My Vanished Keidan

By Pesach Weitzer-Chittin (Beit Zera, Israel)

Writing down memories of the town where you were born and spent close to 40 years evokes strong longings and yearnings. It is many times more difficult to write about the town whose Jews, young and old, were all annihilated, with incomparable cruelty, by bestial creatures on one day – the bitter, heart rending 5 Elul 5701 (Aug. 28, 1941).

Reviving such memories is both nerve-wracking and heartbreaking. Thirty years have passed since that day, but it is still hard to accept what happened there. It is hard to imagine an entire community, 3,700 people, marching to their deaths on a sun-drenched summer morning, surrounded by their murderers – their Christian neighbors – who will annihilate them in only a few hours. Yet this nightmare became reality.

My tongue is impoverished and my imagination is weak when I try to describe this cruel slaughter. My cry is smothered. My broken heart is unable to mourn, eulogize and cry for the people I knew for so many years: the innocent children and babies, pure as angels, who hadn’t even begun to taste life. Such mourning and lamentation is beyond human endurance.

This book represents a memorial to our Keidan, which was and is no more. Black night has descended on Jewish Keidan, replacing the daylight that shone for our loved ones.

Ancient Keidan, which existed for more than five hundred years has been wiped out. The lives of many generations were cut off and exterminated within a few hours.

With great difficulty I choke back my tears. When I think on the horrible Holocaust, I cannot understand logically how it happened. Yet reality invades my thoughts and cries bitterly: Keidan has vanished!

A rich human landscape

My beloved Keidan, you rise up in my memory out of the long distant past. Sometimes clearly, and sometimes blurred, but always with pleasant feelings, touched with grace and longing. I remember you from the dawn of my childhood.

I still recognize your roads and lanes, bustling with Jews, among them workers and craftsmen, shopkeepers worrying about their livelihood; children carrying their books, hurrying to cheder and school on weekdays; and dressed for Shabbat, filled with spirituality, rushing to synagogue on holy and festive days.

I remember your youth before and after the First World War. Awake, thirsting for knowledge, imbued with national but also religious consciousness, holding to tradition but also loving sports.

When I immerse myself in the past and remember its bustling life, young people striving after ideals, all now lost, my heart is in pain. As the Talmud says, “They are a great loss, and no others can be found like them.” An entire human landscape passes before my eyes, familiar and beloved faces, evoking longing.

My teachers and tutors

I would first like to remember my tutors and teachers, those who educated and moulded the spiritual character of Jewish children.

My first rabbi was Reb Simcha Vilenchik, of blessed memory. A tall Jew, slim, with a long beard. I think he was more than 60 years old, but he understood well the nature of tender children by the standards of those times, 70 years ago. He was naturally kind-hearted and almost never hit us. We attended class even after the end of Shabbat, when he would treat us to honey cake. He used to tell us stories, thereby winning our affection. His house was small and dilapidated. I studied with him for three seasons.

I was then promoted to the class of the teacher Shmuel Yehuda Eides, of blessed memory. He was a learned person who knew Hebrew, Russian and arithmetic well. His cheder was spacious and tidy. He taught us Hebrew, grammar and Bible. I began then to speak Hebrew. I recall that when I was about ten years old he taught us the Prophet Isaiah in Hebrew, with Hebrew explanations. It can definitely be said that in this cheder we learned the foundation of the Hebrew language; our Jewish consciousness expanded substantially there.

The third rabbi was Reb Moshe Burshtein, of blessed memory, nicknamed “the Telzer” because he was a graduate of the Telz (Telšiai) yeshiva. We learned Gemara, Bible and Hebrew vocabulary and grammar from him. The teaching system was fairly modern for those times (1907–1910). This rabbi trained us in Torah and proper behaviour during the three or four years we studied with him. He was a Zionist and encouraged our use of Hebrew. All his children were members of Hashomer Hatzair in Keidan. His entire family perished in the Holocaust.

