On the way to the Bialowieza forest lies the small village of Orla: a tiny place with an impressive synagogue that rules over the flat landscape. For many years forgotten and misused, in the past decade it gained a new keeper who, in cooperation with Jewish organizations in Poland, local authorities, and descendants of Orla’s Jews, has been bringing back the building to its former glory. Forum for Dialogue is proud and honored to support these efforts.
Marek Chmielewski, who is a member of the Leaders of Dialogue network and the Mayor of Orla, was recently nominated for the POLIN Award presented by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews for his outstanding dedication to the preservation of Jewish heritage in Poland. In a short film, Marek shares his motivations for the work he does in Orla.
Aware of the complexities involved in having a non-Jew in charge of the synagogue, Marek has spent countless hours reaching out to local residents, experts, representatives of Jewish organizations in Poland, and descendants of Orla’s Jews to make sure he is working in a spirit of dialogue and mutual understanding. Himself a member of a religious and linguistic minority in Poland, he is determined to ensure that his Jewish neighbors are properly remembered. In the past years, he has created a monument commemorating Orla’s Jews, published an album featuring photographs of the pre-war community, collected oral histories from elderly residents, and connected with one of the last living Jews of Orla. This fall, thanks to a grant awarded by Forum for Dialogue to members of our Leaders of Dialogue network, he organized a conference aptly entitled “What’s to happen with the Orla synagogue?” attended by experts from all over Poland, as well as local residents and guests.
Though he admits that he does not seem like the obvious choice for a keeper of memory, he relishes in the trust he has been granted by Jews and non-Jews alike, to work to preserve and educate about Jewish Orla. As he notes himself, rather than consistent, he wants to be effective. And he is.
President and CEO Forum For Dialogue
My visit to Orla 2011 – with Marek Chmielewski and Wojciech Kononczuk
Marek Chmielewski, Dariusz Horodecki & Wojciech Kononczuk
It is ironic that most of us are unaware of our origins in Orla, Marek Chmielewski has made a great effort on our behalf to assure today’s current residents of Orla does. Marek, the mayor of Orla, has implemented programs in the local school and annual events about its forgotten past, much of which are at his own cost. The following video commemorates the 72nd anniversary of the liquidation of Orla of its Jews that occurred on November 4, 1942. All of the guests are residents of the village. Some of the names on the wall commemorating those that perished are our direct relatives.
We, here in Orla, try to honor the memory of our Jewish neighbors. I personally funded the monument, see below. Every year we organize Remembrance Days together with the March of Remembrance – the uploaded film is a report from similar celebrations. I am sending you links to other events that I organize in Orla
The above picture shows the wonders of archival research done three generations later. In this picture is “LEFT” Aba Liatsky (Lacki) who is the brother of my great grandfather “RIGHT”Lazar(us) Light (Liatsky or Lait). Both were born in Orla. My family in America had no idea that Lazarus had a brother Aba until I researched my Orla family. I found this picture of Aba in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Archives. After comparing their facial features up-close I have no doubt of their relationship. Lazarus lived a comfortable life in New York City and owned a factory that made coats for oversized women. As for Aba Lacki, he owned a launderette (Yad Vashem specifies it was a chemical washing laundry which is maybe what we call today dry cleaning}. Aba’s son Yakov (Jacob) also worked in the Launderette. Aba, his son Yakov with wife Chela and their daughter Mina perished in the Holocaust.
The life of Morris Light differs from most who emigrated from Orla to the United States.
Morris actually returned to Orla after emigrating to the United States.
Morris emigrated from Orla arriving in New York City in 1891 along with my Great grandfather Lazarus (Lazar) Light and his new wife Anna (Chana) Frank. Morris accompanied his eldest son Lazar on his honeymoon. Lazar’s wife, my great grandmother, is the daughter of Heyman Frank and Esther Plioin possibly from Równe (now Rivne). Morris Light returned to Orla between 1902 and 1905 to be reunited with his mother, Miriam Mindel, and relatives that did not join him in America. Morris’ father is Rabbi Dov Ber Liatski of Orla (abt 1835 – Sept 25, 1879). Rabbi Dov’s father, my fourth great grandfather is Rabbi Baruch Zev Liatski (Abt 1810 – 1855).
