Beitar in Keidan

By Gershon Shlapobersky

It’s difficult to recall and write down events that took place 40 or more years ago. If only my friend, Yehuda Geben, may he rest in peace, who died in the prime of his life in Nahariya were alive, together we could reconstruct all the events of that period. But unfortunately that’s not possible so I’ll try my best to go it alone. Before I tell about Beitar’s founding in Keidan, let me tell about events a few years prior.

We were a group of a dozen young people; nearly all of us attended the Hebrew high school, and we sought to organize a group that would be different from Hashomer Hatzair — which in our eyes was too “girly” — and from Maccabi, which was strictly sports. We wanted something masculine, connected to the Land of Israel, our ancestral home and to Jewish heroes who sacrificed their lives to liberate our land from foreign oppressors. We decided to call our association “Bar-Kochba” after Shimon Bar-Kochba, a great rebel and leader of the Jewish revolt against the Roman occupiers.

We met a few times a week in a small room at the Gebens’ home and read aloud stories of Jewish fighters’ heroism, as well as stories from Hebrew literature. We’d debate the content of what we read and together sing Hebrew songs. We’d go on nature hikes outside of town, and occasionally go sailing in the evenings on the Neviazhe [Nevėžis].

Over time we saw that we couldn’t sustain our activities alone, so we turned to our teacher Rosenzweig for help. When he heard what we wanted, he asked us, “Why do you want to have an organization that has no connection to anyone outside your own town? Look: There’s a worldwide youth organization called Gordonia. Affiliate with them, and I’ll help you.” At a group meeting we accepted his advice, disbanded our association and formed a Gordonia group. We were given a Jewish community house to use in the evenings, where we met, and also established a library with books, which each of us donated as much as he could. After we organized, we decided to accept new members, females as well as males. We went on like that for a while, but eventually we saw that it wasn’t what we were looking for. After long debates and disagreements, the majority of us split off and left Gordonia.

For me personally, and especially for my friend Yehuda Geben, this move caused Rosenzweig to give us worse grades, so much so that we were compelled to go to the school principal Rishman, and ask him to intervene. In a subsequent hearing, the conflict over our grades was settled.

Meanwhile, in Jewish communities all over Lithuania, Beitar clubs were beginning to organize. We read about it in the newspapers and understood that here, finally, was what we had been looking for. We immediately called Beitar headquarters in Kovno [Kaunas] and asked them to send us reading materials, as well as one of their members to help us get started. At the end of 1928 we opened an official branch of Lithuanian Beitar in Keidan. I went to Kovno, where the movement secretariat resided at the home of Yehezkel Dilyon, of blessed memory. The organization was managed from his house. After receiving guidance from him, we began running our branch.

While it was hard to run the branch on our own without outside funding, by charging dues we managed to balance our budget. At first we were a single group of boys. We began to work with increased energy and decided to accept more members, including girls. We rented a room from the Wolpert family for our meeting place, and their son, Yakov Wolpert (may the Lord avenge his blood), helped us with our cultural programs. After putting out some feelers, we managed to persuade Aryeh Frank (may the Lord avenge his blood) to lead the branch. From then onward, we had regular activities. We ran the branch under strict discipline, including a dress code and Beitar uniforms.

In the summer we went to camp for two weeks, which we set up on the riverbank outside of town, in the heart of nature. Every day was packed with activities: Lectures, marching in formation and at night around the campfire, songs and stories. And after lights out, guard duty. It was a meaningful experience for us all.

From time to time an emissary from headquarters would come through, which was an exciting event for us, as we’d hear reports of Beitar’s progress in Lithuania and around the world. The first time we participated in a government parade in 1929, we were given a place of honor, and we marched proudly past the reviewing stand. Dressed in our spiffy uniforms and with our precision marching, we impressed the onlookers. Over time, we became an institution in Keidan: We participated in Jewish National Fund activities such as fundraising and distributing blue boxes and educational materials.

We also decided to approach the children of Yiddishists, who were distant from Zionism, convincing them to join Beitar. As our membership increased and we outgrew our meeting space, we took an apartment by the Skongale, beside the river. Now we had plenty of room, but in winter there was the problem of heating. Despite the fact that every member brought wood for heating, it wasn’t enough. At that time, an abandoned house stood on the Shlapoberskys’ property. On dark nights, we snuck into it and removed beams from its walls, dragged them to our club, and cut them into pieces. Thus the problem of heating was solved for the entire winter.

Yet even this apartment wasn’t big enough, so we rented an entire house on the other side of the river. Naturally we had a problem paying the rent, but this too was overcome: At Chanukah we held a “latke ball”. If you haven’t seen our girl members peeling potatoes and frying latkes, you haven’t known joy. Even the grownups attended that evening, and it was a big success. We also celebrated another event in the club: Our commander got married, and we threw a splendid and joyous party.

