Volunteer Firefighters in Keidan

By Chaim Landsberg

The Volunteer Fire Brigade was one of the most popular institutions in town. From the mid-1930s, Tzadok Shlapobersky headed it, and his main deputies were adjutant T. Yaffe and head officer Shmuel Landsberg. The three of them together made up the headquarters command. The brigade was divided into platoons, each commanded by a deputy officer. Different officers and deputies were responsible for 1 – inventory; 2 – machines; 3 – water barrels; 4 – ladders; 5 – auxiliary gear. There was also an officer responsible for drills and a sergeant major.

The brigade had between 50 and 60 volunteers, but in times of need they would draft other citizens of the town for unskilled work. There was one permanent full-time employee who resided at the fire station, cared for the two horses, monitored the telephone, cleaned and kept the station orderly and maintained all the firefighting gear in sound condition. When there was a need for repairs, he notified the inventory deputy, who took care of it.

Near the headquarters was the office of a public committee that helped to raise money. Where did the money come from? The municipality paid the permanent full-time employee, and homeowners paid a monthly tax. The city also gave firefighters the right to collect fees for stationing carts in the market. Any surplus in the market maintenance budget was also given to the firefighters, to compensate them for keeping the markets clean.

The market cleaning was done by a subcontractor, leaving a nice profit. The fee collection was to be carried out by the subcontractors’ cleaning workers, but as they didn’t complete the task on time, the rest was done by firefighters for pay.

How were the homeowners’ fees collected? Obviously, it wasn’t easy, as a large portion of them didn’t want to pay, and others were willing but lacked the means. Only a few homeowners paid voluntarily. So the firefighters used a quite creative solution: The houses of those who had the means yet were unwilling to pay were subject to “maneuvers,” which could be carried out politely and smoothly, or not: The firefighters would spill some water inside the house, or slightly damage the roof, or smash a few windows, and so on, and this would help. It was enough to start a rumor that the following week a “maneuver” would be held at a few houses whose owners had not paid their taxes, and the money would flow like water. The homeowners were persuaded that it was cheaper to pay up than to withhold.

Keidan firefighters in the 1930s.

This all began in 1930. Until then, Keidan’s firefighting situation was bad, and the equipment outdated. When financial conditions improved, new equipment was purchased, yet the transition to the modern equipment wasn’t easy. A large, advanced machine was purchased that had to be operated manually. Eight people had to operate its pumps, and exert great physical effort to achieve sufficiently strong water pressure.

In 1930, the news began to spread that the fascists wanted to burn down an entire quarter of the city, Smilga Street, because they disliked its small houses set close together, which they considered an eyesore. The firefighters realized that if a fire broke out here, they would not be able to control it with their primitive equipment, and they decided to purchase a motor. Immediately upon the motor’s arrival, a fire broke out, which they were able to extinguish quickly and without undue effort.

Water wasn’t a problem, with the Neviazhe (Nevežis) on one side, and the Smilga on the other. They placed the motor beside the river — the center of the fire was about 500 meters away — and the motor transferred the water quickly, as there were enough hoses reaching from the river to the blaze. After the first machine proved a success, another was purchased.

How did they move all the fire-extinguishing equipment to the site of the fire? Upon sounding the alarm, the permanent fire station employee would go out first with a machine to which a water tank was attached. The wagon drivers would unhitch their horses in the middle of the street, leave their wagon and ride their horses to join the fire brigade. Other firefighters who were at home at the time of the fire would do the same. Naturally, those who lived close by would arrive soonest. The deputies would prepare the equipment such as water barrels, extinguishers, wagons with ladders and the various tools for breaking in. It would take between 5 and 15 minutes to reach the site of the fire.

The firefighters’ devotion and self-sacrifice went above and beyond the call of duty: None thought of becoming injured or burned, and all work was done on a voluntary basis. Note that nearly all of Keidan’s firefighters were Jews, who worked to put out all fires — those of Jews and gentiles alike – with equal loyalty.

What did they get in exchange for all their hard work and preparation? Once a year there was a firefighters’ ball, featuring refreshments and food fit for a king, to which each firefighter could bring his wife or girlfriend. Following the banquet there was dancing until dawn. The firefighters also received free entry to the cinema, other balls and theatrical performances, all in an orderly fashion, according to rank and assignment in the brigade.

The fire of 1914

In 1914, a major fire broke out in Keidan that spread over half of the city. While I was but a small boy, the event has remained in my memory. People came to help fight the fire from surrounding towns, by train and in wagons, and there was pandemonium. Nearly all the town’s inhabitants had already packed their bundles, ready to abandon their homes. My family did the same, as we lived just about 200 meters from the fire.

After the 1914 fire in Keidan.

Translated by Miriam Erez.