by Esther Mazur
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
It was 1914 the First World War. Suddenly the town constable drove in and told the entire town what was happening in the world, that war with Germany was about to break out, that everyone had to be ready to defend the Fatherland and the father of Russia, Tsar Nikolai. We listened to his speech very attentively, and it was easy to tell what every Jew was thinking to himself.
A couple of days later Avreml the staroste [elder; town leader] arrived and declared a mobilization because fighting had already started. He gave out written orders to report for duty at the military offices in Vladimirets. A great panic ensued. Fear engulfed the entire town. There was crying and screaming. War is a serious matter. Fathers are taken from children, children from their parents, and God knows if they will ever see each other again. The fighting was flaring up. The town was 9 kilometers from the Styr River, which served as a border. On one side was the Russian army, on the other the German army. Soldiers marched through town, some with red stripes on their pants, some wearing black capes. Mother told us: those are Cossacks, those are CIrcassians. Soldiers were quartered in our little houses. In sum, all hell broke loose. One minute, the Russians were pursuing the Germans; the next, it was the other way around. The town
was full of homeless people, mostly Jewish refugees who had fled the front line, the areas of fighting. Days, weeks and months of trouble passed. We got a bit used to this unsettled life. Every person sought a way to make a living. They made bootleg whiskey. They baked rolls and sold them to the soldiers marching through.
Finally, we heard about an upheaval in Russian. Tsarism had fallen; a new regime and new ways had been instituted. We heard new names like [Symon] Petlura [head of Ukrainian People's Republic during Russian Civil War] and [Alexander] Kerensky [key figure in Russian Revolution]. Conditions grew worse from day to day because the victims of all these changes were the Jews. We heard about horrendous events, murder and destruction of Torah scrolls. It seemed like the end of the world.
Yankev Tsuker called a meeting of the townspeople to discuss what to do. They elected Yankev as chairman of a self-defense organization which consisted of dozens of young people, boys and girls. They decided that they had to have weapons and soon the boys were walking around with small carbine rifles. Motl Lisak played a large role in this; he was a brave fellow who encouraged the young people. The group kept their guns hidden, because they were afraid of provocateurs.
Days passed and there were constant stories about one terrible event after another. A group of girls gathered in our house every evening. They took my sister Khaye Dvosie away with them to sleep in the woods because they had heard that women, mostly girls, were being violated. I ran after them. My mother gave us food and a couple of quilts for sleeping. We came back from the woods quite early, ate some breakfast, then took the cows into the woods for the day, because we had heard that cows were being stolen and slaughtered.
One day my mother and I were returning from the field where we had been digging potatoes and saw people running to Shmaye's house on our side street. Frightened, we ran with them. Inside we saw Reb Shmaye sitting there with half a beard; the other half had been torn off with the skin from his face. Blood was running and the entire household was crying. We learned that this was the work of Petlura's band, who brutally attacked and robbed Jews. With great effort the family managed to bribe the leader and they left. Everyone was pleased that that was all that had happened.
The next day, Friday morning, my father and mother were making whiskey on
the primus stove when Dvore Geyer ran in yelling: Put away the stove; the Petluras are coming! In a big rush, they took the primus and hid it in the stable. People ran to warn others. My brother went to the self defense group to alert them that help might be needed.
I was left alone in the house. Suddenly the door opened and four men in military clothing entered. They searched everywhere, taking what they liked. Frightened, I looked on and said nothing, but when they pocketed my brooch with the green stone that my brother Mikhal had brought me, I burst into tears. One of them ran to me, wanting to hit me, but another didn't let him and they left.
My brother came in and hugged and calmed me. He took his gun and began to clean it. Suddenly the gun went off and hit him in the face. He began to bleed, I yelled, people came running. They washed and bandaged his face and things quieted down. People were relieved that the incident had ended like this.
Mother told us to clean and tidy the house in honor of the Sabbath. She began preparing kugel and cholent, so we could have a Sabbath as God wished it. The town grew quiet. Everyone was getting ready for the Sabbath. Quite early we heard heavy shooting. People began to run aimlessly. Motl Lisak arrived and shouted to my brother Mikhal to call out the members of the self-defense organization. To the rest of us, he yelled, Run into the woods; don't stand there.