Among the melameds in Keidan, Israel Nachman Shamesh, of blessed memory, was noteworthy. He was a god-fearing man, pure and honest. By chance I happened to read a copy of his handwritten will, a portion of which is engraved on my memory. It went approximately like this:

“I am old and soon will go the way of all flesh. Master of the Universe, I am prepared to stand before you with a still heart and a clean conscience. I tried to tread a straight path, never insulted anyone, did not gossip, and so forth. I taught little children, and in this I saw my life’s goal.”

In him I saw a Jew totally at peace with his creator. His son, who was educated, quiet and introverted, was a teacher as well.

Others in Keidan included my Gemara teacher, Yitzhak (called Itzik Yechiels, I don’t recall his surname); Avraham Sochen, who taught me Talmud, Bible and Hebrew; David Yitzhak Bloshtein, an excellent teacher of Bible and Hebrew; the melamed Koplansky. They all taught Torah to small children and adolescents.

One should mention Reb Israel Akiva Prusak, who taught girls Yiddish and arithmetic.

May their memories be blessed.

The 22nd of Kislev

The custom of “ba’ch[1] Kislev” was observed by the Keidan Burial Society in this manner:

On the eve of 22 Kislev, all the Burial Society members would go to the public bath house. Under his contract with the community, the bath house lessee was obliged to heat it for the Burial Society twice a year at no charge: Once on the eve of Hoshana Raba (the last night of Sukkot), and again on the eve of 22 Kislev. After bathing, the members would put on their holiday clothes and assemble in the gravediggers’ synagogue, where they would read psalms all night.

Early the next morning they chanted morning prayers, using a high-holidays tune. Of course all the Burial Society members fasted that day. The town cantor led the service, standing by the holy ark. (David Feinzinger served as cantor in Keidan more than 80 years ago. He had a very pleasant voice and was also a composer. Among his many melodies was one for the prayer “O God, the soul you have given me is pure,” which the Burial Society chanted on 22 Kislev.)

After the prayers, the gabbai of the society led the members up to the cemetery, where they walked past the graves of all those deceased in the previous year, asking forgiveness if they had offended them during their ritual purification or interment. Returning to town they said the afternoon prayers, and afterwards … there was a banquet, the Burial Society’s main event. On that occasion the society also elected new members, choosing them carefully based on morals and behaviour.

The burial of sacred texts

In the anteroom of every synagogue stood a number of wooden boxes, into which the congregation placed torn or damaged prayer books, other religious texts or worn-out pages. These worn or damaged articles, which couldn’t be used, were called “sheimes.”

In the summer of 1910, a group of us boys, aged 13 and 14, were bathing in the Smilga creek opposite the cemetery. Suddenly, we heard the sound of music coming from the graveyard. At first, we were frightened – music from a cemetery! After we calmed down a bit, we ascended to the cemetery, where a rare sight met our eyes. They were burying the boxes of sheimes, accompanied by an orchestra.

When we asked about this back in town, we were told that these burials took place about once every ten years. Wagon drivers would volunteer to transport the sheimes. They would clean the carts and the horses, put on their holiday clothes and carry the sheimes (at no charge, of course) to their burial place in the cemetery, accompanied by musicians.

The story is told that once, while the wagons with the sheimes were passing through town, one of them stopped suddenly. Those escorting it were a bit shocked until a certain clever Jew piped up, saying “Don’t worry; the horse just paused at a passage, since he’s carrying so many of them.”

Baking matzo

A certain Jew who had a baking oven, used to make it kosher each Passover in order to bake matzos. The baking started a few days after Purim. The work was quite hard, since it was all done manually. Shifts lasted at least 12 hours, if not more. They had to hurry, otherwise the dough would rise. Workers were paid little, but what was the alternative? Those with little means worked hard at this in order to earn something before Pesach. Young people also worked there, bringing a lot of joy to this exhausting labor with their merry songs.

