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[Page 212]

The Yiddish Section

 

From the Editor

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

More than ten years have already flown by since the day when I proposed to publish this book, until today when we have been worthy to see its publication.

Those who took part in the creation of the book experienced various troubles and difficulties, problems and doubts during the course of a long period.

And today, as we bring this book to the public and to the friends of our shtetl [town], we find it necessary to explain that we did not try to present historic-scholarly content about our small shtetl. We also did not think of bringing the reader literary material.

The larger part of the book was written because of the yearning of a spiritual wish, with grief and pain, by children of the generation that went through this unfortunate period and were carried by a strong will to erect a monument to their small birthplace, in order to leave to coming generations memories and experiences of their young homeland, of their parents and families and of the holy community that perished and was lost for them and for the Jewish people.

The chapters about annihilation were recorded by the several survivors, saved “embers” of the great fire, and the savage moments of fate in their lives when they stood on the threshold of destruction were related by them.

It is possible that because of the stormy days and because of the distance from time and place, there are inaccuracies or repetition of facts. Therefore, we ask the respected reader to forgive us.

With grief we emphasize that we are firmly convinced that despite the best of wills, we did not have any possibility of describing the life of the shtetl during the last years before the Holocaust. We also did not have any materials for the chapters about the life and creativity of the effervescent youth during the last years.

And now I find it my dear debt to thank the committee of Olkeniki landsleit [people from the same town] and those from the surrounding area who live in Israel as well as several Olkeniker in America who contributed their part with full hearts and with great belief that this feat would succeed.

I send my thanks Chaim Grade, the poet and writer in America who lived for a set time in our shtetl while he studied in the yeshiva and then celebrated and immortalized it in song and stories, He should be extolled for permitting me to reprint several fragments from his poems about Olkeniki.

We also thank with our whole heart the esteemed writer, G. Einbinder, for giving us permission to print a large part of his writing about the survival of the saved Jews from Selo (Dekshna – Degsnës) in this book.

We thank all of those who took part in word and writing and those who were forthcoming and sent us pictures of their dear families and friends.

And lastly, we all thank the distinguished Mr. R. Hasman and the printer, Heshur, who contributed so much so that the book would have a beautiful appearance.

Haifa, Adar I 5722, 26.11.62


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Olkenik, a Shtetl of Legends

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The shtetl [town] “Valkenik,” or “Olkenik”[1] as it is called now, is a very old shtetl. In its cemetery, which is located outside the shtetl, there are headstones from 5350 (1590).

Once it belonged to the Vilna District, and the last rabbi of Vilna, Reb Shmuel, was the district rabbi there.

To this day an old Pinkes [book of records or register] is found in the city in which several regulations are still recorded in the hand of Reb Shmuel with his signature from the year 5601 (1781). Among the many regulations, there is, for example, one stating that when one has a new suit made, he owes a percentage

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of the cost of the new suit to the Khevre Gmiles Khesed [interest-free loan society] for hiring teachers for poor children to study with them. Tailors were forbidden to give the suit to the owner until the owner paid the percentage to the society.

Documents about the rebuilding of the old synagogue from the year 5561 (1801) are found in the Pinkes.

A legend also circulated among the old men in the shtetl that the Rabbi, Reb Shmuel, once went strolling in Olkenik with the Vilna Gaon, Reb Eliyahu. Crossing the bridge over the Merczank [Merkys River], the Gaon called to Reb Shmuel and said that he had seen almost every fish, but one fish (the salmon) he still wanted to see. Just as the Gaon said it, the fish immediately swam to the surface of the water and the Gaon observed it well.

Great quarrels broke out in Olkenik during the time of Rabbi, Reb Aba Josef.

The Rabbi, Reb Aba Josef bar [son of[ Euzer haKohan [Kohan – priestly class] Treywash [Treywaush], of blessed memory, was a great scholar as well as a Kabalist and a great man of letters who excelled with his morality. He was a great aristocrat. His attributed lineage reached to Rashi. He was a brother of the celebrated Wilkier Rabbi, Reb Hilel Dovid haKohan Treywash, editor of the rabbinical collection, Hapisgah [The Summit].

He was denied the rabbinate because of the following history: The Khevre Kadishe [burial society], as was the custom, gave a large banquet on the 15th of Kislev. According to tradition a baked pudding made with chicken fat was served at the banquet. The chicken fat was brought from Vilna. At the banquet a doubt arose as to whether it was certain that the chicken fat had been salted [as required by the laws of kashrus – Jewish dietary laws]. When the rabbi was asked the question, he said [the use of the chicken fat] was permitted.

The rabbi's enemies utilized this and began a great quarrel with him, saying that he had knowingly given unkosher food to someone. The quarrel was so great that one businessman ran to the rabbi and wanted to slap him. But he fell while running and broke a foot and remained a cripple for the rest of his life.

But the shtetl was not calmed. The other side hired another rabbi, in order to make an impoverished man miserable, to take away his means of earning a living. At first, no rabbi wanted to go, but then a recluse was found, but he did not remain there for a long time.

