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[Page 95]

The Economic Life


The Jewish Peasants in Their Land Plots

by Pesakh Gershonovitch

Jews were very attached to their land, they wouldn't sell the least amount of it, even though working it gave such minimal incomes. The Christian peasants produced pigs, a much greater source of income. The Jewish farmers had in their inventories 2–3 cows, a few calves, a horse and mule. The land was farmed primitively, with horse, plow, and scythe for threshing, installed by the Jewish blacksmith. A stall and. stable were behind the shed. A small part of the land was for pasture for the cows and to dry hay. Into the stalls was brought the fragrant hay, and in summer the fresh vegetables–corn, barley, oats, wheat. A special place was used for the fodder for cows. In autumn, the cellars were filled with potatoes, radishes, red beets, carrots, cabbage. Flax was also grown, which had usually been reaped a little later. Flax required more work in the field, it had to be reworked in order to get a decent harvest. The fields were fertilized by manure from the cows and horses. For this the stalls were furnished with straw. The manure treatment could suffice for 4–5 years, and that was supplemented by additional fertilizer.

It was not easy to pasture the cows in the summer months. It wasn't worthwhile for every farmer to keep a pasture for his cows. There was a communal pasture in the town, a large communal meadow, ten or more hectares. In fact it belonged to all the farmers who owned property or a house. But the Christian farmers and town merchants didn't allow the Jewish farmers to use it and blocked the way, though they made some exceptions. After much confusion and dispute, an agreement was reached so the Jews could use some of the pasture, and relations were normalized. Every morning a herdsman took the ‘Jewish’ cows to pasture. It wasn't easy for the Jewish peasants to make a living, so most of them had an extra job.

The following names are listed among the peasants of Olshan, either bought or inherited:

Kaplan– 100 hectares.; David and Elihu Leibman–3 hectares.; Koslovski 3, Lidski 4, Gurvich 3 , Levin 15. Koslovski 4, Gershonovitz 6, Gershonovitz 3, Lieb 3; Dolinski 6, Shuster 10, Berkman 5.

When the Russians were there in WWII, they did not interfere with the Jewish peasants, who were allowed to do their work as usual, pay their taxes. In June 1941, when the Germans occupied White Russia, they also didn't ignore the Jewish peasants. They were driven off their land and persecuted. Whatever was left was sold off to investors. The land was given or transferred to a Christian, who was supposed to give it back later. Anything that wasn't sold, was held in common by the Christians, under German supervision.

[Pages 97-99]


by Shepsl Kaplan

For centuries many Jewish families in Olshan were busy in the fields planting. They worked and lived off the land which had been theirs from the beginning throughout all political changes until the German expulsions. The Jewish plots were situated between the Christian fields and were divided into narrow long sections up to two km long. Together with Christians, the Jews farmed, sowed and harvested their crops. The Jews worked their land in order to maintain their families, without regard to the illegality. Despite the Tsarist law, the Jews continued to buy land from the Christians, understanding that they would eventually be able to affix their own names. In this way a capable and ambitious forester, Lazer Kaplan bought 100 hectares in the name of his neighbor Bashevski, and got it back under his own name after WWI. Lazer moved out of the town with his family, built a nice house on his own land, and together with his five sons worked the land. In a few years he accumulated 100 hectares.

It wasn't only the professional gardeners, but also ordinary folks who did it for their own use. Almost every Olshan family had a garden behind its house. They all tilled their gardens, raised potatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage for their own use. From 0.5 to 1.0 hectares, families such as Velvel Liand, Avrohom Koslovski, Israel Kaplan, Shmuel Elihu Shmukler had their own gardens. The professional gardeners, besides their own gardens, grew a variety of products for sale. The gardener bosses would haul wagon loads of sacks for sale to the markets of neighboring towns. Most of the buyers of the beets and cabbage were the needy peasants who had to stock up for winter by salting.

After WWI, Baruch Abramovitch, the head of the Citizens Bank, combined with a company that helped to restore the economies of the ruined farmers, enabling them, under easy conditions, to buy agricultural equipment and horses. Agronomists and instructors were also sent to teach the peasants how to farm in a more modern way, to produce greater harvests. They also began to plant fruit trees.

The Jewish farmers didn't have their own fruit trees, but bought fruit still on the trees, even when over–ripe. They used to buy a certain number of trees, or the whole orchard, after an evaluation of the yield. The trees were the property of the land–owners until the fruit was taken down. If the pears weren't ripe, the Jews had to hide them in special places so they wouldn't be stolen. Ripe fruits were packed up and sent to the larger Russian cities in Tsarist times, but not exported. Between the wars, the fruit was shipped to the larger Polish centers. Shepsel Abramovitch supervised and was trusted to record the yields from every tree as well as the total yield. The accuracy of his estimates was well known in the Olshan area.

