Two Fateful Years in Olyka
Dr. Elisheva Cohen
Translated by David Goldman
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.
Yitzchak Lapid (Lopata)
Translated by David Goldman
When World War I broke out, my family fled from Lutsk to Berdichev, where I was born and given the name Levi Yitzchak, for the Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. In 1921, during the second year of disturbances in Ukraine, prior to when the Soviet regime solidified its hold on power, my family returned to Lutsk and built a house at the train station in Kibretsa. When this house burned down, we moved to Olyka, and we were then referred to as refugees or those from Kibretsa.
I grew up and went to school in Olyka. I studied in the kheder class of Isser Melamed, and then in the Tarbut School run by Mozler, and the teachers, Briach, Elburt, Moreck, Burstein and others. I remember the leading citizens of Olyka, as well as other personalities, individuals, craftsmen, etc. I remember the various synagogues and the Great Synagogue, as well as the chassidic synagogues of the various rebbes and their congregants. I remember the rebbe of Olyka of my day, and his entourage, court and the synagogue where his followers prayed. I remember the merchants, shopkeepers, pharmacist, Mr. Kostinsky, and Doctors Ramlow, Koklavitz, Segal and Kutinick (I have bad memories of the latter, since he cooperated with the Nazis). I remember all the Zionist youth groups in town, the political parties and institutions. I also remember the meetings and arguments, especially the intense conflicts on the eve of every election. I recall the Lag Ba'Omer parties, how we used to go out of town and have a good time; the vacation times and parties put on my the Jewish National Fund, the artisans' organization, etc. I also recall the drama club's performances, the first of which was held in Deckelbaum's barn and then at the Erga Brothers' place. I remember the bath house of Sheika Katzavman, who was indispensable. There were many other memories, a very long list.
However, I would like to speak about a brief period in town. This was a stormy and fateful time for the Jews of Olyka: the period of the Russian takeover during the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin.
From the beginning of 1937 until the German conquest of Poland, I served in the Polish army in the city of Lublin together with Mordechai Ritt, the son of Leah the grocer.
He was discharged after a few months of service, while I continued my service. After a half year, I was considered a cadet, and went through a grueling and exhausting training period. This was due to the fact that the Poles sensed the danger of Hitler, and began the most intensive military training since Poland achieved independence after World War I.
[Photo:] The Lopata family. They were enthusiastic Zionists and activists. They were killed in the Holocaust. One son, Yitzchak, is in Israel.
In the final year of my military service I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, especially due to the family of Yaakov Shnitzer who were Olyka émigrés. Yaakov Shnitzer looked after me and many other Jewish soldiers in the Polish army. They even sent me food packages and pastries to the prison where I was stationed, despite the danger involved in such activity. I repaid their kindness
by being of help to the millers, Gudal Zatsker and Baruch Finkelstein from Olyka, who arrived for military service in my unit in Lublin.
The truth is that these were interesting times in my life, and it wasn't so bad in the army. Until the war broke out, and German aircraft started bombing the city, we experienced a week of terror and fear. The prison where I was stationed turned into a makeshift court, and on Black Saturday, when Berlin was being bombed [I think there is a printing error, and it should read .Berlin was bombing .] from the air all day, causing many casualties, we received orders that a large part of the unit was to hurry and leave the city that very night. We dropped everything and fled.
On the train we took, passengers included the cream of the crop of Polish society in Lublin and surrounding areas. These included bleeding senior army officers and generals, government officials and priests, etc. From the discussions of the passengers, I realized that they were blaming the war on the Jews. Occasionally, there were bombings during the trip, and we had to jump off the train and run for cover because there were a number of injuries from the shooting and bombing of the airplanes. At each station we were received by delegations bearing flowers, drinks, food, fruits, sweets and cigarettes. In the train, people drank down bottles of champagne, and even I got to participate. They didn't know I was a Jew.
At night we arrived at the military barracks in the city of Rovno. The next day I went into town to take a look at our new location. I ran into Jews, who at first were suspicious of me, thinking I was a Christian. However, my Yiddish and Hebrew attested to my identity, and they told me that the Soviets were going to come to the defense of Poland. I met someone from Olyka, and asked him to send regards to my family. My mother visited me the next day, but I insisted that she return home right away; it was the day before Rosh Hashanah, and there were dangers along the roads.