Everyone ran. My brother Zakharie remained in the house, sitting at his religious books and studying. He said you can't hide from death. We ran into the Liska woods, which was filled with people. Reb Gershon Zhuk had brought a large pot of chicory [used as ersatz coffee] and some cups. He called over the children, poured out the chicory, and told them Enjoy yourselves, children. In a couple of hours, it became quiet. We all returned home, frightened and exhausted. We locked ourselves in and asked God for peace. In the street, only the self defense organization stood watch.
The Bolsheviks Take Power
Days and weeks passed in fear and suffering. Suddenly there was rejoicing. Everyone put a red bow on their blouses. What had happened? It was another revolution; the Bolsheviks were in power. Things will soon be good, they won't beat up the Jews anymore. In the meantime, Jews began doing business; after all, you had to make a living. Mikhal and Zakharie Drakh took a big risk and obtained a wagon filled with straw. They took a couple of sacks of salt, not easy to get, and drove over the border to the villages on the other side of the Styr. They sold the salt in the villages and returned to town with grain and agricultural products hidden in the wagon. They sold them in the town cheaply, so that people wouldn't starve. They distributed a lot of food free to the needy. Their mother encouraged them: For these good deeds, she said, God will help you and you will be successful.
Time passed. War was waged between the Bolsheviks and the Poles. The town was overrun with the Red Army. One of the commissars called in Motl Lisak, the leader of the self-defense organization, and told him that they should dig trenches near the houses because there was going to be a big battle and all the residents must hide in trenches. A few days later, Tuesday morning, there was tremendous shooting. Not everyone managed to get to the trenches. We lay down on the floor, bullets whistling over us. Suddenly the door opened and our Christian neighbor Aleksandra, a young girl, came in, ran to the oven, opened it and crawled in. We started laughing. But she stayed there until things quieted down.
When all was quiet, we went outside and heard crying and shouting. My brothers ran to see what had happened. They found out that during the battle, Yudl Shostak had poked his head out the window and a soldier had run up and cut off his head with a sword.
Again, the town went through great troubles, sometimes at the hands of the Bolsheviks, sometimes the Poles. Each side pursued the other and innocent people suffered. One night, a group of Red Army soldiers cut away from their regiment and decided to have some fun with the Jews. At midnight,
there were cries for help. The voices came from Reb Sholem Melamed's house. Reb Yoysef Drakh, hearing his neighbor's cries, went to the door to see. As he was opening the door, soldiers ran up and tried to break into the house. His wife, Pesie, snatched up an axe, ran to the door, and smacked at the barrel of the gun that they had pushed through the door so that it couldn't be closed. She managed to close the door.
The two littlest girls, Dvorye Gitl and Esther, jumped out the window onto the street and ran to alert the self-defense group. There was heavy shooting and the children fell to the ground. The robbers thought that the children were dead, so they let them be and shot into the house. They pulled at the door but couldn't open it. In the meantime three more of the people from Sholem's house came out and said, Come away, it's late, they'll find out we're missing and it will be bad. And they left.
Then Mikhal Drakh ran out, called for help and people ran over en masse. Reb Sholem was slightly injured, his son-in-law Shloyme seriously so. They later recovered two bullets from his body. Khaye Dvosie Drakh was slightly injured in the head. They bandaged the wounded and were glad no one was killed. Reb Shloyme told how they entered the house and demanded money, but no matter how much money they gave them, the robbers demanded more and began shooting, disregarding their crying and protests that they had no money. They took what there was in the house and left.
After this event the self defense group posted their members at both ends of the town to keep watch all night. Boys and girls sat outside, not far from the houses, made a fire and watched for an attack. Reb Itsik Meyer Zhuk would come over and beg them to guard his house across the road, so it wouldn't be set on fire.