Torn between the luxuries in a new land and ultimately the grim challenges awaiting him in Orla, Morris apparently lived out his final years destitute in the shtetl of his birth. The strife I assume he faced is made evident by his letters below along with a testimonial recorded in Yad Vashem. The testimonial describes the suffering of all in Orla during the remaining years of the decade. I would think returning to Orla with an anglican name there would be some record of Morris Light residing in Orla sometime after 1902. On October 18, 1902 Morris’ wife, my great great grandmother Gitl (Yetta, Gussie) Shottlander (Shortlauder) born February 1859, died in New York City. According to my grandfather’s (Philip Light) sister Bea (Batia), Morris became sad and unhappy and longed to return to Orla. The twist may be that he had a love interest back in Orla. When you read one of his letters his children in America caught on to this and were far from happy! The last letter is actually a poem I have from my great great grandfather dated February 16, 1910 on his 65th birthday. The date of Morris’ death is currently unknown. How he lived out his final days is something that I wonder about. Morris’ fate had he remained in America would have been the opposite of his final years in Orla. By 1910 his children in America prospered, married, had children and some achieved wealth. Morris’ remaining years in Orla left him destitute and pathetic according to his final letter.
The details of the Liatsky family from Orla is documented on ancestry.com I have identified approximately 1,500 descendants just from my great great great grandparents, Dov and Miriam Liatski.
If anyone has any interest in viewing this public tree, please do not hesitate to contact me for an invite.
Below are the hand colored Family Trees by Morris. One located in Florida. One located in Canada.
The one made specifically for Lazar (Lazarus Light my great grandfather) Liatsky was never found. We knew it existed, but all of the relatives we asked knew of it and tried to locate it to no avail. In 1990 or so a woman came into my brother’s (Steven Light of Fort Lauderdale, Florida) place of business located in Miami and said she was a Light and wanted to know if we were related. She came in a month later with a ripped family tree in a large broken frame that her grand nephew had, Sure enough, written in Hebrew, was a branch on the tree with my grandfather Philip Light’s name on it and that of his sisters born at the time the tree was dated. My aunt (Sandra Cohn) figured out how to decipher the tree and the way the offspring were listed in chronological order. Morris made great efforts to make these trees with letters requesting updates of the births subsequent to his emigration from New York back to Orla (see letter below). The bottom of the tree in Hebrew is written “for those that want to remember”. I feel that I may be among the few that care. This makes my inquiries to research my Orla family that much more meaningful.
Attached are the two trees that thus far have been located. I also have a close up picture showing the detail of Morris’ artistic prowess.
The main source for reconstructing the history of the family, is a 1906 family tree created by Morris Light (Moshe Lait “surname sometimes used just prior to immigration”). One version of the tree is located in Montreal, Canada. A second version is a copy in the possession of me in Miami, Florida. It is possible that a number of versions were created by Morris. One for each branch of his family. Each one was then mailed from Orla.
I would like to credit Rabbi Jeffrey Marx of Los Angeles California for helping me reconstruct some of the family’s history thus far.
Below is the document of military conscription into the Czar’s army. The assumptions of the translation provided by my brother, Steven Light, may be partially incorrect. The individual’s description states “the index finger lacks the first two joints”. The subject person on this document is illegible. It is most likely Lazar(us) Liatski (Lait, Light) who is my great grandfather.
The affidavit from Bielsk says that the military candidate is missing a finger. I understand that it was common for young Jewish men to shoot their right hand finger off so that they could not hold a gun, thus disqualifying them from enlistment in the Czar’s army. Since the line with the subject name is illegible I am unsure who this letter is for. I assume it is for Lazar(us) who was a teenager then. I know for sure that Lazar(us) had all of his fingers and I would think that the family would have discussed if Morris was missing a finger. This leads me to believe the document is a forgery to disqualify one of them from enlistment. Further research needs to determine this.
Dear [Karl?] Kalman Light and to my devoted daughter in law, Jenny:
We are all, thank God, well. I received your letter, and truly was very happy to get it, because you used to send me a letter every month and now you have not done so for three months. So I thank you warmly and I also thank you for the things that you sent me. You saved me because I did not have anything to wear to go out into the street among people. There was a bit of a mix-up, but there is nothing to be done at this point. I didn’t need a winter jacket but rather a spring jacket, because in Europe it is not fitting for an older person to go out without a jacket, even in summer. Especially in a [illeg.] it isn’t nice, but there is nothing to be done. The jacket will also be of use to me. I thank you very sincerely.
I am also sending you a tree with [illeg.] apples and pears.
For all the grandchildren who will send me a letter, I will answer them with a letter and also a tree with apples and pears. For the little children who can’t yet write me a letter I will also answer if I get a letter from their parents. I am also sending a present for Liala [from your family?] I will soon send a tree with pears and apples for Bubele [?] because Fanny was laid up and it was too hard for her to write to me and it’s too long for Bubele to wait for the apples and pears, so I will send it with a letter to Fanny.
I have also sent the big pictures [photographs] for each person; please be so good as to give them to each one.
