Keidan in the Time of Troubles

By Shabtiel Deitsh (Haifa)

Even though I wasn’t born, didn’t grow up and didn’t study in Keidan, it seems to me that I have the right to write about it, as well as a lot to say. Not only am I personally connected to Keidan, but so are all my family members, due to the great sorrow and suffering around the “Kibush” training farm at Pelednagiai.

In all the terrible world events of the 20th century, the Jews suffered more than any other nation. During the First World War, hundreds of thousands of families were uprooted; their possessions, acquired over centuries, were plundered in a few hours, and the survivors were scattered in all directions. But the greatest horrors in mankind’s history were committed in Hitler’s time, when six million Jewish souls were brutally annihilated. Those in Keidan were among them.

During the first time of troubles, my family and I lived in Vilna. In that time, when Jews were expelled from hundreds of Lithuanian towns and villages and scattered to all corners of the Russian empire, tens of thousands poured into Vilna. The city was in crisis: There was little bread, and no flour at all.  Salt was extremely expensive and could only be purchased with gold. The farmers brought sacks of potatoes from the villages and exchanged them for pianos. Many Jews wandered the streets hungry and swollen. I encountered scenes like this at every turn.

When the situation calmed down slightly, I decided to move to Keidan. The family of Chaim Berel Srolov, relatives of my late wife, lived there. When the Germans gave some refugees permission to return to their towns, I seized the opportunity. The first problem there was finding a way to survive. I was attracted to Count Totleben’s fields, which lay between his palace and Keidan, because I had previously been a farmer. Though the war still raged, the situation had begun to improve somewhat, as peace neared between the Bolsheviks and the Germans.

Jews began to return from Vilna and elsewhere in Russia, but they were hungry and desolate. Many Jewish families, who had previously grown vegetables, mainly cucumbers, had no land to till, and they were dying from hunger. The thought of the beautiful, rich soil lying between Count Totleben’s palace, the railway station and the town gave me no rest, and I decided to approach the count himself about the situation. I requested and was granted a meeting.

To my great joy, there appeared before me a person of outstanding positive qualities. From the first, our conversation was friendly and humane. I poured out my heart about the situation and even dared to demand, that, as the patron of Keidan, with great social and political influence, he should do as much as he could to help.

In a few hours we had become real friends. He even invited me into the chambers of his father, the great general who defended Sevastopol for Russia in the Crimean War, defeating the British, French and Turks. The rooms were partly filled with weaponry, new and ancient. I was particularly impressed by a very large painting that hung by itself on a wall, showing Tsar Nikolai II and the general, then his aide, riding on two mighty horses, amid beautiful scenery. The painting was glorious and apparently worth hundreds of thousands of rubles. The count was very proud of the painting, and selective about whom he allowed to see it.

Many of the counts, barons and other Russian aristocrats in the area had been impoverished, Totleben among them, giving them an incentive to make use of their lands. The count agreed to lease about 500 dunams [125 acres] of arable land, on easy terms for 20 years. This successful deal had great significance for the future. I eagerly gathered the local vegetable growers together and surprised them with the news, asking them to select a committee to subdivide the land and establish a growers’ association.

The economic situation was dire, with high unemployment; the few remaining factories had been nearly destroyed by war and anarchy. The few community organizers were depressed and impoverished and there was no financial help. When it became known that I had made a deal with as important a figure as Totleben, and further that I had been a farmer in Eretz Israel and a long-term member of Poalei Zion in Vilna, I appeared to be a savior. The vegetable growers began tilling the soil with great enthusiasm. I asked the count for help obtaining horses and farming tools, which he gave.

However, time didn’t stand still. The Poles occupied Vilna, where they organized pogroms against the Jews. They buried the author Weiter alive, on the outskirts of Vilna.[1] The poet Leib Jaffe was saved from death at the very last minute.  Many Jews fled from Poland to Lithuania, and Lithuanian Jewish refugees began to return home, including well-known public figures. From America, Jewish landsmanshaftn began to send aid via Scandinavia to the Jews in Russia and particularly in the Baltic states. The Jews in Lithuania organized themselves and established the national rat, or council, a quasi-autonomous parliament. A new atmosphere of nationalism and Zionism began to grow. Kovno began to develop into an important Jewish center, and so did Keidan, which had had a significant name in the past.

