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The Okins from Mir

selection from a book by Leopold Hoenig

Known as the City of the Torah, Mir was once one of the oldest cities in Lithuania but today is part of newly independent Belarus. Historical records indicate it existed as far back as the 14th century, according to an article by M. Tiktinski in the Mir Memorial Book. (The Tiktinskis were a prominent Jewish family in Mir.) A register of land property, a system of administration, a palace and a "perfect" fortress existed in Mir before 1500. The Radziwill family ruled the town for nearly 300 years beginning in the 16th century and until power passed on to the Mirski family three hundred years later. By this time, Dora, Ezer, Ida and Rose Okin had migrated to New York and their parents, Isaac and Pesha Hanna Okin, were deceased.

By 1678 there was a large Jewish community in Mir, but it is not known when it started. This Jewish community was a major factor in the development and growth of the town and by 1700 merchants from near and far attended the bi-annual fairs and conducted business in Mir. With nearly all the trade in Jewish hands, economic development grew to the point where Mir became one of the main centers of commerce in Poland and Lithuania.

Mir held a place of honor during the era of the Congresses of the Four Countries during the I7th and first half of the 18th centuries. Representatives of large cities used to meet at the fairs to discuss and decide important spiritual and material matters. The town was also a center for tax payments.

Mir's rabbis, renowned and revered for their knowledge of Jewish Law, were "gaonim." Rabbi Moshe Eisenstadt, the great scholar of the Law, who preached in the town at the beginning of the 18th century, was Mir's first well-known spiritual leader. He was mentioned in rabbinical writings of that period and scholars turned to him with questions and respected his opinions. His brother, Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt, was the author of Panim Meiroth.

The famous and ingenious Rabbi Shlomo Mirkish, author of the treatise Shukhan Shlomo, presided over Mir's rabbinate towards the end of the 18th century until he went to Koenigsberg. Other important spiritual leaders in Mir included Rabbi Yosef David Eisenstadt ("Rabbi David of Mir"); his son, Rabbi Moshe Avraham; Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipman Hacohen Waslavaski ("Malbushe Yom-Tov"); Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinovits-Teomim (who later became Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and his son-in-law, Avraham ltzchak Hacohen Kook, was Israel's Chief Rabbi); Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch Kamai, and his son, Rabbi Zevi-Hirsh Kamai.

Mir's great prestigious Yeshiva Academy, founded in 1815, existed until the Nazis occupied the town. It was founded by Rabbi Shmuel Tiktinski and his son, Rabbi Avraham, was the Principal until his death in 1836. He was followed by Rabbi Chaim Leib for the next 49 years, a period during which the Yeshiva grew and attracted students from beyond Russia's boundaries.

The founder initially paid all expenses and, now, two Yeshivas of Mir are in existence, one in Jerusalem and the other in the United States. For many years a Talmud Torah also existed in Mir, and it was a preparatory school for those students who wanted to be accepted into the Yeshiva.

A large library (second in importance to the one in Minsk), the Loan and Savings Bank ("Halva'ah Vechisachon"), the "Gemilut Chessed," and various other societies including "Linath Hatzedek" were important components of Mir's Jewish community. Even though Mir was considered to be a small township, many of its Jewish residents became first prominent, including lawyers, social workers, writers, and builders of Israel.

Before the Nazis came and destroyed Mir, Simha Reznik describes the town this way in the Mir Memorial Book:
"House opposite house, a house next to a house, and behind each house a small vegetable garden, at times also a shed made of boards. Thus appear the streets in the small town of Mir, without street lights or pavements, curving and then straightening, with the market in the middle, consisting of two lines of shops of all types of goods, from clothing material to pitch-paint for vehicle-wheels of peasants and vehicle owners, from shoe laces to pink or green sweets for "sweets-licking" children.

"And every storekeeper kept on yapping one thing: 'come to me customers.' Craftsmen, actively competitive, shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, seamsters, and strapmakers, and no work to be found.

"Scripture-scribes and parchment makers were something out of the ordinary amongst craftsmen, the 'nobility' of Mir workers. And when orders were received from America for Pentateuchs and mezuzahs, tefillin and megillahs, the whole little town felt the benefit, and when there were no orders all the little town felt their lack. Congestion, poverty, and destitution. One could have counted the 'wealthy citizens' on the fingers of one hand.

