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[Page 51]

The Period Between
the World Wars


[Page 53]

In the Years of the First World War

by Shepsl Kaplan

The Front near Olshan, Cossacks Plunder the Jewish Farms

The outbreak of WWI was marked by conscription of Jewish and Christian reservists. From 1914–15, the people experienced little of the war. Only after there was a lull in the fighting, a band of Cossacks entered the town, and the Jews felt the brunt of the war. In the town there was much wailing when the Russians carried out an incendiary battle against the Germans on the town outskirts. The civilians were forced to evacuate to Russia. The Jews wept as they packed up their belongings on wagons and left the town to join neighboring Christians in an adjacent area to await the German attack on Olshan. Some of them fled to Minsk when the Cossacks appeared in town.

The front had changed. Cannon fire was heard and bombs fell near Olshan. The Cossacks pillaged the Jewish houses and farms, looting in one day 32 farms and a few houses. When the cannonade became heavier all the Jews left the town.

A number of them were sheltered with Christian neighbors in town. Most of them, with their baggage, fled to a field, between the thick walls of the historic castle on the edge of the town. As the artillery fire intensified the Jews abandoned their baggage and hid in the deep cellars under the castle.

As the cannonade continued, fires broke out in the town. Jews ran back, together with some Christians, to put out the burning houses ignited by the Cossacks before they left town. By dawn the cannonade stopped, the Germans entered, then left without further damage, and the Jews returned to their devastated homes.

[Page 54]

The Russo–German front had stalled at Lake Beresina, about 20 km from Olshan. The Germans remained there at the lake for three years. Olshan was restored in this period; Jews and Christians remained in their homes. Movement out of the town to other communities was forbidden and restricted. No one was allowed out between 8pm and 6am. Farmers were not allowed to bring products into the town. Hunger was widespread, especially among the poor.

The relationship between the Germans and the Jews was correct. For a time the Germans sold corn for bread for the Jews. However they cataloged everyone's possessions and every one was obligated to contribute as much milk and eggs as required.

In 1917, allotments of corn stopped, and hunger increased. The Germans had sent the youths off to work battalions in the forest and to dig ditches, make bricks. The best trees around Olshan were chopped down and sent to Germany. During these three years of occupation, the children of school age had not attended school. After the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, the Germans had fled for their lives and a new era of troubles had begun for the Jews of Olshan.


Cultural Activity During World War I

In 1916, while the town was occupied by the Germans, a theatrical circle was created, under new conditions. Those Jewish youths of Olshan, who had managed to avoid German forced labor conscriptions, were increasingly burdened with food deprivation consequent to more and more stringent rationing. They were cut off from their cultural center in Vilna. There was no newspaper, no books, no Jewish literature; they had nothing to do during the long winter nights. These young boys and girls decided to create a drama circle. A group of youngsters, advised by Shepsel Abramovitch, asked the German command for permission to stage plays, and this was quickly granted. And so the Drama Circle, under Abramovitch' direction, was founded.

[Page 55]

They began to rehearse Goldfaden's Shulami, inspired by Isaac Gershon, a cantor of Olshan. One of his boy students, who had aspired to become an independent cantor knew the name of this operetta, Shulamit. A significant number of youths had joined the Circle. All the members got official permission to go out at night for rehearsal, and return home. Otherwise strict control ensured that no one could open a door or window until dawn.

The German commander authorized two professional musicians, a ‘foot–harmonist’ and a fiddler, who were to accompany the hearty songs of ‘Shulamit’. Otherwise, they played at parties or entertainments at night. The performers: Shepsel Abramovitch, Herzl Katz, Roshe Kossvitzki, Shepsel Kaplan, Asher Levin, Hirsh Gurevitz, Reina Abramovitch, Kiva Kaplan, Isaac Kaplan, Herschel Kousevitzki, Natan Kousevitzki, Blume Chernivoski, Blume Gurevich, Ida Abramovitch.

