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Chapters in history

 

The origin of the name Olkeniki

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Erica S. Goldman-Brodie and Philip Shapiro

The original name of the town, as it is recalled in ancient documents from 370 years ago [approximately 1590], is probably Vilkanik. The Lithuanians who lived in the villages around the town called it Valkanikai. The Russians and Poles called it Olkeniki. In recent generations, until about fifty years ago, the Jews used the name Valkenik.[1]

There are many legends about the origin of the name. According to the elders of the town, the town used to be a fortress town, where a king named “Vill”or “Vall” lived, hence the name Vill - Kanig”-Vill- the King.”

 

Olkeniki and its nearest surrounding in the beginning of the 20th century

 

The historic fact of this legend is that in the beginning of the 16th century, there were fortified palaces of kings in the town, in which the kings of Poland, the Sigismunds, visited regularly [namely,] the old Sigismund, who was chosen in 1506 as the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Sigismund August.

The ruins of the palaces and fortresses, the pits of the buildings' cellars, burnt bricks and stone fragments stretched west of the Jewish town, across the meadow (“Lonke”) and the creek of the Mereczanka [Lithuanian: Merkys] River – the Gieluzha [Lithuanian: Geluzha], next to the forest administration buildings (Forester). Already a generation ago, the farmers and the Jews dug in the ground and took out bricks and stones to be used for building. The remains of the pits served as a playground for the town's children and youth who went for a walk outside the city.

A Lithuanian legend tells that the name Valkanikai is derived from the Lithuanian phrase “valka” – wanderer. That is, the wanderers, who were wandering in the tangled forests, arrived at the Mereczanka River, where the Gieluzha Creek flows into it, and settled there.

Others said the name Vilkanikis after “Vilki” -wolves, which multiplied in a scary degree in the surrounding tangled pine forests. A similar name was given to a Lithuanian village near the town, about 5 kilometers –Vilkishi (“Masti”).

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The settlement of the Jews in the town

We do not have historical documents about the beginning of the settlement of the Jews in the town. The only proof of the existence of a Jewish settlement in the town in the 16th Century are the tombstones found in the old cemetery from the year 5700 - 1590, that is about 370 years ago. Presumably, at the beginning of the 16th Century, when Lithuanian Jews returned to their homes after the deportation in 1495, Jews settled in Olkeniki. At that time, many Jewish settlements sprang up around the Horodna (Grodno) and Truki communities.

The Jews settled near the banks of the Neman River and its creeks, and in this way, Jews arrived to Vilkanik, that is located on the Mereczanka River, one of the tributaries of the Neman River.

At that time (at the end of the 15th Century) only a few Jews lived in Vilna.

Olkeniki (Vilkanik) was a fortress town, which stretched along the banks of the Mereczanka River. The palaces of the kings were built in the west of the city, on the hills, beyond the Galluje River, where in those days the Mereczanka River flowed. On one of the spring days during a flood, the river shifted the place of its flow. The proximity of the Olkeniki Jews to Grodno can be learned from the history of several old families in Olkeniki. The families of Shimon Braz, Yankel Brazand Velvel Braz, who lived at the end of the last century and at the beginning of this century in Olkeniki, are originally from Grodno. They are related to Rabbi Alexander Ziskind of Horodna, the owner of “the foundation and root of the work.” “Braz” is the acronym for “Bney Rabbi Alexander Ziskind.”

The mother of the late Prof. Yosef Klausner, a native of Olkeniki, and members of the Braz families from Petah Tikva, belong to these families. My late grandmother, Kraina, is also from the Frumkin families of Grodno.

Moreover, until 1695, Olkeniki belonged to the Grodno community, which was about 125 km away. At the meeting of the state committee, which took place in Olkeniki in 1695, it was decided to join the town to the Vilna community, which is only 50 km away.

