By Pesach Weitzer-Chittin (Beit Zera, Israel)
This event in the life of Keidan, about which I wish to write, I heard of from my father, of blessed memory, when I was a child. Later, in about 1923, I heard the story not only from an eyewitness, but from someone who took an active part in it. He was Moshe Milner, the Jewish owner of a soft-drink bottling plant, a learned and educated man, and most importantly a big prankster.
Here is a short preface: In 1923, when Lithuania was already an independent country, a new provincial minister called Januškevičius arrived in Keidan. He was a young Lithuanian nationalist, a clear and open antisemite. In his desire to improve and beautify the city, he took drastic measures, which caused problems mainly for the Jewish population. He ordered the very rapid construction of wooden sidewalks along all the streets; the installation of gates between all houses; the whitewashing and painting of all houses fronting on the street; and most importantly, that the streets be kept so clean that house owners would need to spend the entire day sweeping. The provincial minister gave police a free hand to implement this order strictly, and to report any violations. The fines to be collected from these reports reached fairly high sums. There were days when dozens of reports were written. In short, the Jews suffered seriously from the arbitrariness of both the police and the minister.
It should be obvious that a situation like this would further unite the Jews, especially since earning a living was not easy for them. This was because it was spring, and most of the Jewish inhabitants of the city were involved in growing cucumbers. Whenever a few Jews gathered to discuss things, conversation quickly centered on the reports. One summer evening, a few of us young people were hanging around in the street, talking, obviously, about this painful issue. Suddenly Moshe Milner approached us and joined our conversation.
After a few minutes he addressed us directly: “What are you guys worth that you allow things to be conducted like this? You’re sitting around with crossed arms while the provincial minister is impoverishing the town’s Jews? Why don’t you behave the way we behaved more than thirty years ago, when we had a similar issue?”
“And what should we do, Reb Moshe?” we asked.
“What should you do?” he replied, “A few guys should sit down and write a complaint to the minister of the interior, or even to the state president, saying in simple and clear language that the Keidan provincial minister is taking revenge on the Jewish inhabitants of the town for personal reasons. He’s abusing them, issuing illegal fines for bad hygiene despite the fact that our cleanliness here is exemplary. You can add that the minister is always drunk, plays cards day and night, and is absolutely not fulfilling his function as the representative of a democratic government (the phrase “democratic government” was very common then). Sign a fictitious name to the letter – and that’s that!”
Of course we did not act on Moshe Milner’s suggestion. However, his mention of the similar situation more than thirty years earlier gave me a chance to ask him for the details of that incident, which I wish to relate. Naturally Milner agreed to tell the story.
In 1890, he began, when Lithuania was still known as Kovno guberniya [province] under Russia’s rule, a new doctor by the name of Yevtekhovsky arrived at the Keidan regional hospital. He was Russian by birth. As was happening again, he and the local pristav became overly attentive to the town’s cleanliness, and to harass the Jews. They started handing out violation reports – called “protocols” – left and right. I suffered especially because of my soft-drink plant. A week did not pass when they didn’t “credit” me with two protocols. You can imagine the level of cleanliness in small towns like Keidan in the 1890s!
Now the Jewish inhabitants of Keidan learned that, instead of transmitting the fines for these violations to the state treasury, the pristav would cancel the protocols for a bribe, which he took for himself. There were those who said that he shared this money with Dr. Yevtekhovsky. It also became known that the cancelled protocols were thrown on the stove in the pristav’s office.
Well, a few of us got together for discussion, and we decided to send a complaint about both the pristav and the doctor to the governor in Kovno. But how could we get the evidence; i.e., the cancelled protocols? Eventually we found a solution to this as well.
In Keidan, there lived a Jew by the name of Mendel Epstein. He owned a butcher shop, and was a supplier of meat to the army. He used to come and go among the local authorities, and was on good terms with the pristav and his secretary. Another Keidan Jew, Neta Wolpert (who was also among those helping draft the complaint to the governor) and I consulted with Epstein.