The rehearsals lasted so long, they attracted attention, and the commander directed them to put on the show. The dress rehearsal was staged in the Grand Hall of Mottel Kozlovski, and was attended by the German officers. The commander was so pleased that he authorized construction of a wooden stage with traditional theater sets that would serve many productions.

But in the end, the Germans decided not to build the stage, for the temporary cease–fire had broken down in 1918 with the revolution against Wilhelm in Germany. The Germans lost their motivation.

[Page 56]

Origins of Polish Independence and the Revenge of the ‘Halerchiks’

At the end of the war, the Poles took over the Olshan area. To represent the Polish authority, a detachment of soldiers from General Haler's army took over. The ‘Halerchiks’ established order and began to beat the Olshan Jews. It was enough that a person wasn't Christian and had a doubtful background; Jews had no standing. They were dragged to the market place, given 25 lashes. This didn't last long, because war started between the Poles and the Soviet Union. Shortly the town was overrun several times by the Russians and the Poles.

In 1920, after the Bolsheviks left, the Poles resumed civil power in Olshan. They started with a ghastly murder of a 20 year old Jewish woman, Esther Levin, who had been active in the Communist movement. The Olshan Poles got revenge: Babronitzki, Adamovich and the shoemaker Smalski betrayed the girl to the Polish authorities who murdered her and cut up her body. A trial resulted in the flight of the shoemaker, who was blamed by the other three, who were acquitted. For many years, the Olshan Jews mourned the terrible murder of this innocent girl, coinciding with the re–birth of Poland.

Gradually things became more normal in the town. Jews began to organize economically and culturally, and started businesses. They started a Peoples Bank, charity group, Hebrew school, shul and a theater group. A big library was created, of Jewish, Hebrew and Russian books. Youth organizations, Zionists and Communists also appeared.

[Page 57]

Cultural and Educational Activities

Even in Tsarist times, Olshan had supported a theater group featuring historic themes, such as Bar Kochba, Mchiras Joseph, and various Purim plays. The audience attended for social and charitable reasons. Those productions produced memorable roles, remembered as Gershon Abramovitch as Pharoah, King of Egypt, Beryl ‘the Kaiser’, Hershel the ‘Turk’, Chaim the ‘Faskatz’. After WWI, cultural and educational groups, unaffiliated, flourished until the start of WWII in 1939. Included were Hershel Katz, Hirsh Horovitch, Moshe Yalek, Shepsel Kaplan, Joshua Potashnik, Blume Tzerniovski, Blume Gorvitch. Valuable books were saved from the pre–war era library and thousands of Jewish, Hebrew and Russian books were added–the best authors. In time, the Olshan library became famous, worthy of a big city. The drama group included: Baruch Hirsch Gorewitch, Moshe Yalek, Herzl Katz, Shepsel Kaplan, Leibl and Hersch Potashnik, Isaac and Kiva Kaplan, Leah and Ida Abramovitch, etc. Directors are also listed; a professional from Lodz, a gifted artist and singer, who married a local girl, and ended his life in an insane asylum in Vilna.

[Page 58]

The successful repertoire played to overflowing houses and included dramas and comedies of Sholem Aleichem, Peretz Hirshbein, Pinsky, operettas of Goldfaden. Young and old attended, also from other towns, even intelligent Poles and Russians. The first productions were on a large wooden stage, donated by the woodworker Eliezer Kaplan. Then one of the Russian merchants of Olshan established a walled enclosure with 100 seats. A fire in 1935 consumed 1/3 of the houses in Olshan, including the theater. The Catholic diocese then provided a large space for us in the cloister, which we shared with them, thus providing us with our third theater space, now used for various shows in the town.

All the town's youth joined in the Cultural and Education Program. Lecturers in various fields appeared. Outdoor performances were often accompanied by an orchestra, and Olshan was blessed by such contacts. Lake Ziganka was used in summertime for swimming; Jews and Christians often had swimming contests.