The other side also sent an extra courier about this to Reb Yitzhak Alchanan, the Kovno Rabbi. Reb Yitzhak Alchanan decided the question about the chicken fat as the rabbi had. Then the enemies began their persecutions of him. It is said: once he had a yarhzeit [anniversary of a death] and brought together a minyon [10 men required for prayer]; one of his enemies ran in and began to shout; “You are praying with one who has knowingly given someone unkosher food?” Everyone left and he remained alone. However, a short time passed and all of the children of his enemy died and he [the enemy] remained alone. It made a strong impression in the shtetl and everyone saw that they were wrong.

The rabbi, himself, also did not rest, sending questions and answers to the greatest rabbis; he received an answer from the 19 greatest rabbis and gaonim [sages] that the chicken fat was “kosher.” The rabbi had the answers nailed to a board and hung it out in the synagogue. Then everyone ran to the rabbi asking that he forgive them; the rabbi answered that he had forgiven them and that he had only wanted to remove suspicion from himself that he had, God forbid, not observed the laws of kashrus. Now that the suspicion was removed, he no longer wanted to be their rabbi and he left the shtetl and settled in Vilna and spent his last years in the small Rimarska synagogue dedicated to the Torah and his work.

He died in the following manner: Shabbos, sitting in his study, he shook and a burning lamp fell on him. He became ill as a result and died. He left published religious books.

After the quarrels, in approximately 5634 (1874), Reb Yakov bar [son of] Shmaryahu Levin, arrived as rabbi in Olkenik and sat on the rabbinical throne in Olkenik for over 50 years. He was much beloved by everyone and died in Jerusalem in 5687 [1927] at the age of 82. He left manuscripts on Halakah [Jewish law] and Agudah [illustrated material].

 

Olkeniker Ways of Making a Living

About 200 Jewish families lived in the shtetl (in 1930); the same number of non-Jews. The contact between the Jews and non-Jews was not

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bad. Almost all Jews had their own houses on their own land. The non-Jews had the same number of houses. All of the houses were wooden, except for three brick houses.

Despite the fact that Olkenik possessed three rivers and a forest, manufacturing was very limited, except for one pasteboard factory where 130 non-Jews and 31 Jews worked, consisting of 25 unskilled workers and six in the administration.

There were also two Jewish turpentine distilleries with 10 non-Jewish workers, two Jewish seltzer-water plants and about 15 bakeries. Also two water mills, one Jewish and, the second, not Jewish. Before the First World War there was also a large sawmill with a mill, but before retreating, the Russians blew it up with dynamite and made a ruin of it.

Until 1928, 30 families also made their living from the forest trade. But now, because of Polish statism, the Jews have no income.

The majority of trade from the shtetl consists now of grocery shops, approximately 30, in which goods of all kinds are found, such as: foodstuff, ironwear, cutlery and so on.

In addition to the grocery shops, there are 15 textile businesses. Footwear is also found in several of them, as well as an apothecary and an apothecary warehouse, both Jewish.

Before the war, the tax in the shtetl was considerable because Olkenik had a large area, but now, with the rise of the independent Lithuanian state (which is found approximately 11 viorst [a viorst is about one kilometer or .62 miles] from Olkenik) the area is greatly reduced. The main tax is from the market that takes place every Tuesday. Peasants come together who bring wheat, cattle, horses and the like as well as food products. Receipts are also taken in on Sundays when many peasants come together in the large church that is located in the middle of the city near the market.

In summer there are also taxes from the vacationers. The majority of young, lethargic yeshiva men come together with their heads of yeshivas from Mir and Radun to heal themselves in the large and dry Sosnow forest.

The following artisans are located in Olkenik: 20 Jewish shoemakers, 10 non-Jewish, five tailors, five Jewish cabinetmakers, 3 non-Jewish, six carpenters, three wheel makers, one tinsmith, two furriers, one bookbinder, one stone carver, one sock knitter, three glaziers, 18 blacksmiths, five quilters, 25 dressmakers and seamstresses, two hairdressers, six peddlers, one potter, four wagon drivers who drive passengers to the train station (the station is eight viorst from the shtetl) and five wagon drivers who go to Vilna to bring goods for the shops.

In addition, in Olkenik, there are present two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers], one of them is also the city khazan [cantor], three teachers, two providers of milk products, four dairy shops, five wheat merchants.

The conditions in the shtetl were once entirely stable, but the shtetl became impoverished because of the World War as well as because of the vicissitudes of the regimes, when everyone ran to Vilna and their possessions became a mountain of ash, and also now because of the heavy taxes.

There are two sadawnikes [gardners], 10 managers who are employed in the nearby woods, four fodriatshikes (contractors), who provide the products for the pulk [regiment] of Polish border guards near the Lithuanian border. One owns an auto that travels to and back from Vilna once a day.

There are also five klezmorim [musicians], known throughout the area. One of them is also a badkan [wedding jester]. The klezmorim are used for Jewish weddings throughout the area as well as for Christian weddings.

The Jewish weddings in the shtetl always take place near the old synagogue.