The self defense group consisted of: the Drakh brothers; Garbatsh; Videl Guz; Geyer Guz; Shostak; Lisak; Faynshteyn; Lin and others. One day a [Soviet] commissar came and told them that people should hide their household possessions and take their cows to Zoludzk because the Red Army was temporarily retreating. They followed the advice. In Zoludzk Lev Trotsky gave a speech in the open air, saying that they were retreating temporarily but would return and that your life which is now hellish, we will turn into a paradise. Our struggle is a just one, we fight for truth and justice, for freedom and
brotherhood. Regrettably, Trotsky did not return. The Bolsheviks were pushed out by the Poles. (They turned up again, in 1939, without Trotsky.)
But in 1920 the Red Army had to retreat. An intense battle took place not far from our town, with many deaths on both sides, and we paid the price for that. The Poles suspected that the Bolsheviks were shooting from Jewish houses and set fire to the entire town. People ran from their houses with little children in their arms. They weren't even able to save their bedding. The houses with their straw roofs were quickly in flames. A big red flame surrounded the town, a black smoke made everything dark and when dawn came you could hear the crackling of trees, and smell the baked fruit on them. It was heart breaking to see the trees, which moments earlier had stood with their fruit, so proudly raising their heads, now fallen to the earth. I couldn't take my eyes away from the trees that had grown in the garden of Pesakh Dov trees with pink and red flowers from which we would make preserves to use as a remedy when we were sick. Often, the women while making the preserves would say, Hopefully we won't need these. Now the trees were burning, along with the rose bushes. You could hear the screeching of birds flying in circles over the burning trees. My childish mind understood that the birds were making so much noise because it was their nests that were burning, along with their not yet developed children.
People ran to the woods on the side of the houses. There they lay down and cried. Suddenly a naked woman ran past, wrapped in a sheet, shouting: People, run away, they're killing people, there's no one left alive! I recognized Tsevie Kandel. She was sick with typhus and had a high fever; she had gotten out of bed and was running away. Finally she fell down and people came to her aid.
A typhus epidemic was raging in town. Most of the dead were children. A horrible grief afflicted everyone. The houses had been burnt, the town was in ruins. From the grain fields you could hear cries for help; that meant that soldiers were pursuing women to violate them. And the Jewish women, modest, God-fearing fought for their honor. When night fell,
everything quieted down. People lay under the open sky and looked at the dying fire, which was barely glowing.
The day after the fire, they organized a committee of several people, headed by Yankev Diker, to help the homeless Jews. In Reb Yankev's house they set up a soup kitchen and cooked meals for the needy three times a day. The surrounding towns helped by providing food.
Soon food and clothing arrived from America. They used the food for the soup kitchen and distributed the clothing to the needy. Every day two people from a different house were assigned to be present at the cooking and distribution of food so that Reb Yankev would be free of suspicion. Reb Yankev and his wife Gitl worked hard at cleaning the house and the cooking kettles, but he considered this a great mitsve.
Motl Lisak, the head of the self defense organization, helped with guarding the town to make sure no gangs would get into Jewish homes especially when dozens of families were out on the street, riveted to their burnt houses.
Under Polish Rule
Gradually people got used to the new regime of the Poles. Motl Lisak became the soltis (head of the town). He took care of all essential matters. People returned to rebuilding their homes and cultivating their fields. They made a living. Life slowly normalized. They restored schooling for the children. They also established a Polish school, where Polish was taught, at first in the village Liske, and later also in Olizarka. The parents weren't very eager to send their children to the Polish school but had no choice; it was required by law. Evening classes in Polish for adults were also established. Commerce was revivified despite the fact that taxes were very high. Jews began to make a living and prayed for peace in the world.
On the surface things appeared to be fine, but every Jew, and especially the young people carried in their hearts a feeling of hatred toward the government and a fear because of the
increased activity of anti-Semitic forces. Young people began to organize against these forces. First, a group of more than 20 young men who were supposed to serve in the army fled illegally to Argentina to avoid military service. Second, the Zionist movement began to grow. People began to see that Eretz Yisroel was the best place for Jews. Third, several community activists took up the Communist cause and tried to convince people that they could build a paradise where love, freedom and brotherhood would reign. In sum, they organized political parties with ideologies. It became very lively in town.