It can be assumed that all the families that are related to the village of Kielika, that is the families of Shimon the Kielikai, Monish the Kielikai, the grandfather of the families of Dr. Berkeley and Alufi who live in Israel, Beinish the Kielikai who is my grandfather, Abraham the Kielikai, and Yankel the Kielikai, are descendants from the immigrants who came here in the 14th Century from Kiyuv. The name of the village Kielika in Russian is Keiwliaki [Polish: Kiewlaki, Lithuanian: Kiaulëkai], that is from Kiyuv. Since in the 14th Century, Kiyuv belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it is not inconceivable that the core of settlers in the village of Kielika, that is located about 12 kilometers southeast of the town, originated in Kiyuv. It is possible that the Jews were brought here by the occupier Witold [Lithuanian: Vytautas], the Grand Duke of Lithuania. The origin of the Jews of Kiyuv, according to the

 

Prof. Dr. Joseph Klausner
Born in the town in 5645, 1874

 

researchers, is partially from the Khazars, who lived there several hundred years before, and from the Western Jews who immigrated there later - in the 16th Century.

Some of the town's families may have arrived after the decrees and after the Black Plague, in Ashkenazi.

According to the researchers, Jews from the west settled around Grodno (according to Dr. Mark Vishnitzer), and possibly a few of them also arrived to Vilkanik.

Members of the Klausner family, that are related to the well-known Rabbi Avraham Klausner of Ashkenaz, the author of a collection of laws called “Minhagim”(customs), who lived in the 14th Century, arrived in Olkeniki and the village Rudniki, that are located on the Mereczanka River and to the town of Truki.

Rabbi Abba Yosef HaCohen Trivesh, who served as a rabbi in Olkeniki (from 1855 - 1873) about a hundred years ago, and the Sheskin - Dvorzen- Trivesh families, who are connected to the town, had, according to the remains, genealogical letters indicating that the origin of the above-mentioned families is from Rashi, who lived in Troyesh (Trivesh). From this it can be assumed that the families who settled in the town arrived from two sources - from the Jews of Kiyuv- Grodno, who settled on the creek of the Neman River, as well as from Jews who migrated and arrived to the town and its surroundings from Western Europe. If we add to that the story in the Chronicles of 1443 about a caravan of Jewish merchants from Truki, that is located about 40 kilometers northwest of Olkeniki, that makes its way to Podolia, then there is a connection between Lithuanian Jews and Jews in Podolia and the Kiyuv area, and the assumptions above may be correct.

As mentioned, there were many families, from the oldest in the town, that originated from the village of Kielika. They remained loyal to their hometown for generations and were called by the name - the Kielikas. From the elders I heard that one of the elders of the family, Rabbi Avraham the Kielikai, took part in the Polish revolt against Tsarist Russia. He was a supplier of food to the Polish camps, which were scattered around

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Olkeniki and Eishyshok. At the end of the revolt, the Polish government awarded him a medal of excellence – VIRTURI MILITARY.

Most of the families in the town were related to the near and far villages, from which their ancestors immigrated, and were named after their origin. Thus, in the town lived the families Vishnitzer, Nibiananzer Moshe Mishtoner, Aharon Darzhaniker, Hanach Baradvicher, Spinjer, Pochkarner, Izzdzieler, Moshe Ziliner, Chaim Faratzer, Mishkotcher, Kappel Leifaner, Chizoner, Keiliker, Moshe Grajniker, Titianzer and others.

Over time, the family names of the townspeople erased the origin names but closeness was maintained between the families with the common origin.

Since there are no historical details about what was happening in this small town, the political and economic events in the state of Lithuania and the nearby city of Vilna must be seen as a faithful mirror of what was happening in the town.

The beginning of the 17th Century was a period of prosperity for the Jews of Lithuania, but in the meantime the Christian merchant and artisan classes developed in the city of Vilna. These demanded that the Jews relinquish their rights. As a consequence, a pogrom broke out in Vilna in 1635. In the middle of the 17th Century, in the years 5408, 5409 -1648, the years of the pogroms, massacre and plagues in Ukraine, Lithuanian Jewry was also completely depleted.

In 1655, Vilna and its surroundings were conquered by Alexander Mikhailovich and the Cossack military units, who left behind destruction and ruin everywhere. Apparently, the town of Olkeniki, which was protected by tangled forests – and was far from the king's roads and the warrior armies, did not suffer so much because a few decades after the Cossack invasion of Vilna we find that the State Committee – the parliament for Lithuanian Jews - convened a meeting in Olkeniki (see below). It is worth adding that those who participated in the conference (“the Sessia”) came from Minsk, 150 km from the town, Brisk - 300 km, Grodno - 125 km, Slutsk - 240 km, and Vilna - 50 km.