 

Local Managing Committee

There is a gmina [municipal government] in the shtetl. The councilmen are 14 Christians and two Jews. There is also a Jewish kehile [organized community] that consists of eight parnesim [elected heads of the community] with the Rabbi as the ninth. The colonies Deksznje, Lejfyn and the Aran station also belonged to the kehile. The elections took place on the 1st of November, 1928.[2]

The kehile possesses, in addition to the meat tax, which brings in income of about 70 zlotes a week, the [sale] of yeast which brings in the same amount. The yeast sales are given to the rabbi because as long as the kehile still does not collect taxes, it must give it to the rabbi as wages. In addition to the yeast, the rabbi also receives three dollars weekly in cash.

The institutions that are found under the supervision of the kehile are the following: the beis-hamedrash [house of prayer or study], the synagogue, Hakhnoses-Orkhim[an organization providing hospitality to guests, most often for Shabbos], Bikor

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Kholem[help for the sick], Linas haTzedekh [accommodations for the needy], Khevre Kadishe [burial society], firefighters, khederim [religious primary schools], the yeshiva [religious secondary school] and others.

Plenary meetings of the kehile take place once a month.

The metrical books are taken care of by the rabbi.

Statistics from the births and deaths according to the books:

Born in 1926 – 12 males, seven females, in 1927 – 12 males, 14 females; in 1928 – 14 males, five females.
Died: in 1926 – four males, four females, in 1927 – three males, seven females; in 1928 – four males, 7 females.

In general Olkenik was a healthy shtetl. The deaths were all in deep old age; the majority past the 60's and 70's.

Marriages: in 1926 – seven, in 1927 – four, in 1928 – six.

 

Credit Institutions

There is a cooperative bank in the shtetl, founded in 1906. During the time of the war it was annulled and renewed in 1921.

There are 234 members of the bank, the majority of the borrowers are shopkeepers and artisans. In the shtetl there is also a gmiles khesed [interest free loan fund], founded in 1926 and subsidized by Jekopo [Relief Committee for War Victims]. The gmiles khesed has 277 members, among them 86 artisans, 87 retailers, 2 farmers, 18 indefinite occupations, 33 women. Maximum loans are 100 zlotes. Minimum loans are 60 zl. The fund is located in the apartment of the bank. The entire shtetl uses the gmiles khesed.

 

The Library

There is also a library in the shtetl that was founded in 1908. It came to nothing during the time of war. The books were scattered to individuals. It opened again in 1918. Then it was again closed. In 1927 it was legalized by VILBIG [Vilna Jewish Educational Society]. The books the library possesses: Hebrew 530, including also much children's literature, Yiddish books 560 and Russian 150. Readers – 60, the majority youths and students. Reading money – 70 groshn for adults and 50 groshn for students. Guarantees – 4 zl.The library is open twice a week: Monday and Thursday from six to eight. The library has income from performances, lectures, money from readers and others. A reading room is also located at the library and there is a dramatic section that consists of 15 people.

There is also a division of the Vilna VILBIG here in the shtetl founded in 1927.

 

Yeshivus, Khederim, Shuln

There is a religious kheder located in the shtetl, authorized by the Horev Center, where approximately 60 children study, actually in a preparatory class and four groups with three classes. The instruction takes place in the women's section of the beis-hamedrash and of the old synagogue.

About 20 girls are studying at the Polish powszechne [universal] school. They are freed from classes on Shabbos.

Of the older young people, 10 attend the Vilna gymnazies, two the Hebrew teacher's seminar, one the university and around 20 – the Mir and Radun yeshivus.

There is also a yeshiva ketana [a small yeshiva] with 20 students and two yeshiva leaders, as well as four young men from outside [Oklenik], who study in the beis-medrash and are supported by the businessmen of the shtetl.

Besides the old institutions, besides the wonderful synagogue, an old beis-medrash is still found in Olkenik which burned in 5655 (1895) and was rebuilt in 5656 (1896).

There is also a bathhouse with a mikvah [ritual bath], which is now being rebuilt. (Bathhouse fee – 50 groshn.) There also exist: an old khevre kadishe [burial society] that counts 30 members, a khevre Talmud [Talmud society] with a few minyonim [plural of minyon – 10 men required for prayer] of Talmudic students; as well as a khevre Mishnayus [Mishnah society] with a few minyonim of students; a khevre “Ein Yaskov” [society studying the classic ethical teachings of the Talmud]; khevre Tehilim [Psalms society]; khevre poalim [workers society] founded about 60 years ago, which is located in a separate shtibl [one room prayer house] near the beis medrash with a separate rebbe, a businessman, without pay.

Firefighters, Post and Other Institutions

There is also a firefighters' brigade with four pieces of equipments in the shtetl. There are 20 Jews among the members, the majority of them young men; the same number of non-Jews. The chief is a Jew, an invalid. He is married and runs a whiskey business.

There is also a post office in the shtetl

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with a telegraph and a telephone. There was a Christian hospital in the shtetl, at which a doctor and a midwife were employed, both non-Jews. At the beginning of 1929, there was a branch of the Vilna illness office, at which in addition to the above mentioned doctor and midwife, a Jewish dentist was hired.