Zelig Lesnik headed the Zionist movement in Olizarka. He was devoted body and soul to the work. He created a committee for the Jewish National Fund and the United Israel Appeal. They brought in collection tins and hung them on the wall of every Jewish home. Every month two people would empty the tins. They also distributed free literature; they travelled to Warsaw and returned with many books in Yiddish because the majority read Yiddish. They created a library that charged a small monthly fee, distributed books to Jews who requested them, called meetings for young people, talked and agitated for Zionism. Eliezer Shostak from Vladimirets came to help.
The leftists were also very active. Berl Kizho from Vladimirets and Rokhl Graber from Rafalowka came to town and founded an organization for Hashomer Hatsair [Young Guard]. Esther Drakh led the group. A Communist group was also created, headed by Meyer and Zalman Lisak. They established a small library with books by more leftist writers. They also brought in illegal literature; they met more frequently, Communists and Zionists together. They read, criticized, quarreled with all their might. Each side wanted to convince the other. They subscribed to two newspapers from Warsaw, Moment and Haynt [Today.] Olizarka had never had such a thing. Every evening people got together and read. The young people had opened their eyes and seen that one could still learn a lot by reading. They could still go to school in Olizarka, but it was impossible to travel to study further. But they wanted to develop their consciousness by reading. It reached such a level that any young person who wasn't involved in reading was considered
backward and was labeled a petit bourgeois and such a person was embarrassed to appear socially.
At first the parents were not opposed to the gatherings where the young people read and socialized. On the contrary; they were actually glad that their children were progressing, developing, that their knowledge was increasing. They didn't know that a lot of these activities were illegal. The police would come to the town only once in a long while, when they would be called in because there had been a fight among Christians or a theft. They called the town Little Russia because it was truly free, no one was afraid. They would often hold readings, box evenings, where they would discuss various questions drawn randomly from a box, about both Zionism and Communism, and no one was afraid.
But times changed. People began to understand what was going on, that many aspects of this activity were against the government. And there were some who told the police. And then there was serious trouble. Every evening, the police passed under the windows, watching, eavesdropping. The parents got scared and stopped their children from going to the Leftist events. So what could they do?
There was no lack of forests. In any case, in summer, strolling and socializing took place in the woods. On Sabbath and holidays, as soon as lunch was over, people went to the woods, which were quite close and aromatic with the smell of pine trees, the big oaks, the beautiful flowers of many colors, including the most beautiful, forget-me-nots. And also, the chirping of the birds. In the morning and the evening the woods were full of people, especially couples in love. So in summer, young people could make use of the woods for their gatherings legal and illegal sing, socialize, conduct a romance. In summer the police could do nothing; they couldn't determine who were the Communists. But the young people themselves took pains to avoid raising the suspicions of the police because they knew that in the end, nothing good would come of it.
Moreover, the young people wanted to achieve some goal in life. Thus, many of them joined Zionist organizations with the goal of going to live in a [training] kibbutz. Moyshe Faynshteyn came to help his brother-in-law Zelig in this work,
which was very active. Many young people went to a kibbutz or to hakhshore [Zionist training camp] in preparation for making aliyah to Eretz Yisroel.
But not all of them succeeded. For example, Leybl Sokal died at the Bendiner hakhshore a few days before he was to make aliyah. This was a great tragedy. Lipse Aronzon was drafted into the Polish army on the day before he was to leave [for Eretz Yisroel] and died in the war with the Germans in 1939. Borekh Lin had only a short time left before he was to make aliyah but he got caught up by the war and died in the Tarnopol kibbutz. Those who did succeed were Khaim Shostak, Pesye Brat and others who now live in Israel.
When Zelig Lesnik got married and left Olizarka his brother-in-law Moyshe Faynshteyn was left without help. The majority of the Zionist pioneers had gone to the kibbutz. Esther Drakh moved further to the left and in addition her health didn't allow her to work in the movement. The Communists took advantage of the situation and were able to organize almost all of the young people in town, including Moyshe Faynshteyn. The work proceeded rapidly. The avant garde Meyer Lesnik, Zalman Lisak, Khaye Diker did exceptional work but in the end there were arrests.
