Translated by David Goldman
It was in the days of World War I. The battlefront between Czarist Russia and the Kaiser’s Germany was not too far away – just a few kilometers from our town. During nine months of killing on both sides, human and animal corpses decomposed in the fields, and fleas that swarmed into the trenches of soldiers left their mark over time. The typhus plague, which was the fate of many, broke out in Olyka as well. It affected most of the families, and took down many a victim. There was no home where there was not a fatality, and the doctors were unable to save people given the poor hygienic conditions, lack of hospitals and possibilities of isolation.
At the end of the destruction, community leaders met with the Rebbe, R. Alter Yosef David (known as Alteronyu) to discuss how to appease G-d to stop the Angel of Death. R. Alteronyu paused, thought it over, and finally decided that since the commandment of marrying off a bride is unparalleled, nothing would be better than to marry off the virgin Yidis, an orphan who was alone in the world, who was of marriageable age. The groom, David, was also alone in the world, without anyone to support him (he thus got the nickname the City Groom, which stayed with him all his life), and it was hoped that merciful G-d would save the community from any more suffering.
Everyone in town contributed generously as an atonement for their sins for the dowry of the couple, enabling them to have sufficient resources to start their lives together. The wedding was held according to Jewish law with the rabbi, a band, vodka, cake and a meal of delicacies. The community leaders headed by the sons of the Rebbe, served as in-laws. The community flooded the house until there was no more room.
The wedding ceremony was held in the cemetery. This was a tradition used in order to link the living and the dead, and perhaps to appease the victims of the plague who died before their time, so that they would beseech G-d for mercy on us. In addition to this, the very act of the marriage and the seven days of celebration carried power and influence in the upper worlds, and a sort of oath lest Heaven did not do its part (inasmuch as G-d himself is a matchmaker!).
Therefore, G-d heard the pleas and prayers of the holy flock of Olyka, his anger was assuaged, and he sent snow and bitter cold. The plague ended.
[photo:] Wedding in cemetery.
Oy, the Generations [HVY in Hebrew appears to be used as a pun, since it can mean both woe (hoy) and way of life (havi)]
Meir Ben-Yishai (Grishpan)
Translated by David Goldman
I remember my hometown Olyka even from before the First World War and a few years thereafter. The town appeared majestic, like a place dreamed about somewhere in the plains of Volhyn, between Kovel and Lutsk, with its dozen synagogues and study halls, cheders and gatherings with the rebbe. This is how things were, and this is how things could have remained forever. We didn't have or need electricity, and there was no indoor plumbing. The houses were illuminated using oil, warmed with wood and water was delivered by Yosel Spotschak the Water Carrier to the houses in his two large buckets. On Friday afternoons the ovens were heated up in order to cook the Sabbath chulent, and we enjoyed drinking goat's milk. In my day there still weren't any paved roads, and we were up to our necks in dirt. It was good however. People married off their children, providing them with a dowry and room and board, just like you'll see in this book in my poem:
In my life I would have liked,
To see how my hometown of Olyka,
Looked 50 years ago.
A bit of light and warmth were shared with an open hand at the rebbe's court.
Olyka's traditional ways
Small, lowly houses,
The outbreak of World War One greatly shocked our town, and it took us a long time to get over it.
In 1915, the Russian army arrived at one end of town, while the Germans were positioned on the other side. Our town was something of a free zone, in which the Cossacks had a free hand to anything they wanted with the population. For many months this "duel continued between both armies, shooting cannons at each other, resulting in destruction and loss of life, followed by the Broselover breaking through the breach and a huge offensive, thanks to which the Germans had to pull back and take with them approximately two thirds of our Jewish population who were more than willing to evacuate from fear of retribution from the Cossacks. So they greeted the arriving Germans with bread and salt and Torah scrolls, which most of the population carried along with great joy since the Germans liberated us from the Cossacks. The town breathed a sigh of relief and were no longer scared to go on the streets. I can remember how they mobilized us, the exhausted Jewish population, including the elderly, to gather the dead bodies from the trenches that were around our cemetery which had separated the two enemy forces. The Russian trenches lay right under the stars, usually dug scarcely 80 centimeters deep. These were their so-called trenches, while the Germans' trenches were firmly embedded under the ground in bunkers with electric lighting and every convenience, as if they were intending to stay there forever.
As mentioned earlier, the German entry into town was received by the Jews with great satisfaction. We felt as if we should hug and kiss them, but when they withdrew on the holiday of Simchat Torah, it felt like Yom Kippur since we realized that we would fall to the Cossacks again.
After the Revolution, the town started to revive as if aroused from a deep sleep in which we had been in for many years. The young people started getting organized and looking at G-d's little world differently. The spontaneously started various organizations, especially Zionist ones of all types. We established a branch of the Tseirei Zion [Youth of Zion] and a library named for Yechiel Chlenov. We also offered self-education courses. This changed the whole town and it wasn't the same as before.
During the German occupation following the outbreak of the Second World War, the German occupiers acted with brutal sadism and performed acts of premeditated murder. They rounded up approximately 550 women and children, and put them all in the huge castle that was once a summer residence of Count Radziwill and which could hold only a couple of hundred people. In that green summer they squeezed all the unfortunate martyrs into that place, forcing them to stand three rows deep. According to Rachel Lopata, who was just about the only person to survive, they could hardly breathe. Instead of providing them with some air, they pumped in gas, forcing the hapless Jews to tear off their clothes and tear their flesh to be able to get some air. Right after two days of suffering the Germans brought fire hoses to water down the whole area. Then they brought out the dead and suffocated, and the rest they let out onto the street to get some air. One of them cursed one of the German guards and even shot him, asking why he was so brutal with the unfortunate Jewish civilians. After three days outside and getting back to himself, that same "good German told them to go at it again, and this time make sure to do the job. Among the victims murdered was my dear mother Yehudit and my sister Rachel.
Out of those events, Rachel Lopata survived through a chance event. She slipped off to the side when the murderers weren't looking. From eight thousand Olyka Jews only a handful survived, including Yisrael Greenstein and one of his sons; Avraham Luria, Yitzchak Nokonyetchnik and his wife and a child; Feiga Tsam and her three children Shlomo, Yitzchak and Wolf; and Leona Rosenthal.
Rachel Lopata has said that the first victims were the rebbe of Olyka, Rabbi Alternyu Landau, David Finkelstein and Motel Finkelstein. They recount that some Jews, who had totally despaired, told the remaining survivors to give up their souls to G-d since this is G-d's will. This indeed occurred, and a number of them, with eyes aglow, gave up their lives to sanctify G-d's name, and were murdered.
There was the typical case when one of the Jewish women in the ghetto had asked to work in the kitchen, and then later a German guard noticed that she put aside a couple of potatoes to be able to keep her sick mother alive. When he asked which person had done that, no one would admit to it, even after he threatened to shoot all of the workers because of the crime. No one turned themselves in, and the ones who actually knew kept quiet. When the situation became serious and the guard was about to shoot all of them, my sister Rachel Greenspan stepped forward and stated that she was the one who did it. For her arrogance she managed to get away with only a few whip lashings.
This is the tearful summary of a Jewish shtetl, one of hundreds of communities which were so brutally destroyed by the horrible evildoers in an evil world.
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Updated 16 Aug 2013 by LA