Thank you, my daughter- in-law for the birthday greeting which you sent me, and for remembering the paper that I asked you to send me. [Illeg.] Fanny sent me a silk handkerchief but I haven’t received it, but I assume it will be [illeg.] and well wrapped so that no one can get to it, and that it will soon come. About [illeg.] you write that you haven’t gotten the receipt, I will tell him, but it seems to me that he once told me about the [illeg.] from Kalman that she sent it, but I will tell him.
I am also writing about Fanny’s [?]. I had already had the same [?] in the [third?] letter, but nobody wrote me the name of the newborn grandchild and I needed to know it to be able to write the name on the branches of all the trees which I have sent to you and also on the trees I made for [Avrom?] and to send to Orle and to Rokhl Leah, and for my brother’s children. So I left the space on the branches empty because I don’t know the name. And in America you will be able to write in the name yourselves. So when Fanny writes me, she shouldn’t forget to tell me the name so I can fill it in on the branches.
You must write me how [Hinde?] is, because Velvel Levtske told me that she is sick. He said it under his breath and then he told Nekhe that she [Hinde] needs to have an operation so I asked him again and he denied it. So I am very worried about her. So you must write me.
[Entire line along crease illegible].
I have no more news. My devoted son Kalman and Jenny and Liala. May God grant you good luck in business.
From me, your father, father- in- law and grandfather.
Aba and Nekhe and the children send regards to all of you.
Rokhl Leah and Natan and the children send regards to all
Khenke and her husband Ben Zion Shekovitshe and their little children send greetings to all
Kalman Limenske and his wife and children send greetings to all
I send regards to Rokhl Toshman [?] and K_____ Zukerman and her husband and children
I send greetings to Maytes’ [?]children
I send greetings to my sister’s son, Morris Schwartz
I received from Borukh Borman [?] 10 [units of currency; maybe rubles] I gave 5 to [illeg.] and I owed 3 which I paid. May God help all of you and I send my best wishes.
To my devoted daughter in law Jenny Light and to my son [Karl?] Kalman Light. I am, thank God, well. I thought that all my children were angry at me and had decided not to write me any letters, since even from you I haven’t gotten a letter in four months and you used to write me every month. Also, when I wrote to my children regarding Aunt Toybe, that it hadn’t yet come to getting married, that [illeg.] still deliberating about what I should do, they had already stopped writing. Then all of a sudden a letter came from [Otvostsk? – partly illeg.] to someone in Bialystok and that person wrote to me in Orle, saying that the other person had talked to my children in New York and that the children had impudently said that if I get married they won’t send me even one cent. Since I haven’t gotten any letters, that must be true. But then a couple of weeks ago I got a letter from Lazar. He writes me what that person wrote to me, that I won’t get one cent, is a lie and I shouldn’t believe it. But Kalman Limenske happened to read the letter that I had gotten and he said, What became of them in America? Did they become so corrupted in America? If they contributed 10 cents a week they would have [illeg.] to send you. In Bialystok they distribute [sentence along crease in paper illegible.] That’s how amazed Kalman Limenske was. Then ultimately I got the letter from Lazar that said it’s a lie and I shouldn’t believe it. [Illeg.] if they send it, if they don’t send it, with God’s help I won’t be abandoned, and if you can improve your situation , you should do that. That’s what was written in [your?the?] letter, but [illeg.] it must have been that other person who said that they will not send a groshen. [Russian equivalent of a cent.]
I understand that [illeg.] about the children, they won’t send it anyway. The way things are done in small towns, those people in Orle who don’t want to contribute to the Lines Hatsedek [charity in shtetl providing aid to indigent people], they talk about the Lines Hatsedek.
Let’s put this matter aside and talk about [illeg.] things. Today the 16th of February, the [4th?] day of [the Hebrew month of] Adar, is my birthday. So I am sending for all of you my biography that I have written. I ask that you write me more often. Finally, I send greetings to you and Kalman and the children. Please pass on my letter and the biography to everyone. From me, your father, father- in- law and grandfather.
I use brackets to indicate when something is illegible or uncertain. If entirely illeg.ible: [illeg.]. If I’m unsure I put a question mark after the word/s in question, and all in brackets.
Brackets are also used to provide definitions or explanatory material.
If a word is in italics, it means that it is an English word that the writer wrote in the Yiddish alphabet, e.g. cent.
The list of greetings/regards [the Yiddish word is grus, pl.grisn; verb grisn – to greet or to send regards] at the end of the 1906 letter is very common in Yiddish letters. It was a way for people to keep in touch.