On the seventh day of our stay in Rovno, we received orders to leave town in the direction of Congress Poland. When we arrived at the train station in Olyka, the commander, Captain Zionzkovski, and instructed me to leave the camp and return home, since they were also returning to their families in Lublin. I felt a certain concern about leaving. I feared that someone would shoot me in the back for desertion, even though almost everybody liked me. I asked him to let me stay with them in the spirit of where you go, I shall go .. in the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. I stayed with them until we got to Lutsk. After assisting with food purchases, the commander called me again, and he ordered me to return
home, since the war had reached our rear. He ordered me to remove my uniform, and dress in civilian clothes, and in the event of a call-up, to appear at the draft office on time. We said goodbye to each other like army pals, and I and several others headed for the Radziwill Castle in Olyka, because we feared going along the main road. We were told that Ukrainians were on the roads and were looking for Polish soldiers who they hated with a passion, and all the more if the soldiers were Jewish. We stayed at the Castle together with Polish guests who weren't from Olyka. They appeared to be big shots. They asked questions about the military situation, and I gave my answers.
[Photo:] David Krupnick, Ze'ev Bakovatsky, Shmuel Melamed, in the Polish army.
The joy at my arrival home was indescribable. It was like having a kidnapped child suddenly returned home. The entire family, plus friends and neighbors, gathered together. Then we all attached red ribbons to our lapels; all the Jews in town were looking forward to greeting the liberating Soviet forces to redeem us from our oppression. Since I was still under the influence of the Polish army, I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the excitement.
As soon as the advance forces of the Soviet army arrived on bicycles, followed by tanks, they were greeted warmly and with bouquets of flowers. They immediately took over and started putting into place law and order. First, they closed all the stores; it was like the calm before the storm. Soon thereafter, members of the Party and activists arrived and started working energetically. They called meetings and held speeches, and they suggested opening agricultural cooperatives, workers cooperatives, etc. for our benefit, of course. The youth in town, armed with pens and guns, assumed various positions administrative, police, governmental in various offices and cooperatives. I chose to register in an evening high school program, and because I spoke Russian well, I was chosen as an activist in many institutions (there was no shortage of them). I served as the chairman and secretary of Osoviarmia,[probably acronym for Soviet Army Society] Mofar,[probably acronym for International Organization of Workers Federations] and the Red Cross, as well as the chairman of the cooperative evaluation committee, and Plotnick was chosen as the chairman of the Worker's Cooperative. What a pleasure that was
[Photo:] Yosef Krupnick and Berl Gal in the Polish army.
Soon enough they started arresting people, including Eliezer Katzavman, Shalom Tsam and others. Jewish refugees arrived from Poland, where they had been expelled from Warsaw, Lodz and other large cities. For some reason they approached me and asked me to help them find work in our institution. I saw them as refugees and as outstanding professional who could teach us a lot. Plotnick reacted coldly and angrily, claiming there were no openings for extra workers, and that these people would take away our jobs in no time. His views were disclosed to the Secretary of the Party, Maksimenko, who was the official representative. He informed us that someone speaking that way deserved at least ten years in prison, but that this time he forgave us, so long as we
watched our words and actions. We immediately hired four refugees who were industrious and appropriate workers.
Indeed, the refugees didn't sit around with their arms folded. They soon proceeded to investigated each one of us, taking advantage of their skills and craftiness as refugees from big cities such as Warsaw and Lodz, etc. They curried favor with the activists and Party members, and developed relationships with engaged in intrigue. They slowly started gaining control in Olyka. They took the best positions after Aharon Plotnick was sentenced to a year in prison, and his son Chaikel lost 25 percent of his salary for once arriving at work 16 minutes late. They calculated the time to have been 21 minutes rather than 16; I acted as a defense witness, claimed that according to my watch it was only 16 minutes. In any event, my testimony was ineffective, and Russian justice stood supreme, since it was praiseworthy to inform on others as much as possible. I was warned and threatened with prison for false testimony.
[Photo:] Moshe and Yaakovka Gemmerman. They died as prisoners of war at the hands of the Germans. Yosef Friedman from Romanov.
At about the same time, Party member, Maksimenko appeared at our house, and wanted to recommend me as chairman of the Workers' Cooperative in place of Plotnick. He promised to help me advance, and to send me to training programs in Moscow. He said eventually I could get very high up. However, due to my obligations to look after others, such as Triliuk, Einiklicht, and others, my mother asked Maksimenko to withdraw his recommendation and not promote me in that direction. Maksimenko reacted angrily, and left the house, slamming the door behind him. The next day I was called to the office of the NKVD [early form of KGB] in P. Ariga's building. They questioned me for a long time about my past and my youth, as well as the uniform I wore when I was a member of Betar. When I told them that all the young people who held key positions in Olyka,
used to belong to such youth groups, they became angry and said that it was none of my business, and then removed the page of my Red Army papers indicating my exemption from the draft (according to that page I was exempt from to large-scale call-ups). At the first general meetings, Secretary Maksimenko recommended that Triliuk and I be excluded from being elected to the administration, since I had a fascist background because my mother was a fascist and my father escaped from Russia. Triliuk's crime was that he had secretly sold one of his hundred suits (it was the suit of his father-in-law, Avraham Green).