On the last night before the holiday, after the last batch of matzo was finished two or three hours after midnight, it was customary to have a performance, most often the “Binding of Isaac” or the “Selling of Joseph.” The sound could be heard throughout the neighborhood for a few hours before daybreak. The bleary-eyed singers and actors struggled to stay awake after so many weeks of insufficient sleep, but made the effort to perform and sing, knowing their work was done and they had earned something for the holiday. Many of the neighbors rushed to attend these presentations.

By the way, many shining new talents were discovered at these performances. Given better economic circumstances, and with suitable training, they would most likely have achieved fame in the wider world.

When matzo baking became mechanized before the First World War, the old contract system – called “podryad” – became obsolete.

The hero Tzadok Shlapobersky, hy’d[2]

(From a letter by Chaim Ronder, of blessed memory)

“I need to dedicate a few words to our dear Tzadok Shlapobersky, a ray of light in those dark days. His name serves as a symbol of the highest valor to me and all of us. He wrote a glorious and shining page in the history of Keidan Jews.

“It was Tzadok alone who, in the last few moments before his own death, dragged a German commander into the pit and wounded him. The shooting stopped at that moment and the policemen jumped into the pit with unsheathed bayonets to try and save the officer. A life-and-death struggle ensued between Tzadok and the policemen. He bit one of them in the throat and ripped it open, upon which the policeman fell dead on the spot. He also injured a second policeman, who died two days later.

“The policemen stabbed him with bayonets. He was the only one who died heroically, but in doing so avenged the Nazi dogs in the name of all of us.

“His memory is forever engraved on our hearts!”

Chana Landsberg

She was an outstanding elementary school teacher for decades, although with her knowledge and abilities she could easily have been a high-school teacher. However, she saw educating and nurturing children from the start of their development after kindergarten as her main task in life.

She was a quintessential primary school teacher in the fullest meaning of the word, and had all the necessary qualities for this task. I knew her when she was still a gymnasium pupil; I used to visit her brother Yakov of blessed memory, my good friend, at their house 65 years ago. After the First World War, we used to meet often at all types of Zionist activities. She devoted all her free time to Eretz Israel, with the Jewish National Fund, United Israel Appeal and Hechalutz (Pioneers), fundraising for the Eretz-Israel Workers’ Fund, Hapoel, the distribution of the Zionist shekel, and so on.

One could always see her rushing about among Keidan Jews collecting for various funds, donating and encouraging others to donate. She herself was always first to give, with a generous hand. For many years she chaired the committee of the Keidan orphanage. Her love and concern for the orphans was boundless. She did everything quietly, with loyalty, devotion, and modesty.

She was loved and respected by all sectors of the community. I see her before my eyes, a symbol of the totally committed communal worker until the last bitter and violent day.

Reb Meir-Dovid Fein, of blessed memory. (Husband of Etel the Bagel Baker)

I often see him, in my mind’s eye, robed in white with a prayer shawl covering his head, in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, particularly during the shimone-esre prayer, and when he reached the confession of sins he would burst into bitter, heartrending sobs.

He was a quiet, cordial Jew, laboring all week from dawn to night baking bagels. He was as distanced from sin as east is from west. He devoted each free minute to reciting psalms that he knew by heart. He was indeed a pure and honest Jewish soul.

Schwartz the tailor, of blessed memory. (I don’t remember his first name.)

A simple tailor, pleasant and friendly, he labored quietly at home on a second floor, near the bridge. I attended cheder with his son, which is why I visited his home often. He was exceptionally honest. He never took even the tiniest sliver of fabric from a customer who came to order clothes.

Before he died, he asked that the wood from his workbench be used to make his coffin.

The locksmith Yaakov Wolpert, of blessed memory

He was a simple man of the people. Although weighed down with work, he always found time to devote to communal needs, in a practical way. Whenever he heard that someone was in trouble and needed help, he would immediately put his hammer down, go into the street and rouse people to give help. He was a member of the fire brigade for many years. This was not just to show off, but to actually participate in that difficult, dirty work.