Although Morris addresses the letters to both Kalman and Jenny (I think her Yiddish or Russian name may have been Dzhenie) he often uses the singular “du” for you, instead of the plural ”ir” and I can’t tell if that has any significance. Sometimes it sounds like Jenny was the intended recipient, sometimes both Jenny and Kalman. It may be that she was the main correspondent because she could read and write Yiddish
The following testimonial describes life’s challenges that Morris was subject to when he returned to Orla. The testimonial recorded by Yad Vashem is written by Sylvia Kaspin who is associated by marriage. The date of Morris’ death is currently unknown so I am unsure how much of the timeline below he experienced.
Orla in the Early 1900s
My mother’s family lived in a tiny village in eastern Poland called Orla. At that time it belonged to Russia. It is about 20-25 miles from a fair-sized town called Bielsk. I would guess that Orla is about 50 miles west of the present Russian border. My aunt Bella says that the village had two streets. I only remember one. It was a cobblestone highway that ran through the village. The village had a square in the center, sort of a market place with small stores all around it. Once a week the peasants from the neighboring farms would come to the market place, bring their produce to sell and buy what they needed in these small stores.
The village had a stream. There was a mill on the stream which ground the rye grain used for making the black Russian sourdough bread the people ate. Our miller also had a side line. With his horse and wagon he transported people and goods to and from the villages in this area. There was no other means of transportation.
There was also a beautiful forest near the stream. The whole area was densely forested. In warm weather, on the Sabbath, when no work was done at all, people, especially young people, would walk in the forest.
There was no doctor in the village. There was a pharmacist who compounded medicines himself. My grandmother, Hashe, made tallow candles by dipping them and I have a faint memory of a barn-like structure in the back of the house and seeing candles hanging from the rafters. She had a little store in the village square where she sold these candles and other things as well. What I remember about that store are the big barrels of herring that took up all the space and you could hardly go inside.
There was a house of study, a small room which was part of the synagogue. Right across our house, on the other side of the road, was a very large, grandiose church situated on a large piece of land. Around it was a low stone wall, maybe three or four feet high and on top of the stone wall was an iron fence.
There was, of course, no running water. Water had to be brought in from a well. There was no bathroom. You had to go outside for that. There was no bathtub. I remember being bathed in a large metal container. There was a village bathhouse which was used at certain times.
I remember when the First World War reached our area and the cannon started shooting. I remember that we hid in the cemetery behind the gravestones. The next morning we fled to a town where we stayed a few days and then went back to our village. When we got back to Orla, we found that our house had been completely destroyed, burned to the ground.
The winter, spring and summer after we returned from running away were very hard. There wasn’t enough food. The Germans controlled the supply. The peasants hid as much of their grain and vegetables as they could and then sold it to the people of the villages who would go there at night and smuggle it in without the Germans’ knowledge.
When the whole population was practically starving, my mother and her very close friend who was a trained nurse went to the German commandant and asked him for food to set up a soup kitchen for the village. Strange as it may seem, he agreed to their request and supplied food to them. They set up a soup kitchen for the village and saved a lot of people from starving.
We moved into another house at the other end of the village. This house I remember. You entered from the street into a very large room. To the right was a very large table with chairs and to the left, some sort of cupboard for keeping clothes. Right opposite the entrance was a tremendous oven built from the floor to the ceiling. This is what heated the whole house during the winter. It was a two-story oven. The wood was placed in the lower part of the oven. When the fire died down, the upstairs could be slept in and it was used for that purpose. The winters were very cold so this was beneficial. There was a narrow wooden bench in front of the oven. I don’t remember going outside in the winter. We didn’t have shoes.
To the left of the oven was the entrance to a small room which was used as a bedroom. There were bedrooms on the other side of the oven. There was also a very large kitchen which was shared by another family living on the other side. They were two homes connected by a common kitchen.
The one thing I remember fondly about the kitchen is when bread was baked. This was the Russian black sourdough bread. About 40 lbs. of rye flour was placed in a large wooden container, ingredients added and allowed to stand until it fermented. Then the big oven in the kitchen was fired up and when the wood had turned to coals, the dough was made up into large, round loaves and put into a clearing in the oven with a long paddle.
Spring was a wonderful time after being confined to the house all winter. I remember going barefoot through the meadows and it was wonderful to feel the grass underneath. There was a red clover growing in the meadows and we used to pluck out the petals of the flowers. The tips of the petals were white and quite sweet and we used to eat them.
It is ironic that most of us are unaware of our origins in Orla. Marek Chmielewski has made a great effort on our behalf to assure today’s current residents of Orla are. Marek, the mayor of Orla, has implemented programs in the local school and annual events about its forgotten past, much of which are at his own cost. The following video commemorates the 72nd anniversary of the liquidation of Orla of its Jews that occurred on November 4, 1942. All of the guests are residents of the village. Some of the names on the wall commemorating those who perished are our direct relatives.