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[Page 8]

Industry, Craft and Clerical Work in Olkeniki

(The residents' occupations in third decade of the 20th century)

Translated by Sara Mages

Land and Crops

The land in and around Olkeniki was the worst in Lita and the main crop was buckwheat.

The buckwheat was ground in the flour mills and various foods were cooked and fried from it. They also grew potatoes, which was the main food staple for the local farmers.

The forest

The forest, and the vegetation within it, was the only natural treasure of the town. The most common tree was the pine. After the spring floods the trees were transported by barges down the Marycha River. The trade in lumber was in the hands of the town's Jews and the transport was mostly done by Jews. Another forest crop was mushrooms that were dried and sold to vendors.

The industries of turpentine, tar and wood charcoal, were also in the hands of Olkeniki's Jews. Another plant, the Peony, was dried by the Jews and the yellow “flour” that was produced, was packed and sent to medical industry. Another Jewish livelihood was the tannery of wild animals' skins that were caught in the forest.

Summer vacation

The forest, which grew on dry sandy soil, served as a spa and recreation for thousands of summer vacationers, who came from the cities to spend the hot summer months under the trees. Many rented their rooms to summer vacationers, and some moved out of their homes and rented them to those who came to spend the summer near the forest. Renting rooms to vacationers was an important source of income for the town's residents.


For many generations the town resided next to important roads. The only mean of transportation at that time was the horse and wagon in the summer, and the sled in the winter. In the years 1850-1860, the railway Peterburg-Warsaw was built and passed through Vilna. With the construction of the railway a new way of transport was opened before the town's merchants. Some of the trees, that were cultivated in town and in the towns around it, were shipped by trains. In the 1930s, the Poles paved the Pi³sudski road that connected Vilna to Warsaw and Krakow. This road crossed the Olkeniki forests, a distance of 7-8 Kilometers from Olkeniki. Due to these reasons Olkeniki remained cut off from the main roads until the 1940s. A few years before the holocaust Pi³sudski road was connected to the Oriani and the Aliata roads which passed north of the town and as a result, a weekly bus started to operate. Later, it operated daily from Olkeniki to Vilna and to the big cities near it. A second way of transportation was the shipping of lumber on barges from the Marycha River to the Niemen River near the town of Meretz, and from there to the Baltic Sea.


In the town and around it were: a cardboard factory; sawmill for wood industry; a modern flour mill and two water operated flour mills. Two turpentine refineries, two factories for carbonated fruit drinks, and two crushers for grain, all of them employed hundreds of workers.

Worked on this subject: S. Kutin, D. Ripel, M. Rosenthal, G. Tamir

[Page 12]

Legend and reality in the town of Olkeniki

(A section from a letter)

Translated by Sara Mages


Many years ago, during the days of King Boleslav who was knows as the “righteous”, or maybe during the times of King Casimir the Great who ruled Poland, Lita and Rusyn [Ruthenia], Reb Meir Moshe the blacksmith lived in the village of Zboter. He was a tall dignified pleasant Jew with strong muscles. A golden beard adorned his wide face and his eyes were friendly and generous. He was lonely among the Christian farmers, like other lonely Jews who were scattered in the nearby villages. But Reb Meir Moshe didn't complain about his fate. The Christian farmers respected him for his righteousness and his generous heart and brought him from the fruit of their land, wheat, preservatives, butter and cheese, and sometimes a chicken for the Sabbath. But Reb Meir was very sorry that he was unable to pray in public, unable to answer “Amen” and “Baruch Shemo”, or recite the fine prayer “Nekadesh et shimcha baolam” [we shall sanctify your name in this world]. His pain and loneliness increased when the Sabbath arrived, because he couldn't welcome the Sabbath Queen with songs and psalms, couldn't hear the reader reading the weekly Torah portion in his wavy sweet voice on the next day, be honored with an Aliyah and bless the Torah. He set a corner in his house with a window facing east, prayed alone and poured his heart before the creator of the world. Sometimes, when a wandered arrived to the village, Reb Meir Moshe eyes lit. He led him to his home and pleaded persistently that he will stay at least after the Sabbath. His wife Chana Gitel, who loved her husband and respected him, felt like him. She cried every Friday eve when she lit the Sabbath candles, and her tears fell into the flickering candles. When the candles let their last flicker, her tears rose to the heavens and reached the throne. God saw the grief of his sons, and rescued them.