There is also a Bikor-Kholim [society to visit the sick], founded in 5650 [1890]. The Bikor-Kholim provides remedies for free. It also owns an ice cellar and other healing equipment, such as bladders [most likely a sac for hot or ice water], baths and the like. It pays the hospital for the poor sick, also for the Mishmeres Kholim [hospital] in Vilna and so on.

In 1928 a Linas haTzedek [society to care for the sick] was also founded that is run by the women. The Linas haTzedek sends people to spend the night and give care to the very sick.

Of the youth societies, there is present a Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] council that sends a considerable amount of money each month for Keren Kayemet; a Zionist youth circle that numbers 40 members, arranges reports, spreads shekelim[3] and carries out the remaining Zionist work.

A Tzeirei Zion [Young Zionists] also existed earlier. A haHalutz that sent 25 pioneers to Eretz-Yisroel, young people as well as a few families, has now come to nothing.

 

Genteel, Pious Shtetl

Olkenik is a very genteel and pious shtetl with many old traditions and great scholars. Even wagon drivers can study well there. Once there was also a place of Torah: a community of recluses [men who devote their lives to Torah study] from the Kovno community as well as a community of young men that numbered around 40. Now the beis-hamedrash is also full of worshippers in the morning. Four minyonim in the morning, one after the other, and at night they sit at particular full tables where they study Talmud, Mishnius [oral Torah], Ein Yakov [ethical and inspirational section of the Talmud], Chayei Adam [The Life of Man – a legal compendium by Rabbi Avraham Danzig] and so on.

The shtetl also was once solid in its circumstances. But, because of the [First] World War, as well as because of the ups and downs of the regimes when all ran to Vilna and their possessions became a pile of ash, and also because of the high taxes the shtetl was very impoverished.

The shtetl also produced a series of important people such as: Professor Josef Klauzner, Reb Avraham Mendl Gryncwajg (was the city preacher of Lodz for a time), author of the book Light of Judaism on homiletics and so on.

Many old men and women over the age of 80 are found the shtetl. Many of them receive support from America. Many of the young, not having anything to do, emigrate, earlier (in 1924) to Eretz-Yisroel and Argentina, now to Brazil.

The shtetl also has its city fool. This is a young man of 25 who, like the Prague golem [A human-like creature created of clay; according to legend the Prague golem was created by Rabbi Judah Lowe to protect the Prague Jews from anti-Semitic attacks], works day and night, carries water for the entire shtetl, et cetera.

 

Folklore

The shtetl has its own folklore; its residents are called “Olkeniker retszke bondes” [Olkeniker buckwheat large round breads] because Olkenik is located in a sandy soil in which buckwheat mainly grows from which large, round buckwheat rolls are made. It has its particular foods such as varenikes that are made with buckwheat flour filled with cheese. The food is made mostly for Shabbos for the third, concluding meal. Shimkhas-Torah [the autumn holiday celebrating the conclusion of the yearly Torah reading] is celebrated with a tsimmes [stew] of round pieces of carrots and the tsimmes is called a “gold coin tsimmes,” and so on.

 

Deksznie-Selo [Degsnes]

Deksznie, the Jewish colony, is located three viorst from Olkenik. It belongs to the Olkeniner gmina [rural administrative district], Trask district, Vilna voivodztvo [province]. It consists of approximately 35 families (86 men and 95 women), 35 private houses, 878 acres land. There are also four Christians in the colony who live in Jewish houses and perform the agricultural work with the Jews. They [the Jews] received the land, as well as the meadows and pasture, which they call firtses, back in the time of Nikolai the First. The earth is very infertile so that the colonists must also have other income. There are still 50 insane people with the colonists from before the war, for whom their relatives pay 60 to 150 zlotes a month, from which the colonists draw their livelihood. The calm insane people are also used for agricultural work.

In the colony there are two blacksmiths, one shoemaker, one tailor, who also cultivate the earth.

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From time to time, the colony receives a credit from ICA [Baron deHirsch's Jewish Colonization Association], the most recent, loans for beehives as well as various modern tools for their agricultural work. They all possess up to two cows or more, as well as horses. It was nice to see how small boys gallop on the horses, while singing beautiful melodies, how the young women and young men stand in the fields and work with great diligence, while singing Yiddish songs.

Several of the colonists' children study in Vilna. One in gymnazie [secondary school], three in a yeshiva [religious secondary school], one in Baranowicze in a Jewish settlement.

A large beis-medrash is located in the colony and a shoykhet-mohel [ritual slaughterer and circumciser] who studies Mishnius after the morning prayers and Ein Yakov after Minkhah-Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] with the colonists. He is the melamed [teacher] for 10 colonist children all day; he teaches them Khumish [Torah], Gemara [Talmud] and so on. There is no separate rabbi in Deksznie, never had one because they belong to Olkenik.

Many of the young colonists emigrated. Only the older ones stay. Others also receive support from America.

In general, the Jewish village makes a very good impression with the beauty of its houses, as well as the cleanliness everywhere, in the street and in the house.

The colonists are very pious. Even the young come to pray, even though it is often a bit of disturbance to their work.

There is no bathhouse and no mikvah [ritual bath] in the colony and they use those in Olkenik.