At that point Zalman fled to the Soviet Union, sneaking across the border. He arrived with the highest recommendations from the Party and hoped to be received with great respect and to continue to work for the good of humanity. But the opposite occurred. In the Soviet Union they suspected the Polish Communists of Trotskism and thus Zelig was killed in 1937 along with dozens of other innocent victims.
Meyer and Khane Diker were arrested in Poland and sentenced to 6 years in prison. There were thus fewer young people in the Communist groups and their activity diminished. Those who remained, like Hershl, Teme, Moyshe and Esther would often meet at Esther's house or on the street near the house, where there was a big bench near the window. There was also a lovely rowan tree, like a flower, with beautiful blue and white blossoms that bloomed in spring and perfumed the entire street with its spicy aroma. In summer the red rowan berries would be scattered on bench and looked like a red flower. They were good to eat. Zakharie had planted the tree.
After his death, the tree continued to green and blossom as if it carrying on into the future the life of the man who had planted it. And next to this tree sat the remaining leftist youth, speaking, reading, criticizing and regretting their unachieved goals, but courageously waiting and hoping for better days.
Suddenly, one night in 1938, the police came, surrounded almost all the houses in Olizarka and arrested all the young people they found, even those who had no idea what Communism meant. They took everyone to the secret police in Sarne, who tortured them brutally, so that they would denounce others as Communists. The majority resisted the torture and didn't squeal. But some gave in because it was impossible to tolerate the blows and pain. Then there was a trial, which ended in sentences of a couple of years for each person. But they served time only until 1939 when the war broke out between Poland and Germany, and the prisons were opened and everyone was freed. With difficulty they got away from the Germans and arrived home, which was already under the Soviets.
The Soviets are Here
A great event, a joyous occasion in town. The freed youth have rejoined their families and in addition they have been liberated from the yoke of capitalism. Parents rejoiced along with their children. Friends, boys and girls, shook hands, kissed, congratulated each other. It was no small thing freedom in the fullest sense of the word.
But after great joy, came great trouble. Not so much for the young people, but for the older ones. The young people gradually found work at various jobs. They adapted to the new order. But older people who were used to doing business were suddenly left without a source of income and things were bad for them. Also, the economy, which had been relatively good in Poland, had suddenly greatly worsened. There began to be food shortages, which evoked dissatisfaction among the older generation.
Then there was the problem of religious life. In a small town like Olizarka religion played
the central role. And now, a catastrophe --boys and girls got married in the town hall [not in a religious ceremony] . Brises were conducted in secret, a true upheaval. If a Jew owned a mill it would be nationalized. You couldn't own more than one house. If you did business, you went to prison. The shops that had been filled with goods of all kinds turned into empty cooperatives. It happened so quickly. If a business held a liquidation sale, a crowd of Soviets would show up, snatching everything up without regard to cost. When you asked them why they bought so eagerly, they answered: It's just that we want to bring home Polish goods. We have more goods [in the Soviet Union] than you do. But now you have the goods and we have nothing, said someone to the Soviet citizen.
We had never thought that we would drink tea without sugar, that we would have to stand in line to buy a meter of fabric or a pair of shoes, as if a giant fire had burned up everything. But as they say, you can get used to trouble. So we gradually got used to such a life. After all, it wasn't necessary to live in luxury. Everyone still had a bit of food stored in reserve.
In addition, the young people were earning money and it was possible to survive. Every Jew in Olizarka had made peace with the situation. What could you do? The Soviets weren't anti-Semites. They didn't yell, Jews go to Palestine like the Poles did. They didn't force students out of the university, as used to happen to Jewish students who would come to Olizarka to become teachers because they had no other choice.
Under the Soviets education was free. Whoever had the ability and the will went to study, if not at the university, at least at a middle level school. Many took courses to qualify for work. The Soviets recognized that people with little education still have skills and they helped those people to progress. It often happened that a cobbler became a director. This would have all been good, but then there came the great catastrophe, the conflagration that swept the world, including Olizarka.