This was followed by alarmed reactions. Yaakov Einiklicht stood up and spoke on our behalf since he didn't know what was going on behind the scenes. The Secretary responded, You can vote for them if you want, but I don't advise you to do so. Of course, his advice was actually a degree. We weren't elected, and the only people elected to the Workers Cooperative were the refugees who recently arrived and took over the Workers Cooperative. Afterwards, they took over the whole town. They persecuted many local residents. I remember many occasions such as this. I'll only describe a typical case: one of them, Finkelstein, who was the manager of the restaurant in Vetalsky's building, caught a Jewish women fattening some geese she was going to sell, and told her to sell them to him for 3 and a half rubles per kilo, which was the official price (the market price was 60 rubles). He threatened to report her to the police, and of course the Jewish woman had no choice but to give him the geese. This is just one of many stories.
Slowly but surely, they started persecuting me too, and I was forced to leave town. Together with Zvi Einiklicht, I went to work at the airport near Lutsk, since Zvi was also fired from his job at the army barracks at the Radziwill Castle because his father was exploiting workers. Who knows what my fate would have been had the German-Russian war not broken out in 1941.
I returned to Olyka. On the fourth day of the outbreak of war, I left town and headed for the Soviet Union. This is not the place, of course, to describe everything we went through until the war ended. In Kiev I met Party Secretary Maksimenko, who expressed surprise that a nationalist like him fled to the Soviet Union while his loyal Polish communists remained under the Germans.
I got to Stalingrad, and encountered an amazing thing: in the transit camp there, where millions of refugees passed through, I met my handicapped sister, Esther, who was sent there for a convalescence holiday three days before
the war broke out, in recognition of her outstanding work in the Workers Cooperative. I was extremely happy to see here, despite the suffering and problems that continued to worsen. My sister asked me to leave her, and try to save myself by escaping. My conscience, however, wouldn't allow me to do that. Somehow we got to Uzbekistan, and I was drafted twice: to a labor camp at the front, and then into the Red Army. We spent four years in a village, Krakurgan, in the middle of nowhere, near Andizan. In 1942 I got married, and in 1944 my firstborn son, Aryeh, was born. These were very difficult years, and only healthy and strong-willed people survived. People died like flies. In the collective farm where I was only 20 out of 120 people survived. I then received my first letter from my sister, Rachel, who went through a living hell in the Olyka ghetto up until the last akstia, when the remaining Jews where murdered, and she managed to escape again. The first time she escaped was with her husband, Henich Treister. They were taken back to the Radziwill Castle and he was killed before her eyes. She hid in the basement under the Castle for four straight days without food or water. Using her last bit of strength, she finally managed to get to a suburb of Olyka, Tzaburaks, where a Pole told her to escape because the Ukrainians were capturing the remaining Jews and turning them over to the police. She ran until she got to Lutsk.
In Lutsk no one knew what was going on in Olyka, and life in the Lutsk ghetto continued as usual. They also didn't believe her story about the fate of the Jews of Olyka. However, a week later posters were put up along the streets of the ghetto, requiring the Jews to gather at a specific time, with only 3 kilos of personal effects. My sister, who had experience with all of this, immediately ran away wherever her legs would take her. On the way, she met a Ukrainian communist from Rostov, who escaped from a German prison camp; he saved her in the forests of Polesia until the end of the war. The fate of the Jews of Lutsk was no better than that of the other Jews in that area.
When we met, my sister told me about the destruction of the Jews of Olyka in great detail, how our whole family died. My brother Asher from Kibretsa was killed as soon as the Germans arrived. My parents, my sister Batya and her two children, my brother Benzion, my niece Esther-Leah and my sister-in-law Bluma and her two children, my wife, my brother Asher and the rest of the family were killed together with the other Jews by the Germans and their accomplices at the Radziwill Castle on July 24, 1942.
We got to Poland from Russia at the end of 1945. We were unable to get to Olyka, because the transports got to Szeczin, and from there we hurried to my sister Rachel, who had already moved to Wraclaw. From there we went to Israel by way of Germany and France on 4/30/1948.
I participated in the War of Independence in Israel, and that we were able to get settled and build our home here and to see the rebuilding of Zion and Jerusalem. How fortunate we were that we got here. May we always keep the memory of our loved ones who were destroyed by the wicked, may G-d avenge their blood.
[Photo:] The Nakonchnik family. [The caption is unclear: literally it says that the photo is a righteous gentile. All are in the United States. It is unclear whether the photo was taken by an unnamed righteous gentile (in the singular) or whether there was a print error, and should read that the photo is of the Nakonchnik family, who are righteous gentiles, in the plural.]
