for the kiddush. The table is set with all types of delicacies from the oven.
[photo:] The Great Synagogue. It was built two hundred years ago. On both sides are the artisans’ synagogues.
Kugels cooked with a lot of goose fat, plus kishke, cake and cookies. After the recitation of the blessing on a full glass of vodka, the invited guests burst forth with one glass after the next, and taste everything before them as long as it fits on a fork. The host asks his guests to take something, and the guests do not refuse. A happy din bursts forth accompanied by calls of Le-Chaim to the host! Le-Chaim to the hostess! However, they do not stay long because this was only an invitation for the kiddush, and the family awaits the head of the house for the Sabbath meal.
Everyone in the family sit at the table, and no one is missing. Chopped liver spiced with goose fat is served, followed by the cholent and delicacies, and everything is eaten to the Sabbath melodies. After the grace blessings are recited, everyone goes off for the afternoon nap (what a pleasure is the Sabbath nap!), which is also important to let the stomach digest the abundant food it has consumed.
Following the Sabbath nap, a nice cup of hot tea is most welcome. The father takes a book or volume of Talmud, and the mother takes her copy of Tseina Ureina [anthology in Yiddish of Torah readings and ethical teachings designed for women] and reads the weekly Torah portion in Yiddish, together with wonderful legends of long ago, tales of the present containing ethical teachings pertaining to the weekly Torah reading.
Jews who are not expert in learning on their own assemble in the synagogue,
where an expert scholar awaits them. They sit together at a long table and listen to tales of Jewish holy men from Jewish holy writings, the lives they lived, and stories of their miracles that would raise the hair on the back of your head! The Jews listen to the presentation with bated breath and open mouths, as the teacher draws them a picture in their minds of surprising images and events. He speaks about the hell of the evildoers, who are condemned to boiling tar; he displays extraordinary familiarity about all the seven levels of hell, as well as of Paradise. This presentation continues until the afternoon prayer service.
The afternoon prayer service portends the end of the kingship of the Sabbath. The third meal, a light meal, is held by the men together in the synagogue. They extend their sad late Sabbath day melodies, and the shadows of evening strike the synagogue. It is now twilight, and the men sway back and forth with their eyes closed to the rhythm of the melodies, as they sigh with feelings of spiritual yearning. The voices then become louder with expressions of melancholy as they come to certain passages in the melodies. Depressing reality of the weekdays sets in eventually, time cannot be stopped. Farewell Sabbath Queen! It was a dream, and now it is shorn away.
[photo with Theodore Herzl in background:] A Chanukah party for the immigrants of the Volhynia Brigade and of Chenstochov 1930 [handwriting shows 1933]
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