The History of Keidan

By B. Cassel

Originally published in 1930 by the Keidaner Association of New York. Original footnotes appear in roman type; translators’ and editors’ notes in italic.

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Foreword

Framed within this brief account of Lithuania’s general history the reader will find the history of Keidan – the non-Jewish city with its Jewish center. The reader will see how, due to special conditions, the Jewish community in Keidan developed into one of the most significant communities in its region. Other circumstances later led Keidan to decline, like many other Jewish communities in Lithuania. But during its flowering the Jewish community of Keidan played an important part in Lithuanian Jewish history, and has a distinguished place in the story of Jews from that time. The influence that Keidan exerted on the young genius who later became known as the Vilna Gaon is by itself enough to show the city’s importance.

As a Keidaner of at least the fourth generation, the author undertook to investigate the city’s history, using a number of historical sources, and to present, so to speak, Keidan’s noble lineage. He thus feels he has done his duty to his birthplace and to his fellow Keidaners, while contributing to the general history of Lithuanian Jewry.

Rosh Hashana Eve, 5691 / September 22, 1930
Sea Gate, New York Harbor

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I. Ancient times 

In ancient times, the dense forests of northeastern Europe from the Neman River to the Baltic Sea were a hidden region, filled with bewitching secrets. Parts of the forest remained unvisited by humans for centuries at a time. Gigantic oaks stood with trunks so large that five men with arms outstretched could not encircle them. The branches were so thick that in summer the sun’s rays were blocked out, and in winter no snow reached the ground.

These trackless woods of birch, pine, alder, ash and other trees formed a natural environment that supported large populations of animals, including wild horses, deer, bears, wolves, foxes, hares, squirrels and more. Millions of birds of all sizes filled the air with their cries in both summer and winter. Every sort of fish, from huge pike to tiny roach, filled the rivers. Hunters and fishermen found a true paradise in this region, which is called Lithuania.

The early inhabitants had no idea of their origins, although their legends said they had come from farther east. Their language showed no links to those of the surrounding populations – Germans and Slavs – although it contained traces of Sanskrit, the sacred tongue of the Hindus.

Strongly built, innocent like all children of nature, these inhabitants – the Lithuanians – occupied themselves mainly with hunting and fishing, and eventually with farming and livestock. They built no cities, nor even large villages, but lived in small, widely dispersed hamlets that allowed them to hunt and fish, till small patches of land and tend a few cattle. There were few links between these settlements; a stranger wandering the forests found his way from one to another only by listening for the barking of a dog or the crowing of a rooster. Practically no footpaths connected one tiny hamlet with another.

Long after most of Europe had adopted Christianity, the Lithuanians, like their neighbors the Prussians, remained pagans. The lightning-bolt, that most powerful utterance of nature, became the symbol of the mightiest ruler of the heavens, their greatest god, whom they named Perkunas. There were also many lesser gods with various names, mostly related to fire. Life was under the complete control of priests, who occasionally made human sacrifices at their altars.

Isolated in their deep forests from most other European peoples, and as true children of nature, the Lithuanians tended to be good-spirited and industrious. Despite their impressive statures and strong bodies they were not warlike, nor did they undertake grand projects. In this manner they lived happily and independently for centuries.

Christian missionaries began to appear in Lithuania by the end of the tenth century, but they attracted little notice at first. Yet they persisted, mocking the pagan gods and the people’s religion, so that eventually the Lithuanians lost patience and began to attack the missionaries.

In time the natural wealth of Lithuania aroused the greed of Germanic warrior-monks – the Knights Templar – who entered the region with sword and cross to spread Christianity. In about the middle of the twelfth century the Templars built their first border fortress – the Vogelsang[1]. This began a series of warlike invasions of Lithuania. Until 1410, when the strength of the crusader knights was finally broken[2], the Lithuanians were unable to put down their swords. Day and night, summer and winter, the Lithuanian forest-dwellers had to fight off the attacking knights.

Yet the centuries of external threats and military struggles forced the Lithuanians to unify themselves, adopting a common language, customs and religion. Their priests led them in their battles against the crusader monks, attempting to sustain their heathen religion against the onslaught of Christianity.

[1] The name derives from the large number of birds in the Lithuanian forests.

[2] Translators’ note: The Battle of Grunwald (Lith: Žalgiris) was fought on July 15, 1410.

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II. Lithuania’s founding

The first great Lithuanian ruler was Rinkoldis, who assumed power in about 1226. With him began a great new epoch. The German crusader knights had been vanquished and Lithuania began to grow in all directions. Rinkoldis’ son, the ruler Mindaugas, was a great hunter and warrior who had halted the penetration of Western Europe by Ghengis Khan’s Tatars.[3]

In an effort to end the plundering attacks by the German crusaders, Mindaugas sent an emissary to the pope in Rome, offering to accept Christianity on condition that the knights leave his people in peace. Mindaugas became a Christian, and the Pope ordered the crusaders to stop their invasions of Lithuania. But the knights found the plunder of Lithuania too profitable; they ignored the order and continued robbing and destroying as before.

Mindaugas could not tolerate this, and in great anger he renounced his Christian baptism, and the land returned to paganism. He had the German crusaders who had been captured burned with great pomp and ceremony as sacrifices to the Lithuanian gods, to placate them for the short-lived dalliance with Christianity. He did the same to those knights captured in later wars. In this way, Lithuanian history unfolded as a struggle against Christianity.

Lithuania became truly great and important under the reign of Gediminas, who had ties to many Russian princes. Through many successful wars and large inheritances, he expanded Lithuania far into southern and eastern Europe. He also captured Kiev, but Lithuania’s center remained around the Neman and the other rivers that flow into it.

A pagan himself, Gediminas was however tolerant of other beliefs, and he permitted other religions to build many prayer houses and churches. His daughter became the queen of Poland when the Poles sought an alliance with by-then powerful Lithuania. Gediminas fell in battle with the German knights, as did his famous, heroic son Algirdas. But Algirdas left many sons, among them the ruler Jagiello.

In 1386, when Jagiello ruled, he married the beautiful queen of Poland, Jadwiga, and thus unified Lithuania with Poland. As it turned out, the smaller Poland swallowed the larger Lithuania, both physically and spiritually, thus becoming a great political power.

As a precondition of the marriage, Jagiello and the whole Lithuanian nation with him had to convert to Roman Catholicism, in exchange for which he would receive the Polish crown.

A multitude of Catholic priests and monks flooded Lithuania. Its pagan temples were converted to Catholic churches and cloisters, and hundreds of Lithuanians were baptized. Paganism disappeared as a national religion in the last corner of Europe, and the Lithuanians were condemned to political decline.

Along with religion, those with power and influence in Lithuania adopted the Polish language and culture, thus distancing themselves from the Lithuanian masses, their customs and language. Lithuania gradually disappeared as a nation, becoming a province of Poland. The nobility spoke Polish and were Polish patriots, leaving peasants as the only Lithuanian speakers. Because of this the Lithuanian peasants grew more estranged from the lords than did the Polish peasants, who at least spoke the same language as their nobles. Lithuanian, which for so many centuries had been the language of Europe’s only pagans, was marked as the accursed language of slaves.

In fact, despite Lithuania’s official conversion to Christianity, paganism did not completely disappear. It persisted quietly in the hands of the powerful old priests, who hid in the deep forests. Sacrifices to the ancient gods still took place along the banks of the large rivers. Roman Catholic clergy had many bloody encounters with the heathen priests, until finally the last “eternal flame” on a pagan altar was extinguished in 1417.

The Lithuanians gave up everything for Christianity: Their pride as a mighty nation, their political independence, their unique civilization, their forests, fields and rivers. They lost their personal freedom and were turned into a powerless rabble.

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III. Keidan’s beginnings

In the middle of the 14th century, during the height of the attacks on Lithuania by the German crusaders, a small village was established by the Neviazhe [Nevėžis] River, near its broadest point, where the Abele [Obele] creek flows in from the south, on the left, and the Datnovke [Dotnuvėlė] and Smilga creeks enter from the north on the right.[4]

The village was flanked by hills to the east and west; to the south a panorama of glorious fields and woods spread out from the banks of the Abele and Neviazhe. To the northeast lay a dense pine forest with hundred-year-old trees.

At the beginning of the forest, right by the Neviazhe, was a steep hill suitable for an altar to the gods. An eternal flame, called “znitsh,” was lit on the hill and maintained by the priests and the “videlotkes” – maidens who attended the priests and made certain the fire was never extinguished.

It is not known exactly when the village was first settled, but it is known that when crusaders passed through there in 1379, headed to Shat [Šeta] via Labunova, the unfortified hamlet offered no resistance, and so they hardly noticed it.

At first the village bore the name “Kazdan,” after its founder, who came from Kvidangen in Courland. Later the name changed to “Kedainiai,” in Lithuanian, or “Kwiedajna” in the Zamut[5] Lithuanian dialect. In old archived documents it is called “Caiodunum” and “Civitas Caiodunensis.” In Russian and Polish it is called “Keidany.” In Yiddish – Keidan.

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The village grew. The temple, which had been built on the hill to the great god Perkunas, attracted a growing population, and Keidan became a city that drew the attention of the crusaders. There were attacks on Keidan, which were heroically repelled, just as in other parts of Lithuania. When Lithuania turned to Roman Catholicism under Jagiello, the crusaders succeeded in entrenching themselves in Keidan and built a Christian church on the hill where Perkunas’ temple had stood.

When Jagiello joined Lithuania to Poland, he was forced to appoint his cousin Vytautas [Witold, 1388-1430] as grand duke of Lithuania. Under his regime, in 1403, the church on the hill was completed. It was considered one of the most splendid churches in Lithuania, with four great inner columns and a secret underground passage to the Neviazhe River. It is likely that crusaders installed the passage when they first built the church as a fortress to defend against the pagan Lithuanians.