Translated by David Goldman
On Friday, June 27, 1941, the German army arrived in Olyka. That day was a warm sunny day. Our neighbor, Mrs. Weinberg, ran over to our house brimming with joy:
Thank G-d! she exclaimed as she gazed at the ceiling.
What do you mean, 'thank G-d'? my father responded angrily. Did the Messiah arrive?
But we won't be bombed anymore, she responded with her eyes wide open. Whatever the outcome, at least we won't be bombed anymore.
A German military commander soon arrived in town, and then our problems began. His first order was that the Jews should turn over all their gold and other precious possessions. Whoever disobeys this order, and is found to have gold after the deadline, will be shot immediately.
Everyone in town now understood that no one could come up empty handed, and everybody had to provide his share. The poor gave over whatever little they had, and the wealthy gave more, but kept some for themselves.
The commander took the gold and waved a menacing finger. A few days later he left for the eastern front, and was replaced by another commander, and then a third. They had their demands, and their manner of squeezing whatever they felt like out of the Jews: gold, watches,
carpets, suits, boots, etc. The front rapidly pushed forward, and the German soldiers promised that within 6 weeks they would take over all of Russia, then England and the United States. After that, they would take over the entire world. No German would have to work anymore, and every German would be a boss and a king.
The Germans didn't want to wait until they took over the world, so they immediately started becoming bosses wherever they went. A local governor moved to Lutsk with his entire family, and appointed his assistants throughout the region. They established their authority, and set out to carry out their job of sending to Germany as much grain, meat, wood, building materials and forced labor as they could. They also assigned the German SS to begin to take over abandoned castles and property, remove whatever they could, and set up Ukrainian militias to help them in their activities.
A whole set of problems now arose for the Jews in the cities and towns. The Germans set up a Judenrat everywhere. This Jewish council was required to carry out all German orders related to the Jewish community. One example of such a decree, which was applied everywhere, was the requirement that the Judenrat provide a minimum of 20 rooms be nicely furnished with comfortable beds, linens and warm blankets, modern closets, tables and chairs, desks, carpets, etc. The Olyka Judenrat delivered everything to the castle where the headquarters was located. The Germans then made a second requirement: gold watches, boots, suits and furs. The also demanded that Jewish girls
come to work, and the Judenrat obeyed.
The work supervisors were Ukrainian and Polish gentile women. The refined Jewish girls, who had never performed hard labor, had to carry heavy washtubs and wash the floors, stairs, laundry and closets. If they refused, they would be cursed and beaten immediately by the Polish and Ukrainian supervisors. The Jewish girls kept quiet, and even thanked G-d for the little bit of food they received. They knew it could be worse, and the main thing was to survive.
On Wednesday morning, July 3, 1941, two large army trucks with army personnel arrived in town. They talked loudly among themselves, joking and laughing and went right into the castle. The Jews started worrying and knew what was in store for them. They found out from a woman who worked as a cook in the castle that the Germans had come for an extended visit. They had to prepare provisions and supper.
The Ukrainian police was immediately called to the castle, and the new Germans held a brief meeting with them. The police went back to town, and the Jews were anxious to know what their conference was all about. It didn't take long for the tragic news to get out. At exactly 11 am the Ukrainian went into the streets to grab Jews, supposedly for labor, and took them to the castle. Except for children and the elderly, Jews hid out anywhere they could. The Ukrainians went from house to house, yelling out in Russian, Jews, get to work! They grabbed young and old anyone they could get their hands on. Whoever wouldn't agree to hurry up and
come along was brutally beaten; blood started to flow. People took along food, money, and shovels; the Ukrainians managed to get hold of 600 men, including the rabbi of Olyka, Rabbi Moshe Veles (Katz), Motel Blummes, Motel Finkelstein, Shlomo Shulman, Yitzchak Berstein and others. The Germans (who it was later discovered were SS), cynically undertook an investigation. This was later called an aktsia [action]. They asked about people's occupations and professions, and ordered everyone to hand over all their money, watches and documents. Afterwards, they let a few people go at the request of the Ukrainians, who needed people to make oil, which they couldn't make themselves.
Suddenly, the sky starting clouding over, and the sun went behind some black clouds. Was this a sign of things to come? It then starting raining very hard - a torrential rain. It was almost as if the heavens were weeping over the destruction of the Jews. Nevertheless, the cold-blooded German murderers continued their investigation. They then organized the Jews in groups of 30, who were watched over by German and Ukrainian police, like hungry wolves guarding their prey. Each contingent was sent in a different direction. No one dared to try to see the fate of the men. My uncle Fallik was actually on the street, and since he didn't have anywhere to hide, he went to hide in the barbershop of Yaakov Einiklicht. Yaakov's wife locked both of them in there, and they remained there for 24 hours. They later reported that they could hear constant machinegun fire. Afterwards, people saw a huge square pit at the cemetery where earth was piled up in the shape of the pit.