The political climate in Lithuania was very tense at that time. It was after a military coup, and a permanent state of emergency existed. Every meeting and activity required a permit from the military governor. I was on good terms with them, so I was able to obtain permits without too much trouble. The Beitar branch also served as a Revisionist Zionist center, so we would bring lecturers to speak on the Zionist question. Before the Zionist Congress met, we would distribute shekels. We also managed to bring Beitar’s Lithuania delegate [to the 17th Zionist Congress in 1930], Mordechai Katz, which was a big event citywide.

One night, we were walking along the main street after a meeting at our headquarters, and we saw a Jewish communist throwing forbidden literature over the fence of the army barracks, which stood along this street. A plainclothes police officer, whom we didn’t know, came and arrested us as if we were the ones who had thrown the forbidden pamphlets. The police searched us and of course found nothing. Still, they phoned the detectives’ commander and announced proudly that they’d caught a group of Jewish communists. But the officer’s elevated mood changed the moment the commander walked in the door, saw us and chastised him: “Who are these small fish you caught?” After many apologies and asking our pardon, he ordered our release.

One day in 1930, we received the exciting news that the head of World Beitar, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was going to stop at the Keidan train station on his way from Riga to Kovno. We decided to hold a welcome reception for him at the station. With great enthusiasm we resumed practicing our marching for the big day. A few hours before Jabotinsky’s train was due to arrive, we stood in excited formation. When the train arrived and our commander boarded, and we saw the much-admired Jabotinsky through the train windows, our joy knew no bounds. That moment left an unforgettable impression on us all.

Shortly afterward, I attended the Beitar Lithuania conference as Keidan’s delegate, with Jabotinsky in attendance. When I got home, I delivered a report on the conference to our headquarters.

In the summer of 1930, I was called to go for agricultural training. I handed my duties as executive and treasurer over to Yehuda Geben, and went to the area around Alyta [Alytus], about 60 kilometers south of Kovno, from where I corresponded with Yehuda, who kept me up to date on all the issues. A few months later I came back and resumed all my duties. After much correspondence and requests on our part, a new leader was finally sent to us from headquarters, a young man named Gernstein. With his help, we successfully put the branch on the right track. We were quite proud of the fact that we’d gotten as far as we did without any funding or external help.

In the summer of 1931, I went for training again, this time in the Memel area, and when I returned, the branch had changed beyond recognition: The younger members had “grown up” and become serious Beitarniks, giving me much personal satisfaction.

At the beginning of 1932, I received the heartening news from Beitar Lithuania headquarters that out of the five [emigration] certificates that the Zionist Federation had allotted to Beitar Lithuania, I had been fortunate to receive one. I was quite pleased and proud to be the first from Beitar Keidan to emigrate to Eretz-Israel.

In the summer of 1932, the central headquarters organized a regional conference in Vilkomir [Ukmergė]. Nearly our entire branch went, and the journey was loads of fun. It was our first time taking the small train from Yanova [Jonava] to Vilkomir, and everyone got rowdy on the way. At the conference, my aliya was announced. A representative from headquarters congratulated me and bid me a heartfelt farewell. Before my departure, the branch threw a farewell party in my honor. It was hard to leave after all the hard work I’d invested in establishing and expanding Keidan’s Beitar branch.

In September 1932 I came to Eretz-Israel and was sent to a Beitar work brigade in Hadera. Once again I corresponded with Yehuda and wrote him descriptions of the Land of Israel and of life in the brigade. And of course he wrote me about the goings-on in the branch.

At the beginning of 1933, the first female Beitar member from Keidan arrived in Eretz-Israel, Chava Yaffe, who is now my wife. She brought greetings and news of what was happening in Keidan. A few years later my friend Yehuda Geben arrived, from whom I’d already been informed about the expansion of our Beitar branch and about the establishment of Hatzohar[1] and Brit Hachayal[2] associations in Keidan, and of all sorts of people who had joined us.

To my sorrow, our joy didn’t last long. By the time the Russians invaded Lithuania, a few Beitar members from Keidan had managed to go abroad – to the U.S. and South Africa, but unfortunately they were only a few: The majority were murdered by the Lithuanians and the Nazis together with all Keidan’s Jews. A few were left alive in Russia, and only a few of those managed to make it to the Land of Israel.

Let this memoir be a written memorial to all from Beitar in Keidan who were not finally privileged to live in the State of Israel, the object of their dreams, and were cut down while still young by the Lithuanian and Nazi murderers. May God avenge their blood.

Translated by Miriam Erez


[1] Association of Revisionist Zionists

[2] Association of Jewish military veterans, active in the 1930s, allied with the Revisionists.