Not far from Deksznie (about 5 viorst) there is another Jewish colony, Leipun, which consists of 25 colonist families. The colonists live in peasant-like small houses with straw roofs. The soil is very bad and they live there in poverty. There is a shoykhet, a beis-medrash and a bathhouse with a mikvah in the colony.

There is another colony not far from Olkenik, “Panashishak,” which consists of 20 colonist families, but now it belongs to Lithuania.

Cheikl Lunski
July 1929


A group of young people in the forest – 1928

 

Footnotes
  1. It is called “Valkininkai” in Lithuanian, “Olkeniki” in Polish and the same in Russian. According to a legend circulating among the old men it is called “Olkenik” because a king once lived here and the city was a fortress city. The surrounding villages were its streets, suburbs where various artisans lived, such as tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths and, to this day, our neighboring villages have names such as Czarni Kowal (“the dark blacksmith”) and so on. Return
  2. The first Vaad haKehile [community council] was chosen on the 28th of January 1921, against which the old gabbaim [assistants to the rabbi who aid in the functioning of a synagogue] carried out a struggle, but they were not successful. Return
  3. The shekel – plural shekelim – was the annual Zionist Organization membership fee. Everyone – male and female – 18 and over who “bought” a shekel could vote for delegates to the Zionist Congress. [Trans.] Return


[Pages 225-228]

The Old Synagogue

By Shlomo Farber

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The shtetl [town] Olkenik is located 50 kilometers from Vilna. It is surrounded on all sides by dry pine forests, meadows and green fields that give evidence that it possesses a sandy soil. The clean, still Merczanke [Merkys River] flows through the shtetl and joins its two small tributaries, Šalcia and Geluza, outside the shtetl and it calmly flows away to the town of Meretz, which belongs to Lithuania. In Meretz, It flows into the Neman River

Before the Holocaust, the shtetl possessed about 150 Jewish families and was one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the Vilna area.

The old respected shul [synagogue] stood on a hill at the entrance of the shtetl. It was locked in the middle of the week; the younger crowd would come here to pray only on the Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and holidays. The older ones, in contrast, prayed in the nearby beis-hamedrash [house of prayer]. The synagogue was the darling of the shtetl and its jewel. Every wedding canopy with klezmorim [musicians] was carried out to the large plot of land at the entrance to the synagogue. Large community celebrations and funeral orations were celebrated in the same place. Every Olkeniki Jew, talking about the importance of his birthplace, would not forget to give first place to the synagogue with Napoleon's ark curtain, which was located there.

The synagogue was built after the fire at the very old synagogue, which stood on the same spot in the years 5558-5562 (1798-1802), according to the account of the kehile [organized Jewish community] with the help of the Polish Prince Granowski. The entire area around the shtetl probably belonged to this prince. A meeting of the kehile that year is mentioned in the city Pinkes [record book], which deals with the financial measures for the building of the synagogue. According to the distribution of the “city,” each businessman had to pay an amount of money in advance for the building cost. The artist and leader of the work was a Jew, Reb Mordekhai bar [son of] Gershon, who left an inscription in the ceiling: “The proud work of my own hands…I, Reb Mordekhai, son of Reb Gershon.”

This is also confirmed in the city Pinkes. It is said that the workers and artists were German.

*

The synagogue presents itself as a square, high wooden building with tall windows up to five meters from its foundation on all sides, so that it is dark inside, like dusk. A large door, interwoven with iron, with a special mechanism for locking, is in the middle of the western wall. From the door, one goes down five steps to the synagogue. The roof with the Ten Commandments and curves is characteristic of the building art of wooden synagogues in Poland.

An antechamber is built next to the front of the western wall, with two small rooms on the side that are harmoniously matched to the entire building. Two doors go into the antechamber. A women's section is built onto the northern wall of the synagogue. A row of small windows looks into the women's section and one door from the men's section of the synagogue. Years ago the women would pray in the men's synagogue in the lower gallery which is located along the western wall over the door. A door from the men's synagogue leads to the gallery. The high ceiling, which ends in an eight-sided gallery, is held up by four wooden, four-sided hollow Renaissance pilasters. The pilasters are belted in the middle with decorated poles. The pilasters have bases. The lowest part of the pilasters was inscribed in the year 5609 (1850) with various prayers, with white, red and dark blue paint. The year is mentioned in the inscriptions of verses, such as “Inscribe the sons of Your covenant for a good life.” The ceiling is eight-sided and bent over the topmost gallery.

At one time on Simkhas-Torah, the khazan [cantor] and the choir boys would sing and walk to the upper gallery, which is located up to nine meters high over the surface of the synagogue, for hakofus [ceremonial procession of the Torahs at the conclusion of the yearly reading of the Torah]. The walls are unpainted, dark and make a sad impression. But on the western wall, on the right of the door, the 13 “beliefs” are painted. Left of the door is a dark four-sided spot - “remembrances of destruction” - with the inscription, May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

*

The aron hakodesh [holy ark - the cabinet which holds the Torah scrolls in a synagogue], which occupies the entire height

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of the eastern wall, up to nine meters and three and half meters in width, was put together entirely of light carved wood. The aron hakodesh makes an extraordinary impression with its beautifully built lines and ornaments. The carved blank columns and flat filials are a composite of twisted plants with various natural and mythological animals. Among the animals are various lions and deer, rams and eagles, half lions and half fish, lions with wings, two doves that symbolize cherubs. In the middle of the aron hakodesh is a carving of the leviathan, which holds its tail in its mouth (according to the well known legend) and others.