At the cemetery they found pieces of a small fringed garment [tallis katan], and were able to determine that it belonged to the rebbe. They also found scarves, pants and shoes. Poles who lived near the cemetery whispered that the Germans had lined up the Jews on the edge of the pit, shot them and then covered up the pit.
The eleventh day of Av in 1942 (July 25) was one of the most tragic days of European Jewry, and one of the worst days for the ghetto of our town of Olyka. It was a day like any other day, filled with fear, death and horror, heavy with awful experiences and heart-breaking events. A day a year. Actually, it was like every other day. Every day in the ghetto had its own suffering. There was no day to have a respite to catch your breath.
The ghetto was surrounded by a thick barbwire fence. It was forbidden for Jews to go out, and for Christians to go in. Even any gentile who was caught trying to enter the ghetto was given a death sentence. The two groups couldn't even get close to each other at the fence. The Ukrainian militia made sure of that. Anyone who violated the order was beaten, and sometimes killed.
There were two entrances into the ghetto, each of which was watched over by Ukrainian guard, who was later replaced by a Jewish one. Unfortunately, the Jewish guards were not much better than the Ukrainians. They were very careful who they would and wouldn't allow outside, although they were able to be bribed. If you wanted to get out, you had to pay. But why would a Jew go out of the ghetto? They took along their last suit or pair of shoes to buy a piece of bread or a few potatoes, a bit of milk or butter for the children. There were no prices.
Since the gentiles already knew they were getting something of value, they immediately starting bargaining, and Jews had to take whatever the gentile was prepared to give him, and then run back into the ghetto. If you were lucky, the Jewish guard would let you back in, and you felt happy. The main consideration was always survival and to get through the horror. Everyone was sure Hitler would be defeated, and everyone wanted to live to see his defeat.
There was some business going on at the fence. Early in the morning, even before sunrise, you could see skinny figures of mostly elderly men and women who were giving away their last possessions for a piece of bread, a potato, a few vegetables or fruit.
The days following the aforementioned events, as mentioned, were bloody ones. The Hitlerian savages rampaged across Europe like enraged hungry wolves. The fall of Stalingrad, and thus all of Russia was exected any day. Our situation became increasingly pathetic, and we would sit back and wonder who would help us, as the verse says, Where will my help come from? Unfortunately, our assorted calculations didn't produce any good news, so we just hoped and had faith.
The older generation engaged in more and more prayer and fasting hoping that the Almighty would have pity and help us. Everyone else were taken daily to forced labor, and each day hundreds of people marched off to work, watched over by either a Jewish or Ukrainian militia. They made sure that no Jew would dare to approach a gentile and ask for a piece of bread in exchange for something else. The Judenrat decided whom to send to work; connections and bribery were often used, as was backroom bargaining.
People worked everywhere. At the Olyka train station 10 kilometers from town, some 120 men and women worked at loading lumber onto cars day in and day out, summer and winter. Others did the same work in Zumen and Rodetschka. Others were sent to work in agriculture. Three of Feige Tsam's sons and I worked in gardening at the castle. The work was long and hard, and we returned to the ghetto exhausted and worried, not knowing where we would have to work the following day.
On Friday there was a rumor that the Judenrat itself had a problem. On the following day, Saturday, there was going to be a shortage of workers. Some people were sick, others didn't have clothes to wear. The fact was that these problems existed every day, but this time the situation was critical.
All at once people started going into hiding and the ghetto was in a panic. A taxi carrying the German administrators of the town and the region, together with two other German officers and a female officer, drove over to the Judenrat. Everybody knew this to be a bad sign, bad news: either people would be taken away to work somewhere at the front, or perhaps it was something even worse.
They pretended to be courteous and kind, ready to help in any way they could. They asked to be shown the great synagogue. At the synagogue they opened up the ark containing the Torah scrolls and asked, What are these for? The chairman of the Judenrat, Faya Borodata, a tall man. The commander of the Jewish militia, Rosenzweig, Hinda Batt's son-in-law, spoke about the Ten Commandments. Make sure you keep them, then responded the religious female German commander.
Afterwards they walked through the ghetto, examining the houses and stores. Why don't they fix the rood, why don't they fix the apartment? they asked here and there, or How will people get through the winter? and other similar questions peaceful questions. The Judenrat offered them a beautiful
gift: silk scarves, shoes, fabric, and showed them a lot of respect when they departed. The ghetto breathed a little easier; people came out of hiding and got together to discuss the situation: Perhaps we'll get through this and survive, they said. The fact that they told us to fix the apartments, the roofs is a good sign. They most certainly need workers, and Olyka is a worker's town!