[Pages 99-100]

Weaving and Housekeeping

Until WWI, Olshan had been a weaving center, producing shirts and wool scarfs. Knitting was a secondary source of income produced by the women, girls and older folks, as well as Christians. Two energetic Jewish ladies, Kusha Ziskind and Zifa Nomiot and their families really created an industry. The shirts were made for Russian soldiers. Three styles were produced: one finger, two fingers or five fingers thick. These women became masters of speed, handling the five spools of thread. The raw wool was washed in a machine, and the whole job of spinning, sewing, etc. was all done by hand. Once a week, after Havdala, Kusha and Zifa took their finished wares, and in the street, cried “nessita tovor!”. That was a signal for the Christians that it was now OK to buy their wares, and a group gathered around their houses. Women with packs of gloves pushed, eager to sell their wares faster, count their earnings and buy fresh wool. This industry vanished after WWI. After Polish independence, Ben–Zion Rudnick and his children revived this defunct industry on a loftier scale by bringing in sewing machines for the women and girls. The finished products–shirts, sweaters, scarves–were sold to Polish soldiers, up to WWII.

In March 1942, Rudnick and his family were moved from Olshan to the Volozhiner ghetto. He brought his machines with him thinking they might work for the Germans, but they all perished in May 1942. One of his sons, Michael, lives in America.

[Page 101]

Charity Organizations

by Shepsl Kaplan

With aid of Olshaners in the US, charity organizations were founded in 1922 to help the needy, and were based in the community room of the new Beys Hamidrash. David Segalovitch, a flax dealer was the head of this organization; the bookkeeping was handled by Chanye Gurvitch, now in Israel. The efficiency of this system resulted in an increase in the capital of the bank, gaining the trust of the people of Olshan, as well as additional funding from America. The attack of Hitler's Germany in 1939, brought it all to an end.

[Pages 101-104]

Cooperative People's Bank

Founded in 1925 by Bruch Abramovitch, the bank was very helpful during the worst times, to all in the town, home owners, farmers, professionals, merchants. Credit was very hard to get, not available for many. Those who got credit got 50–1000 zlotys, to be repaid at the lowest rates. The operations of the bank are described–all Olshan Jews were eligible for a small fee. The bank was associated with the Central Jewish Co–op People's Bank of Vilna. The bank had about 350 members. Open 2–7, Fridays 11–2. Market days were especially busy, Monday and Friday. Friday was the ‘Little Market’, when the Christians came to town for their needs. Most of the business in Olshan was carried out on credit and bills. Every account had to be paid two days after due unless there was a dispute.

In the last years before the war, the bank financed land transactions, commercial and garden developments, strengthen existing businesses and to develop fruit orchards. With great effort in hard times, deficits were avoided. Interest rate was 9% a year. Recommendations were made to improve productivity. The management of the bank always was intent on the welfare of the Jewish community, which had been oppressed by the Germans. Listed are the officers of the bank, headed by Baruch Abramovitch, and the bank employees are also listed. I met Yuri Klianskin personally in the Vilna ghetto in 1942. It was difficult to speak with him because of his exhaustion. Survivors of the bank administration are also listed.

[Page 104]

Linat Hatzedek

by Pesach Abramovitch

This society played an important role in helping the poor and the ill. The majority of the work was done by volunteers, women, girls, and boys who devoted a part of their time to help families in time of illness. The institution handled referrals by the most needy, paid doctors to visit, and donated medicine and food to the needy [eggs, butter, sugar]. Some visited the ill nightly, to console their isolation, to raise their morale, get them healthy again.

[Pages 105-106]


Account balances 1921

[Page 107]

The Fire Department in Tsarist Times,
and in the First Ten Years of the Polish Rule

by Shepsl Kaplan

The town Jews formed a brass band and bought new fire extinguishing equipment. Next to the new shul, on the shore of a little lake, in a locked shed were stored hoses, pumps, a few wheeled barrels full of water, ladders, rope tied to a curved iron with four teeth, dubbed “cat”, additional equipment and rope. In the 30s, the Polish administration took over both Jews and Christians, bought mechanized pumps and other equipment. The department was headed by a Polish reserve officer, Matovski.