He advised that the three of us should stage an event, as follows: The next morning at a certain time, Wolpert and I would go to the pristav’s office to ask how to get a license to build a storehouse for firewood. Epstein would already be waiting for us in the office. We would not remove our hats on entering the office, although we knew that we should remove our hats in a government office. It was winter then, and we both wore big fur hats. The pristav’s secretary would probably shout at us to remove our hats. And if he did not, Epstein himself would rebuke us, and would approach us, grab the hats and throw them onto the stove (where, as we know, the cancelled reports were).
At the same time, both Wolpert and I would start apologizing to the secretary, explaining that we were religious Jews and that we didn’t know we should remove our hats. We would beg forgiveness, and ask about the license for the firewood storehouse. Later, we would ask for our hats. Epstein would then intervene, and tell us angrily that we should get our own hats from the stove. While at the oven, we would put as many cancelled protocols as possible into our hats.
And so it happened: The entire drama worked perfectly. During our performance, Epstein chastised us, “Aren’t you ashamed not to remove your hats in the office of his honor, the pristav, when on the wall hangs the picture of his supreme majesty the Tsar!?” And so on.”
When we went to the stove to retrieve our hats, Epstein distracted the secretary while we filled the hats with protocols. We left the stove with a veritable treasure of cancelled protocols – the decisive evidence. We said goodbye and left.
We arranged the protocols at home. There were about thirty crumpled reports. We went to a writer of applications, big Abramovitch, to compose the complaint. He wrote it in a nicely poetic style, like this:
“Two years ago, a terrible drought hit southeast Russia, causing tens of thousands of deaths. Last year a cholera plague broke out in Siberia, causing terrible loss of life. This year, there were floods which caused heavy casualties and damage. There were fires throughout Russia, plague in the Far East, an earthquake in the city of Varna, with hundreds of casualties – in short, disasters and calamities that should not happen again. However, in our town, Keidan, thank God, nothing happened; no plague, no fires, no floods and no earthquakes. We simply lived a quiet and tranquil life, and we were even able to assist the victims of some of these other tragedies. Suddenly, however, a new government doctor, Yevtekhovsky, arrived in our town and, together with the local pristav, conspired to write up violation reports daily for lack of cleanliness without due reason, since we try to maintain hygiene, which is the basis of our health. It seems as if the main job of the doctor and the pristav is to write up reports. It might be all right if at least the state treasury had benefited from these fines, but, in the words of the Talmud, not a bit of it! They cancel nearly all the fines in exchange for bribes, which they put into their own pockets to live lives of profligacy and drunkenness. They play cards night after night. As proof of this, we attach scores of cancelled protocols, which we managed to obtain. How is it possible for such injustice and crime to occur in our dear homeland? We request that your highness set up a comprehensive inquiry and punish the guilty ones.”
The complaint was signed by me, Moshe Milner, and by Neta Wolpert.
We sent the complaint together with the canceled protocols to the governor in Kovno. This is when our troubles started.
It appeared that one of the clerks working in the governor’s office was a relative of Dr. Yevtekhovsky. When the complaint with the protocols arrived, this clerk extracted all the protocols, destroyed them, and left the complaint without any evidence. The complaint was then presented to the governor, who ordered an investigation and had Wolpert and me charged with libeling government officials. From accusers, we suddenly became the accused.
After a while, Wolpert and I were summoned by an investigator in Keidan. I pretended to be a madman. My replies were completely irrelevant to the point. The policeman who accompanied me, (he received a small “something”), told the investigator that, as far as he knew, I was a normal person but that I had recently become mentally ill. When the investigator asked who wrote the complaint, both Wolpert and I said it was a man who had left Keidan a few months before for America. Thus there was no fear that others would be accused. After the investigation they wanted to arrest us, but they let us off on bail.
We waited for the trial, which was supposed to take place in the regional court in Kovno.
We consulted with a lawyer before the trial. He told us there was no chance we would be acquitted. The charge was quite serious, and the sentence could be a year or more in prison. The only way out, he advised us, was to continue pretending to be insane. As you guys know me – Moshe Milner said, smiling – I’m quite an expert at this.
We studied and memorized his arguments before the day of judgement.
