By Abba Jonah Goldin (Golani), Kibbutz Beit Zera
In 1923, I joined the Scouts movement that had been founded by Lord Baden-Powell, and whose activity in those days centered around games and summer camps. The Scouts attracted most of the school youth. In 1924, the Scout branch became a Hashomer Hatzair branch, after which its activities took on an entirely different character. Back then, the Hashomer Hatzair tied its fate to Zionism and of course to the Land of Israel, emphasizing Jewish education in the Diaspora to aid the Zionist movement and to build the Land.
The Jewish National Fund was one of the Zionist movement’s tools, and our Hashomer branch was one of those that devoted itself to raising money for the JNF in all possible ways. For instance, we went around emptying blue JNF boxes; on Rosh Hashana Eve we organized an “internal mail” service to send New Year’s greetings; on Yom Kippur Eve we’d sit in the synagogues with collection bowls; and at various festive events we’d show up and collect money for JNF. We also earned money baking matzo, and donated our earnings to the JNF.
In addition, we took an active part in the work of the “Eretz Israel Workers’ Fund,” and Hapoel [the sports association], and initiated one other very important activity, for which we won recognition and commendation from everyone in town. It was done by the senior members of the branch, who “adopted” the children of Keidan’s orphanage. Nearly around the clock, a branch member, boy or girl, was with the kids of the orphanage: We took them on hikes, sang with them, held discussions, and led various scouting activities, trying with infinite devotion and love to make their lives more pleasant and alleviate their suffering.
Meanwhile, branch life became more and more tied to the Land of Israel. Instead of scout songs, we began singing songs of Eretz Israel that we learned from the emissaries, who used to come from there and impart not only the songs, but the entire experience and the warmth of the Land of Israel.
Students became more and more attracted to the Hashomer movement. Our branch had many members and an organized clubhouse, and we participated in all town events, wearing our Hashomer uniforms. In summer we’d march through the town on our way to camp, wearing our shirts, carrying our gear, singing and drumming. We were much loved by the Jews of Keidan.
Next door to the branch was the “Aid Committee,” which included many of our parents and teachers, headed by Pesach Weitzer-Chitìn and our teachers Chana Landsberg, Liss, and Poritz, of blessed memory. The committee represented the branch to the authorities and to the Jewish institutions in town.
Over time, the branch decided that it wasn’t enough to collect money for the JNF; Hashomer Hatzair needed to actually take part in aliya and in building the Land. It was decided that all senior members of the branch must start “self-realization,” that is, agricultural training to prepare for aliya to Eretz Israel in order to create Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim there. In 1925, agricultural training groups began forming around Keidan, in which the senior members took an active role. On Saturdays we would leave town to visit them.
It should be mentioned that the first Zionist pioneer training farm in Lithuania was created in Pelédnagiai, four kilometers south of Keidan, with the help of Shabtiel Deitsch of Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) of Lithuania. In time the farm moved to the area of Kybartai-Vilkaviškis in southwest Lithuania, and was called Kibbush. There, hundreds of pioneers from Lithuania prepared themselves for aliya.
Meanwhile, the Keidan Hashomer grew, and we needed money to keep up the meeting space and for other expenses. Because many Jews in Keidan grew cucumbers and needed nighttime guards for their cucumber plots during harvest, we persuaded some of them to hire us. We guarded in pairs: one pair worked until midnight, then another pair took over from midnight until morning. In addition to earning the income, it was important to us (the seniors) to get used to nighttime guarding and prepare our growing bodies for the challenges of aliya.
Despite the cucumber farmers’ misgivings, we managed to prove to them that we could do successfully what until then no Jewish youth had dared, i.e., guard fields at night in a hostile, Christian environment.
An important ritual for the seniors in that period was the “shared breakfast” in the bosom of nature, outside of town. The initiator and spirit behind this event was Reuven Blumson-Shemi. We seniors would gather at dawn, each having brought his own food. We would take cooking utensils, cross the bridge over the Smilga and gather in a little grove, where we’d cook and eat our breakfast together — the early budding of shared life in the kibbutz. And of course the meal was accompanied by songs from the Land of Israel.