Even though everyone went to bed that night a little calmer, though hungry, at least the situation seemed to have eased somewhat. No one imagined that this was a cunning trick being played by murderers, and that misfortune was just around the corner!
I spent a long time sitting and talking with my parents. My father was very knowledgeable about politics. He had logical and well thought-out arguments. He said, Hitler, may his name be obliterated, has to lose the war. He can never defeat the free nations. History teaches that, and after the war a Jewish state will certainly be created in Palestine; other nations will also become independent. This is always the result of total war. Jews will be a people with a national status. The main thing is survival. He infused me with a desire to survive. We went to sleep feeling easier.
Noise on the street woke us up. We heard the hurried steps and laughter of the Ukrainian militia. Slowly I opened the front door- our house was at the end of the ghetto- and went out into the street. I couldn't see well in the darkness, but the ghetto was completely surrounded. I froze for a moment, not knowing what to do: wake people up, scream, alert people- or not? Should I run from house to house, or just wake my parents and quietly try to sneak through a hole? Perhaps there was still time. How could I save myself? All by myself, and leave everyone else vulnerable?
I had to stand on guard; I started running around the ghetto knocking on doors and waking people up, trying to see if I could find somewhere to escape. What a horrible day! The whole ghetto was surrounded by Ukrainians. They were standing together in a row, laughing and joking, not caring in the slightest about the fate of the Jews who they were guarding. Our fate was sealed.
The stir in the ghetto gradually grew. Without even noticing what time it was, people came out into the street in large numbers. What's going on? everybody was asking one another. No one wanted to believe that this was the end. Men were trying to explain the situation differently and fool themselves. Someone put out the rumor that they were going to do a search of the ghetto, grab the best stuff and leave. Others argued that they wanted to mobilize the young people to send them off to work at the front, and it would be best for the youth to try to hide. However, as is usually the case, groups of optimists and pessimists developed. The pessimists said: Stop fooling yourselves. Didn't you hear what they did to Dubno, Rovno, Klievan and other cities and towns? the optimists claimed that nothing was going to happen. Olyka is a town of plain workers. Everybody works. Who's going to bring in the grain from the fields? It's just before the harvest! Falka, the commander of the Ukrainian militia said himself that nothing would happen before the harvest. And why did the commission tell us to fix the roofs for yesterday? The old and religious people whispered that only a miracle from heaven would help us. G-d could help us. Women broke their hands holding onto their small children and keeping them close by.
At exactly 7 o'clock in the morning, the German administrator came into the ghetto accompanied by 2 SS men and announced to the Judenrat that Olyka is judenrein (empty of Jews)! When he was asked to explain what he meant, the administrator
gave a huge smile: What don't you understand? By 8 o'clock, in one hour from now, not a single Jew is to be found in the ghetto. Every Jew who is still in the ghetto after 8 o'clock will be shot. Each person is to take along the finest and most valuable possessions he owns- but not too much- as well as 3 days' worth of food. You are being transferred to Trochinbrod (a town 25 kilometers from Olyka, where Jews were involved almost exclusively in agriculture). Because the cars that are supposed to transport you have not yet arrived, you will all wait in the castle, since you are not allowed to be in town. This is an order from the Fuhrer.
The street was overflowing with people who were asking each other what to take. It was difficult to leave behind one's last few possessions. At exactly 8 o'clock the Ukrainians invaded the ghetto and started beating, shooting and chasing people out of the ghetto. Everyone was headed for the castle. The door of the castle was always closed, but this time it was open. The road leading to the castle was lined by militia on both sides. They were beating people with their guns and pistols and chasing people even more rapidly. When an elderly woman or a weak man fell to the ground, the Ukrainian murderers shot them on the spot.
At 10 o'clock in the morning the ghetto was empty of Jews except for some who hid in the cellars and attics. Among those were Tsam and Nakonetchnik families and Yisroel Greenstein. The Germans and Ukrainians started plundering the shtetl and filling up carts. We were all standing in the castle surrounded by Ukrainian militia and the heavy old wall of the Radziwill castle. The German field commander put on a military ceremony when he issued the report of the administrator. The commander was a tall slim German, and was wearing white gloves and carrying a wand. Everyone with an occupation must stand over on the right! he
ordered. Most people went over to the right, including me. I had work papers identifying me as a gardener when I worked at the castle. Many others worked in their own occupations. Most of them got identity papers for money (for 50 to 100 gold rubles the Judenrat would get the field commander to issue work papers). Noticing that he had too many specialists the field commander told everyone to return to their place and gave a new order: Men to one side, and women and children to the other! This was a frightening moment. There were heart-breaking scenes as people started hugging and kissing each other. People cried and fainted. Nobody wanted to separate from one another. The Ukrainian militia started pushing families apart and brutally beating people. I was standing with my family and wasn't moving very fast. Suddenly I felt a sharp blow on my shoulders. When I turned around I saw two Ukrainians hitting me with the rife butt. Why are you hitting him like that? my mother asked them. He's going. Keep quiet, you dirty Jew! You are going to get it too! they yelled at her.