At the trial in Kovno – Moshe Milner continued – Wolpert and I appeared dressed as pitiful beggars. We didn’t want an attorney using our case to learn the art of defense at our expense, for one simple reason: An attorney by nature would attempt to show us as innocent. A prosecutor by nature would try to prove the opposite. Thus the advocate’s appearance would only demonstrate our guilt, giving the prosecutor the advantage. By simple logic we concluded that our insane behavior would be more likely to succeed.
And so it happened. In truth, we were very scared when we entered the courtroom. The judges entered and the public stood up. “The trial will begin!” the herald loudly proclaimed – “of Neta Wolpert and Moshe Milner, accused, according to criminal law, of serious libel against government officials.”
The charge was read out. The first accused was Neta Wolpert, who answered in broken Russian, with a mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish.
Here is the conversation between the judge and Neta Wolpert:
Judge: Did you sign the complaint to the governor?
Wolpert: Yes, but it was a request, not a complaint.
Judge: Do you consider yourself guilty?
Judge: Do you know the contents of the complaint?
Wolpert: When they got me to sign the request, they told me that, since winter was approaching, and scores of Keidan families weren’t able to buy firewood, we should ask the government to let us have free wood for these families. By the way, didn’t I go to ask the pristav for permission to build a storehouse for wood? I later discovered that this was something else completely, about which I understood nothing. God only knows that I am innocent. I hereby beg for mercy, and that you should acquit me, (here, he spoke a sentence from the Rosh Hashana prayers while putting his hand on his head; none of the judges understood him).
His words aroused both laughter and pity among the public as well as from the judges and prosecutor.
Finally, my turn came – said Moshe Milner, seriously.
The same standard questions, and the same answers, with the small difference that I also used a few Lithuanian words that I knew. To the main question, whether I knew the contents of the complaint, I replied:
“I didn’t know that this was a complaint, and I’m not the sort of person who would file a complaint because, according to our Torah, an informer is an evil man and his end is in hell. Things were like this: They told me there are Jewish soldiers of our esteemed tsar’s army in Keidan. These soldiers are religious and want to keep the Laws of Moses. They don’t eat non-kosher meat (I said this phrase in Hebrew). They therefore wanted to ask his excellency the governor if he would allow them to have kosher food. Because I am religious, (here I held my fringes), I signed the plea wholeheartedly. Moreover I saw Neta Wolpert’s signature on the plea. I know that he is a very devout man, and I also wanted to do a mitzvah. It would be unthinkable for me to complain about officials, because, as it says in the Talmud, ‘the king’s law is the law!’.” I added a few more sentences from the Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), and I translated them with some difficulty by myself. Finally I hit myself over my heart, as one does on Yom Kippur, and I ended, my voice choked by total remorse, with a plea for mercy for myself and my family, and with a comment that I was leaving my fate in the hands of the court of justice.
Both the judges and the prosecutor were a bit stunned by our words. Our style of talking gave them reason to believe that there was perhaps some truth in our claims. Finally, the presiding judge turned to the prosecutor and asked his opinion.
The prosecutor looked at us for a moment. Apparently, our appearance and dress took away his desire to argue with us. Maybe his pity was finally aroused. In short, he contented himself with the following words only: “I support the charge.” Even this was said in a weak voice.
The judges went out for consultation, and we waited for the verdict. After a while, the judges returned. The public rose once more. The entire charge was read out again in detail: that Moshe Milner and Neta Wolpert had signed a complaint libeling government officials. The court found them guilty; but, considering the extenuating circumstances that neither of them knew what they were signing, and that both of them sincerely regretted their actions, the court was imposing a fine of one ruble on each of them.
We sighed with relief, and paid the fines immediately without excess emotion, so as not to arouse suspicion.
We left the courthouse and went to the Keidaner hostel in the old city in Kovno. We ate lunch (having fasted until noon), changed our clothes, and returned home.
You should know – ended Moshe Milner – that from that time onwards, the arbitrary reports stopped being issued in Keidan, while our relationships with Dr. Yevtekhovsky became most friendly.
A regional police chief, considered an absolute ruler in small towns of the Russian empire.
 “לא מיניה ולא מיקצתיה” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Suta 5,1)
Translated by Chaim Charutz.