"The children, starting with the fourth or fifth year of their life, were stuck in a 'cheder,' morning to evening. In winter, they return home at night, a lantern in hand made from a square can glazed with windows, and inside a burning candle stuck on to light the road for them. At times, the 'shkotzim,' children of neighboring gentiles, used to attack these children and break their lanterns.

"The aged, bearded teacher, to threaten the idlers amongst the children, holds a whip in his hand. Between the school semesters, a happy rejoicing. Jewish children roaming about everywhere, but at home, castings off the burdens of a half year.

"The town rabbi, and those sitting around his table, the synagogue secretaries, and communal leaders of Mir, those are deciding the Yea-and-nay in the township, and the public confirms everything.

"Indeed they have heard of progress ("haskala"), Zion, socialism, and revolutionary underground, but hush!, one dare not mention that.

"As a thunder on a bright day, something shook the calm of the township, the lethargy of the public. On the 9th of Ab, 1914, a declaration of war, conscription and interruption of communications with the outside world, in particular with America where too many of the heads of families emigrated with the purpose of bringing over their families. Fathers of families were conscripted into the army, and the township remained in destitution, in addition to the constantly prevailing poverty. The battle front neared, and now deportations and hunger are imminent. Cossacks and anti-Semites roam the front, bring with them fear of pogroms, rape, and threat of death.

"Out of that gloom shone forth the revolution in 1917. The Czar from the dynasty of Romanov was removed from the throne, and the Jewish public breathed with relief."

By this time, as noted previously, Isaac (Yitzchak Ben Zion, or ltsche Bensha) and Pesha Hannah Okin of Mir had died and their children had already migrated to New York. Itsche Benshe Okin was a Hasid scholar in Mir.

His daughter and son-in-law, Rose Okin Helfant and Hyman (Chaim) Helfant from Slutsk, and her sister, Ida (Chaya Gittel) Okin, took a ship to New York in 1892. Ida met Samuel Himmelstein in New York and they were married in 1898. Ezer ("Ike") Okin, and his wife, Frieda, migrated shortly afterwards.

After the death in New York of Hyman Helfant, a presser, on April 22, 1932, his widow, Rose, lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Ida and Sam Himmelstein, for almost 17 years. The Helfants once owned a delicatessen in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Isaac (Ezer) and Frieda Okin operated a commission bakery at East Houston and Orchard Streets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They sold the business and opened a similar store in Harlem --- which was then a Jewish neighborhood --- which did not work out. Then they opened another commission bakery on East 3rd Street in the Lower East Side. They had five children, two sons and three daughters: Isidore ("Ike"), Morris, Bessie (Faygel), Celia ("Tillie"), and Goldie.

Isidore and his family lived in Washington, D.C.

Morris and Minnie's daughter, Eileen, lives in Valley Stream, New York with her husband, Alan Davidson, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee.

Morris and Bessie (Faygel) Lipschitz were the parents of four children: Julius (who used his mother's maiden name, Okin, instead of Lipschitz), whose widow, Jeanette Klieger Okin, lives in Rockville, Maryland; Anne, who was the widow of Louis Bittner, lived in the Electchester co-operative housing development in Kew Gardens Hills-Queens, New York; Beatrice ("Bebe"), who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her husband, Joseph Hantman, and Janet, the wife of Jerry Weiner of Houston, Texas. Ellen Bittner, the daughter of Louis and Anne Lipschitz Bittner is an elementary school teacher in Eastchester (Westchester County), New York. She is President of the Eastchester Teachers Association (AFT, AFL-CIO). Ellen's brother and sister-in-law, Martin and Barbara Bittner, are systems analysts with AT&T.

Tillie married Paul Rutheiser and they were the parents of two daughters, Renée and Bernice. Renée and her first husband, Seymour Lubman (who was the President of a pharmaceutical firm), had three children who are now married: Bruce, Alison Galansky and Lori Sokol. After Seymour's death, Renée married Nathaniel B. ("Buddy") Rosengarten and they now reside in Scottsdale, Arizona. Bernice is the wife of Gerald Landau, the owner of a scrap metal business, and they live in Plainview, New York.

Goldie, who was married to Harry Hantman, died in Florida in 1993-94. Their daughter, Eleanor Turbin, lives in Miami Beach and is the mother of a married daughter, Amy, and a son, David.