The carvings on the top part of the aron hakodesh, over the door and the curtain, are divided into three parts which symbolize the three ornamental crowns in their content and ornamentation: Keser Torah [crown-shaped ornament placed on top of a Torah] with the Ten Commandments, “crown of the priesthood” with the hands of the kohamim [priests] in blessing and the crown of royalty which is on the two headed eagle. The eagle holds a shofar [ram's horn] in one foot and in the second - a lulav [palm branch used on Sukkous - the Feast of Tabernacles]. On the body of the eagle is inscribed, “I have set the Lord before me.” Between the Keser Torah and … a 12-sided pyramid with 12 tribes. The style of the aron hakodesh is a combination. The main style is Baroque with Renaissance ornaments, in a Jewish interpretation.

In the gates of the aron hakodesh and in the side columns that carry the names Jachin and Boaz (the columns in the bes hamedrash) a Jewish calendar is set up that moves with a special mechanism. The calendar is calculated for 448 years, from the year 5558 [1798], when it was set up to the sixth millennium. It shows the new moons and the holidays exactly for the entire year using the calculations of the moon and the sun.

The name of the author, with the explanation for using the calendar, was written on parchment under glass and was wrapped in flowery liturgical poetry and enigmas.

Inscriptions are found over the columns: “And this contribution… Josef bar [son of] Yehuda Leib and his wife, Devorah, daughter of Yuketiel of Leipun [Leipunai]. (Leipun is a Jewish colony nine kilometers from Olkenik.) Near the inscriptions hang two small reflectors on which mirrors are mounted.

*

The bimah [elevated platform from which the Torah is read] was built in an eight-sided form. Eight beautiful carved columns in the neo-classical style with small crowns and vases support the uppermost part, which looks like a khupah [marriage canopy] of curved garlands, hung with wreaths of leaves, flowers and fruits. The beautiful carved arches narrow at the top and end with an eight-sided cornice from which rise a decorated eight-sided base. A pedestal is mounted on the base on which stands a cock, resembling an eagle with outstretched wings and holding a crown on its head. The eagle symbolizes the Polish national crest.

The legend that is told is interesting; that the bimah was built by a second artist, because the artist who build the aron hakodesh died in the middle of the work. Before his death he carved a half “shivisi” [“With verse, I stand before God always” - words usually found facing the reading stand] and wrote in his will that the artist who can make a second symmetrical half would be competent to build the bimah. Such an artist was found who finished the remaining carvings of the bimah. The legend probably comes from the fact that the carvings on the bimah are a completely different style, of neo-classicism with Baroque arches. The aron hakodesh is in the Renaissance style, mixed with Baroque motifs possessing a few dozen carvings of animals. The bimah, in contrast, has only flowers and leaves and many columns of eggs, columns of teeth and columns of pearls. The stair to the bimah goes through “gates” decorated with wooden vases.

There is no artistic wooden reading desk in the synagogue. (Last year, 5692, 1932, the shtetl “put in” a beautiful brass reading desk with a great parade.) But a wooden carving hangs on the eastern wall with an amulet in the middle and the words, “With verse, I stand before God always.” The carving was supposed to replace the reading desk. There are two brass tin badges nailed up in the synagogue in the form of a shield with Polish eagles expressed in the middle and instruments of state on each side. Underneath is a monogram. On the left wall, near the aron hakodesh a large brass tin plate hangs - an old reflector. Similar replicas, but smaller, are found in the royal palace, on Wawel, in Krakow. Small dials were fastened on the brass tin plate with the replicas and served as candleholders. Two original glass curved candlesticks were nailed to the front of the two columns of the bimah. Before

[Page 226]

the war, very large and heavy brass candlesticks hung in the synagogue, but the Russians took them to Russia during the time of the World War in 1915 to use them for shell casings.

At the entrance to the synagogue, on the left, is an old kise shel Elihahu [seat on which the sandek - man holding the baby during a bris - circumcision - sits]. When a bris milah [circumcision] occurred on Shabbos or on a holiday, the bris took place in the synagogue and the sandek and the child would sit on the chair.

There are two sand tables in the synagogue, in which to hide the foreskins from the circumcisions. Large yahrzeit candles [memorial candles] are placed in the same sand tables on Rosh Hashanah and Yom-Kippur.

It is important to remember that Napoleon I passed through Olkenik with his retinue, on the way to Moscow. He visited the synagogue, and as a sign of admiration and gratitude he left a part of his cloak, from under his saddle, as a memorial. An inscription and his name were woven on the curtain in golden threads. On the curtain there remained various ornaments, instruments of war, with the French coat of arms and the Latin inscription, Gloria et Patria in woven silver threads. The curtain is used as a cover on the aron hakodesh, and in the shtetl it is called the “Napoleon's curtain.” The synagogue has been visited by hundreds of people passing through in the last dozen years, Jews and Christians, who have expressed their great admiration for the beauty and modernity of the carvings.