Vytautas was a very able leader, devoted to the Lithuanian people and language. He contributed greatly to the expansion of Keidan. In historical documents from the early fifteenth century Keidan begins to be mentioned quite often, and is attributed to the domain of Pyotr Shukshte.

[3] It is not true, as is commonly assumed, that this was done by the Russians.

[4] Specifically, the location is 55ø, 17’ North latitude and 23ø, 58’ East longitude, 49 verst from Kovno [Kaunas], 56 verst from Ponevezh [Panevėžys], 61 verst from Rasein [Raseiniai] [1 verst = 1.067 kilometer.]

[5] Translator’s note: The region of western Lithuania, labeled Samogitia on many maps, is known as Žemaitija in Lithuanian, Zmudz in Polish, Zhmud in Russian, and Zamut or Zamet in Yiddish and Hebrew.

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IV. The first Jews arrive

It is not known precisely when Jews settled in Lithuania. There are hints that already in the eighth century Jews were in some parts of the country. But in the twelfth century, Jews began to migrate to Lithuania because of persecutions by crusaders in various parts of Europe. Pagan Lithuania was then the only secure place for them. Ariogala was founded in 1262, Golshan [Alšėnai] and Kovno [Kaunas] in 1280, Telsh [Telšiai], Vilna [Vilnius] and Trok [Trakai] in 1320; all these cities attracted oppressed Jews from western and southern Europe.

After Gediminas’ victory over the Russians and the capture of Kiev in 1320, many Jews from southern Russia, and particularly from Crimea, settled in Lithuania and contributed to the development of the new cities. Gediminas encouraged their immigration with his noteworthy tolerance of all religions.

In 1388, after the unification of Lithuania with Poland, Grand Duke Vytautas granted a charter to the Lithuanian Jews giving them the same rights as the other peoples under his protection. Under this charter, Jews had autonomy in matters pertaining to religion and property, while in criminal and other matters they were subject to their local authorities. Major cases would be decided in the grand duke’s court.

Personal freedom and the ability to engage in business helped the Lithuanian Jews make great strides in commerce and landownership. Wealthy Jews lent money on interest and became collectors for various enterprises, such as the sale of alcoholic spirits. Government taxes were not proportionally higher for Jews than for Christians.

In general the situation for Jews in Lithuania was much better than it was in Poland or Germany. In Germany Jews were “chamber servants” of the ruling classes, whereas in Lithuania they were free citizens.

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Jews were already in Keidan by the fifteenth century, attracted to this growing city by its yearly market fair. In 1490 Keidan was given to the Lithuanian-Russian Kishko family by the Polish king Casimir IV, as a reward for exceptional contributions to the fatherland. The Jewish community in Keidan began to properly organize itself after Casimir’s death in 1492, when his son Albert became king of Poland and his younger son Alexander became grand duke of Lithuania.

At the beginning of his reign, Alexander confirmed all the rights and privileges that the Lithuanian Jews had obtained from the previous rulers. Keidan expanded and its commerce attracted more Jews. Then, like a sudden thunderclap, in April 1495 came the decree from Grand Duke Alexander, ordering all Jews out of Lithuania, with their possessions left behind. The small, young Jewish community of Keidan was ruined, and sent to wander along with those from other parts of Lithuania.

Many Jews relocated to Crimea, but most resettled in Poland, near the Lithuanian border, with the permission of the Polish King Albert. After Albert’s death Alexander became king of Poland. In 1503 he issued a new decree allowing Jews to return to Lithuania and reclaim their possessions. Only part of the Keidan community returned. It took years for the Keidan Jewish community to become viable and to grow again.

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V. The Calvinists

Early in the sixteenth century, the doctrine of John Calvin, known as Calvinism, began to spread through Europe. This was a reformist movement that was outspokenly democratic, unlike Catholicism, which was favored by the aristocratic classes.

Calvinism spread from France to many parts of Europe, including Poland and Lithuania. In 1560, Michael Radziwill became the first Lithuanian ruler to accept Calvinism. The Radziwills resided in Keidan, which thus became a Calvinist center. Michael Radziwill’s influence was so strong that the Catholic church was converted to a Calvinist house of worship.

During the reign of Sigismund III (1587-1632) Calvinism spread extensively through Poland, naturally provoking strong opposition from the Jesuits. The leader of the Calvinists in Poland and Lithuania was Grand Duke Janusz Radziwill, whose court was based in Keidan.

The struggle between the Calvinists and the Jesuits was very bitter. One Sunday, as Janusz Radziwill walked with his family from church, he was attacked by his own manservant, whom the Jesuits had bribed, and who split open his skull with a sword.

In 1590 Sigismund III granted Keidan administrative and judicial independence under the “Magdeburg rights.”[6] Keidan prospered under self-rule and became the region’s commercial center. Fairs took place three times a year, the largest one on the Christian holiday of Epiphany. In 1614 Christopher Radziwill, Grand Duke of Lithuania and voivode [governor] of Vilna, married the beautiful Anna, the daughter of Stanislav Kishko, and received from his father-in-law half of Keidan as a dowry. After a short time Radziwill bought the remaining half and made Keidan the residence of the Radziwills. Thus began Keidan’s era of greatness and significance.

As the home of the Lithuanian grand duke, who also led the Calvinist movement, Keidan naturally attracted many Calvinist scholars who were persecuted elsewhere in Europe. In 1625 Christopher Radziwill built the first Calvinist gymnasium, which later grew into a lyceum and had an extensive library. Michael Radziwill’s 1560 seizure of the Catholic church, which he had converted to a Calvinist church, prompted a lengthy lawsuit that lasted until 1627 when the Polish sejm [parliament] ruled in favor of a Catholic priest named Kabilinski. Christopher Radziwill was forced to return the church to the Catholics and pay a fine of 12,000 zlotys.

At the same time, however, the citizens of Keidan succeeded in having a law passed which forbade the building of additional Catholic churches and cloisters in Keidan. This law lasted as long as the Calvinists were in power.

In 1626 Christopher Radziwill undertook the construction of a large Calvinist church and meeting place in Keidan, which was completed in 1629. He installed a stone memorial plaque at the altar, with a Latin inscription announcing when the church was built and by whom.

He also had the remains of his brother, Janusz Radziwill, placed in a special vault in the church’s cellar, together with the sword that Janusz’s servant had used to murder him. An explanatory inscription was placed on the vault. The cellar of the church became the burial place for the Radziwill family.

In 1629 the first Lutheran pastor was invited to serve a German community that had existed in Keidan for some time, called the Augsburger community. The first German-Lutheran church was built of wood in 1638, and Radziwill granted the group religious freedom.

The Russians in Keidan had a cloister of black monks, where Russian Orthodox adherents gathered for Sunday services. A number of Calvinists also migrated to Keidan from Scotland after James VI, King of Scotland, became James I, King of England, and persecutions of Calvinists there increased. Many Scots became soldiers in Radziwill’s army.[7]

[6] Translators’ note: Under the Magdeburg laws, developed in 13th century Saxony, municipalities could administer their own affairs, including law courts.

[7] In the process of collecting folk songs for the anthology published by Ginzburg and Marek in 1901, the author recorded some of the oldest and best songs from Freida Heisel, the comb-maker’s daughter, an elderly woman who had been bedridden with paralysis for many years. When Freida sang the song “I Came to My Stall” (#288 in the collection), the author could not understand how a song with such a non-Jewish theme could become a folk song in Keidan. Many years later, when the author was studying Scottish folk songs, he discovered in the collection “Lyric Gems of Scotland,” the song “Home Cam’ Our Gudeman at E’en”, which is exactly the same song that Freida sang to him. Now, in doing research for the history of Keidan and discovering Scottish soldiers were in Keidan at the time of the Radziwills, he finally understood how a Scottish folk song could have been transformed into a Yiddish one. It may also be that Jewish refugees from Scotland who settled in Keidan were responsible for this.

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VI. Radziwill’s city

To increase the Jewish population and thus the commerce of Keidan, Christopher Radziwill issued a decree giving Jews full citizenship rights as well as religious freedom. The decree also guaranteed that no one would lose their property or land if they chose to leave and settle in another town.

Despite Radziwill’s strong desire to attract more Jews to Keidan, he was very careful to admit only those with proper letters of reference attesting to their reputations, characters and honesty. As a result, the Keidan Jews, who mainly came from Germany, tended to be learned and well-bred.[8] It is speculated that a number of Jews also came to Keidan after being expelled from Scotland, among them many weavers. As a result, the weaving industry developed strongly in Keidan. At the start of the nineteenth century, weaving in Keidan was exclusively in Jewish hands.

Grand Duke Radziwill was very receptive to the new Jewish immigrants and assigned them a special part of the city. In time they became adept in various handicrafts, and Radziwill took great pride in the many expert craftsmen. In addition, many religious scholars from Germany also immigrated, and Keidan became a center of Torah study and piety. In a short while Keidan achieved a reputation as the most significant Jewish community in Zamut, the heart of Lithuania.

In 1623 the Jews of Lithuania and Zamut formed a “Council of the Principal Lands of Lithuania” which became a part of the “Council of the Four Lands.” Within a few years after its founding, Keidan Jews were taking part in the Lithuanian council. By the time of Christopher Radziwill’s death in 1640, when Keidan was inherited by his son Janusz, the Jewish community there was firmly established.