June 22, 1941
June 22, 1941 a cursed day. A dark cloud covered bright sunlight. Black clouds, one after the other. Mobilization children taken from worried parents, husbands from wives. Khane Sore accompanied her two sons, Hershele and Pinyele; they wouldn't come back. Khenie Lisak walked with her husband Motye, and wass left alone with two little children. Weeping and shouting resounded in the street.
The boys left home filled with hope, not knowing that this was their final journey, that their families would never see them again. Even those who returned would find their families gone.
Terrible days followed. The Germans advanced. The battlefront came closer. The Soviets began to retreat. Airplanes soared overhead, dropping bombs. Panic broke out. There was no radio in town, no newspaper. The only news came from Rafalowka and every piece of news was sadder than the last. People were confused, didn't know what to do, to flee or to stay? Many of the young people fled with the Soviets; the majority stayed. It didn't take long before the good Christians showed what they were capable of.
They came with sacks and looted Jewish property, beat people up, violated the prettiest girls in town. The cries and screaming pierced the heavens but apparently don't reach God. Girls ran to throw themselves into wells, preferring death to rape by Christian hooligans Mothers ran after them, pleaded with them not to give up their lives. Young Jews fought with the young Christians but they were outnumbered. The town was small and most young people had left, while the Christian villages were full and now had free rein.
No more Jews in Olizarka
The terrible days went on and on, each worse than the last. Finally, the Germans arrived, and declared that the small towns must be liquidated and the Jews concentrated in the center, i.e. in new Rafalowka. There began the evacuation of the quiet
little towns like Olizarka, Old Rafalowka, and Zoludzk. People couldn't bear to leave their cherished homes and fields and woods, which had been passed on for generations. It broke their hearts to leave behind property obtained with such hard work. Every flower and every blade of grass was precious. They said goodbye to their houses, their blossoming trees, their orchards and gardens. They cried out: To whom are we leaving all of this? To our bitterest enemies! But in their hearts there still lived a spark of hope that they would return. They didn't know that they were going to the ghetto and would never emerge alive.
How tragic it was when pious Jews ran to say farewell to their synagogue, that dear holy place where they had prayed and served God. People secretly took Torah scrolls and holy books but had no place to put them; they didn't even have a place to sleep. They were leaving their homes forever. The Jewish houses remained orphaned, with their white-covered tables upon which brass candlesticks held the Sabbath candles. The synagogue was silent; no one was left to pray there. Everything was shrouded in a black veil, everything mourned for the dear Jews. Even the birds behaved differently. A lonely cat wandered around seeking her mistress.
There were no more Jews in Olizarka! They had been replaced by bandits, robbers whose hands were red with Jewish blood, these innocent people who smiled at everyone, even those who came to kill them, not knowing that these were their murderers, the Angel of Death.
by Sara Ams (Burko)
Translated by Miriam Leberstein
|The city of Dresden is lovely and large
yet has no place for us, who are foreigners.
So we foreigners have been forced
to live in a dark cellar made of cement.
We can no longer see the beautiful sky
or go out to enjoy the beauty of nature.
The window in the cellar is so small
It doesn't admit the rays of the sun.
When we awake, when we lie in bed
we hear a little bird singing at the window.
It sings a sad greeting of a song
announcing a yortsayt.
But a yortsayt for whom?
For my sister or brother? My father and mother?
For my family that was so dear to me?
Or is it for the Holocaust, now two years in the past?
Do you remember when your mother had to part with you?
She, who was so devoted to you,
who loved you so deeply from the day you were born.
She who had to part from you.
Do you remember how she sewed gypsy clothing for you to wear
How your old grandma, her hands trembling,
brought her an embroidered apron to use
and weeping said,
Maybe this will help as long as Sorele survives.
She dressed you in the clothing,
unbraided your hair and smoothed it flat
At the mirror she put pearls around your neck
and kissed your face for the last time before parting.
Was this your good fortune? To be alone in the world
to have to speak the languages of strangers
to never have any friends
to never see your mother again.
I have come from another planet.
I have brought greetings from your mother.
She told me how it was when you two parted.
She told you, daughter, to observe her yorstayt.
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