*

The legends that were repeated in various variations by our old Benyamin are also very interesting. In addition to the above-mentioned legend about the shivisi, it is worthwhile to record several more:

Granowski, the landowner, who gave lumber to build the synagogue, wanted to hang his picture in the synagogue. The kehile protested against this and, in order to satisfy him, the building contractor, Reb Mordekhai, painted the landowner's palace on the ceiling and it is actually found on the ceiling over the aron hakodesh to this day.

It is said about the same landowner that he would go through the shtetl and drive “his Jews” into the synagogue with a stick.

Reb Mordekhai, the building contractor and artisan, was an old man. At the time when he built the synagogue, he hut gegesn teg [his daily meals were provided at various homes] at the homes of the town's businessmen. It was said about Josef bar [son of] Yehuda of Leipun, the liberal donor, that at the time of the French war, the French military camped in the fields around Leipun. The military had buried a large sum of money in the ground. Josef accidentally found the treasure while digging in the ground and, in order not to have enjoyment from the money himself, he gave the aron hakodesh as a donation. (The legend does not seem realistic because the French war was about 10 years later.)

Many fires occurred in the shtetl and the synagogue was saved. During the last fire, when the old beis-hamedrash [house of prayer] that was located right next to the synagogue burned, the synagogue began to burn. Then the entire shtetl threw down its own goods and everyone went to save the synagogue. Several of the carvings from the aron hakodesh were burned in the fire. The wind turned from the synagogue and it was saved. It is said that the Jews of the shtetl, not having anything with which to put out the fire, threw mud that was located not far from the synagogue at the walls. A division of the local Russian military took part in the rescue action.

Many legends are told about the demons and spirits that are repeated in several variations in other old synagogues. To the recent historical events that are connected to the synagogue can be recorded that in the fifteenth year [1915], when the Russians evacuated the area, 70 emotionally ill people were taken out from the nearby Dekshnie colony (Sela). The emotionally ill stopped in the antechamber of the old synagogue on the way to Vilna. For a month's time, they soiled the antechamber until they were taken to Vilna with the help of the committee created to help the evacuated Jews. Many Torahs and religious books remained in the synagogue from that time, which belonged to Lithuanian Jews. The synagogue was erased during the last fire on the 25th of June, 1941.

[Page 228]

Inscriptions on the Aron Hakodesh

“I shall thank the Lord, Who gives strength to the tired, and Who has guided me in this work, to pursue it humbly and honestly. I began my work in the first month, the month of Nisan and I continued until the inauguration and consecration of the house, when my work was completed.”

(See the Hebrew section, page 83)

From the rebus we can infer that the carver of the aron hakodesh was named Jakov ben Shlomo.

(From the third inscription, can be inferred that the aron hakodesh was built in the year 5565 - 1805). A third inscription in rhymes is found on the aron hakodesh. The acronym of the verses appear as a rebus riddle, the solution to which is the artist's name. The last lines of the inscription signify: “I, Jakov ben Shlomo, from Rasyn, may God keep it and protect it.”

“Thus said he, who studies the Torah and the Mitzvahs, clever in his clean and honest work, in the Holy Community of Olkenik, may God sustain it and protect it until our Temple will be built.”

*

I find it my duty to remember the old shamas, Reb Tzvi Meir Rabin, of blessed memory, who was shamas of the synagogue for several dozen years, taking over the office of shamas from his father, Reb Eliezer, of blessed memory. The city-shamas, Reb Hirsh-Meir[1] was also the Kazjoner Rabbi until 5685 [1924]. He inherited both positions from his father. His grandfather was the Keidaner prodigy, the holy one, Reb Avraham Eliezer and older brother of the former Jerusalem Rabbi, Reb Shmuel Salant, of blessed memory. Once, erev Pesakh [on the eve of Passover], my grandfather went to immerse the cooking utensils in the river, broke the ice and drowned. His matzeyvah [headstone] from 5591 [1831] is located in the cemetery. He protected the synagogue during all of the difficult times of the war. I heard the above-mentioned legends and historical facts about the synagogue from him and other old people. I know about the construction of the synagogue and the art of building on the basis of countless personal observations.

And now after the synagogue and the dear Olkeniki Jews have been annihilated and there is no trace of them, I felt it my duty to immortalize all of this in words and pictures.


[Page 228]

The Legend About the Generous Reb Josef

By Kh. L-Ki

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The aron hakodesh was donated by Reb Josef bar [son of] Tuvya[2] and his wife, Devorah for a place in the cemetery for their daughter, Chaya. It is said about Reb Josef of Leipun that he was a man of great riches, he leased a tavern from the landowner near Leipun and that he found favor with the remaining landowners of that area because of the following history:

Once his landowner called together all of the landowners from his area to hunt with him in his forest. It happened that there was a large bear, which no one could catch. It was told to the arendar [lessee - Reb Josef]. He went out and shot the bear at once. From that time on, all of the landowners had great love for him and entrusted him with all of the business, from which he became very rich. He was really a very rich man, tall, truly a giant. Besides his wealth, he became a great philanthropist and was connected by marriage to great lineages.