[8] Keidan Jews were justifiably proud of their lineage. If someone met a Jew from Keidan on a journey and asked, “Where are you from?” he would answer proudly, “Who, me? I’m a Keidaner!” And on the word “me” he would thump his finger into his chest. Envious, other Lithuanian Jews dubbed them “Hole-in-the-chest Keidaners,” the holes resulting from excessive chest-thumping.
Keidaners were also known as great scholars, who sat constantly bent over the Talmud; thus they were also called “Keidaner hunchbacks.” Some wags claimed that their backs were bent due to excessive chest-thumping, which so indented their chests that it pushed their backbones out.

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VII. A golden age

The Radziwills were closely interconnected with the princes and kings of Europe, and were accounted among the leading aristocrats of the Christian world of that time. Janusz Radziwill, moreover, was considered the richest and most educated leader in Poland, Lithuania and Zamut. As a Calvinist, he was also freer spiritually, and more democratic than the other rulers.

Having spent his youth in the capitals and royal courts of Europe, and as the richest of the Polish-Lithuanian grand dukes, he built a palace in his home city of Keidan, the capital of Zamut. The castle was built on the hill to the right of the road leading to the Januszova [Janušava] villages (which were named for him). In size, beauty and splendor, this castle surpassed many of the most important palaces and castles of Europe. It was not fortified, but looked down from its hill, over the long castle road and the city that lay, so to speak, spread out at its feet.

Two low wings extended from the sides of the main palace, forming a gigantic courtyard, which was encircled by a great iron fence. The entrance was through a large towered gate, with a shield emblazoned with the coats of arms of the Radziwill family and the city of Keidan: an eagle’s black wing and claw on a golden background, holding a horseshoe bedecked with three red crosses.

An honor guard of Scottish soldiers stood in front of the gate. Janusz was served by Scottish as well as German troops. On the left side of the Januszova road across from the castle was the Calvinist court chapel, where worship services were conducted in the Lithuanian language. Nearby was the Calvinist churchyard, where to this day one can still see old gravestones with faded inscriptions going back to the time of the Radziwills. The city was not fortified, since Radziwill did not fear attack by any foe; he was the strongest ruler in Poland and Lithuania, with powerful foreign regiments as well as Polish and Lithuanian troops in his service.

Keidan teemed constantly with noblemen and diplomats from all over Europe. Very often official balls took place in the great halls, where ambassadors from royal courts were received. The townspeople would participate on especially festive occasions, such as when Janusz Radziwill would return from a military victory, which happened quite often. At those times, barrels of pitch were set around the castle and on the main roads leading to it, to be burned at night in a festive light show.[9]

Where the market place began by the Neviazhe River were piers for the sailboats that plied the river between Ponevezh [Panevėžys] and Keidan. At the entrance to the city on the other side of the river stood a stone gate.

The streets were called Long Castle Street, Court Street, Yasven Street, Smilga Street and Jewish Street. The streets, like the market square, were nicely paved and well kept, and Keidan was known as the most beautiful city in Zamut. Though Vilna was the capital of Lithuania, Keidan was the heart of Zamut because it was the residence of Janusz Radziwill, the hetman [commander] of Lithuania, protector of Vilna and a grand duke of Rome, with hopes of eventually becoming king of Poland. Keidan was expanded and beautified under Janusz’s rule and became a center of scholarship in Zamut. The lyceum attracted the best professors and students.

The Calvinist Janusz Radziwill tried hard to unite the Calvinist and Lutheran churches. Many conferences and discussions were held with that aim, especially after the religious dispute at Thorn in 1645.[10] These sessions brought many scholars from various parts of Europe to Keidan. Many of them settled there.[11] But Radziwill never succeeded in uniting the two churches.

A book-printing house was established in 1650, which published the first book of psalms in Lithuanian, as well as many other religious and scientific books. The largest paper factory, which served a wide region, was built several years earlier. In archives in Kovno and Vilna one can still find old printed or handwritten documents on paper bearing the watermark, “Civitas Caiodunensis” [City of Keidan]. A book of police-administration ordinances exists that was printed on paper from Keidan in 1653.

Calvinists, persecuted in most European cities, found a refuge in Keidan, as did the Lutherans; the German Lutheran community blossomed there. The Russians also had their own community. Only Catholics were not tolerated, and Jesuits were not even allowed into the city. The population coexisted amiably under the generosity of Radziwill’s just and progressive regime. He also showed his love for his own people, the Lithuanians, and their language.

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Janusz Radziwill was particularly friendly to the Jews of Keidan, upholding all the rights and privileges that his father Christopher had granted them. In 1647 he issued regulations for the city’s administration. The sixth paragraph said that voting for city officials would be open to all citizens, regardless of religion or nationality. At that time Jews were the most prominent group in the communal and economic life of the city. They were occupied as wine merchants and brewers, moneylenders, exporters, importers and farmers and in various crafts. Jewish artisans were organized into various guilds, which had the same obligations as non-Jewish guilds, except that Jewish guilds did not have to pay taxes related to Christian customs.

Judges at the castle adjudicated disputes between Jews and Christians. To collect debts from Christians, Jews were allowed to sell the debtors’ houses if their other personal assets could not cover the obligations. But such houses could only be sold to other Christians. Jews and Christians alike obtained rights of residence one year and six weeks after taking an oath as citizens. Jews were represented on the city council that set fees and taxes, thus assuring that these were applied equitably to Jews and Christians. Jews participated in annual military exercises under the supervision of a city official (and the guidance of military instructors), to give city managers an accurate count of how many Jews could bear arms if needed to defend against an enemy.

It was not possible for Jews to buy their way out of the annual military exercises. However, for the obligation of serving on the night watch, which fell on all citizens, a Jew was allowed to hire a Christian guard. The names of the streets where Jews lived were: Old Market Street, Smilga Street, Jewish Street and Crooked Alley.

[9] The Keidan Jewish community also celebrated major occasions this way, which was called “burning barrels.” The evening of Shmini Atseret [the eighth day of Sukkot] before the annual procession of scrolls marking Simchat Torah, youngsters would set up rows of barrels stacked in threes or fours and ignite them in an open field by the Smilga, not far from the synagogue.

[10] Translator’s note: The Colloquy of Thorn was an unsuccessful attempt by the Polish king Władysław IV to reconcile Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans.

[11] One of the inscriptions on a monument in the German graveyard tells in Latin of a professor in the famous gymnasium, Adam Freytag, who died in 1646: “He left behind no children, but he did leave us a book about military architecture.”

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VIII. 17th century life

In 1648 the king of Poland, Władysław IV, confirmed the Magdeburg Law for Keidan. In the same year, Radziwill permitted the first windmill to be built, on the Abele. The mill was leased to Jews. In 1648, after the death of Janusz’s first wife, he married the Russian princess Maria Mogilianka. He ordered that a wooden Russian Orthodox church be built in her honor at the little market site, not far from the Skongale. This building still exists.

In 1652 the large, two-storied, brick town hall was completed on the market square. The building was one of the most beautiful in Zamut. The splendid town clock on the tower had no equal, in Danzig or anywhere in Lithuania. For three years Radziwill imposed a fee on liquor and mead[12] to cover the cost of building the town hall. The fee applied to Jews and Christians equally. A special official was appointed to collect the levy. In April, 1652 Radziwill ordered all Jewish butchers, slaughterers and those selling animals for slaughter to join together as a guild.

* * *

The hellish flame of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s revolt, which in 1648 and 1649 consumed so many Jewish lives in Ukraine and Poland, did not affect Keidan, except that the Jewish community sent assistance to the suffering survivors, as did others in Lithuania. Jews in Keidan lived much better than did Jews in other Lithuanian cities, even when the great Russian-Polish war under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich erupted in 1654. Until 1655, when the Russians destroyed Vilna and hundreds of Jewish communities were wiped out, Keidan, the heart of Zamut, did not share in the suffering of the Jewish communities throughout Ukraine and in most of Poland and Lithuania. But then in 1655, war broke out with Sweden.

* * *

Karl Gustav of Sweden, who at the start of the war had little difficulty defeating the Polish king Jan Casimir, had been supported by Janusz Radziwill. All Lithuanian Calvinists saw the Swedish king, who was also a Calvinist, as a friend and savior of Lithuania. Keidan became a center for Swedish troops under the leadership of Karl Gustav’s brother-in-law, Magnus de la Gardie. Janusz Radziwill personally commanded a large army of Lithuanian, Polish, Scottish and German soldiers against Jan Casimir, and was eventually surrounded in the Tykocin fortress, where he died of a heart attack in 1656.

Meanwhile Poland, which had seemed beaten, woke up, gathered its forces and called back its king, Jan Casimir, who had fled from the Swedes into Silesia. With unified and reinvigorated armies, the Poles drove back Karl Gustav and his Swedish forces.

Now things went badly for the Jews of Lithuania, Zamut and all of Poland. The Jews of Keidan suffered especially, since the Poles considered them traitors along with the Calvinist Radziwills. Many Jews fled to Koenigsburg, which was ruled by Friedrich Wilhelm, Duke of Prussia and Brandenburg, who was an uncle of Boguslav Radziwill, Janusz’s cousin. The bubonic plague broke out in Keidan and wiped out many members of Keidan’s Jewish community in 1657.

[12] The mead brewed in Keidan by Jews was highly reputed throughout Lithuania and Poland.

IX. Rights of the Jews

Boguslav Radziwill, a Calvinist, initially fought with the Swedes against Jan Casimir, but after Janusz Radziwill died and Poland began to drive the Swedes out, Radziwill and his armies went over to the Polish king’s side. This allowed Radziwill to obtain his inheritance – the city of Keidan – from his cousin Janusz. To some extent it also protected Keidan from suffering at the hands of Polish patriots.

The wars with Sweden and Russia ended in 1657. Boguslav brought the body of his cousin Janusz from Tykocin and placed it in the family crypt in Keidan’s Calvinist church. He had a metal plaque installed at the site with a long Latin inscription, detailing the conquests of Janusz, who represented the seventh generation of the Radziwill line, and giving his date of death.