If we present a summary of the statements of the researcher Dubnov[2] and others on the value of the Council of the State of Lithuanian Jews,[3] and for Judaism in general, we will understand how great was the value of our town in history:

“In the history of Israel, the chain of autonomy continues - and lasts from the days of the Sanhedrin in Yavne and the presidents in the Galilee, through the periods of the leaders in exiles and Geonim in Babylon, the rule of communities in Spain, assemblies of rabbis and the community leaders in France and Ashkenazi, to the “Council of the [Four] Lands” in Poland alongside the “Council of the State” of Lithuania. The register of the “Council of the [Four] Lands” in Poland was lost and only remnants of it remain, and only one book of regulations remains in its entirety - it is the register of the Council of the Land of Lithuania since its establishment (in the year 5303 [1742 C.E.]) until it ceased to operate (in the year 5521 [1760 C.E.]).

 

The meeting of the Council of the State [of Lithuania] in Olkeniki in 1695

Three large communities in Lithuania-Brisk, Horodna, and Pinsk, that about 50 communities with their environs followed them, founded the Council of the State of Lithuania.

On the 9th of Elul, 5368, the leaders of the communities met in Brisk for the first time to discuss the status of the state and enacted about a hundred regulations in the matters of tax collection, negotiation, law and justice, leadership of the communities, matters of education and charity, etc. This is how a central institution of communities' rule was established, which served for 138 years as the Legislature and the High Court for Israel matters in Lithuania.

After 30 years, the Vilna community joined the assembly of the Council of the State [of Lithuania]. For various reasons the committees gathered in different places, probably also due to informers or plots about the leaders and rabbis.

In 5451, 1691, the committee convened in Chomsk, where the Slutsk community joined the association of the main communities. At the same time, the date of the next committee meeting was determined to be in the holy community of Vilkanik (Olkeniki) in the Vilna district (section 900).

The council's meeting at Olkeniki took place in 1695 and [at that meeting] the place of the next council meeting was determined to be Prozni or Schultz.

This was during the flourishing of the council's operations. The leaders of state and rabbis would enact regulations in all professions of public life. The rule of the communities and their central council expanded and rose to a level of being a power that makes order and sets and defines rules in the life of the nation.

Here are some of the regulations that the members of the council enacted at their meeting at Olkeniki, as written in the register:

“These are the regulations that were enacted by sages who consulted and researched together with HaMe'orot Hagdolim (the great luminaries), the great rabbis, may God save them, may their fear of God and knowledge of the Torah extend their lives.

Section 869. Maintain the Tree of Life, that is, to increase the number of yeshivot, to empower the Torah in all communities and towns. And if they do not empower [the Tree of Life], they will pay a fine to the state.

Section 876. To uphold a ban upon those who upon whom a ban had been issued by the community and the rabbi, may God preserve him. The rest of the communities' leaders, God preserve them, must uphold the ban without any excuse, even in private.

Section 882. Anyone who has been appointed as Av Beit Din [Head of the rabbinical court] and does not currently uphold a yeshiva, cannot be accepted as a rabbi and teacher until he has the consent of two Rabbi Geonim, may God preserve them, from our state, including the local rabbi, who must give his consent first. If anyone who was appointed due to money he lent or a bribe he paid, then the money must be paid as a fine to the state, it will be forbidden to accept such a person to the rabbinate, and whoever received the money will be considered to have committed an eternal offense. Before the accepted rabbi comes to deliver a sermon as is the custom, he [the offender] is required to first appear before the head of his rabbinical court and accept the ban that was delivered with propriety.

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Section 883. The Mi Sheberach blessing on the Sabbath [a blessing customarily recited for each person who has received an aliya to the Torah] shall only be recited for the Gaon and the guests. On a weekday, it is strictly forbidden displace the cantor from his trade. [note: Mi Sheberach blessings extend the Torah reading, and this enactment is trying to put a limit on them. On weekdays, lay people often lead the services and this enactment is trying to limit such.] It is also forbidden to send honey on Shabbat and to make petitions on Shabbat.

Section 892: Regarding the sums of the state, all the heads of communities and districts should transfer to the State Council the sums they have collected from the residents of their localities, with an honest accounting and through proper oaths. They must transfer the proper amount that had been allotted to their committee, their state, or their individual settlement. They are required to demonstrate that they have enforced the collection of the sums.

Section 900. If there is an arbitration for any person, the community, may it thrive, may only choose a communal arbitrator through the communal council and in the communal hall, and through a committee of no less than nine leaders who agree with a majority. No person in the audience shall serve as an arbitrator on behalf of the individual.

This is the last of 33 regulations enacted at their meeting in Olkeniki. And as it is written in the register, “all the previous non-contradictory regulations, which were made in the above-mentioned committee, are all in force. This was made with the agreement of all the leaders, the Meorot HaGdolim and the great Rabbanim. They also agreed that the next meeting will be held in the holy community of Prozni or Schultz on 18th of Sivan, 5459.

The following spoke on behalf of the holy community of Olkeniki:

The speech of Hakadosh Shaul from Brisk in Lithuania
and the speech of Simcha Cohen Rappaport's from Horodna,
and the speech of Yitzhak Meir from Minsk,
and the speech of young Hillel Halevi's from Vilna,
and the speech of Zvi Hirsch with things of our rabbi and teacher the late Shalom from Lublin
and the speech of Shlomo Zalman and our rabbi and teacher Yoel, God save him,
and the speech of Menachem Mendel with things of our rabbi and teacher Yitzchak from Lithuania
and the speech of Moshe with teachings of our late rabbi and teacher David
and the speech of Elyakum, the son of the Gaon, out rabbi and teacher, the late Moshe
and the speech of Shalom, with teachings of the late Gaon, our rabbi and teacher, Chaim Halevi
(and the speech of Arie Yehuda, with teachings of the great rabbi, as our great rabbi and teacher, the late Meshulam and the speech of Menachem Mendel with teachings of the late Rabbi Gershon).

After the above regulations, there are listed in the register financial accounts and other organizational matters the following signatures by the honored people.

The speech of Shlomo Zalman
And the speech of Iscar that is named Baar
And the speech of Menachem Mendel
And the speech of Reb Moshe Dodesh
and the speech of Yitzhak Isaac.

Other summaries are signed by one of the greatest Kahana Safra from the holy community of Horodna, as well as:

The speech of Shimon Kahana Safra from the holy community of Horodna, and the speech of Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi from the holy community of Pinsk.

Finally, in section 904, it is stated: With regard to the claims and demands that the honored people from the holy community of Horodna had with the honored people of the holy community of Vilna, after hearing both parties, and according to old psak about Vilna community, which has already ruled that the border of their surroundings is up to 6 feet of their community, we rule as follows: The holy community of Vilna has no right in towns that are out of the 6 feet of their community, and everything outside their border belongs to the holy community of Horodna, except for Olkeniki. And also, every town within the 6 feet border that belonged to Horodna before, will remain under the Horodna community …We, the Meorot Gdolim, the Rabbanim and the Geonim of our state Lithuania, ruled this today, Tuesday, the third of Kislev, 5455. The rabbis and Geonim of our state of Lithuania, today, Tuesday, Kislev 5455 at the Council meeting held in Olkeniki.

The speech of Shaul from Brisk
and the speech of Yitzhak Meir from Pinsk
and the speech of young Hillel Halevi's from Vilna.
Copied letter by letter from the psak that was ruled by the great Rabbanim of our state Lithuania at the Council [meeting] that was held in Olkeniki.

The speech of Shimon, the son of the great teacher and rabbi, the late Israel Kahana Safra from Horodna and the speech of Shalom with things of our rabbi and teacher, the late Yitzchak Shemesh from Horodna.

If we add to all the above the fact that, according to sources, the meeting of the Council at Olkeniki lasted about two months, then it must be concluded that a large and established settlement sat in the town in the late 17th Century, because only a settlement with hostels and accommodations for the great Rabbanim and all the honored people and with the ability to provide an orderly food supply for two months could have served as a place for the prolonged session of the Lithuanian Jewish parliament.

 

The Nobles' War at Olkeniki in the late 17th Century

These are the wars of the mighty families of aristocrats in Lithuania, the Vyshnivacs, the Kocialis, the Oginskis, the Tizenhouses, the Petzis, the Potsis, the Radziwills - with the Sapiegas, who after the reign of the Petzis, took over Lithuania and made it their own, and in their conduct caused everyone to be against them.