[Page 233]

A Family in Olkeniki

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

What I want to relate here in writing was told to me by mother, Chana, when I was still a child, more than 50 years ago.

Her ancient family lived in Olkeniki when Poland was independent before the time of Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

The many branched family was very rich. They were connected to the Polish aristocracy and the Polish patriots through their businesses.

They lived in the palaces that were built by the Polish government years ago. The palaces stood on a hill near the shore of the Merczanke [Merkys] River that then flowed where of late flowed the Galucze near the building of the forester (forest manager).

They were the farm lessees and estate owner of the estate in Olkeniki and the area. Jewish artisans, who worked for the estate, settled around them.

The family had connections with France and Germany from which they brought teachers for their children and to where they sent their children to study.

My mother's great grandfather traveled abroad and brought artists and workers from there who built the old wooden synagogue.

The following history was told in our family: a peddler came to my great grandmother and suggested to her that she buy a garland of pearls. She bought the pearls. The peddler said: If she wanted the pearls to really shine she should give them to a goose to swallow. When the pearls would go through the body they would shine clearly. She did so. Meanwhile, the peddler stole the goose. It was said in our house, “If you want to be rich – perhaps you will find the goose?…”

My mother's family was descended from Rashi, who, as is known, lived in France, in Troysh [Troyes] and from this the family took the name Treywash [Treywaush]. In our family, we studied Rashi from generation to generation. In my childhood years, I, too, had to sit for two hours every Shabbos [Sabbath] and study Rashi. I remember that my mother attached importance to the moral of the story that Rashi preached. For example: “When the spirit washes your hands before eating, you should recite a blessing. – That is, first you should take care of your spirit, then – the stomach.” “You should give the poor man food; then, you should eat.” “When it comes to the poor relatives, receive them as you would great, rich men.” “Love all men without exception.” “Repay bad with good.”

We children did not understand the importance and worth of the morals of Rashi. One of Professor Kloyzner's parents was very friendly with the Treywash family. As it was told, the Treywash family presented them with a mayontek (estate) where a part of their family had lived for a long time. Josef Kloyzner's mother was a very good friend and comrade of my mother. She was intelligent and educated. I remember when Josef Kloyzner, as a young man, would visit my parents in Olkeniki 55 years ago. One member of the Treywash family left Olkeniki, traveling to France and gave himself the name – Dreyfus (in contrast with Treywash) for the following reason:

When Napoleon went through Olkeniki in 1812, he befriended the Treywash family who showed him the wooden synagogue. As a gift, he left the famous “Napoleon's Poroykhes” [curtain for a Torah ark]. As is known from history, Napoleon promised the Poles independence. When the Poles recruited their Legion, they received full support from the Treywash family, who took part in preparing the revolt against Russia. The Polish revolt in the Olkeniki area was in full fervor. Many Russians were drowned in the swamps around Olkeniki.

Aleksander II sent

[Page 234]

to Vilna and the Vilna area the famous General [Michail] Muravjov, whose task was to suppress the Polish revolt.

Many family patriots ended their lives on the gallows. The Treywash family, which also feared the terror from Muravjov, emigrated to France where they had good connections and took the name Dreyfus.

One of the Polish patriots of that time who lived in Olkeniki was referred to with the name Shlomo. The Poles lovingly called him Shlomo'la. Before his escape to France he left crates of gold, silver and valuable things in the Olkeniki church.

The Russians confiscated the palaces and burned them. Shlomo'la Treywash was a great grandfather of Alfred Dreyfus and of my mother.

My brother Ayzik, of blessed memory, went to Kovno over 50 years ago and visited our uncle, Nakhum Leib Treywash, who was 91 years old and his wife Malka Rise – 93 years old. They were the last of Shlomo'la's family in Kovno. They told my brother a great deal about their past; they were very rich and possessed many valuable things.

When I visited Olkeniki in 1934, I was told the history of Shlomo'la, the Polish patriot who lived in Olkeniki, by a Polish teacher, a Christian from Galicia, who added that there is a separate room in the church that only the priest can visit. In this room a book lies on a special pedestal (omed – lectern). The name Shlomo'la is written on the cover of the book with golden letters. In the book, the life history and patriotic stories of the Jew Shlomo'la are recorded by a Polish patriot. He was considered a holy one by the Poles. The Poles stress that he was very honest and moral and despite the fact that he was a fervid, Polish patriot, no one in his family converted.

As said, the famous Alfred Dreyfus, whose trial stirred the world and thanks to him Theodor Herzl became interested in his own people, is descended from the family.

The blood of his great-grandparents, Polish patriots and military men who lived in the Olkeniki palace, flowed in Captain Dreyfus and their family was Treywash.

My son continues in the family tradition and greatly assisted the Polish officers during the last world war.

Ruchl Sarduf-Dvortsan


A group of Olkeniki youths on the Merczanke shore, 1923

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. The names Tzvi and Hirsh are used interchangeably Return
  2. Earlier in the text, Reb Josef is described as the son of Yehuda Leib. Tuvya is derived from the name Yehuda Return

 

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