[Page 59]


Directors pf Jewish cultural–Educational Council
Sitting, from right: Bruch–Hirsh Gurvitch, Shia Potashnik, Sholom Kaplan
Standing, from right: Sandor Gurvitch, Shepsl Kaplan,, A.A. Potashnik


‘Literary Trial’
A ‘Literary trial’ of Esther Rozengold, heroine of the book ‘Remembrance of souls’ by David Rishman.
Attorneys, judges, collegium, counsels and guilty parties


[Page 60]


[Letter in Yiddish to family asking financial aid]


[Pages 61-63]

Child and Teenage Years

by Arye Gershoni

My mother was born in Olshan, my father in Kreve. After their marriage, they lived in Kreve. There my father was the mayor, and also managed several other towns. When I was five, we moved to Olshan, and I went to cheder. I don't have any good memories of my teachers there. Aleph–Beys I learned from a teacher who had a long beard. He beat us with ‘noodles’, which he made out of leather strips, which looked like broad noodles. My next teacher, Hershel the Turk was a tyrant and beat us with sticks, and he taught us Tanach. After my father died in 1913, we moved to Trov. Here I resumed cheder, learning Hebrew, Tanach and Gemora. My teacher had additional occupations–cantor, mohel, barber for the peasants who came to town. Often the student was taught in the same room where the teacher was cutting hair. But he saw every mistake the boys made, and the teacher–barber soon corrected them.


World War I

In Olshan, when the Russians were there, things were not so bad. After Rosh Hashonah 1915, the Russian forces started to evacuate and advised the people to flee to Russia. Meanwhile the retreating Russian soldiers plundered the Jewish farms, including ours. After the fighting subsided, after Yom Kippur, we returned to town for a look. Everything had been looted by the local Christians. We returned to the Castle to celebrate Succos; many Jews and Christians also stayed in the Castle, hiding in the cellars. Jews and Christians prayed, but the artillery fire increased. German troops directed everyone to return to their homes.

We returned to Olshan, amid great disorder. Families were separated, parents sought their children who had been sheltered by other families during the Russian period. Gradually things calmed down and order was restored. Life was difficult; the peasants were unable to supply food because the Germans had taken everything. Then a German manager, Schmidt, took over and created a good relationship with the Jews. During this time, the Germans behaved well. There was smuggling of goods as well as cultural activity. A shul was allowed to teach Hebrew, Tanach and Yiddish. German was the language of instruction. Olshan had a Jewish mayor, Dolinski. Germans had taken Jewish youths to labor camps, where they worked hard in the frost and cold but were not persecuted, as in WWII. After 1918, with peace, our war really began. The Germans left, the Poles came, then the Bolsheviks, then the Poles again, and the Jews were victims. The Poles set up a kangaroo court, resulting in the bestial murder of the young Jewish girl, and the Jewish community was terrified.


The Polish Pogrom in 1922

The Poles had established order in the Olshan region, and Jews resumed commerce and activity. But peace didn't last long. The Russo–Polish war brought the Red Army into Olshan for a short time and they seized everything. In October 1920, the Poles returned and re–asserted their authority. The Jews resumed their lives, opened shops–then came new troubles. The Catholic clergy was hostile to the Jewish vendors near the Cathedral in the market place. They incited the Polish authority to pressure the Jewish merchants to liquidate their stalls near the cathedral, claiming that Jews did not follow their own rules. A wave of anti–Semitism resulted in a pogrom.

Early winter 1922, on a Sunday, after mass, the peasants of the adjacent towns together with their priest and Polish officials attacked the Jewish merchants, and thus began the familiar pogrom scenes. Several days later, when things quieted down, a Jewish delegation complained about the riot and the damages to the stalls and their houses. An official investigation resulted in the granting to Jews of another location in the market to set up shop. So the Jews set up again. No damages were ever assessed against the mob responsible for the damage.