Fires were frequent in Olshan, mostly at night. The first observer shouted “pozhar”, and men appeared promptly, half–dressed, in their assigned roles, shouting “pozhar”. The cathedral bell rang, the firemen ran to the fire, often breaking the lock because no one knew where the key was. Instead of a horse, the men hauled the water barrels towards the fire. There were many instances of houses burned after help was summoned. In 1935, in mid–day, a spark from a forge set off a fire which consumed almost the whole town. Firemen came from all nearby communities, but the wind spread the fire and the firemen were helpless. Such catastrophes happened a lot before WWI, but the dates of fires were especially memorable, along with weddings, deaths and other civic events, related by parents to their children.

[Pages 108-109]

Zionist Activity, Hakashra
and my Zionist Involvement

My mother died in 1920. I was an orphan at 14. I attended Zionist meetings, where funds and support were sought for return to Israel. I decided to collect money for the return of Jews to Israel. All Jews in Olshan supported this, including my family. I asked to be sent to Israel, but I was told I was too young. At 16, I joined Khalutz and was sent to a camp near Vilna which was the center of Zionist activity then, an arm of the Polish Zion Party. The camp was part of a farming community which had belonged to a Prince, and that resulted in an interesting history.

The Prince was known as an anti–semite. But in WWI when the Germans occupied the Vilna area, some peasants accused him of allegiance to the Russians. Dr. Vigodski, of Vilna, who was tortured by the Germans in WWII, was favored by the Germans during WWI–he stood up for the Prince and rescued him. The children of the Prince, after his death, were pro–Jewish out of gratitude for the defense of their father, so they donated the land for the Zionist group.

I was in the group for a year, and learned a lot about farm work. I was busy with cows, and knew that all these tasks had to be mastered because they were necessary in Eretz Yisroel. I decided that there, in our land I'd be a shomer [guard], in order to protect Jewish land.

In the Hachshara, you had to sign up for two years to determine whether the youths were suitable for Aliyah or not. After two years, the secretariat of the khalutz, based in Vilna, decided whether to accept the candidate. It wasn't easy after approval to keep going, because you needed money to cover all your expenses. Besides, the Polish government was especially harsh on the youths, because they were supposed to serve in the army.

After two years, in 1925, I was accepted by the khalutz for Aliyah. But by the time I was ready to go, the British had barred entry to our land, so I finally left Poland in 1929, and embarked on an old ship, arriving there just at the time of the Arab attack on the Jews. I was assigned to the Kibbutz ‘Eilat Hashochar’, volunteered as a shomer with others to protect the colonies, which had been established with such great effort.

[Pages 109-110]

Activity of the Khalutz

by Ariah Gershoni

In 1923, we founded the Khalutz. The founders were Yaakov Namiot, Moshe Yalek and I. Back then my name was Shklioronok, but now my name is Reuben ben Aharon.

The Khalutz concentrated on cultural activity, especially learning Hebrew and knowledge about Eretz Yisroel, and promoted Aliyah. Because I had worked in the forest I led a group of boys who worked for me. The girls had lighter tasks, such as baking matzos for Pesach–the goal was that all the comrades should get accustomed to all kinds of work. Money went into the general fund. We were connected with the Khalutz center in Vilna, and the comrades from Merchuz visited us several times. Rivka Berkman was the first to make Aliyah, followed by Saul Abramovitch, the teacher Biaritz, Rivka Ziskind, then me. I was supposed to be first, but I was directed to stay and continue training.

Reuven Ben Aharon

[Page 110]

and Cultural Activity Beys–R

by Shifra Kotrin–Trobsky

Olshan had a strong Beys–R organization and youth membership, engaged in dedicated Zionist activity. Several good leaders are listed, [Motel Segalovitch, Shefa Dolinski, Hinda Lidski]one of whom got to Israel before the war. The organization enlivened the youth with singing, and dancing the horas, lectures, readings. People came from the nearby towns to meet. Everyone's morale was lifted, and the people lived in hope of going to Israel.

My sister as a young girl was active, my brother also trained as a guard and tried to reform the excessive restrictions which divided the organization. They both perished in the Holocaust. My sister died in the Shtuthof camp. My brother, the family star, graduated in medicine in Paris, practiced at the Rothschild Hospital and died in France– no one knows where.

[Page 111]

Raising Money

by Pesakh Gershonovitch

Many Zionist organizations raised money; the comrades spread the word at all levels and solicited from all Jewish families for the creation of Israel. Special collections came at celebrations of historic memorial days–such as Lag B'Omer, Shavuoth, Yizkor, Chanukah, weddings, births. The most active leaders are listed. The young were especially inspired to work at the annual bazaars; many worked all night. The townspeople gave generously, especially the people from Vilna.

Opening day at the bazaar was a holiday. Families all had fun together. It lasted two days, and all parts of the town participated. Contributions of as much as 1000 zlotys were made–a significant amount for Olshan's Jews.


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