Volodka runs away from home
At this point I’ll tell about one of the seniors from the Hashomer branch who went to agricultural training. It was the summer of 1930. I was in the group that was due to go for training. In our group was a young man named Volodka Funt, who had moved to Keidan with his father and two sisters. The Funts were quite assimilated, and distanced from Judaism and Zionism. Volodka’s father was a dentist, and all his friends were Christian police officers and public servants. Volodka showed up at the branch and told us that he’d been a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland and wanted to continue with Hashomer in Keidan. He was devoted to Hashomer Hatzair and active in the branch, besides which he was nice-looking and could play the harmonica well. When it came time for him go for training, he told his father, who was dead-set against it and threatened to prevent us all from going. Volodka told us this, and asked for our help.
At that time, Tzemach Berger-Harari, of blessed memory, was the head of our branch. We began hearing from other branches in Lithuania that other parents had opposed their children going for training, but in some cases the children were determined and simply ran away to the training farms. We asked ourselves, “Why not help Volodka run away from home?” We asked him if that was what he wanted to do, and he said he did. To ensure a successful escape, we asked him to stop visiting the branch, to create the impression at home that he had abandoned the training idea.
Then Tzemach and I met to plan Volodka’s escape down to the last detail. One thing we knew for certain: There was no room for failure here. Everything had to be planned meticulously, secretly, and precisely. First, we found a training group far from Keidan, in the western port city of Memel (Klaipeda), that agreed to accept Volodka. Second, we began following the Funt family’s daily routine and movements in and out of the house, so we could figure out how to get Volodka out of town and on the train to Memel. After a few evenings of this, we made an escape plan.
We set a time for the escape on Saturday night, when Volodka’s father would go play cards with his police friends. We found out that the train to Memel would pass through Keidan on the way to Dotnuva, 10 kilometers northwest of Keidan, at 2 a.m., then continue on to Memel. The train from Dotnuva to Keidan, on which Tzemach and I planned to return home, would pass through Dotnuva at 4 a.m.
We planned to execute the escape right after Volodka’s father and sisters were to leave the house on Saturday night, walk to Dotnuva, put Volodka on the train to Memel, and return to Keidan that same night without exposing ourselves and without anyone knowing we’d been gone. We instructed Volodka to secretly pack a knapsack with some clothing, and I’d bring him food for the journey.
The Funts lived on Keidan’s main street, opposite Tzemach’s cinema. Saturday night at the agreed time, I waited with Tzemach next to the cinema. After Volodka’s father and sisters left the house, Volodka put his clothes into the knapsack, threw it to me out the side window of his house and calmly came downstairs. When I’d caught the knapsack, I ducked into a lane that led to Smilga Street, where Volodka and Tzemach met me a short while later. And that’s where our first glitch occurred: Volodka had a dog, and when Volodka left the house, his dog followed him. We began hurrying through the lane, the dog at our heels; when we reached Smilga Street, we decided to get rid of the dog. Tzemach stayed in the lane and began throwing rocks at the dog, while Volodka and I continued along Smilga Street and the military courtyard on our way to Dotnuva. After he’d managed to get rid of the dog, Tzemach caught up with us at the bridge. The three of us kept walking on the main road to the railway station, taking care not to be seen by anyone. We crossed the bridge one by one, and a few minutes later we were on our way to Dotnuva. We began to run, to put more distance between ourselves and Keidan, fearing that someone would notice our absence and come looking for us.
We alternately ran and rested for four kilometers, at which point we decided to stop for a break to regain our strength. It was pitch dark, and while it was the first time in our lives that we’d been out in the forest at night, our success in smuggling Volodka out of town without anyone’s knowledge encouraged us. And so we ran, three youngsters with a knapsack along the dark deserted road, helping one of us to realize his dream of going for agriculture training and making aliya to the Land of Israel.
Back at the Funt house, though, things were different, as we found out later. When Volodka had packed, he’d been in a hurry, and in his haste he’d left his wardrobe door open and a pair of socks on the floor. One of his sisters, who had come back home for something, sensed that something was amiss, and immediately told her father, who was playing cards with the town officer. At father Funt’s request, the officer took a coach and a few mounted policemen and came after us.
Just then, as we were resting at the side of the road and getting ready to continue, we heard horses’ hooves approaching. We immediately got off the road, ducked into a grove, and lay down in the weeds. The coach and a few mounted policemen stopped not far away. The stillness of the night enabled us to clearly hear what they were saying. We immediately identified father Funt’s voice, as well as that of the police officer. After they explored the area, we heard the officer say to father Funt, “They couldn’t have gotten this far. Let’s go to the train.” We breathed a sigh of relief.