[Pages 64-65]

The Tragic Fate of Esther Levin Memories from 1918

by Shlomo Halevi–Levin

In 1918, the Poles returned to Olshan. My sister Esther had been allied with the Russian side, the Bolsheviks, opposing the Germans. One evening, she came home with a young Russian, who had induced her to flee the town, but she hadn't made it to Russia. With companions, they got to Oshmen. She stayed there for a while, but remained in contact with home. Now in Olshan, the Polish goyim, who had previously served the Russians, were fervently supporting the Polish regime. They came to us and demanded to know where Esther was, acting as agents of the Polish police. They became threatening, bound my father's arms and legs and locked him and my mother in a room. The children were locked in a stable for several days. We endured the abuse and did not reveal Esther's location. We had expected that she and her friends would escape to Russia. But that didn't happen. Maybe she hoped the Soviets would return; she was also so closely bound to her father.

One evening, after the abuses had subsided, the mother prepared a supper. Suddenly Esther and her boyfriend entered, armed head to foot with guns and ammo. They cried “Help! Hide us, they're hunting us”. We turned off the lights and hid them in the barn in a water tank; their weapons were buried under ground.

We all pretended to go to bed, to arouse no suspicion. But then an armed group of goyim broke in, shouting, demanding that we tell them where the fugitives were. Again we were all tied up, locked in a room, while the search went on, with wild cries. I can still see the scenes of that search; the house seemed like a pogrom again.

Later we learned that the Poles had searched several locations and were going to leave, when they detected a movement in the water barrel. They captured the fugitives and marched them off under gun–point.We sat in the locked room, trembling with fear. One of the band opened the door, unbound us, and we saw that the whole house was surrounded by an armed mob. No one was allowed to enter or leave the house. We didn't sleep the whole night. At dawn, the rabbi was allowed in and he told us how Esther was tortured.

The criminals dragged Esther into Pinchas Koslovski's house and tortured her all night. Then they tore off her clothes and drove her to the cathedral, where she was again tortured, killed, quartered and hung on a tree. On the appeal of the rabbi and the Jewish community, the remains were released and were brought to our house. The parents were kept from viewing the tortured body, to avert the horror. I pushed my way into the cemetery. Someone had unveiled the corpse; I'll never forget that sight.

[Pages 66-68]

Memories of Childhood

by Leah Bloch–Rudnick

As long as we were with our parents we were not aware of the war. After peace, my parents created a cheder in our house, along with selected children. A rabbi was employed to teach. The approach of war to our area greatly increased hardship and hunger. The students could no longer eat at our table and we couldn't observe the Sabbath rules. Actually, we weren't so badly off, but then our dear mother died, perhaps from hunger since she always gave her last food to the children. She died while my brother and father were away in Russia. They had intended to bring us there to provide food. But things got worse there than at home. The border was closed because of the war. The Germans took over, and my brother Moishele became our provider. He became a shul shaliach, and said kaddish three times a day, and we wept together. We two wretched children kept up this big house all alone. We parceled out our food, ate from one plate, and in fear, slept in one bed. We were often hungry, but told no one. That's the way we were brought up–not to ask for any help.

Unexpectedly, the ‘Batushka’, the priest, became interested in us and invited us to meals, but we declined because of kashrut. The priest understood, and gave us some flour. Moishele baked some bread, so we survived WWI. The tragic events after the Germans left have remained inscribed in my memory to this day. After the Russians came the Poles, the worst of all. The soldiers ran wild, plundered the houses and shops, and committed various atrocities.

There was a lot of gunfire near our garden on Castle Street. The Russians and Poles exchanged fire, so bullets whizzed through our house. Moishele and I hid under the bed, weeping silently, crying for our dead Mama. When the shooting stopped, we crept out from the floor into the kitchen, looking out into the garden. There we saw a terrible sight. Trenches were dug in the garden, and in one, two soldiers were fighting face–to–face. Suddenly one of them stabbed the other with his knife.