Keidan recovered financially and socially and began to establish itself. Something special happened to it in the general progressive and social revolution.  As I became active, and my success with the count gave me some recognition, I received an urgent invitation to meet with the Jewish national council.  There I found public figures from all over Lithuania, as well as a senior official from the American Joint Distribution Committee, named Landesco[2], a smart and active Jew.

After discussing the general interests of the Lithuanian Jews, I invited Landesco to examine the particular situation of Jews in Keidan.  He agreed. I described the Jewish population and conditions in the town, my thoughts and plans for its rehabilitation.  My openness and honesty impressed him. He said: “Let us speak openly. I am a senior official of the Joint, but I can’t take many decisions, particularly concerning finances. However, I have some advice for you. Make connections with the American landsmanshaftn. They have a lot of money but few plans. Knowledge of the situation and detailed plans will impress them. I have no money, but I do have influence and I promise you my help; if you do what I suggest you will succeed. I am impressed by you. Send them a detailed memorandum, as we discussed and send me a copy.” And so we parted.

I returned to Keidan and here my problems started. It appeared my thoughts and plans were only in my mind. Here it was as if they had never happened, including my meeting with Landesco. I asked Zundel Ginzburg, the chairman of the communal committee, to call a special meeting. When I conveyed details of the program and my meeting with Landesco, some burst out laughing. Others, more practical, said I should be committed to an insane asylum. Indeed, I had asked the Americans for “only” a half million marks, a considerable sum even given the depreciated value of the currency at that time.

My situation was bad. I was a stranger in Keidan, no American Keidaner knew me, nor I them. A significant sum was under discussion and the authorization of the committee was a must. I was facing total defeat.  Suddenly Zundel Ginzburg rose, and spoke with complete affection and support. He called out “What’s the problem? What do we have to lose if the Americans refuse? Let them come here, and then I can’t see how they could dare remain uninvolved!”

My suggestion was adopted unanimously. They all signed my letter and my plan for the rehabilitation of Keidan, and dispatched the letters. After three or four weeks, the committee, represented by Zundel Ginzburg, received a check for 365,000 marks. Before we could get over the shock, a few weeks later we received an additional 85,000 marks.

Yet if anyone thinks this ended the matter, and that it was possible to finalize a plan for the rehabilitation of the destroyed Keidan, he understands neither the Jewish character nor the nature of those wild days. At that time, Bolshevik influence was widening and spreading. The Bolshevik plan was to destroy all communal committees that were under influence of Zionists, as well as those who supported them. Two youths, Finkelshtein and Marilinski, did all they could to destroy the communal committee and to attract the masses. The American money provided a good opportunity for this. A man, whose name I can’t recall, stood at the head of a mob, demanding the money be divided among them. “The money was sent by our grandmothers and aunts for us, and not for the banks,” they contended. They accepted no explanations:  That children had no schools and no Talmud Torahs, that there were no buildings and no shops, that there was no credit and no aid – nothing helped. Blood was going to be spilled. The leader was an uneducated worker, and the intellectual teachers were the youths Finkelstein and Marilinski.

When German soldiers had first entered Keidan, I and Chaim Berel Srolov had followed close behind. It is difficult to describe the situation of Keidan at that time. The Russian army had expelled the Jews, then fled themselves. Before the Germans entered, the gentile inhabitants of the area had plundered everything: merchandise, furniture, utensils. They removed windows and doors, and took everything possible out of the houses. The black holes that remained made the buildings look like empty graves in the cemetery. Only lone German soldiers and starving dogs were visible in the streets.

It was not surprising in that situation that the arrival of so much money caused some to lose all sense of proportion. The town was in turmoil. Some wanted to rebuild. Some wanted the money divided among themselves, and some – typically the well off – were indifferent. One evening Ginzburg and I were invited to a meeting. When we arrived and Ginzburg saw the faces of the crowd, he said to me: “You conduct the meeting, I haven’t the strength for such a mob!” Meanwhile my friends warned me that some in the crowd had filled their pockets with stones, and had decided to finish me off.

I opened the meeting with an attack: “Very honorable and organized assembly, I know you have decided to stone me with rocks. I ask you to leave a few stones also for Zundel Ginzburg. He is a decent man, a veteran communal worker, and such a decent man should be given his due. You, if you ever become communal workers, will receive nothing. Stones must be earned and you won’t earn them. For this you require special privilege. Zundel Ginzburg and I have decided that, as long as we live, you will not get this money. Isn’t that so, Mr. Ginzburg?” He stood up and called out, “Undeniably true!.” I continued: “But I am prepared to make you an honest proposal: Choose three or five from among you to make decisions together with the communal committee, but those decisions will be final and without any protests.”