Dora Okin married Louis Levenson and they were later divorced. Louis had married in Europe, migrated to New York and married Dora around the turn of the 20th century, never having divorced his first wife. When his first wife arrived in New York she claimed her husband and took him back to Russia, leaving Dora in New York to fend for herself and her four children from Louis. Mayer Levenson (who married Frieda Schneeweiss --- the daughter of the Himmelstein's butcher on Teller Avenue in the Bronx --- on April 4, 1929, graduated from Townsend Harris High School, attended City College at night, and became an accountant), Celia Levenson (who later married a Mr. Blackman) and Isidore Levenson (a musician who played the saxophone and clarinet using the stage name of "John") were sent to Jewish orphanages, while Bessie Levenson --- the second oldest --- lived with Dora and died of tuberculosis at the age of 17. Mayer was sent to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Celia was at the Hebrew Infant Asylum (since she was only a year old when her father returned to Russia with his first wife) and Isidore was boarded out to a family. Years later, Dora took Mayer and Celia out of the orphanages after she earned a meager income peddling bagels on 14th Street in Manhattan.

However, because of their difficult upbringing, the family drifted apart and today, Selma Krieger, Mayer and Frieda Levenson's daughter, has no idea of the whereabouts of or news about her aunt Celia, Uncle Isidore or cousin Lillian.

Meanwhile, back in Mir, the Jewish community flourished. A modern school was opened and Yiddish was the teaching language. Then civil war broke out with the Poles battling the Bolsheviks. "The Poles are worse than the Cossacks: the regiment of General Haller from Poznan, [is] infamous because of its attitude towards the Jews," wrote Simha Reznik. "Regimes come and go one after the other, Russians, Poles, every retreat is accompanied by pogroms and pillage, robbery, rape, the cutting off of beards, and acts of wantonness.

"With the establishment of the Polish regime came anti-Semitism, and an economic, political and cultural depression, which was the ill-fortune of the Jews. Laws were published denouncing the Jewish nation and its culture. The economic position of the Jews in the township was hanging by a thread. Scripture-scribes, with their livelihood dependent on America, trade and work dependent on a hostile gentile environment."

Politicians arrived and incited the gentiles. They opened "co-operatives" and demanded and forced Mir's Christians to buy their goods there and not from Jewish merchants. Jewish youth, seeing no future in the town, leave for the United States, Argentina, Cuba, South Africa, and elsewhere. The "Halutz" pioneer movement declares: "we have had enough of grazing in alien fields, [and] the time has come to build our Jewish Home." So begins the "Aliyah" movement from Mir to Israel, fiercely opposed to the "Halutz" and "Aliyah" youth movements. Emissaries of the Jewish National Fund and Keren Hayessod visited Mir, further dividing the Jewish community, but the migration to the Holy Land continued.

"The 22nd of June, 1941, the day Germany attacked Russia. On that day, our fate was sealed," Miriam Swirnowski-Lieder writes in the Mir Memorial Book.

She describes in great detail the frightening fury of the arrival of the first German troops in Mir during the early morning hours on Friday, June 27, 1941, and how "the gentile underworld raised its head immediately" and "a mass of hooligans went on to enjoy themelves at the expense of the Jews.... breaking windows in Jewish homes." With the arrival of the S.S., Jews were chased out of their homes, forced to turn over property and ordered to wear yellow patches on their chests and backs. In the days, weeks and months to follow, some Jews were buried alive in the Yablonovchina Forest, homes were burned, and they were ordered to form a "Jewish Committee" to act as a go-between with the invaders, prohibited from contact with gentiles, indiscriminately shot, and, finally, a mass murder of most of Mir's Jews took place. The rest were herded into a ghetto and then, in May, 1942, they were transferred to the medieval Mirski castle which "consisted of five 5-storied towers, joined by thick stone walls. Below were deep cellars, where no human foot dared tread, infested with swarms of various reptiles." All the surrounding towns had been "cleaned of Jews." On Monday, August 10, 1942 most of the Jews are ordered out. "The ones left still stand below in the yard. What for should they get up? The large, emptied castle frightens. All the same it is already the end. But no, in spite of that it is not yet the end, the ghetto is not yet surrounded, one can still get away! Why do they stand about, losing the last chance?! But they do not move from the place. There stands Wallach with his family, four grown up children . . . . Here sits Godel Trolewitzki with his family.... There says good-bye family Gonishchiner .... There cries bitterly the wife of Zerach Zeiiwianski, she pities not herself, but her sick son .... Only two benefitted from German protection, that is Pesach Zuchowicki, the tailor, whom they left behind as a good tradesman, and Chaya Chaimowicz, a pharmaceutical chemist, who was requested to be left by the White Russian population. Szepsel Gavze organizes a group to commit suicide by drowning....he wanted to do something in order to die, and neither that could he do."