I heard loud shouting. In terror, I ran into another room. Through the window, I saw a lot of soldiers running past, heard their boots stomping, the wagons rolling madly past. Every house was shut tight, the shops were empty, and no one dared to stick their noses outside. The soldiers had been running for several kilometers, with their mouths gaping from thirst and exhaustion. A young Polish soldier, no more than a boy, collapsed in front of the house. Our housekeeper, Zippah, opened the door and gave him a drink of sour milk, risking her life. She thought to herself, “He is, after all, a mother's child”.

Another episode has remained in my memory: Once at night we heard a troop of horses tramping outside. They stopped before our house; there was a knock on the door. We trembled in fear. I felt I had to open the door no matter what, as long as Mosihele wouldn't be harmed. He opened the door himself. “Give us bread!” They were Bolsheviks, and my brother gave these hungry Russian soldiers our last crumbs.

All this horror and terror from WWI seemed like a game compared to the fate of the Jews in WWII. But my brother learned a trade– he became a barber. He replaced the town barber who emigrated to America. Moishele then became a scribe, married a teacher from Smorgen, and had a normal life until it was torn apart for him, his wife and child by the horrors of the German persecution.

[Pages 69-72]

Teachers, Cheders and Modern Schools

by Shepsl Kaplan

My first teacher was my older brother, Isaac Jacob, now in America. He'd open a book, show me an aleph, then turned a page, bade me find one. I was rewarded each time with a kopeck, 'dropped from heaven by an angel'. I continued to receive kopecks for additional learning.

My first rabbi was Chaim Boron, who taught me Hebrew and ‘davening’, with individual techniques, much love, a pat on the back, a pinch of the cheek. The children loved him and learned quickly.

Reb Note Kaplan wasn't a professional teacher; he was badly educated. He had a wife and three daughters, who read the books of Moses and assisted at weddings. When they got older, Nathan became a teacher of Talmud and Tanach. Previously he had been a woods–forager and guardian, posted at the gate of the old walled synagogue in the center of town. Reb Nathan was a Kohen, with snow–white beard, who was not allowed access to children. Therefore he couldn't supervise the students. Instead he read Chumash and Tanach with his 13 and 8 year–old children.

In winter, when the soft snow tempted the children to go play in the streets, he locked the door and refused their requests. After he punished one resistant student, the classmates got together and broke all the window panes in the school. In the morning, the fathers of the students and the Reb had to re–install the windows and made peace, but no real teacher appeared.


Reb Moshe–Elia, the Gemorah Teacher

My teacher of Chumash and Gemorah, Moshe–Elia was a watchman at a home with a large garden. Reb Moshe was one of the best teachers in town–there wasn't a better one. The students were like his children. Those who could afford paid only 15 rubles per student. As a sign of his piety, he did not discriminate–he only required that his students should understand and think about what they learned, so that his efforts were not in vain. He didn't spank the students. Instead of spanking he gave them difficult assignments which were more painful than spanking.

I remember a few of these exchanges. When a student would mistakenly translate a Gemorah statement, he would say, ‘Sara Iron mouth, you have blundered like a blind horse in a ditch–like leading geese with a whip, you'll be no better than Michael, the shabbos goy. Better herd geese, I wouldn't take your father's money in vain.’

No great scholars came from Reb Nathan's school, but his students didn't become like Michael. The kids learned their Talmud and Chumash. But some were punished, e.g. for carving their desks with a knife, which was every student's dream. He would hold them by the ears, set them on the bench in the rear until his wife or daughter would take them away.

The stormy revolution of 1905 caught up the older students of all the cheders. A group formed into a ‘Little Bund’ and conflicted with a group of Zionist sympathizers, resulting in a ‘war’. This was conducted with snow balls in winter, and stones, sand and dirt in summer. The cheder which had dislodged the opposition was the victor.


Cheder ‘Mtukn’ and Dolinski's Russian–Jewish School

In 1907, a cheder was founded, with a famous teacher, Wiskind, who set up a modern school. He taught Hebrew, and after each lecture, he commented, wrote opinions, conducted tests, and published a weekly children's journal, which the kids read with bated breath. At the same time, Dolinski, a student from Vilna, a nephew of Goldinski, founded a second school, using Russian as the language, serving both Jewish and Christian children, boys and girls. Dolinski's school was in a large sunny room that he had specially built. For the first time Olshan children sat on comfortable modern school benches, four to a bench, with ink wells especially for the students.