When Kazimierz Sapiega, the Lithuanian Hetman (military ruler) and the Governor of the Vilna district (“the Voivode” [Polish: Wojewoda]”), accommodated his army in the properties of the Lithuanian bishops for the winter period, the Vilna bishop, Constantine Bzostovsky, arose and excommunicated him in 1694.

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The army which had not been paid for many days, conspired as a confederation. In 1700, the armies of the Hetman Sapiega killed in Vilna two members of the Vyshnivacs family. The Vyshnivacs instigated an uprising by the shliachta (the nobilities) against the Sapiegas.

The citizens of Lithuania's Demoj and Infant districts gathered around 20,000 people near Lipnishok in the Oshimany district, near Vilna, on the pretext that they intended to protect Lithuania's borders from the Swedes.

Under the command of the battalion's commander, Michael, an aristocrat of the Vyshnivacs, the forces of the nobility moved on the tenth of November, 1700, towards Olkeniki.

Meanwhile, around 9,000 Sapiega soldiers gathered in Vilna, mostly Italian mercenaries and Tatars, and advanced towards Liepine [Polish: Lejpuny; Lithuanian: Lieponys], which is 12 km northwest of Olkeniki, and set up a camp in Liepine. August II, King of Poland, intervened and sent a messenger, the Crown Secretary [Jan] Szembek, to mediate between the warring parties. But he was unable to bring them to an agreement. The bishop of Vilna Bejostowski also intervened, but the Sapiegas rejected his help. The excited shliachta moved from Olkeniki toward Liepine on November 18, 1700. The war began with cannon fire for several hours and infantry wars…(Herzovnitsi). From noon, there was a bloody battle on the left wing of the schliachta. After a few hours, the Vyshnivacs added a reserve force into the battle. The battalions of the Hetman began to retreat to Vilna. Michael Sapiega, together with 1500 riders, secured the retreat, but he was surrounded and taken captive. One thousand of his men died, several thousands were wounded. Michael Sapiega, the son of the Hetman, was brought to the gallows at Olkeniki on November 19, 1700. Bialozor, the priest of Vilna, incited the mob and in this way, the priest avenged the death of his brother who had been shot by an order of the Hetman. At the same time, the governor of Breslau district, near Vilna, and others, were taken to the gallows.

According to an agreement of the “Olkenikian Conference,” dated November 22, 1700, the nobility surrendered to the military rule of the Vyshnivacs. The army was bivouacked in winter quarters in localities with properties belonging to the Sapiegas. The Sapiegas were removed from their offices and their properties were [sold and the proceeds were first] used to pay for the damages of the victims of the war. The balance was handed over to the State Treasury.

(Copy from the General Polish Encyclopedia published by Ultima Tahanela 1937, translated in 1955).

 

The town in the 18th and 19th Centuries

As mentioned, a conference (“the Session”) of the Council of the State of Lithuania was held in Olkeniki near the end of the 17th Century. Since then, Olkeniki has had social and commercial ties to nearby Vilna. Therefore, all of the events and wars in the early 18th Century that affected the lives of Jews in the greater Vilna area have had an echo in the life of the town.

The rabbi of the Vilna district was also the rabbi of the town of Olkeniki. Apparently, there were judges in the town who only discussed and decided questions about commercial matters. I saw in the old register of the town, which was destroyed during the Holocaust, the signature of the district's rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor from 5541, 1781, who signed regulations. One noteworthy regulation required that anyone who sewed a new garment had to give a certain percentage of the garment's cost to a charity of the “Gmiluth Hesed” for the purpose of hiring teachers who would teach Torah to the poor children. The tailor was not allowed to deliver the garment to its owner if the owner did not pay the tax on the garment.

A few years earlier, in 1765, there were in Olkeniki and its environs 355 Jewish taxpayers to the government. (Jewish encyclopedia).

According to legend and tradition among the elders of the town, in these years HaGaon Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna [the Vilna Gaon] visited the town.

In 1795, in the third partition of Poland, Olkeniki was included in the territories of Russia.

In 1798 they began building the famous wooden synagogue, on the ruins of the old synagogue that preceded it.

The 19th Century brought many changes in the life of the town. At the beginning of the century the building of the synagogue was completed. A wave of settlers flooded the town, these were the people who had been living in the villages and had been expelled from them by the [czarist] authority.

