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Olitski Brothers

Writers, poets, and educators. Born in Trisk (Turzysk), Volhynia, the Olitski brothers—Leyb, Borukh, and Mates—each made meaningful contributions to Yiddish education and literature. The eldest, Leyb (1895–1975), was an educator who wrote novels and short stories for adults and children. The second brother, Borukh (1907–1941), had a strong reputation as a poet and teacher of Yiddish language and literature. Mates (1915– ), the youngest, is a poet and educator, first in Europe and later in New York.


Leyb Olitski was long associated with Central Yiddish School Organization (TSYSHO), the Bund’s educational system, first in Trisk and, from 1932, in Warsaw. His first literary piece was “Di estraykhishe tliye” (The Austrian Gallows), a story printed in the literary anthology Varshever almanakh (Warsaw Almanac; 1923). His book In an okupirt shtetl (In an Occupied Shtetl) appeared a year later. This text, like many Yiddish books of the time, describes a small Jewish town during World War I and the initial days of independent Poland. Its realistic style presents characters and situations that illustrate the depth of the crisis that struck traditional Jewish society in those years.


The same subject is depicted in Olitski’s short stories in the collection In shayn fun flamen (In the Glow of Flames; 1932). The critic Leo Finkelshteyn praised the book’s linguistic and stylistic novelty, but both he and Yoshue Rapoport felt that Olitski failed to construct a solid plot and missed the opportunity to relay a social message, an expectation of writers identified with the Bund. Leyb’s social novel Huntman (Dogman; 1937) achieved much more success and was one of the few novels in Yiddish that at the time was published in a second edition (1939).


Olitski also wrote for children, and was acclaimed for his book of fables called Mesholim far kinder un groyse (Fables for Children and Adults; 1929). Attempting to combine fables with the political and social message of love for labor and justice, he abandoned traditional motifs from nature and instead chose scenes of the city and its surroundings. He published another book of fables, Vent hobn oyern (The Walls Have Ears) in 1938. Also noteworthy was his collection of children’s stories Zun antkegn (Against the Sun; 1933).


At the beginning of World War II, Leyb fled to Kovel’ (Pol., Kowel). He was deported in 1941 to the eastern Soviet Union, where he was forced to work in a labor camp and later in a military hospital. In the summer of 1946 he returned to Poland, and was active in attempts to reestablish a Yiddish literary and journalistic center. In 1958 he moved to Israel, where he continued to write poems and translate fables into Yiddish as well as to memorialize the world that had been lost.


Borukh Olitski was educated in a heder and in a Zionist school, and learned secular subjects on his own. Orphaned during World War I, he lived with an uncle. For a time, he worked as a private tutor and later taught Yiddish language and literature in schools throughout Volhynia. From 1934 until the outbreak of World War II, he taught in Łódź and Warsaw, where he was beloved by his students and was regarded as one of the more talented poets of the new generation of Jewish writers. A single collection of his poems was published after his death at the initiative of his brother Leyb, titled Mayn blut is oysgemisht (My Blood Is Mixed; 1951).


Following the outbreak of World War II, Borukh reached Grodno, where he taught in a Soviet Yiddish high school, and from there at a similar institution in Lachowicz. There are no records about his life after 24 June 1941—the day the Germans occupied the town.


Mates Olitski, the youngest of the brothers, was a student at TSYSHO and a graduate of the Jewish Polish high school in Kovel’; he then studied at the University of Warsaw for a year. Mates’s first poems were published in 1935 in the prestigious weekly Literarishe bleter. The majority of his poems touch upon the lives of the working class, describing their deprived childhoods and existential distresses. Another motif highlights the insignificance of the individual in the modern city.


During World War II, Mates lived in the Soviet Union. After the war, he spent several years in displaced persons camps in Germany, finally settling in New York in 1949, where he taught and continued to write poetry for many years. In 1964, he and his brother Leyb published Lider tsu a bruder (Poems to a Brother), an anthology in memory of their murdered brother.

Suggested Reading

Khayim-Leyb Fuks, “Olitski, Leyb,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 1, cols. 105–106 (New York, 1956); Berl Kagan (Cohen), “Olitski, Leyb,” in Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers, col. 28 (New York, 1986); Berl Kagan, “Olitski, Mates,” in Leksikon fun yidish-shraybers, cols. 28–30 (New York, 1986); Ḥayyim Solomon Kazdan, ed., “Olitski, Borekh,” in Lerer-yizker-bukh, pp. 15–16 (New York, 1954); “Olitski, Borekh,” in Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur, vol. 1, col. 104 (New York, 1956).

Author

Translation

Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen