Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities
in Poland, Volume VIII


53°24' / 23°46'

Translation of “Odelsk” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Polin

Published by Yad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem



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This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland,
Volume VIII Districts Vilna, Bialystok, Nowogrodek. Editor Shmuel Spector, co-editor Bracha Freundlich,
pages 93-94. Published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2005

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[Pages 93-94]


Translated by Irwin Keller


Odelsk, a town on the river Odla, was established in the first half of the 16th Century at the initiative of Queen Buna. Its residents supported themselves by farming – fruit orchards in particular – and from various crafts. Odelsk was absorbed into the Russian Empire with the first partition of Poland in 1772. In 1800 there were 172 houses in Odelsk, and in the 1880s there were 274 houses and 1,346 residents. Construction in the village was of wood. At the end of the 19th Century, Odelsk was joined to the Grodno-Wolkovisk railway, and from that point commerce and industry developed in the town. With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the Red Army entered Odelsk and Soviet rule was established. In June 1941, Odelsk fell to the Germans and three years later, in the summer of 1944, Odelsk was liberated by the Soviet Army.

Jewish settlement in Odelsk began at the end of the 17th Century. The majority of Odelsk's Jews supported themselves through light commerce and peddling, although a small portion of them leased and cultivated orchards. In the years 1772-1793, when full territories in the west of Poland were annexed into Prussia in the course of the partitions of Poland, poor Jewish refugees settled in Odelsk, who had been considered by the Prussian authorities to be “Jewish beggars” – Betteljuden – and who had been banished from their homes. The community of Odelsk absorbed these refugees and aided them, despite the fact that the longstanding local Jews were also living in poverty and distress. In 1849, 26 poor Jewish families from Odelsk responded to the offer of the Russian authorities to establish an agricultural settlement on state land, and they established the Jewish settlement Kolonia Izaaka (see elsewhere) at a distance of 1.5 kilometers from Odelsk.

The Jewish community, like the town in general, remained small and impoverished for many years. Only toward the end of the 19th Century, after the laying of the railroad, was there an awakening of trade with villages in eastern Bielorussia. Jews also established new workshops in Odelsk. Within a decade, the number of Jews in Odelsk grew approximately 150% (from 98 in 1886 to 234 in 1897) and their representation in the general population grew to 16%. The eve of World War I saw an exodus of Odelsk Jews to America and South Africa, causing the numbers in Odelsk to drop again.

A Jewish congregation arose in Odelsk around the middle of the 18th Century, and in the second half of the century the first wooden synagogue was dedicated – one of the most impressive buildings in the town and the surrounding area. For over one hundred years the congregation did not employ its own rabbi and was beholden to rabbis from nearby communities. In 1887 Odelsk's presiding rabbi was Rabbi Isaac Leyb Stolyar, who moved in 1892 to Ku´znica (see elsewhere). His successor was Rabbi Moshe Hurvitz (the RaMa”H), a Zionist, gifted preacher, and later the author of Drashot HaRaMa”H (Vilna 1910), Hezyonot HaRaMa”H (Vilna 1913), and Hegyonot HaRaMa”H (Warsaw 1930). In 1907 he moved to Ligów in the Kovno region, and from there to Roslavl in the Smolensk district. In 1934 he emigrated to the United States, composed two additional books, and died in 1946. Beginning in 1908, Rabbi Leyb bar Avraham Tzvi Segel presided in Odelsk.

In the period between the World Wars, around 100 Jewish families lived in Odelsk. As before and after, the Jews survived on light commerce and craftsmanship, and a small number of them cultivated orchards. The local economy was static and other towns dominated the local market. The settlers of Kolonia Izaaka, for example, preferred to sell their produce and make their purchases in larger towns. In the region, Odelsk was considered an example of backwardness, as one can hear from the widespread saying among Jews then: “a mess like in Odelsk.”

After World War I, the community of Odelsk had a synagogue and a beys-midrash, and a modern cheder was opened. The Hebrew teacher, David Grinitzky, who was one of the leaders of the Zionist youth movement in the area, had a deep influence on the students. Families who were unable to pay the tuition for the cheder sent their children to the public school. In the 1920s and 1930s there was Zionist activity in Odelsk, and several young people made aliyah to Eretz-Israel.

In the days of Soviet rule, from September 1939 to June 1941, the Jews of Odelsk adapted to changes in the foundations of their economy and in all other circumstances of their lives, but with the Nazi invasion into Odelsk, they became subject to the same persecutions that befell their brethren in other places. In November 1942 the Jews of Odelsk were deported to the transit camp at Kielbasin (see Grodno, elsewhere), along with the Jews of Sokółka, Suchowola, Krynki (see those entries) and the rest of the towns of the region. The habitations in the camp were trenches of dank dust (“zaymlnakos”) dug by Russian prisoners, the previous inhabitants of the camp. In each ditch there lived hundreds of Jews according to their town of origin – men, women and children crowded together in the cold and the mud, lacking even basic sanitation. There was virtually no food, and access to water faucets was prohibited in most cases. Many became sick and died, or were murdered by the camp guards or the cruel camp commandant Karl Rinzler. After approximately two weeks in Kielbasin the Jews of Odelsk were deported together with the Jews of Kolonia Izaaka to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.


Sefer Sokolka, Jerusalem 1968, pp. 53-54, 86, 583.
Piechotkowie, Bó´znice drewniane, p. 2204.
Salit, S. Kolonja Izaaka, Warsaw 1934, pp. 41, 89, 100, 101.
Leszczy´nski, “Struktura spokeczna ludno´sci zydowskiej miast i miasteczek dawnego obwodu bialostockiego w latach 1864-1914”, BZIH nos. 3-4 (131-132), Warsaw 1984, pp. 50, 51, 69.

Encyclopedia entry by Rachel Grossbaum-Pasternak.

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