In 1812, Napoleon (or some of his high army ministers) visited the town and the synagogue. The elders of the town kept in their memory stories they had heard from their parents, of the “French with the short-pants” sitting on the bank of the Mereczanka River and asking about the roads in the vicinity. They also pointed to a number of mounds of dirt in the pine forest which were supposedly the graves of Frenchmen who had frozen to death in the forest. It is possible that the mounds of dirt were graves from other wars that took place in the vicinity of the town.

At the beginning of the 19th Century HaKa'al) operated in the town as a social public institution. Those in power oppressed the people. The horror stories about the hostages and the Cantonists left a deep impression on the life of the town. Two persons that I knew from my childhood were left as living witnesses from that period. One of whom was “Ashel the kidnapper'” who served as a policeman in the “Ka'al”, the other was Ichela, also called “ochotnik,” , meaning someone who volunteered for military service in the place of a rich man. I heard all the written stories about that period from my old father, who himself was a poor boy who was oppressed by those in power. Stories from that period can be found below in “stories of the cultural pattern.”

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In the middle of the 19th Century (1848-50), three villages of Jewish farmers were established in the surroundings of the town: Dakshaniya-Salo [Polish: Deksznie] - 2.5 km from the town, Leiponi [Polish: Lejpuny] - 8 km from the town, Panshiski - 18 km from the town.

The settlers in the villages were Cantonists and others who came from the town of Martach, located on the Neman River, and from other places. They were associated with the town not only in marketing their produce, but also in family and society ties. The town rabbi answered their questions, “the minstrels” traveled to make them happy and escort their dead to the town's cemetery.

As mentioned, the settlement in the town grew at the beginning of this century. In 1847-49, there were 1153 Jews in the town, an increase of 350% in 85 years. In those years, 1850- 1860, the Vilna-Warsaw railway, which passed 8 kilometers west of Olkeniki, was built. The townspeople and nearby Jewish farmers worked on the railroad building. My grandfather would tell a great deal about the work on the railroad, which he called “Chahunka” (“chogun” = type of iron).

The Polish uprising against the Russian Tsar in 1863 was also joined by Jews from Olkeniki. Later in the century, in 1870, a workers' society was founded. Its members were workers and self-employed craftsmen who banded together to organize a communal social life (See below in “stories of the cultural pattern”).

 

Rabbinical controversy

About two years after the founding of the “workers' society,” in 1872, a dispute broke out between the leaders of the Ka'al and Rabbi Abba Yosef Ozer HaCohen Trivesh. In their search for an excuse against the educated rabbi, he was accused of eating treife [an unkosher food] while being at a party of Chevra Kadisha. The controversy shocked the world of rabbis in Lithuania and ended with the rabbi resigning and moving to Vilna. He was succeeded by Rabbi Yaakov ben Shmaryahu Levin, who sat on the rabbinical throne for about 60 years. In his old age, he immigrated to Eretz Israel [Land of Israel], died in Jerusalem, and was buried on the Mount of Olives at the age of 82, in 1927 (See below in “stories of the cultural pattern”).

 

Immigration to the United States

In the last quarter of the 19th Century, immigration to the United States began. It is possible to see from the population count that there was a decrease in the number of people, despite the natural growth, even though the Jews who lived in the nearby settlements and villages flowed into the town due to the pressure of the authority. In 1897, there were 1126 Jews in the town among 2619 inhabitants, meaning that for 50 years, from 1847 to 1897, the Jewish settlement did not increase, but decreased by 27 persons.

 

Self-defense

In the years 1904-1905, the years of the Russo-Japanese War, uprisings in Russia, and pogroms, there were already in the town young people who had learned to use hot and cold weapons. Outside of the city, in the woods and in our house that was in the area of the abandoned factory, they would gather on Saturdays to prepare them for battle. In addition to pistols, the members of the defense had “kanchiks,” that is, whips which consisted of wooden handles to which were attached iron springs, with a block of lead at the end. In those years and in those youth circles, a band for amateur plays was organized. Among the plays they performed in the years 1904-5 were “David and Goliath” and “The Sale of Joseph” (see below in “stories of the cultural pattern”).

 

The increase in immigration

The shocks that Russian Jewry went through and immigration to overseas countries left their mark on the town. When the youth reached the age of enlistment, every good fellow and also married people with families, left their families and emigrated to the United States. There was no single family from the entire town, from all classes, poor and affluent, who did not send its sons and daughters to the United States in illegal ways. There were special agents in the town who knew all the illegal ways to cross the border to Eydtkuhnen [then in East Prussia, today, Chernyshevskoye in the Kaliningrad Oblast] from Verzhbelova [Wirballen, Virbalis, then in the Kovno Gubernya of the Russian Empire, today in Lithuania] , on the border between Russia and German Prussia. The names of the cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the terms “peddler,” “countryside,” and “island of tears” were common among the townspeople. A kind of special office was set up in the town to write addresses and to decipher the strange Latin names of the streets and boulevards in the overseas cities. Even the Lithuanians farmers of the area paid in mother's worth for the help given to them in writing letters and addresses and sending them to overseas countries. The song “Avrivele der Mamenzalsto nit parzamen” (don't be late in sending a letter to your mother) was sung in the town with the same devotion as the other folk songs from that period.

Later on, various family pictures of immigrants to the United States began to appear on the walls, next to the yellowing pictures of the family ancestors, the picture of the Vilna pious Deborah-Esther, the Vilna Gaon, and various “Orientals.” The look on their faces and their clothes indicated that they were affluent. Their mothers knew that it was at the cost of destroying permanent customs of life that had passed from generation to generation, the religious heritage that not everyone preserved, and that families were torn apart forever, but the decree of life overcame the hesitations, and sometimes old parents emigrated and joined their families overseas.


 

Editor's Footnotes:
  1. The town's name may be related to the Lithuanian term “valakininkas,” which means a person who owns a parcel of land. In the 16th Century, a strict, three-field system of crop rotation was introduced in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Under this “Volok Reform,” (a) land was divided into “voloks,” lots about 21.38 hectares (52.8 acres) in size; and (b) each volok was divided into three strips, each of which was worked according to a plan of crop rotation. The plural of valakininkas is valakininkai, which may be the actual source of the town's name. Return
  2. Simon Dubnow (Russian: Семён мáркович Дýбнов, Yiddish: שמעון דובנאָוו) (1860 – 1941) was a renowned Jewish historian and a co-founder of YIVO Institute of Jewish Research. Among his works is History of the Jews in Russia and Poland. From the earliest times until the present day (1916). Return
  3. In 1569, pursuant to the Union of Lublin, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were combined into a single state, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. Soon after, the new state officially recognized a council as the central body of Jewish communities in the state's territory. The council is generally referred to as the Council of the Four Lands. In 1623, the Jewish communities in Lithuania withdrew and formed their own council, which is generally referred to as the Council of the Land of Lithuania (“Va'ad Medinas Lita” / ליטא מדינת ועד). Return

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The town and its daughters

by S. P-R

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Erica S. Goldman-Brodie

Until 1840, Olkeniki existed as a government estate (Majontek Olkieniki) on an area of 37,403 Dessiatin (37,403 Dessiatin = approximately 400,000 dunams). The estate included the town of Olkeniki, 6 farms which were: Olkeniki, Nonishki, Pushkarnia, Yakintsi, Panashishok, and Lejpuny, 41 villages (Wioski), and 5 cooperative farms (Zascianki).

In 1840, a committee operated in the town and the surrounding area on behalf of the Russian government, which made a parcellation of the estate. The Government Parcellation Committee has divided the estate into four plots: Olkeniki, Nonishki, Pushkarnia, Panashishok.

 

The Jewish Village of Lejpuny
(Lieponys, Lithuania)

54°27' 24°45'

 

The synagogue in Lejpuny in 1930

 

The Christian farm of Lejpuny was included in the Panashishok plot. The farmers of the farm were very poor and worked according to the slave laws - enslaving the farmers to the owners of the estate.

In 1848 the government decided to give the Jews plots of land on the Olkeniki estate. In 1851, the Jewish village of Lejpuny was founded. In that year there were 67 men in the village, 56 women, among them were also 2 Christian families. The first settlers - 8 families - came from the town of Meretch, located on the estuary of the Marchenka River to Neman River.

In 1863, a Jewish community (Gamina) was created by the “farmers of Dekshna”, which also included the villages of Lejpuny and Panashishok. The community lasted until 1880.

The soils were very poor and grew mostly buckwheat. The farmers' food was meager. Black bread and potatoes comprised the food basket. Meat was eaten only in the winter season. Hot drinks were not at all customary in the village.