After 1658, Poland and Lithuania began to recover slowly from the war’s devastations, and Keidan’s Jewish community began to get back on its feet. In 1658 the first apothecary shop was opened, where one can still see a licensing document signed by Boguslav Radziwill. In 1659 the first bridge across the Neviazhe River was built. Small houses were set up at both ends of the bridge for toll collectors. There was even an information office for new arrivals to Keidan.

In the little house on the city side of the bridge, where the market area began, lived the city servant, whose job was to see that the market and the streets were kept clean. He was also the town crier, who announced new orders from the ruler’s castle or from the town hall. These announcements, preceded by the beating of a drum, were generally shouted out on Thursdays, the market days. Bridge tolls were collected by a Jew who leased the business. Boguslav confirmed all the rights granted to Jews by the earlier Radziwills.

Boguslav himself spent most of his time in Koenigsburg, Prussia, returning to Keidan only from time to time. Jews were appointed to handle the town’s finances. Most of Boguslav’s official documents were issued from Koenigsburg. This included a document authorizing Keidan’s mayor, Oborsky, to provide the monks of the Russian Orthodox cloister with an annual 5 tons of rye, 4 tons of malt, 7½ tons of oats, 1 ton of buckwheat, 1 ton of barley, 1 ton of peas, 3 barrels of butter, 90 cheeses, and so forth. This was signed on September 12, 1661, in Koenigsburg.

On June 11, 1662 Mayor Oborsky reported to Duke Radziwill in Koenigsburg that, in defiance of the rights that had been previously granted to Jews, the Catholic bishop had posted notices in the market place and other public areas denying Jews the right to employ Christian servants.

On October 5, 1665, Boguslav Radziwill signed a contract, which turned over management of the castle and court in Keidan and a major part of the town’s financial affairs to one Reb Wolf Isakovich. Reb Wolf had the authority to pass judgments and punishments on the residents of Keidan, just as if he were the ruler Radziwill. Reb Wolf contributed a great deal to the betterment and growth of the Jewish community in Keidan. With improvements in the welfare of Keidan’s Jews, the town grew as a center of Torah, learning and piety. The greatest scholars of the time occupied the chief rabbinical posts in Keidan; its yeshiva as well as its Talmud Torah and cheders were famous throughout Zamut.

After the peace with Russia in 1667, when Malorossiya[13] was turned over to the Russians, many Jews from that region, who had survived Khmelnytsky’s pogroms, fled to Lithuania. Some came to Keidan. Although Radziwill lived in Koenigsburg, Keidan remained the focal point of Calvinism in Lithuania and a center of religious freedom. Thus the Jewish community was able to peacefully develop both economically and spiritually. Boguslav Radziwill died in 1669 and was laid to rest in the family vault of the Brandenburg princes in Koenigsburg.

[13] Translator’s note: An archaic term for the region roughly corresponding to contemporary Ukraine.

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X. The Swedish-Russian war

After Boguslav’s death the Catholic church gradually grew in importance in Keidan. Documents from 1687 and 1697 record that the head monk of the Russian Orthodox church in Keidan won a lawsuit against the Bishop of Zamut, Dominik Tyszkiewicz[14], after Catholics attacked the church. At the same time, the German Lutherans began redecorating their church, a brick edifice built in 1670 to replace an earlier wooden structure. As a result, the Catholic bishop ordered the church closed, confiscated the silver religious vessels and forbade worship there until he was paid a fine of 200 guilden for redecorating the interior without his permission.

In 1681 a huge conflagration destroyed most of the city, including the lyceum and the rich library that the Radziwills had built. It was the greatest catastrophe that Keidan had seen until then. The Jewish community also suffered greatly because of the fire, but their wealth was not diminished significantly. Keidan continued to be an important Jewish center in Lithuania and a principal town of Zamut. But conditions for Jews in Poland were getting worse, because of persecutions from the nobility, from Christian guilds, the Jesuits and students. Blood libel cases[15] arose in most countries of Europe where the Jesuits had influence. However, in Keidan Jews lived peacefully among the various Christian populations, because they all were united against a common enemy – the Jesuits.

In 1686 one Stefan Bolshetas complained to Radziwill’s court manager that Jews did not observe the order to close businesses on Sundays, that they had spread out beyond the designated Jewish quarter into the wider city, and that Jews were becoming more powerful, richer and more numerous, in violation of the restrictions put on them.

In 1691 a Calvinist synod was held in Keidan, attended by Calvinists from various European countries. Because of the great persecutions suffered by Jews throughout Europe, in 1698 Rabbi Yosl Kobriner – an important scholar in Keidan – composed a penitential prayer, which was adopted by all the Jewish communities of Lithuania and Zamut.

The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the outbreak of major wars between Tsar Peter the Great of Russia and King Karl XII of Sweden. In 1704 Keidan was besieged by the Swedish general Lewenhaupt, and in December Karl XII actually spent several days in the city and attended a religious service in the Calvinist church. Keidan fared much worse in this conflict than it had during the earlier wars between Karl Gustav and Jan Casimir. As Russian and Swedish armies pursued each other through Keidan, the city was ruined. The famous Radziwill castle on the hill was burned and much of the city was destroyed. Both the Christian and Jewish populations suffered immensely. The Jewish community was so impoverished by the war that they could not cover their communal expenses; they had to borrow from the landowning nobility to pay their head-taxes and other fees to the government. Keidan belonged to the heirs of the Radziwills, whose trustee was the king of Prussia.

There exists a document characteristic for the times, dated July 30, 1707, in which the superintendent of Zamut, Shmuel Bitner, writes to the court council of the Prussian king about their abuse by noblemen to whom the Jews owed money. He writes that a certain nobleman, Gursky, who was owed several thousand guilden by the Jewish community in Keidan, had locked Jews into their synagogue, demanding payment, when they were inside praying on a Sabbath. Only with great effort were they able to arrange for the payment after Shabbat ended.

In 1710 a terrible plague wiped out much of the population of Lithuania and Zamut. Keidan suffered greatly. During the epidemic a certain German doctor, Kaneyn, who was also the postmaster of Keidan, was particularly active in providing medical aid to the community. Kaneyn died in the epidemic and on his tombstone, erected by his wife in the German cemetery, is inscribed: “Die Pest brachte ihm die Todes-Post.” [“The plague brought him his death notice.”]

In 1710 the first Catholic Carmelite cloister was erected, with a wooden church building that still stands in Cloister Lane.

Count Franciszek Czapski married Veronica Radziwill and obtained the city of Keidan as his dowry. Since the Czapskis were Catholics, the passing of Keidan into their hands strengthened the Catholic influence in the city considerably. The Jesuits, who had previously had no power in Keidan, began to ascend. Nevertheless, the Jewish population continued to recover, and by 1721 Keidan was again among the most significant Jewish communities in Lithuania. That year, for instance, Jewish head-taxes in all of Lithuania totaled 60,000 guilden. The largest contributions came from these communities: Brisk (the largest Jewish community in Lithuania) – 5,150 guilden; Grodno – 4,500 guilden; Pinsk – 3,730 guilden; Vilna – 1,100 guilden; Minsk – 1,300 guilden; and Keidan – 4,300 guilden. In other words, Keidan was in third place, among the most important communities in Zamut and far surpassing Vilna and Minsk.

[14] Translator’s note: Other sources name Casimir Pac as the bishop of Samogitia (Zamut) during that period.

[15] Translator’s note: False accusations against Jews involving the supposed ritual murder of Christians.

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XI. Rabbinical dynasties

After the sad demise of the false messiah Shabbtai Zvi, many charlatans from his movement began hustling money in Poland, particularly in Podolia. Their shameful behavior aimed to deceive pious Talmudic Jews, using a false teaching of the Zohar to attract more followers to their doctrine. They strove to undermine the Talmud, the life force of Judaism in Poland, and to replace it with the Zohar and the mystical Kabbalah.

The movement’s leaders sent a missionary, Moshe Meir Kamenker, from Moravia. He visited many Jewish communities in Poland, collecting funds and spreading the belief that the followers of Shabbtai Zvi, and not the adherents of the Talmud, were the truly faithful Jews. This was all done in secret. Some other missionaries were Yeshaiya Chasid and Leybele Prosnitz. Eventually their identities and the harm they were doing were discovered, and in 1725 they were excommunicated by Rabbi Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, chief rabbi of the three communities of Altona, Wandsbek and Hamburg. This venerable rabbi and his chief aide, Rabbi Moshe Khoges, protected talmudic Judaism from the spread of Shabbtai Zvi’s kabbalistic movement.

At that time the chief rabbi of the Keidan area was Rabbi Dovid Katzenellenbogen. In Brisk, one of the most important cities in Lithuania, the chief rabbi was Abraham Katzenellenbogen, the Keidan rabbi’s son. The three generations of Katzenellenbogens stood watch against the dangers of Kabbalah, and made great efforts to enforce the precept of the elder, Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, that “no one should study the Zohar before the age of 40.”

In 1727 the rabbi of Brisk, Abraham Katzenellenbogen, came to Vilna to visit his wealthy father-in-law, Reb Yosele Elias Etkes. In those days Vilna was enthralled with a wonder-child who was the son of a great scholar, the Vilna rabbi Shlomo Zalman. When Abraham probed the six-year-old genius’ knowledge of the bible and the Gemara, he was overwhelmed by the child’s insight. He suggested to Shlomo Zalman that the boy should accompany him to Keidan to study with Abraham’s father, Rabbi Dovid Katzenellenbogen. Shlomo Zalman, who at that time was in difficult financial straits, willingly agreed to the arrangement.

In Keidan the youth so impressed his teacher that Dovid Katzenellenbogen then devoted all his energies to his young pupil. The boy’s name was Eliyahu, and when he grew up he was known as the famous Vilna Gaon, or HaGr’a[16]. Dovid Katzenellenbogen’s influence on his pupil, particularly regarding the teaching of Kabbalah, later became evident in the Gaon’s dealings with Zalman Schneurson and the followers of hasidism. Eliyahu married the daughter of a prosperous Keidaner, Reb Yehuda. The Gaon said of his wife Chana that her acts of charity and compassion were as innumerable as the stars in the heavens. After Chana’s death, the Gaon had inscribed on her tombstone in Hebrew:

Here lies Chana / She died on 5 Kislev 5543 [11 November, 1782] / None could take her place, / There is no way to sing her praises.

Among the Vilna Gaon’s seven famous students, one was from Keidan. This was his brother-in-law Zalman, who left his home in Keidan to study with him in Vilna. The Vilna Gaon died on 19 Tishrei 5558 [9 October, 1797]. His death left the Jews of Keidan feeling orphaned, along with those of Vilna, because of his spiritual as well as physical connection to both communities. Keidan and Vilna remained fortresses of opposition[17] and no hasids gained entrance to those cities.[18]

[16] Translator’s note: Gaon = genius. HaGr’a = Hebrew abbreviation for HaGaon Rabbi Eliyahu

[17] Translator’s note: Opponents of hasidism were known as mitnagdim, or misnagdim in Ashkenazic Hebrew and Yiddish.

[18] It was not until many years later that the “Sheva Kruim” [“Seven Called Up”] synagogue was founded where Keidan Jews who leaned toward the Chabad school of hasidism prayed – not, God forbid, in the Sephardic style – but differently from other synagogues in that they began Torah processions on Shmini Atseret instead of Simchat Torah.

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XII. Building a synagogue

The Radziwills were somewhat closer to Germany than to Poland, because of their relationship to the prince of Brandenburg. Hence trade with Germany was always very important in Keidan, especially for Jewish merchants. As the Hanseatic League – the union of German port cities – blossomed, the Neviazhe River and its sailing vessels became wedded to Koenigsburg, Danzig and even Hamburg. Prosperity for Jewish merchants benefited Jewish craftsmen as well, and Keidan became the wealthiest community in Zamut.

Day-to-day Jewish life was basically the same in Keidan as in other Jewish communities in Lithuania. The members of the kahal [community council] played the leading role. As the saying went, Torah made the best merchandise. The head of the rabbinical court in Keidan was always a person of the greatest eminence. The yeshivas and cheders were constantly full of students, and men studied religious texts together day and night. The air was thick with Torah and piety.

The kahal governed the living and the khevra kadisha [burial society] oversaw the dead in Keidan and its surrounding settlements.[19] Precise pictures of daily life can be seen in the record books kept by the kahal, the burial society and the tradesmen’s guilds.

The burial society held its annual banquet on the 22nd day of the Hebrew month Kislev. According to its journal, on that date in 1682, [24 December], the society’s expenditures included: “4 chickens – 28 groshen; 4 geese – 20 groshen; a wagonload of wood – 10 groshen; 1 turkey – 35 groshen; 10 eggs – 4 groshen; 4 smaller chickens – 12 groshen; 1 barrel of beer – 6 groshen.”

We read further that a Jew who lacked sufficient funds to pay the burial fee instead gave a pledge – a prayer book printed in Amsterdam plus five groshen in cash. It was an honor to become a member of the khevra kadisha, and only members were admitted to the banquet. A new member was expected to give a banquet for the senior members of the society and to contribute a few guilden.

The Talmud society was the most prestigious group in town. Its celebration, held to mark the end of a study cycle, dominated the town’s social calendar. Other groups, large and small, also held regular banquets. Keidaners loved to embellish such affairs with pantomimes or performances, which might include a “robber dance,” “quarrel dance,” or biblical dramas like the “Binding of Isaac” or the “Selling of Joseph.”

The kahal was responsible for collecting the head tax that every Jew had to pay to the government, as well as funds for Jewish communal needs. Since Keidan was a regional center, the council was kept very busy.

The “Register of the Land of Lithuania” describes a regulation issued by the Jewish council of Slutzk on 6 Tamuz, 5551 [July 8, 1791], assigning all settlements on the right side of the Neman river to the Keidan district, including Slobodka, which is near Kovno. This was for all religious and legal affairs, and did not apply to government head-taxes, which Slobodka, like Kovno, would continue to pay through the Grodno kahal.

In 1792 the king of Poland, Stanislaw August, declared Keidan a crown city with special privileges for its citizens, including greater independence from the nobility. The city was also given a new coat of arms: eagle wings on a background of gold and blue stripes, with an eagle’s claw grasping a horseshoe with three red crosses below, and flying angels with wings and a laurel wreath above. This was Poland’s last gift to Keidan.

The political situation in Poland deteriorated, so that the Catholics, whose power had gradually become entrenched in Keidan, could not devote themselves fully to persecuting Jews, because Poland itself had become terminally ill. In 1772 the first partition[20] occurred, followed by the second, and finally by the third in 1795, which gave Lithuania and Zamut to Russia.

At first, Keidan felt almost no changes stemming from the partition. Not only did the local Russian population not increase, but indeed in 1797 the Russian Orthodox monastery was forced to close for lack of support.

Some time after 1784, the Keidan Jewish community decided to build a large brick synagogue and a new house of study.[21] The exterior architecture of the synagogue was quite plain. The women’s section was on the second story over the anteroom, with a high wall and artistically grated windows facing east.

When the synagogue was completed, the best craftsmen were hired to carve the Torah’s ark and to decorate the vault and ceiling. The ark, which occupied almost a third of the eastern wall, reached from floor to ceiling and was covered with artfully assembled carvings of flowers, animals and birds, painted and gilded. It also contained a perpetual calendar. On one of the ark’s carved columns, under glass, was a parchment with the name of the community leader who had been instrumental in building the synagogue and study house – Abraham Abli, son of the teacher and rabbi Yehoshua, of the family Rom – and the year the work was completed, 1807.[22]

There was a large sundial with Hebrew letters over the stone gate leading to the synagogue courtyard, where weddings were held from that time on. To the right of the anteroom was the council room, where the council and community leaders conducted public affairs. There was also a jail, for the confinement of lawbreakers whom the council had ordered punished.

In that same year of 1807, there was a cholera outbreak so severe that in just a few months, the Keidan Jewish community alone recorded 397 deaths, according to burial society records. Christians perished as well.

Russia gradually began to introduce some typically Russian “reforms” for the Jews of Lithuania. The first major blow came in 1804, when Tsar Alexander I ordered Jews expelled from rural villages. This brought to Keidan a large number of impoverished Jews, who had been displaced and left with no way to support themselves. There was a large increase in the number of tavern-keepers and small shop owners, but mainly this led to a larger number of gardeners and orchard-keepers, who in summer would rent small plots near Keidan, usually in the Januszova villages, and plant vegetables, or rent orchards. The local produce, especially the turnips, had a reputation throughout Zamut and was sold not only in Keidan, but throughout the region.

[19] The gravediggers’ chapel, in the main synagogue yard, was the only one in town with a small fenced-in garden next to it, with a pair of cherry trees inside.

[20] Translator’s note: The territory of Poland-Lithuania was divided up among the empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria.

[21] Translator’s note: The study house (“bes medresh” in Yiddish or “beit hamidrash” in modern Hebrew) also served as a community prayer space, particularly in winter when the Great Synagogue (also known as the “cold shul” because it lacked heating) was idle.

[22]The inscription on the parchment in the holy ark [written in Hebrew rhymed prose]: “In those days when the 14th [rabbi] sat in our synagogue, along with our elders and scholars, we beheld the beauty and glory of the sanctuary and study house built in our encampment, and we responded joyfully, saying, let us thank and praise God, the foundation of foundations, the force behind all works, who makes happy beginnings and successful endings; and the spirit began to surge and moved the people to praise the Lord, and the work was accepted and approved. And there was one young man of high qualities and great virtues, acting with wisdom, insight and responsibility, diligent in his labor, a capable leader, who wished to perform a service for many generations. After he had studied the art of building thoroughly he became an architect, and he laid out the pleasant halls and sanctuaries for men and women, the holy arks for the Torah, the processional aisles and the splendid windows. His strong hand was guided by his faith and sense of propriety towards all involved, and the work was done expeditiously. He oversaw the work, year after year, with his heart for his beloved God, for the glory of his people and the wonderful Torah. With his own money he completed the splendid holy ark and its magnificent ornaments which he arranged properly, and he produced a great work of art, for which he will be constantly praised, and he has earned a good name which will be remembered for many generations. He will be remembered for his scrupulous honesty, unselfishness and integrity. He is one of our own, a leader in our community, embraced by all and man guided by generosity and good will.

“He is the wise and good man, the son of our teacher and rabbi, Reb Yehoshua, of the family Rom. May God remember him for his good deed, his generosity and his work for the sanctified new study house and synagogue. May God bless his house and cause it to be fruitful and multiply. May He be generous to His people Israel and return many thousands to their land. The work was finished in the “year of our happiness” [a Hebrew acronym for 5567, or 1807], which we constantly praise.”

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XIII. After Napoleon

Napoleon’s war with Russia in 1812 was a great misfortune for Keidan. Having the French and Russian armies march through repeatedly did the city no good. When the French occupied Keidan they turned the Calvinist church into a horse stable. Like most Lithuanian Jews, Keidaners supported the Russians and rejoiced in Napoleon’s defeat, particularly because the Catholic Poles and their religious leaders strongly backed the French. The Poles thus grew furious with the Jews.

After the war life returned to normal. The great struggle that raged elsewhere in Lithuania between hasidim and mitnagdim did not seem to affect Keidan. Its Jewish community was very observant, and its religious leaders saw to it that no innovations were introduced. If there was any hint of heresy, or even an echo of Moses Mendelssohn’s[23] philosophy, every effort was made to sweep it away.

The record-book of a craftsmen’s guild provides an interesting picture of life in the Keidan Jewish community in those days: On the first day of Rosh Hashana, a tailor appeared in the synagogue wearing a velvet yarmulke. This greatly disturbed the propertied gentlemen seated along the eastern wall,[24] who possessed the exclusive right to wear such headgear. Immediately after the holiday the tailor was summoned to the kahal office, where he was fined ten pounds of candles and ordered to hand over his yarmulke.

This punishment deeply offended all of Keidan’s tradesmen, who had been united in their guilds for ages. So on the first day of Sukkot, not only tailors but also shoemakers, furriers and others came to services wearing new velvet yarmulkes, great fur hats and long satin coats with belts – just like the gentry along the eastern wall, and even finer. On the second day of Sukkot they repeated this, just to spite Keidan’s eastern-wall big shots.

This, however, cost the rebellious Keidan tradesmen dearly. The very next day, Count Czapski’s guards hauled them all to the central warehouse and whipped each one. Such a shameful thing had never happened before in Keidan’s Jewish community. The Radziwills had treated all Keidan Jews equally, as free citizens. As enlightened Calvinists, the rulers never inflicted corporal punishment. For example, a Jew once got into a spat with a head of the burial society, insulted that he wasn’t let into the society’s banquet. When the Jew took revenge by informing the Radziwills that the society head had given the Duke the finger as he rode through the city, Radziwill ordered the official and his family expelled from Keidan.[25] But never was he whipped.

As free and equal citizens of Keidan, accustomed to enjoying more privileges than other Jews in Lithuania and Poland, the tradesmen were thus very bitter at the abuse they had suffered at the hands of their wealthier brothers. This united them in a holy war against the kahal.

The battle was waged in the judicial offices of the Russian government, which under Alexander I was not hostile toward Jews, and was inclined to listen to complaints from ordinary folk who felt oppressed by local big shots. However, the Jewish community leaders of Keidan had the means to grease the government councilors’ palms, and the power of the bribe proved greater than all the tradesmen’s efforts. The battle dragged on for years, costing the kahal as well as the artisans’ guilds thousands of rubles.

One day, news came that the emperor’s brother, Konstantin Pavlovich, military commander of Poland and Lithuania, would shortly be passing through Keidan. The artisans decided to hand Konstantin a petition, complaining about the judicial council’s failure to punish the kahal leaders for their insult. However, they failed to keep their plans secret. Minutes before Konstantin’s arrival, the artisan who was standing in the petitioners’ line with the document in hand got into a fight with one of his workmen, and the police arrested them both for disturbing the peace. Konstantin passed by without seeing the petition, and the city fathers, who had paid off the treacherous workman for that purpose, prevailed again.

The tradesmen then decided to take justice into their own hands. If they caught a member of the offending town council in the Borer Woods or elsewhere outside of town they would, as they say, beat him black and blue. Eventually, the kahal decided to make peace with the artisans and sent an assistant to begin negotiations.

The artisans presented the following conditions: First, the yarmulke and belted robe should be admissible garb for all Jews, tradesmen as well as property owners. Secondly, at every dispute in the rabbinical court between a tradesman and property owner, there had to be one judge from the tradesmen’s side. A leader of the artisans also had to represent them inside the kahal’s chambers, so they could be sure of obtaining impartial rulings. The kahal agreed to these conditions, and thus peace was concluded between the synagogue’s eastern and western walls.

After their long struggle the artisans founded their own synagogue, the Chayei Adam,[26] where they had their own eastern wall and their own associate rabbi. He was obligated to come and pray in the synagogue three times daily, and to study the Chayei Adam with the artisans between afternoon and evening prayers. Fridays after supper and Saturdays after afternoon prayers he was to teach the weekly Torah portion. To pay the rabbi’s salary, each elementary-school pupil was obliged to pay 18 kopecks over three years. Of this, 12 kopecks went to the community and six to the rabbi.

From then on the equal rights of tradesmen in Keidan were never again violated. Moreover, at various times important scholars and pietists emerged among the tradesmen of Keidan.[27]

* * *

A couple of decades after these events, the richest tailor in Keidan, Eliyahu Vilner, had a small prayer-house built, not far from the Chayei Adam synagogue. Artisans and butchers prayed here as well, and studied the book called Ein Yakov. [28]

This same Eliyahu Vilner, a childless man who was very influential in the community, once purchased the right of opening the ark of the Torah for the closing prayer of Yom Kippur at the Great Synagogue where the city elders prayed. Thereafter, for the remainder of his life, he would go from his prayer house to the Great Synagogue every year to open the ark for the closing prayer at Yom Kippur. He and his wife both lived to advanced ages.

In the 1820’s there lived in Keidan a man named Aryeh Leib (Leon) Mandelshtam, who had married a local girl. By the pious standards of the city he was considered a freethinker, and because of this was unable to sustain himself there for long. In 1844 he became the first Russian Jew to obtain a degree in philology from St. Petersburg University. Eventually the minister of education, Uvarov, appointed him to administer the government plan to spread education among Russia’s Jews.

[23]Translator’s note: Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-86, Berlin philosopher who began the movement for the secular enlightenment of Jews, called haskala.

[24]Translator’s note: The eastern wall is the area of the synagogue reserved for those of wealth or high status.

[25] As recorded in the journal of the Keidan burial society.

[26] Translator’s note: “Chayei Adam” (“The Life of Man”) is a book on Jewish law, written for laymen rather than rabbinic scholars.

[27] There is a story of an artisan who was so pious that in a year when etrogs [citrons used in the Sukkot holiday ceremony] were extremely expensive, he sold his house and used the money to purchase an etrog.

[28] Translator’s note: Ein Yakov is a book of Talmudic morality tales.

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XIV. Under the Tsar

After the failure of the 1825 Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I in Russia, the revolutionary movement in Poland and Lithuania grew stronger, until an eruption occurred in 1831. Since Keidan was the residence of Count Czapski, who was very active in the Polish uprising, large groups of patriotic Polish confederates gathered in the city. Russian troops, sent to suppress the revolt, besieged Keidan from across the river, by the Kovno road. A heavy artillery battle ensued between the retreating Poles and the pursuing Russians.

This all took place one Shabbat eve in summer, when the synagogue was filled with people at prayer. A Russian cannonball penetrated the eastern wall right above the Torah ark and, wondrously, passed over the worshippers’ heads, through open doors into the anteroom and outside, without injuring anyone. This was seen as a miracle. To this day the hole in the eastern wall has remained unpatched, to mark it for future generations. And a large iron cannonball is embedded high in a wall by the market place where the shell came to rest, as a reminder of the battle.

After the Russians captured Keidan during this uprising, two frightened Jews hid in an attic. Being curious to see what was happening outside, they peeked out of small window and were observed by the Russians, who took them for spies and shot them. After the revolt was put down, the Russians placed a garrison of soldiers in Keidan. They were quartered in the Catholic monastery in 1832, and since that time it has remained a barracks. The government allowed the wooden chapel to remain as a church.

Even with the increase in the Russian population around Keidan, as well as the growth of the German Lutheran community, Polish-Catholic culture did not diminish. There was a five-class gymnasium, where all subjects were taught in Polish. Highly reputed throughout Lithuania, it had one of the finest libraries, with over 15,000 volumes and a well-equipped physics laboratory. Count Czapski built a splendid castle, a park and bridges over the Datnovke [Dotnuvėlė] and Smilga rivers.

The Jewish community in Keidan suffered the same miseries under the tyrannical rule of Nicholas I as did Jews elsewhere. That story begins with the turmoil of enforced military conscriptions and the kidnapping of children to fill the yearly military quotas imposed on the Keidan kahal. The council rooms near the synagogue overflow with the tears of unfortunate mothers and disheartened fathers. The community elders flail about, acting bizarrely, as elsewhere. They hire snatchers,[29] they buy exemptions for the sons of the rich, and the masses of the poor are offered up for sacrifice like chickens.

The haskala movement began to penetrate Keidan – this fortress of Torah and piety – and managed to attract some youths, to the great despair of their parents. In 1843 an impoverished cooper named Reb Hirshe Bender, who was also a great scholar and a remarkable optimist, had a son who was named Moshe Leib. The father began tutoring his only son at a very early age. Then the boy’s grandfather, who was a scholar and very knowledgeable in the bible, took over his education. The boy showed signs of being a genius.

His father led a group studying the Ein Yakov in Eliyahu Vilner’s little synagogue, and young Moshe Leib, while still a child, led a similar group for youngsters. This boy grew up to be the famous maskil [enlightener] and Lover of Zion who was later well known as the Zionist leader and Hebrew author, Moshe Leib Lilienblum [30].

In 1846 Pesach Smilg had a son who became an important Jewish scholar, Dr. Yosef Smilg. Thus Keidan made important advances into the expanding Jewish world and the growing haskala movement, along with the many other communities of Russian Jewry.

After Alexander II was crowned Tsar of Russia in 1855, he abolished the practice of kidnapping small children and training them as “cantonists” or future soldiers. Keidan, along with many other Russian Jewish communities, breathed easier.

[29] Translators’ note: Kidnappers (khapers in Yiddish) were often hired by Jewish communal elders to abduct young boys for the Russian draft.

[30] Translators’ note: Moshe Leib Lilienblum, 1843-1910, was an influential writer and one of the founders of the Lovers of Zion (Hovevei Tsion) movement, early advocates of the return to Palestine.

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XV. Czapski’s city

Count Marian Czapski, whose grandparents were Franciszek-Stanislaw Czapski and Veronica Radziwill, was a chamberlain of the royal court and provincial marshal, and the most educated member of the Czapski family. He graduated from the faculty of science and philosophy of the University of Berlin. Being very wealthy, and having studied painting and sculpture as a young man, he assembled a large gallery of paintings, a fine numismatic collection and, in particular, one of the most important libraries. He decorated his castle in Keidan very artistically and beautified the surrounding park.

In 1852 he became the trustee of the Keidan gymnasium, and under his supervision the school became one of the best in Lithuania. After his marriage he received as dowry a large estate in Miropol (Myropil), in the province of Volhynia, where he spent some of his time. His friendly relationship with the Keidan Jewish community was demonstrated when he donated bricks to build the new house of study.

In appreciation of his generosity, the community inscribed his name on a stone memorial plaque in the building. In September, 1857, when the study house was dedicated, a silver chalice was presented to Czapski, and the community leader Shlomo Berenstein delivered a proclamation of thanks, written in Hebrew, German and French. The Hebrew version was arranged in an acrostic, spelling out the name “M A R I A N Czapski.” The date was Elul, 5617 – September, 1857, the dedication date of the study house.

The government intensified its policy of russification in Lithuania, and in 1859 ordered all classes in the Keidan gymnasium to be taught in Russian. The majority of the students were patriotic Poles, who were unwilling to study in a school where the first language was not Polish, and in a short time the number of students fell from 500 to 141.

In 1863 the second Polish revolt broke out. Almost all the former students of the gymnasium took part. The Jews of Keidan, like most Lithuanian Jews, avoided taking part in this revolt, even more than in the first. As a result, they were spared the bloody repressions that Muravyov, the governor-general of Vilna, was imposing throughout Lithuania.

In 1864 the Keidan gymnasium was shut down completely by the government, and the building was converted to a barracks to house the local military garrison. The large library was divided up between the city library of Vilna and the gymnasium in Kovno. The physics laboratory with all its equipment was given to Vilna’s technical high school [real-gymnasium]. In place of the large Polish gymnasium, the government opened a Russian elementary school, which never grew beyond its initial three classes. Thus, Polish language and culture, which had dominated Keidan for more than two hundred years, finally came to an end there.

Count Marian Czapski, who was heavily involved in the revolt, was exiled to Siberia, and his castle and grounds were confiscated by the Russian government in 1866. The rich library, which included many French, Latin and Polish books, was shipped off to the public library in St. Petersburg. Thus were the Czapski and Radziwill families robbed of an inheritance accumulated over 250 years.

The Miropol estate of Czapski’s wife was not confiscated, however. And after several years, Czapski was allowed to return from exile. He settled with his daughter in Posen (Poznan), where he spent his last years engaged in literary activities. He died in 1875.

Keidan was thus freed from Polish influence, and also from the subservient status in which one could be dragged off to the lord’s manor and whipped for the slightest infractions or at the whim of the lord. Eventually, the castle and grounds were purchased from the government by Count Totleben. In the autumn of 1868, two horse-artillery batteries, the fifth and sixth, were quartered in Keidan. This provided a welcome source of income for the local merchants and artisans.

Soon after, the Libau-Romny railway line came into existence. Because of Count Totleben’s influence, the train station for Keidan was built across from the castle courtyard. The train connected Keidan with the inner regions of Russia and increased trade. It also provided work for Keidan’s tradesmen and employment for many contractors, shopkeepers and merchants.

The economic conditions of Jews in Keidan improved. Children of wealthier families began to be educated under the influence of the haskala. An interesting folksong, popular in the 1860’s, described the then-new ladies’ fashion of wearing crinolines:

Once, when you’d enter a well-to-do household, / it would be as dark and slippery as a deep hole; / and on the shelf would be displayed copper and tin. / But now you only see the crinoline.

In 1874 a new system of general military conscription was started, which ended the Jewish community council’s practice of providing soldiers to the government. In the same year Kovno was made a provincial capital, and Keidan was reassigned from the jurisdiction of Vilna to Kovno.

At the end of the 1870’s the chief rabbi of Keidan, Abraham Shimon Troib, died. He was the last of a series of great scholars to occupy that position.

* * *

Count Totleben first distinguished himself as a young engineering officer at the battle of Sevastopol in 1854. But he achieved the highest distinction in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877. Returning victorious from that war, he decided to beautify and expand his castle in Keidan. He erected a Turkish mosque with a minaret. The walls of the mosque were inscribed in Arabic with quotations from the Quran. A whole Bulgarian village was created. The park was adorned with beautiful tree-lined lanes, marble statues of mythological figures, bowers and summer houses with fountains, and with the castle was considered among the most beautiful of its kind in Lithuania. He also built water mills near his estate at Vilain (Vilainiai), which were leased to Jews.

The court became Totleben’s summer residence, even when he was named governor-general of the Vilna district. The Totleben family was very amiable toward the Jews of Keidan, and a number of Jewish merchants, shopkeepers and artisans were befriended at court. In summer, high officials from St. Petersburg would visit the court, providing income for Keidan. Every fall after the harvest, Keidan was enlivened with a people’s holiday in the park. There were illuminations, fireworks, music and dancing and gifts for the workers, and the whole city celebrated.

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XVI. The 20th century

Alexander II was assassinated in March, 1881, and with Alexander III’s assumption of power, terrible pogroms against Jews began throughout Russia. However, in Lithuania, where Count Totleben was governor general, no pogroms occurred. At times special units of Cossacks were sent in to make sure that nobody even looked cockeyed at the Jews. And so Keidaner Jews lived securely under the protection of Count Totleben.

For generations, property owners in Keidan had paid fees for the land on which their houses stood, first to the Radziwills and later to the Czapskis, since the entire city belonged to them. But when the court was confiscated by the Russian government after the Polish revolt, the residents sued to cancel their land fees, claiming special privileges awarded them by the Polish kings, particularly Stanislaw August when Keidan was made a crown city. The lawsuit stretched on for years and was finally settled on September 25, 1886, when the Kovno district court ruled that property owners in Keidan owned the land on which their houses stood, and no longer had to pay special fees for it.

Much of the land in Keidan still belonged to the Calvinist community, by then so diminished that there was nobody in the church on Sunday. Once a year a Calvinist preacher came from Vilna and gathered enough worshipers from around the region to hold a service. The central part of the city around the church was built up with homes and stores, mostly rented by Jews from the Calvinists.

After the city ceased to function as an autonomous municipality, with the transfer from Poland to Russia, the city hall was rented out as a tavern. In the 1870s and 80s, the bar’s Jewish owner was called “Podratushe,” which means “under the town hall.” Until the end of the 1880’s one of the rooms in the town hall served as a chapel, called “the soldiers’ minyan,”[31] that was mostly used by former soldiers.

* * *

Before the 1880’s few Jews left Keidan, except to go to Eretz Israel, and these were mainly elderly religious people who wished to die in the Holy Land. But after Alexander III took the throne, as pogroms began to spread throughout Russia, and Jews were expelled from Moscow and other Russian cities, a heavy emigration to America began. Later many Jews also left for England and South Africa, but most went to America.

Keidan was also stricken with emigration fever, especially after Count Totleben’s death, as gradually the heavy hand of Alexander III’s regime began to be felt. The first to leave were mostly from the poor and working classes. Typically, a young man left to escape military service, and as he earned money and worked his way up in America he sent for his parents and eventually for other relatives as well. At first the wealthy were ashamed to admit that someone from their family had gone to America. Young people from prosperous families generally went to big cities, to study or to seek their fortunes, but eventually even they started emigrating, some to America, some to South Africa. As they sent money home, the shame of emigrating dissolved even among the wealthy.

At the end of the 1880’s a large section of Smilga Street and its neighboring alleys were consumed by fire. This led to the organization of a volunteer firefighters’ brigade. The first infirmary (selskaya letchebnitsa in Russian, or village clinic) was established in 1888 in rented quarters. Later Count Totleben’s widow erected a special infirmary building, named for her husband, on the courtyard road near the Smilga.

In the early 1880’s the Keidan talmud torah [Hebrew elementary school], which had been long neglected, was converted into a more modern school, where in addition to Jewish subjects one studied Russian and other topics, the same as in the existing Russian elementary school. In 1892, the Lutheran community also founded an elementary school near the German church. In the same year, the first bank opened in Keidan. It was a branch of the Vilna commercial bank. In a short time the volume of transactions in the bank exceeded one million rubles annually.

A prominent leader in the Lovers of Zion movement as well as other Zionist, national and cultural activities in the Keidan community was Yosef Blumson (Yoseh Bereh Fachters) who dedicated his life to these educational causes. Just as they had participated in the haskala movement, Keidaners also became deeply involved in the Lovers of Zion movement, particularly since its main pillar had been Keidaner Moshe Leib Lilienblum.

And when political Zionism began in 1897[32], many young people in Keidan were drawn in, devoting themselves fully to the movement. Battles were fought against Zionism’s opponents, first with the orthodox and later with the revolutionaries, led by the Bund.[33] The Bund also had supporters in Keidan, and there were many debates and even fistfights between Bundists and members of the Zionist Workers Party [Poalei Tsion].

In the beginning of 1898 S.M. Ginzburg and P.S. Marek of St. Petersburg published announcements in the journals “HaMelitz,” “Voskhod” and “HaTzefira,”[34] inviting Jewish intellectuals in Russia with close ties to the Jewish masses to collect and record Jewish folk songs. There was a response from towns and cities, resulting in the first collection of real Jewish folk songs in Russia, published in 1901 in St. Petersburg under the editorship of Ginzburg and Marek.[35] A total of 376 folk songs were included in the book, of which 154 were collected in and around Keidan by the author of this article and his friend, Dr. Aharon Leib Pick. Through an oversight, the songs that appear above the names Cassel and Pick are described as having been collected in Kovno province. In reality, they were collected in Keidan. These songs were among the best and most interesting in the collection.