Weeks and months have passed – it is difficult for me to estimate the exact time, but one thing is clear, the great miracle happened at the end of the summer on the eve of the Days of Awe. One night, at midnight, when the whole country was sounds asleep and everything was changed and reborn – the lonely Jews who lived in the villages, were shifted from their places. They, their homes, their tools and also the livestock in their farms: horses, cows, goats and chickens, were relocated to a narrow strip of land – to a small town by the name of Olkeniki. These Jews didn't know and didn't feel what happened to them.

At dawn, when the roster called, Reb Meir Moshe woke from his sleep and washed his hands, each hand three times, whispered the prayer “Modeh ani lifanekha” [I offer thanks before you], so not to wake his family from their sleep. He went out to handle the animals, feed them, give them a drink and put new hay in the stable. He opened his lips to greet his neighbor, who lived in the farm to his right, with the Polish blessing of “Dzieñ dobry” [good morning] Mr. Jozeph, and shrank back because in his place he saw Reb Yosef the carpenter. He became speechless and the blessing got stuck in this throat. He turned to the house of his neighbor Jan, who always crossed himself as protection from demons and evil ghosts who went wild in the world. He was ready to greet him with the same Polish blessing - and recoiled again, because he saw Reb Shmuel the painter standing there. He looked behind him and saw the face of Reb Moshe Mezlin, who always looked like he was crying because his eyes were always wet. The same Moshe knew the Book of Psalms by heart. Everywhere he went he whispered verses from the Book of Psalms. Now, in the morning, he opened the first chapter – “Ashrei Haish” [Bless the Man]. No matter where Reb Meir looked he saw Jews from the neighboring villages. They were standing stunned with their mouth open, like they were shackled to the ground.

[Page 13]


Reb Yosef, a wise moderate Jew, was the first to recover from the shock. He opened and said “Gentlemen! Wake up! It is time for the morning “Kriat Shema”! Hurry, hurry up and milk the cows, feed the animals, and then we will enter the house to thank our father in heaven for the grace that he has done to us!” It was the first communal prayer in Olkeniki, and the celebrations that took place on that Saturday are written and sealed in the town's registry.

The Jews quickly settled in their new location. Each earned a living from his work and thanked the Creator three times a day for allowing them to pray in public and listen to a chapter from “Ein Yaakov[1]. A guest who came to the town became a bone of contention, and everyone wanted him. So, it was decided that each person will earn his guest when his turn arrives. The beauty of the town and its residents' generosity, attracted the hearts of the Jews who lived in the area. Also Yeshiva students streamed to the town from the nearby cities to study Mishnah and Poskim [Deciders] in this peaceful quiet town away from the city noise. They weren't disappointed. They were received like kings, and the town provided their needs with dignity and gratification. The town also received its rewards because these young people enriched it with knowledge and revived it.


The young men, who were ordained as Rabbis, were accepted to serve in various cities, and a number of them became known as the sages of their generation. Some didn't want to leave the magnificent town, its residents and especially the town's girls who were known for their beauty. Some married to local women and built their homes there. They engaged in trade, open various shops, schools for the town's children, and studied the Talmud in their free time. Their children were full of Torah and knowledge, and you will find some of them in the cities, in the farming communities and in the kibbutzim In Israel. Among them are rabbis, scientists, educators, engineers and industrialist. Many also earned respect in the Labor Party.


I think, that the essence of our inheritance from the town is good virtues and the desire for knowledge and hospitality. They were handed to us by our forefathers and we preserve them to this day. They read and studied together, and together they dreamed of building a place for the wandering nation in the land of their ancestors, where they will realize their dreams and revive the language of the prophets. We joined “Tzeirei Zion” [Young Zionists] and founded Hebrew-speaking societies. A number of us immigrated to Israel and built it with our blood and tears.

I would sin and delude myself if I say that all of our townspeople were angels. They had all the qualities, the good and the bad, which are in everyone. There were thugs and informers, but there were only a few of them and they didn't leave their mark on the town. The members of our town, wherever they are, appreciate what they have inherited from the town.

A.Y. Yitzchak B-N

(Yitzchak B-N is a townsman who immigrated to the United States 45 years ago.

He visited Israel in 5727 [1967]. This letter was sent to S. Farber in Israel and was published here the way it was written)

Worked on this subject: A. Hezkeya, Y. Rubinstein, M. Hertz, R. Rosenblitt, L. Zif.

Translator's Footnote:

  1. “Ein Yaakov” – a compilation of all the Aggadic material in the Talmud together with commentaries. Return


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