In the years 1850-60, the Vilna-Warsaw railway was built near the Jewish village. Near the village flowed a narrow river - The Shpangala River.

The Jews complained to the authority that the land was not enough to support them, but they received no response. At the end of the 19th century, some of the settlers migrated to America.

It was only in 1900 that JCA (Jewish Colonization Association) became interested in the Jewish colonies, and Lejpuny also entered its operational area. In 1899, there were 25 families in the village, 134 persons. After the First World War, in which most of the village was destroyed, a few families did not return to the village and Christians settled in their place. Poverty became apparent in the village. The number of houses did not increase. The young people did not see their future in the village and tried to emigrate. There was no medic in the village. Only a public bathhouse was there. The shochet (slaughterer), who was also the mohel, provided the religious needs. In the village there was a small Beit Midrash. In the absence of a cemetery, their dead were buried in Olkeniki. The Jews of the village were taken to the massacre, together with the Jews of Olkeniki, to Eishyshok.

(According to the research of Agr. A. Bubitzky and other sources).

 

The plan for the Jewish village of Lejpuny at its establishment
- on the left, the eight houses of the settlers
(424 Dessiatin - about 4,600 dunams)

[Page 20]

Dekshna Selo
(Degsnės, Lithuania)

54°22' 24°48'

The village of Dekshna (Selo) was located about 2.5 km west of the town. This village was also founded in the middle of the 19th century, in the days of Tsar Nicholas I. Since the sandy soil was not sufficient to sustain its inhabitants, the government added to the settlers plots of land that were about six kilometers away, in irrigated areas, “pirches” and other places.

In 1900, as mentioned, Dekshna also entered the operational area of JCA. The condition of the farmers was improved. They planted fruit tree gardens, started raising bees and cared for the animals. In addition to agriculture, the farmers found a unique livelihood. The village became famous throughout Russia due to being far from the transport routes and the hustle and bustle of the city, therefore it served as a place of rest and healing for mentally ill, incurable men and women.

In the village there was a synagogue and a shochet who also served as a melamed(teacher). Sometimes the farmers would invite a modern teacher to their children. When the village was established, the farmers sent their children to study in a school outside their village in Vilna and in yeshivot. From this village, too, the young people immigrated to America, and with the immigration of the pioneers in the 1930s, some of the young people immigrated to Eretz Israel. The number of families in the village in the 1930s reached 40, which included about 200 people. The village was connected in its public and cultural life to the town. The rabbi would answer their questions. The youth would come to the amateur band shows. Every Friday the farmers would come in their carts to the bathhouse. On Saturdays and holidays, Olkeniki's youths traveled to Dekshna- the nearby Jewish village.

At the beginning of the last war, when the Soviets occupied Lithuania, the Lithuanian village of Pushkarnia, that was located about 2 kilometers from Dekshna, burned down. The Jews welcomed the neighbors, the burning farmers, into their homes and shared their food with them. When the town of Olkeniki was burned, some of its inhabitants came to the village of Dekshna to live, until it would be safe to return.

When the Nazis came, the Lithuanians took over the houses of the Jews, expelled them from their village and led them to Eishyshok for extermination.

 

Panashishok
(Panošiškes, Lithuania)

54°31' 24°44'

As mentioned, the Panashishok farm belonged, until 1840, to the Olkeniki government estate. On this farm, too, poor farmers, enslaved to the landowners, lived and worked. In the middle of the 19th century, about 20 Jewish families settled on the land, which the Russian government set aside for them after the parcellation. The village was about 17 kilometers from the town. It was located in a charming landscape, surrounded by forests, water lakes and natural fish ponds. In the winter season, the farmers were unemployed because they had no further engagement.

The village had a Beit midrash, a shochet and a “ba'al tefilla”(a prayer leader). In the last years before the First World War, Mordechai Snitko was the prayer leader. About 70 years ago, among the farmers of the village, there was my grandfather, Reb Shlomo Shcherbak, the Rebbe of the children. The village houses were small, their roofs covered with straw, like the farmers' houses. The remote village did not develop or grow. The plots of the Jews were sold to Christians and the young people migrated to America. After the first war, the village remained on the Lithuanian border and since then the village's ties with the town of Olkeniki have been severed.

 

Youth from the town and its surrounding

 

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