They agreed. The committee decided eventually to build a school with a third of the money, to establish a bank for credit and loan assistance with another third, and to divide the remaining third among those most in need of loans and financial aid. This was almost identical to what I had suggested originally. With this I closed the meeting. However this whole affair robbed us both of any enthusiasm and creativity and we departed.

Ginzburg aged and grew weak. Along with our communal headaches, he was troubled by his young son, who had made an unsuitable marriage, and this led to his demise. In contrast, I was still young, active and dynamic.

I was elected to the Jewish national council. After a short while, my friends proposed to nominate me for the Lithuanian parliament, the Seimas. This was through Mr. Gorfinkel[3], who was also a representative to that body. In the meantime, the general situation of the Lithuanian Jews changed both for better and worse. The Jews of Lithuania began to experience freedom. With the country’s new independence, former leaders and members of the intelligentsia began to get organized.  Lithuania became a republic.  The Jews established a national council and organized the communities. An international committee to aid the Jews of the Baltic States was founded In Stockholm, Sweden. At the same time, young people in Lithuania found themselves without trades, without employment, without purpose.

The situation was beyond desperate, and the organized Jewish bodies pressured me to do something. I decided to go my own way – to agriculture. I hurried back to Totleben, this time as an old friend, with a detailed plan. The land given to the nobility by the Russian tsar was in fact, a form of robbery, leaving the peasants in the status of tenant farmers.  Their resentment of the nobility had grown, and the farmers hoped their lands would be returned to them when Lithuania became a republic.

Next to the estate of Vilain (Vilainiai) were the estate and the palace of Count Zabiela. He was an arrogant and wicked aristocrat and, it was said, also an antisemite. When he learned that his neighbors would be Jews, he wanted to destroy the whole world. A day after meeting with Totleben I received a note from him to come quickly. I felt disaster approaching. Word of the deal had spread rapidly. Count Zabiela, angry that he had not been consulted, was demanding that Totleben cancel the contract immediately, or he would sever all contact with him, tell his friends to shun him and incite the peasants who worked on all fourteen of his farms. In short, Zabiela would declare total war.

Totleben said he would return the 5,000 lit that he had received from me and pay an additional penalty of 5,000 lit. I explained to him, that ours was not just an agreement, but a legal right and a national duty, and I asked him for a postponement of a few days. I travelled to Kovno. A special meeting [of the national council] was called, where I explained the seriousness of the situation and asked for the authority to resolve it independently.

As there was no alternative, they agreed. I understood immediately that this was a time not for antagonism but rather for understanding, and that I would have to secure a different piece of land, even if it lacked the advantages of the one at Vilain. Within a short while, I was proved right. The wife of Count Totleben joined forces with Count Zabiela. Even though she was wicked and hated by the workers, the tenant farmers and the managers sided with her against me. That is why, when I suggested Pelednagiai I received it, with better conditions. Otherwise, something worse could have happened.

At that time, food was exceedingly expensive and I managed to buy a lot of potatoes from the neighboring farms. When I sent for wagons to cart them to the train, the former manager of Pelednagiai demanded I come to sign for the inventory myself. I suspected some danger and didn’t go. Afterwards, it became known to me that there was a plot to murder me and so end this whole saga. After this, I found out that the main instigator of the plot was the priest from the big church on the other side of the river. I found out also, that every evening the priest used to come to Pelednagiai, gather the tenant farmers and tell them what to do and how to behave.

I took with me a few property owners, who were known to the priest, and went to negotiate him, but he held to his own opinion until I asked him if he held any official post. He said no. I then said to him, “and I am a member of the Seimas.” This frightened him, and after that evening he stopped visiting the tenant farmers.

The matter of Pelednagiai settled down a bit, but elsewhere in the area things were boiling.  I appealed to the national council to send to Keidan a famous and influential personality, who was also a renowned lawyer. They sent [Ozer] Finkelstein. In his youth, as a student at the University of St. Petersburg, Finkelstein had been an active socialist revolutionary and assimilationist, but when he returned to Kovno he changed greatly. Now he was a famous lawyer and owned a number of large houses. All the match factories belonged to him. He was transformed spiritually and had become a good Jew and was even close to Zionism. Agriculture and the Jewish pioneer spirit were close to his heart. He devoted himself to this initiative and was at my disposal at all times. He was very wealthy and the vice-chairman of the national council.