Opposite the benches stood the teacher's desk, where the student would be asked to solve mathematical problems. In Dolinski's school, for a while, the teacher Boron [now in US] gave lectures in Jewish history. The school lasted about 10 years until WWI, teaching and enlightening Jewish youth.

[Page 73]

The ‘Tarbos’ School and its Educational Activity

by Pesakh Gershonovitz

About 1920, it was decided to build a new Jewish school in Olshan, to provide national Jewish and worldly education. It wasn't easy for the community leaders to support such a school, since their children had had conventional educations. So a combination school was devised with a wall between the old–fashioned class and the advanced modern class. In later years the school became the best in the Vilna region. Teaching was in Hebrew, with Polish classes, with consent of the Polish authority. Teachers came from Vilna. The school was affiliated with the Vilna school, and legalized by the Poles, with seven classes. Religious classes included Chumash, Tanach, Gemorah, Rashi. When they incurred a deficit, the Talmud–Torah provided help. Despite the difficulties, all Olshan children had an education. The Poles were not fond of this system and imposed restrictions, which threatened the closure of the school. Thanks to financial help from some Olshan emigrants in the US, the deficits were covered.

The curriculum was carried out in the spirit of Zionism, together with the ideal of ‘Return to Israel’. The development of the school was associated with formation of youth organizations, cadres of potential farming collectives, dedicated to all Zionistic causes. The teachers Moshe Yalek and Abraham Soladecha were killed in WWII.

[Page 74]

The ‘Tarbos’ School – the Light of the Town

by Shifra Kotin–Trabsky

Most of the Jewish kids of Olshan had their education in this old wooden building–Hebrew as well as Polish language. It had a strong presence in the town. Children flocked there from all the streets and alleys, happy with their books on their backs. In the school was a children's library in Hebrew, also a drama group and a chorus, and the children used to give productions all over town. All the Jewish holidays were celebrated. On Lag B'Omer, the children would march through the town and forest and sing Hebrew songs. The teachers included Abraham Itcha, Velvel Chernovski. The school was the light of the town. Despite the financial strictures, the school survived until the disaster.

[Pages 75-77]

Report of a Letter to Friends in America

We write to you as friends who are interested in our school's existence. You have published in an American newspaper an appeal signed by some Olshaners about our difficult time here, and how you might help us in a material and spiritual way.

The religious situation: Our elementary school is attended by 90 children, boys and girls, divided in five classes. There are four teachers, just enough for the total. The school is national–religious, i.e. all classes are taught in Hebrew, while in the lower classes the transition to Hebrew is gradual. Polish is also taught. A special place is devoted in every class for the holy books–the Torah, Tanach, Gemorah, prayer, which are taught by a special teacher. Details of this program are related. There are also a childrens' journal and a library, assisted by the teachers. The rabbi totally supports our program.

The article in ‘Der Tag’ stating that the rabbi wanted to change the character of the school is inaccurate. We are in great financial need because times are so hard in Poland, the parents are unable to pay for the children, we can't pay the teachers and we don't get any subsidies from the state. Parents are concerned about the gradual loss of Jewish identity. People are no longer able to make a living. A lot of Polish farmers and cooperatives have settled in Olshan. Despite the crisis, we are paying unbearably higher taxes. Things are getting worse and worse. We teachers are getting squeezed little by little, and we don't get paid regularly. The rabbi and a few elders at times have helped out to cover a part of the deficit. Unfortunately, no one has been able to relieve the poverty of the people of the town.

Without a remedy, we decided to appeal to our Olshaners in America. Please get involved with the welfare of our shul and help us so that our children are not left without a Jewish education. The fate of our children lies in your hands.

signatures–A.M. Cahn, Zerniski, Potashnik, Solodocha


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