Not far from me I saw Gershon Gelberg from Mlinov and his wife and children. He was a businessman who had owned 50% of the Turchin mill. He was also a member of the Judenrat and had just gotten over a major illness. He was holding a heavy sack of food over his shoulders when a Ukrainian militiaman ran over to him like a wild beast and started beating him with the butt of his gun. He struck him on the head, shoulders and chest until he fell down bleeding profusely. This kind of scene occurred repeatedly until everyone had been separated.
The next order was for everyone to leave his belongings. We did so right away, and didn't refuse. We understood that we were lost, and there was no way out.
On the orders of the commissar, all the women and children were herded into the huge garage of the castle. The windows were closed, and the heat was insufferable and there was no air to breathe. Many of the women fainted and others collapsed during the rush to get into the garage. The Ukrainians kicked them savagely. Afterwards they transported the dead women and children together with the half dead in large wagons to the cemetery. The men were herded into wooden barracks outside the castle. The barracks housed the Russians when they were occupying western Volhyn. The barracks were used as mess halls for the army that was stationed in the castle, and had no windows because the gentiles had removed them long before. The holes where the windows stood were sealed with board, which allowed a little air in. There were also piles of bricks from the walled in kettles that they used for cooking food. The Ukrainians didn't overlook those either, and tore out the kettles leaving behind only the bricks.
I started looking for a way to escape, which seemed almost impossible, because the Ukrainians were watching your every more, like well-trained dogs. But my father and I made plans to escape.
Nissel Kolton was sitting on a wooden beam nearby. What's the difference between sooner or later? he said. Well, here you've got gold watches he showed us under the beam. However, whose head was he going to hit with them? The heat was insufferable and the workers in the castle brought water for those on the verge of fainting. A gentile was riding the horse that carried kegs of water; there was nothing to drink the water in. You took some water in your hands or in a hat, and tried to revive yourself. The gentile left the horse and went to look for something. I jumped on the horse and started riding it.
I thought that maybe I would be able to get away from that hell. A Ukrainian militiaman brought me back right away together with a filthy gentile curse.
Nightfall arrived, and people were saving as much as they possibly could. My father, my Uncle Fallik and I went to sit on a pile of bricks of the removed kettles. We slowly moved away the bricks and uncovered a hole where the bricks were heated up. Through a mutual wink, we all understood out next move, and I started pushing myself through the hole. It was very hard, but with a little acrobatics I succeeded in crawling through like a snake. I found myself outside the ring of Ukrainian militia. In the shade of the trees, I crawled through the high grass until I got outside the town. I had told my father and uncle that if they didn't hear any shooting for approximately a half-hour, they should try the same thing. We were to meet at a specified location outside of the town. I waited there a whole night, and nobody arrived. I decided to go alone to Kharlop, a village where we lived for a short time, did business, worked and where we had many friends and acquaintances among the peasants.
The village was empty, more than usual. I didn't see anyone outside, and the doors were locked. I knocked at the door of one acquaintance, then another. I started sweating profusely, wondering how my friends and acquaintances didn't even recognize me and didn't know who I was. One gentile woman had pity on me, and gave me a little bread and told me not to come back for my own good. I went further and managed to ask someone that when he is in town, he should tell anyone still there that I was free. I remained in hiding among the grain in the field. I waited: perhaps someone else escaped. The gentile finally arrived and told me the bad news: that everyone had been shot.
He talked so cold-bloodedly, as if he were referring to dogs getting shot. To this day I don't know whether he did that intentionally, enjoying himself. I felt cold and hot at the same time. The gentile told me that there were huge trenches along the road to Chemerin where the Russians trained their soldiers how to shoot. The Ukrainian militia took groups of 50 people there; the Jewish police had to undress them and make them lie face down. The Ukrainians then shot them. Many survived, and when the peasants from the surrounding villages covered them with some earth, the second group arrived. Gentiles who came around to watch were forced to cover the victims. Finally the Ukrainians ordered the Jewish militia to get undressed. When they refused to do so, the Ukrainians beat them brutally and undressed them. The Jewish militiamen shared the fate of everyone else. They may have been able to do something had they not been thinking they would escape and rely on their own good deeds.
The story of a Jewish shtetl that was several hundred years old thus came to an end. A hard-working shtetl of upstanding Jews was savagely exterminated, and not even scattered like corn. The sin of those nations and leaders who claimed they didn't know what was going on is no smaller. The whole world knew, and no one lifted a finger to rescue anyone or even threaten to do so. For many generations in the future the sign of Cain will be imprinted in blood on the foreheads of mankind.