All the vegetable growers and farmers gathered at the house of Sholem Khayat, and when I opened the meeting, a young girl, the daughter of one of the growers, started shouting at me. Her brother and a merchant, trading in flax and grain, had been murdered on the land of Pelednagiai. This was a period when there were many deserters from the Russian army; when they found that Jews had taken the lands of their parents, they ambushed them and slaughtered them at Pelednagiai.

The poor father and sister fled home, weeping and wailing. Those gathered for the meeting were distraught by the story, and rose to leave. I saw this as the beginning of the end. Tearfully, I begged them to stay, and explained what a disaster would befall us if the fear of death destroyed our will. “We are just beginning the war for our rights in Lithuania,” I said, weeping bitterly. Finkelstein spoke after me. His words let me know what a great human being and valuable Jew stood before me.

The Pelednagiai training farm, known afterwards as Kibush, began to occupy a significant place in the life of the Jewish community. Keidan developed a respect for the youths involved.  On Sabbaths and festivals, many young boys and girls visited the farm. They were invited at every opportunity and were pleased when they participated. The non-Jews called this place an agricultural school. Whole schools, with children and teachers, used to make pilgrimages from far and near, especially those of the Zionist organizations.

The police caused a great deal of grief and anxiety. This was a period of lawlessness, with violence coming from all quarters: Germans, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, deserters and simple bandits and robbers. Every young man was suspected of deserting from the army, prompting demands for bribes. At the Kibush farm there were sometimes 60 to 70 boys and girls, all young. There was constant fear of officials coming by day or night for inspections. I quickly learned the skill of paying them off. One of the members, Motel Talpiyot of blessed memory, got tired of living and threw himself down the well. The police were called, so I evacuated the farm members and many families until the fury abated.

There were many incidents, when the police met someone on the way from Pelednagiai and the members would say I was holding their identity papers. The police would come and tell me to get them released. Afterwards, in the evening, there would be a celebration at my place. There were times when I got Polish youths out of jail, and took on myself the responsibility to return them on the first request, while they actually were defectors from the Polish army. I had to do this to ensure they wouldn’t tell the police about members of the Kibush. We became so smart that eventually we acquired forged identity documents, and thus we carried on for years.

There is a saying: The state is as are its people. The attitude of Count Zabiela to the renting of Vilain, the priest’s effort to incite the tenant farmers, the behavior of the tenant farmers, the two martyrs at Pelednagiai, all showed clearly what sort of nationalists the Lithuanians were. Through the liquidation of the Kibush farm we learned the character of the people. In earlier times the Jews had occupied an important place in agriculture, and played an even more important role in the trade of agricultural products. Our political influence in the establishment of the Lithuanian Republic, and in its economic and international development, was not insignificant. Still, the Lithuanian government felt very uncomfortable. When they saw how Pelednagiai was growing and developing, they couldn’t think of a more suitable place to house young Lithuanian criminals than the country’s only Jewish training farm.

I once arranged for Dr. [Max] Soloveichik, a member of the Seimas and Minister of Jewish Affairs, along with the Minister of Agriculture to visit Pelednagiai. Dr. Soloveichik stopped at Pelednagiai and the Minister for Agriculture continued to Kovno. When we found out that they were going to close us down, the Jewish national council sent Dr. Ozer Finkelstein and me to negotiate with the director of the Ministry of Agriculture. We were not satisfied with what the director said, and Finkelstein told him that Lithuania had ministers, a government, the Seimas and the law. The director replied: “You will work with the law, and we will work with the military.” A few days later they closed us down, in the name of the Republic.

Kibush Pelednagiai proved two points: First, it showed that we could, everywhere and under all circumstances, be creative, productive and able to indirectly help others. Second, it showed there is only one place in which our efforts and sacrifices will be rewarded: Eretz Israel, our own land and state.

[1] Other sources say the Bundist writer Isaac Meyer Devenishki, who wrote under the name A. Weiter (Vayter), was shot by Polish legionnaires.

[2] Alexander Landesco (1880-1963), a New York investment banker, was the Joint Distribution Committee’s director of reconstruction in Eastern Europe after World War I.

[3] Leyb Gorfinkel 1896-1976, advocate, journalist, and politician, vice chair of the Jewish National Council of Lithuania and member of Lithuanian Seimas in the 1920s.

Translated by Bella Golubchik.


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