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[Page 33]

Interviews with former town residents

Translated by Sara Mages

Question: What is the best thing that you remember from the town?

Mr. Sensi: My most favorite place in town was my home – my parents' home. It was a small house near the synagogue. I loved my home very much despite the fact that I wasn't born there (I wasn't born in Olkeniki, my parents were born there, they left it and returned during the First World War when I was a little boy).

The thing that I loved the most in town, after my home, was the forest – the town was very small and situated inside tall pine forests. We walked and played in the forest, and there wasn't a child who didn't get lost at least once in the forest. When we went to pick mushrooms or blueberries, and entered the thickness of the forest (mushrooms and blueberries were picked at the edge of the forest), we always had a “guide” with us who guarded us. I remember a woman who knew her way in the forest and never got lost there. She was our “guide” most of the time. Also during the first German occupation, we, the children, went to the forest to watch the Germans cutting down the trees.

Mr. Shlomo Farber: I remember that the first thing that left an impression on me as a child was a storm in the forest, but I also loved the river. We bathed and washed our laundry in it, but we didn't drink the water. In addition, the river was also used for sports. It was great in all periods of the year: in the summer when we swam in it and also had swimming competitions, and in the winter - when we skated on it.

Mr. Sensi: I recall a special experience associated with the river. In my childhood I studied the Gemara with Feibe the slaughterer whose house stood next to the river. In the winter, when Feibe left to do his slaughtering, we, the children, left to skate on the ice. In the winter the gentiles also went to the river. They sawed blocks of ice and put them in cold storage to preserve their food. One day, they started to saw the ice next to the place where we used to skate. Those who were brave, myself included, continued to skate despite the danger. The blacksmith, who saw me from the other side of the river, crossed the river, brought me to my parents and told them about it. Apparently I was punished – but today I can't remember the punishment. I only remember the blacksmith's words, how he described what could have happened if I fell into the hole and swept under the ice by the cold river flow. The blacksmith frighten me so much that I remember this incident even today.

Question: So far we dealt with personal experiences. Maybe you can tell us in which areas the town's youth worked in?

Mr. Maltzman: The youth were active in two areas. The first: the area of education that was centered in the library. The second: the Zionist Movement that was centered in the club house.

The town's spiritual life, education and culture centered in the library.

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At the beginning it was a challenge to build the library building. It was one of the struggles between the generations: the young people demanded that the Jewish community will build the building and encountered resistance and difficulties. The struggle lasted for many years and was accompanied by the usual means of struggle that were customary in the Jewish towns before the Holocaust: the delay in “reading the Torah” in the synagogue, meetings, disputes, struggles, and endless debates until victory has been achieved. The young people laid the foundations of the building by themselves, and ultimately the public assistance also arrived.

After the construction was completed the youth were faced with additional challenges: the purchase of books, the maintenance of the library, and converting it into the spiritual center of the entire town. In addition, a drama club was organized and its performances were a source of revenue for the library. Also evening reading sessions, debates and lectures were organized.

As mentioned, the second area where the youth worked in the town was - the Zionist Movement. The only youth movement in town was “Hechalutz Hatzair” [young pioneers] (Actually, I should also add that there was an attempt to establish a branch of “Betar” in town, but without much success). The library building also served as the movement's club house where we held our activities. In addition to the meetings, fieldtrips and sports activities, we were also in charge of the work of “Keren Kayemet LeYisrael” [The Jewish National Fund], the publication of the Zionist Movement newspapers, the organization and execution of additional Zionist tasks like: the distribution of the “Zionist Shekel”[1] before the Zionist Congress, and the ceremonies of 20 Tamuz[2], 11 Adar[3], and so on.

Every year we left for youth camps. To pay for it we worked at various jobs (we were being trained for a “Hachshara” [pioneer training] Kibbutz).

Mr. Sensi: Let me tell you about another personal experience. In one of the 20 th Tamuz days, when I no longer lived in the town and only came for the school holidays, I was asked to speak in the movement's meeting that took place on that day in memory of Herzl. Usually, the town's elders spoke in Yiddish and the students in Ashkenazi accented Hebrew. Since I no longer lived in the town, I taught myself to speak Hebrew in a Sephardic accent. After my speech my friend told me that he heard one of the townspeople asking his friend: What language did he speak in?

Question: What was the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles?