The Jewish population in Keidan lived and functioned as a part of Russian Jewry, not very differently than in other cities and towns in Russia. Yet in some ways Keidan was somewhat different from other Jewish communities. The Totleben family – the widow of the count, the new young count and the sons-in-law – were highly placed, with major influence in Russian government circles. Their friendly attitude toward Jews was, unintentionally, very beneficial for the Jewish community of Keidan.

Remarkably, even after the death of Alexander III and the bloody coronation of Nicholas II, when Jewish life and blood became worthless throughout Russia, life for Jews in Keidan was not seriously affected. Several Keidaners died as soldiers at the front during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. The 1905 revolution, which was put down with bloodbaths throughout Russia, passed over Keidan without consequence. When the systematic persecution of revolutionaries and ordinary Jews by Nicholas II’s rampaging regime took place everywhere in Russia, again Keidan was not affected.

It is noteworthy that [Pyotr Arkadyevich] Stolypin, the notorious “black prime minister“ and right hand of Nicholas II, had his estate in the vicinity of Keidan. He was the leader of the nobility in the Kovno district, and had been chairman of the military draft committee in Keidan before he became prime minister. He came to Keidan often and was known to do favors for many of the local Jews who knew and traded with him. As prime minister, Stolypin was the nemesis of the Jews. Yet on his visits to Keidan he remained their old, familiar, joking friend.

In 1897 the government assumed a monopoly on the liquor trade, closing down the saloons, all but one of which were owned by Jews. Many formerly prosperous Jews were thus left without a livelihood.

* * *

What [Jewish historian Simon] Dubnov called the Russian government’s thirty-year war against the Jews lasted from 1881 until 1911, the year Stolypin was assassinated in Kiev. Keidaner Jews were not greatly affected, as long as they stayed in Keidan. Nevertheless, life was getting harder, due to the restrictions on trade and especially on youth education. This prompted more and more young people to leave their hometown. The promenade walk – the old bridge over the Neviazhe River which had long served as a rendezvous for young people and was packed with strollers on evenings, Sabbaths and holidays – grew ever more empty as young people left.

The Jewish community diminished, and it was difficult to earn a living. Many Jewish residents existed on what their children or relatives sent from abroad or from Russia’s large cities. A raging antisemitism burned in Poland and Russia, fed by the chauvinistic Polish nationalist movement on one side and the black Russian monarchists on the other. This drove many Jews to support the Lithuanian nationalists.

The Lithuanians, who were culturally oppressed by both the Russians and the Polish Catholic church, expected support from their more cultured neighbors, the Jews. Meanwhile, the political skies in Europe were darkening as the year 1914 approached. In the spring of 1914, a significant portion of Keidan burned down, from the bridge to the beginning of Long Street and from the market square to the synagogue courtyard. The fire served as an omen of the coming world conflagration.

[31] Translator’s note: A minyan is the quorum of ten male adults required for formal prayer services.

[32] Translator’s note: The first Zionist Congress, convened in 1897 by Theodore Herzl in Basel, Switzerland, formally called for the establishment of a Jewish state.

[33] Translator’s note: The Jewish Labor Bund was a socialist party, founded in Vilna in 1897 and active in eastern Europe until World War II.

[34] Translator’s note: The Hebrew-language weeklies “HaMelitz” (The Interpreter) and “HaTzefira” (The Dawn) published in St. Petersburg and Warsaw respectively, and the Russian-language weekly “Voskhod” (Sunrise) of St. Petersburg all promoted enlightenment, Zionism and Jewish nationalism.

[35]Evreiskiye Narodniye Pesni v Rossii” (Jewish Folk Songs in Russia), published 1901 in St. Petersburg, [reissued 1991 in photocopy by Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan, Israel.]

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XVII. After the Great War

The insanity of world war ignited Europe on August 1, 1914, after Austria declared war on Serbia. Immediately Poland and Lithuania became fields of slaughter. Everyone suffered terribly, but Jews became the real victims.

The war gave Polish antisemitism a new demonic purpose: taking revenge on the Jews. Both the Russians and Germans flattered the Poles to try to gain their alliance, and the Poles took advantage of this by falsely accusing Jews of spying against each side in turn. The Jews’ troubles of those days is a story of its own.

During the first winter of the war in 1914-15, many Jews from surrounding towns fled into Keidan The community increased in size, though mainly with older people and women: Young men had been taken up by the war. Meanwhile, Germany achieved victory after victory, capturing Polish and Lithuanian cities one after another, and beating the Russian army right and left. The thoroughly corrupt Russian government attributed its failures, not to the ineptitude of its commanders and war ministers, but to the Jews’ supposed espionage.

Nikolai Nikolaevich, head of the Russian armies on the eastern front and Tsar Nikolai’s uncle, decided they could succeed against the Germans only if they removed all Jews from the region. So in March 1915 the Russians began transferring the Jews of Poland and Lithuania deeper into Russia.

In Keidan, as in Kovno, the order came on May 16: By midnight on May 18 all Jews – young and old, women and children, even the sick – had to leave town. Any Jew remaining after midnight would be hanged, the order said. The Jews were packed into freight cars at the train station, men with women, the old and the sick, without mercy. The doors were sealed and the trains took off in various directions. People took only what they could carry to the station, two verst from the town. Everything else was left behind.

Thus the Keidan Jewish community dispersed, along with Jews who had fled earlier from other towns, in a reenactment of the 1495 expulsion under Grand Duke Alexander. Most of the Keidan Jews went to Vilna, while some went to Homel [Gomel], and others turned up in southern Russia. Many were dragged off deep into Russia, even to Siberia. Some never arrived, as they died en route.

The blow fell just as hard on the Keidan “aristocrats” as on other Lithuanian Jews; Nikolai Nikolaevich made no distinction. When they learned of the expulsion order, Christians in and around Keidan made plans to divide the Jews’ property up among themselves. And right after the Jews had vacated their homes, leaving whatever goods they couldn’t carry, Christians descended and took everything – furniture, bedding, clothes, anything that could be moved. Gradually they moved into the houses, taking over as the owners of Jewish property.

Despite Nikolai Nikolaevich’s “brilliant” strategic planning, the Russians were forced to abandon Keidan, burning the wooden bridge over the Neviazhe behind them. The Germans, who later rebuilt the bridge, were able to enter Keidan without a fight. Later there was a half-hearted exchange of fire with the retreating Russians near the railroad bridge, which they had managed to half-destroy. The period of Russian rule in Keidan was over.

Later, when the Germans occupied Vilna, the Jews of Keidan who had gone there obtained permission from the German military authorities to return to Keidan. When they returned, the Germans helped them regain their homes that had been seized by Christians. The Germans also helped the Jews recover some of their household items found in Christian houses. Most of the goods, however, had disappeared.

These Jewish families who returned from Vilna formed the nucleus of a new Jewish community in Keidan. Gradually, more Jews came from other towns that had been destroyed in the war, and the Jewish community of Keidan resumed life under German occupation, as did other towns and cities of the region.

* * *

Peace brought with it the creation of a number of new nations, including Lithuania. After 500 years of domination by foreign powers and cultures, Lithuania and became, as if by magic, a free and independent nation, thanks to the Versailles peace treaty. In reality, it was only a small remnant of the great, rich, and powerful Lithuanian state that had existed until 1417, when the last heathen fire – the “znitsh” – had been extinguished. The new statelet was constructed out of several Russian provinces. And before the infant Lithuanian republic could even take its first steps, Poland had managed to snatch away its oldest and most important city – Vilna – and the surrounding region, diminishing Lithuania even further.

Without a culture of their own, almost without a literary language or literature, without political experience, without knowledge of self-government or politics, the Lithuanians flailed about erratically. At one moment they were friendly toward the Jews, expecting their support in building their new republic. Then in unexpected and chauvinistic mood swings, the Lithuanians would turn to persecuting and suppressing Jews.

The Lithuanians replaced their lost capital of Vilna with Kovno. Keidan became a district capital, the site of government offices. Count Totleben’s castle was nationalized and turned into an agricultural college. A Lithuanian gymnasium and Hebrew and Yiddish high schools were established in Keidan. Many of the expelled Jews returned to Keidan from Russia, and with great trouble eventually succeeded in recovering their stolen homes. Many Jews who were not from Keidan originally settled in the city, and once again the Jewish community began to grow.

The old city of Keidan was reconstituted as a municipality under the free Lithuanian republic. But without the rich Russian hinterland, at odds with Poland over Vilna, in dispute with Germany because of the loss of the port city Memel, Lithuania was cut off from the outside world. It was a country without industries, without exports or imports, with impoverished farmlands and stripped forests. Keidan was poor, had no sources of income and no foreseeable prospects for improvement. The Jews sustained themselves with gardening, handicrafts, small trade and some support from overseas relatives.

The chaotic political situation in Lithuania naturally plays havoc with the economy. Antisemitism, which keeps the Jews downtrodden in this free republic, also holds back development and delays Lithuania’s recovery.

The country awaits a new Gediminas – he who understood that Lithuania’s development required a free Jewish community with equal rights. It also needs a new Christopher Radziwill – he who attracted a large Jewish population and granted them full and equal rights, turning Keidan into one of the most important cities in Zamut.


Bibliography

  • “History of the Jews in Russia and Poland,” by S. M. Dubnov.
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  • ”Mestechko Keidany” [The Town of Keidan], by Y. Ptashkin.
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  • “Khatat Neurim” [Sins of Youth], by M.L.Lilienblum.
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Translated by Meyer Dwass and A. Cassel.