Translated by David Goldman
I have written extensively about the gruesome events that took place during the five-year war, pogroms and massacres. My writings, The Eternal Ban, Days of Awe, Stories Told by Youth and The Fiery Sunset, which were submitted to the historic commissions in Warsaw, Prague and München not only describe the tragedy of my town, Olyk, not only the tragedy of Ukrainian Jewry, but also the events from Vladivostok to Berlin. As the 15th of Av approaches, it brings along a tremendous feeling; graves open, and I see before me the images of thousands of martyrs, and I hear the sounds of cries of protest. Why? Who can answer that bloody question?
The population of Olyka, together with Jewish towns in Volhyn, swelled with the arrival of refugees fleeing from Warsaw, Lublin, Zamosz and other towns after the German takeover of Poland. Until the German beasts invaded Soviet Russia, all the refugees, including the local residents themselves, were brutally engulfed by the occupation.
Olyka was the target of frightful bombing on July 1, 1941, 70 percent of the houses were destroyed by fire, and hundreds of people were killed. The clear goal of the Gestapo was to annihilate the Jewish population. On July 3, the sadistic beast, Max Tauber, came to town and issued two
orders: anyone going out without a yellow patch would be killed, and anyone not working would be at the mercy of the Ukrainian militias. The residents were transported to various installations: Mitelna, Ferdinand, Yozefina, Pokoshchev, Kharlopa, Glenbock, Nosavitch, and others. In the evening the camp workers returned to the ghetto, where they could find a piece of bread, potato, etc. There were those who paid with their lives. At that time, there was a woman, Rosa Shapiro, who was shot for being caught carrying onions. The famous professor from Warsaw, Louis Tugenthal, was also caught carrying a small bottle of milk at the entrance to the ghetto, but as an example to others, he was beaten senseless, and remained unconscious and injured with swollen eyes for nine days.
On the first of the month of Elul, 1941 [August 24, 1941], Heinrich Koch, the Reichs commissar, issued an order to shoot all males 14 years and older. The Gestapo and Ukrainian militia pretended to call them to work at the Radziwill Castle. The hoax was unmasked when they started bringing in 85 year-old men. Everyone immediately spread out and fled wherever they could.
Attorney Eliyahu Kleinfinger (of Warsaw), the fighter, Yechiel Skrob, and this writer had a major role in the revolt of the 10th of Elul. The aktsia lasted from 7 am to 5 pm, and resulted in the deaths of 683 registered people, in addition to hundreds who weren't registered with the Judenrat and who were hiding in bunkers. The sadist Max Tauber, calmed down the ghetto, promising that this would not reoccur. As long as everyone continued to work with dedication all day long, they would continue to live exclusively off of the 120 grams of bread they received each day.
Eventually, there were four more such aktsias, until the hour arrived. From 4 am on the 11th of Av, 5702 , the ghetto was surrounded by Gestapo forces and hundreds of Ukrainian
militia. Max Tauber appeared in the ghetto at 5 am with a group of helmeted members of the Gestapo, and announced in German:
Don't worry, you are being relocated to Ingatovka, where you will work and live freely. He stated that each person could take along anything owned, but that by 7 am we would be evacuated, and anyone found thereafter in the ghetto would be shot
[photo:] The family of Feiga Tsam with Sima and Leibush Zechtser. They were killed in the Holocaust.
The fighter, Moyma Sussel, Yechiel Skrob, attorney Kleinfinger and this writer told the people to stage an uprising. The Judenrat, however,
reacted very strongly. It was time for the evacuation it was 7 am. The remaining 5,673 Jewish pretended to start marching. Suddenly, Max Tauber stopped the march: You are remaining in Olyka! There's no aktsia. Back to the ghetto!
Our joy was unbelievable. People started breaking out in songs and praises; couples kissed, and siblings hugged. Some danced and others fainted. People congratulated each other. Hundreds began reciting the Hallel prayer [said in synagogue for holidays and occasions when Jews are saved from destruction]. All those in hiding shamefaced came out of hiding, and then, suddenly ..shots rang out. Over 500 helmeted Gestapo started chaotically running to the Radziwill Castle to obtain useable Jew documents.
In those heated moments, the radical arrogance of the courageous fighter, Yitzchak Nokanetshnick broke through, as a kind of electric protest; he approached the with a revolver pointed at the local commissar, and warned, Jews, don't go to your graves!
There were 500 men in hiding, including Rabbi Mordechai Landau with 93 men. The useful Jews were starved for five days, and then brutally herded to the grave at night. Men were shot, while women and children were clubbed with rifle butts and bayoneted
The ghetto was totally liquidated on the 15th of Av, 1942.
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