At 4 p.m. the ghetto is encircled by police and machine gun toting Germans. Very few of those who had hid there succeed in breaking through the strangehold.

Miriam Swirnowski-Lieder recalls:
"We start liquidating everything. We crush and burn remnants of food, clothing and leather. We pour kerosene over it and burn it, so that the enemy should not profit by it. Others even now carry food down into the cellars; perhaps they will succeed in lasting out the action, and then run away to some place. Even the police had no desire to go on searching in the cellars, thanks to which nine young girls saved their own lives. In spite of the encirclement, they managed one night to get out of the ghetto.

"Suicides begin. Liba-Gitel and Szaul Razowski, dentist Nemzar, Dr. Julian Miller with his wife and child, take poison. His wife stays awake another 24 hours. Today she is in Israel. Natan Braun, an escapee from Lodz, hangs himself. Simon Szkiut, lcke the Rabbi's, also poison themselves. Not with everyone does the poison take effect. So they walk about like poisoned creatures, neither dead, nor alive. One young man committed double suicide: he cut his veins and swallowed poison, but by neither means attained his object. How deeply tragic it was, when his father, an old Jew, ran into the street, crying and begging: "Jews have no mercy, and help my son die. He has already done everything to die, and despite that is unable to die."

"Josef Schneider with his family hid in an attic of a tower. They were found by the Germans and hurled down from the fifth story. Together with them was also Kraina Kagan.

"Quite differently react the religious. They have self-control, externally look calm, engrossed in their deep belief that they are passing into a better world. So a few tens of them sit around up top in an unfinished part of the castle, which has all the time served them as a prayer room. They pray, learn and say psalms. On the last day, they wash, dress, put on clean underwear, and prepare themselves for the great moment of dying the death of religious martyrs."

At 4 a.m. on Tuesday, August 13, 1942 cars with Germans drive into the ghetto and the last martyrs of Mir "make their last journey to the forest by the little stream." A few, hidden by Mir's gentiles, manage to survive. Miriam Swirnowski-Lieder and her son ran away to Jozef Stelmaszyk, a peasant, where they stayed from August 13 until December 23, 1942, when they fled to the forest.

In the forest they built underground bunkers in order to survive. They found a bunker and a discarded German helmet to use as cooking utensils. They went to the town scavenging for food and hoping no Germans would be there. From time to time the Germans would search the forest, find some Jews and shoot them. Even more dangerous were those partisans who were sober. Finally they made their way to the family camp ("Otriad") at Tuvia Belski where some 1,200 Jewish survivors gathered to await salvation.

Selection from:
Hoenig, Leopold. Four families : ancestors and descendants of the Rudlovitch/Lovitch/Levitch family from Pinsk, White Russia; the Himmelstein/Gimelshteyn family from Minsk Province, White Russia; the Eisenberg family from Pinsk, White Russia; and the Okin family from Der Mir, near Minsk, White Russia. copyright 1998.

Okin Family Tree

Isaac OKIN aka Yitzchak Ben Zion, Itche Bensha (? - died bef. 1893, Mir) & Pesha Hanna (last name unknown) (? - died bef. 1892, Mir)
  Ida/Chaya Gittel OKIN, (1874-75, Mir - 1/14/1945, New York)
  Azer/Ike OKIN, born in Mir, owned a commission bakery & Frieda
  Rose OKIN (1860-61,Mir-March 1, 1949/New York) & Hyman/Chaim Helfant (born 1859-60, Mir-April 22, 1932, Mir) occupation:  presser

Dora/Drere Gelya OKIN (1864-65, Mir - May 21, 1947,Bronx NY) & Louis Levenson (born  and died in Russia), occupation:  owned  a commission bakery on East 3rd Street in Manhattan.

Updated August 2007


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