When they’d put some distance between us, we got up and left the grove. Volodka said, “We’re lucky my father didn’t take the dog along. He would have sensed me right away.” We again began running toward Dotnuva. We knew they were coming after us, and we knew we had to be extra cautious in order not to be discovered. An hour later, we reached Dotnuva. We took separate routes through town and met up again near the train station, about an hour before the train was due. While Volodka and I hid nearby, Tzemach bought a ticket to Memel for Volodka; when he returned, I went and bought two tickets to Keidan for Tzemach and myself. We climbed onto the platform separately, me holding the knapsack.
When the train arrived, I handed the knapsack to Volodka. We said our goodbyes quietly, Volodka boarded the train, and with that the story of the training escape ended — for Volodka. But not for Tzemach and me. We returned to Keidan on the next train, just as it began to get light. We decided to scan the train station platform carefully through the coach window before alighting. As the train slowed down and came to a stop, we “saw black”: On the platform stood father Funt with the dog, policemen and the station detective. We immediately crouched down so they wouldn’t see us, then got out on the other side, where fortunately a freight train was parked. We crawled underneath it and out into the park, through which we reached town without being seen. At the outskirts of town we parted, and each went home.
The entire way home, it ate at me: Does my family already know about Volodka’s running away? Entering my home, I met my mother of blessed memory, busy at the bakery. From her ordinary greeting, I realized immediately that she knew nothing.
Our house was something of a center for the Hashomer Hatzair branch and for Hechalutz Hatzair, in which my brother Shmulik, of blessed memory, was active. Because of this, my mother was used to me frequently sleeping over at others’ homes while visiting training groups in nearby towns, or busy with preparations for summer camp. So she never suspected anything was up.
At that time, I worked at the Movshovitz & Kagan printing shop, and I had to get to work on time. Just to be on the safe side, so as not to arouse any suspicion, I asked my mother to wake me up in an hour, and I made it to work on time. By the time I arrived, everyone there already knew about Volodka’s running away, although they didn’t suspect that I was involved.
One thing that bothered us about Volodka’s running away was the reaction in the “Jewish street.” How would our parents and our supporters react? How would our young people react? Nothing like this had ever happened before in Keidan. Tzemach and I worried it could damage the branch.
To our surprise, the Jewish street welcomed the operation openly; after all, we’d shown the assimilated Jew, Funt, what Zionist youth are, particularly as no one knew exactly how it was done or who was behind it. Even the police were never able to figure it out.
Yet that afternoon, when I got home, my mother took me to the side room and whispered, “It was you — Tzemke and you were planning it all these evenings. You had to specifically mess with this assimilated Jew: The entire police force is on his side. They may arrest you.” I smiled and replied, “No one will ever know who did it and how. There’s no need to speak of it.” Mother turned to me with her beautiful smile and indeed, we never spoke of it again.
Meanwhile, a letter from Volodka arrived. He told his family he was healthy and doing well, and asked his father to forgive him and not to blame anyone. He explained he had been compelled to take this step, and told them the decision had been his alone. With time the incident was forgotten, and even Volodka’s father reconciled himself to it. Meanwhile, the action raised the Hashomer branch’s prestige and credibility with the youth.
In 1931, I also went for training, and in 1932, I left for Eretz Israel and joined a kibbutz of the Lithuanian Hashomer Hatzair that began in Petach Tikva, and today is Beit Zera [in the Jordan Valley south of the Kinneret Lake]. In 1935, my parents also came to Eretz Israel. Our house in Keidan, which was taken over by my brother-in-law David Prusak, remained a center of the Keidan Hashomer branch. David’s son Yosef Prusak, of blessed memory, was the branch leader until that terrible day the Jews of Keidan were murdered in cold blood by the Lithuanians. On that day, when the chief rabbi of the town, Sh. Feinsilber of blessed memory, was walking at the head of his community, my brother-in-law David, who had served as the rabbi’s secretary throughout his term, was by his side. In their lives and in death, they were inseparable.
I want to add a few words here: Our scouting and Hashomer Hatzair training, as well as our agricultural training, ended up being very valuable, testimony to which are the dozens of Keidan branch members spread throughout Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim all over Israel. When I recall my town of Keidan today, the Jewish youth there and the now-destroyed community, I see before my eyes three Jewish teenagers racing through the night to fulfill their dreams of going to the Land of Israel.
Translated by Miriam Erez