Mr. Shlomo Farber: Usually the Jew treated the gentiles without great love and without great respect. He saw the gentile as an inferior rank because the gentile didn't believe in God, and Jew couldn't respect a person who didn't believe in God. However, the Jews “lived from the gentile” because they were engaged in trade or in innkeeping and didn't work the land. Usually, the monopoly on the inns was in the hands of the Jews. The gentile cane to the city from the village, sold his products, and with the money he got drunk in a tavern owned by a Jew. Since the Jew saw the gentile as an inferior rank, at times he allowed himself

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to cheat him, but only a few Jews have done so. In terms of cleanliness and hygiene, the gentiles lived in harsher conditions than the Jews, but in the last years, when the gentiles lived in the town next to the Jews they befriended each other, mostly the children who played football together and even traveled together.

Mr. Sensi: I also remember the wars with the gentile children. At the end of the First World War, mostly after we saw the German soldiers who passed through the town, we started to play “wars” - first between us (the “Kheder” children), and later against the gentiles. The wars against the gentiles started as a game, but later they were very serious – not only under the influence of the World War…

Mr. Shlomo Farber: As I said, there were also good relations between the Jews and the gentiles. I remember a Jew, who was welcomed by them, and often served as their matchmaker… and I remember the two gentiles, who were so excited by the Jews that they wanted to immigrate to Israel.

Question: What were the changes in the town when the regime changed?

Mr. Maltzman: The war between Nazi Germany and Poland that broke out in 1939 found the people my age, the youth in Olkeniki, willing and able to accept any public duty at a difficult time. Our older friends were drafted to the army, and we, the sixteen and seventeen years old, were on alert to what the future will bring.

The first days of the war, when the battlefront was far from us, found us digging trenches, practicing first aid, and glued to the only two or three radios in town. When the Poles retreated we were on alert and kept the order.

The first Russian Army entrance to the town in 1939 was accompanied by great emotion. We received them, the Red Army soldiers, as liberators and saviors. Every evening they showed movies in the market. We sang their songs with great enthusiasm. When this army withdrew from the vicinity of Vilna it returned these areas to Lita according to an old agreement from the days of the October Revolution in Russia.

For one year we lived in independent Lita whose regime wasn't different from the previous Polish regime. During that year, we helped the Jewish soldiers in Nazi POW camps. It was allowed to send food parcels from Lita to prisoners of war, and we continued to send packages to any address that we obtained until this option was canceled.

In 1940, the Russians invaded Lita for the second time, and this time to gain control and impose the Soviet regime. The Zionist activities stopped. The library was closed and the Hebrew and Yiddish books were removed. Soviet institutions were established and some of the townspeople cooperated with them.

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There was also an attempt to organize the youth in the framework of the Komsomol (The Communist Union of Youth). It was mandatory to participate in the meetings, and those who didn't show up were called for investigation and faced punishment. Commissars arrived and monitored the cultural activities. Public meetings, speeches and movies were held very week, and the town completely changed. The synagogue was emptied from its young worshipers. The library ceased to be the center of activities, and it was forbidden to mention the Zionist Movement.

Question: What would you like to tell the youth of today about the town?

Mr. Shlomo Farber: The Israeli youth must know that it is a mistake to think that the children in the European towns were poor, neglected, and never smiled. As a matter of fact, they lived a lively life.

Mr. Maltzman: I would like to wish every teenage in Israel, that his love for Israel, where he lives and where he was born, won't be smaller from our love and devotion to the town of that time, and that his life won't be poorer than our lives.

The interview was conducted by Amiram Shterk

 

 


[Page 37]

From a conversation with Mrs. Emma Farber

Mrs. Emma Farber has special memories from her grandfather and grandmother. Her grandfather was a large scale wholesale dealer. He bought entire forests from the government. His employees cut down the trees and transported them to Germany by rafts that floated on one of the rivers near the town.

However, he was a pious Jew who studied the Torah and kept the commandments.

Every day he got up at three in the morning and studied the Torah by candlelight. When one of the aunts asked him: “Why are you studying Grandpa, you are already an old man,” the grandfather answered that it is necessary to study at all times.

Grandma was an educated woman, good and God-fearing. One of the aunts told me that every Thursday morning grandma used to wake her daughters before dawn. She used to load them with baskets full of Sabbath food, and sent them to deliver the baskets to the “embarrassed” needy, who didn't dare to ask for donations. On their way, they passed through fields and yards so no one will see them performing their mission. Not once they walked around the houses to avoid the gentiles' dogs, but every week they fulfilled this duty.

 

Tamima Pleles, Talia Burk


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. Zionist Shekel – The name of the certificate of membership in the Zionist Organization, given to every Jew who paid annual membership dues. Return
  2. 20 Tamuz 5665 – 3 July 1904 - the date of death of Theodor Herzl. Return
  3. 11 Adar – Yom Tel-Hai – Israel's official day of mourning for Yosef Trumpeldor. Return

 

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