The poet Zvi (Hirsh) Bloshtein

Translated by Monty Starr, Birmingham, UK.

”Do not disregard the poor, as the Torah will come from them”

This saying comes to mind when I recall my Keidan friend Zvi (Hirsh) Bloshtein. I first met him when I was 15. He was older than me by about two years. From bits of information that I have come across I know that his father died when he was a young boy. His mother was a baker of bread and they lived under stressful conditions. I think he only took primary religion classes, and never attended any other school. I do know that the son of the Keidan rabbi taught him Talmud, and his relative David Yitzhak Bloshtein taught him Hebrew and Bible. My cousin, who was the same age, instructed him in arithmetic, and someone else taught him the basics of the Russian language.

He was a talented boy and he applied himself to reading, learning and development, and by the age of 18 had mastered the Russian language. In mathematics he attained quite a high level in algebra.

I recall that at the age of 17 he first translated a poem from Yiddish to Russian, which was passed from hand to hand in the town, and everyone marveled at the meter and beauty of the translation. From then he started to write poetry and stories in Yiddish that were published in newspapers before the First World War.

We met and took walking trips together many times. In 1914 he went to live in the nearby town of Yanova (Jonava), and worked as a private teacher there.

During the First World War he moved to Russia and continued writing there. In 1919 he returned to Lithuania and was one of the editors of a Jewish weekly. (I forget its name.) He published several books, among them a novel. He eventually emigrated to South America, and finally settled back in the Soviet Union, in Tshernovitz (Chernovtsy). In later years I read some of his stories in “Sovietish Heimland.” His theme was the lives of laborers before the First World War, and a depiction of the revolutionary idealists emerging from society’s lower classes.

Although now he is to be found on the other side of the revival and historic reconstruction of his people’s homeland, I believe he still deserves mention as a prolific poet and author, a son of Keidan.

Reb Abba-Yehuda Friedland, of blessed memory

I knew Reb Abba-Yehuda Friedland, of blessed memory, when I was still a little boy. He used to visit us often. He was a very likeable person. He was very popular despite the fact that he was wealthy. He was good-looking, mingled with people and especially loved a folksy joke. He had a sweet voice and sometimes led prayers from the pulpit.

If one hadn’t seen Abba-Yehuda on Simchat Torah together with Reb Leizer Finkelstein, the rabbi from the Talmud Torah, wearing towels as cummerbunds, singing cantorial melodies and then chanting, as if reading the haftorah, a story in Lithuanian about a farmer who brought a cartload of wood and a goose to market – if one hadn’t witnessed this scene, he would never know true hilarity.

He once told me that he had travelled to Vilna especially to see and hear Eliakum Zunser, who composed, among others, the song “With my plough.”

He had an ironmonger shop and a license to sell weapons to those eligible to carry them. I remember that in 1906, when the town was in grave danger of pogroms after a Russian soldier had been killed, Abba-Yehuda made a public announcement: “Come, take weapons, no license and no charge. I will be responsible for the license.”

Ze’ev (Velve) Tober, of blessed memory

When we were young we called him “grandfather of the Russian revolution.” He had already participated actively in the 1905 revolt. He studied in a yeshiva and was familiar with Yiddish and Russian literature. He was an orator and a debater. He could always be seen standing at the door of his house next to the bridge, his head slightly tilted to the side, his hair long, wearing spectacles and hotly debating social improvement and social justice, while softly humming a folk song. He was a member of Poalei Zion and took an active part in self-defense.

He visited Eretz-Israel in 1925.

I have recorded a very small portion of my memory bundle. A few scenes and sketches of personalities. There are still many untold tales raging in my heart. My eyes still scan Keidan and I conduct discourses with many of the characters I met along the way. I see as if through the haze (or perhaps the tears), all the dearly loved ones whose threads of life were cut by the foul hand of our generation’s Satan.

We commemorate the souls of our loved ones on the day that this book enters our homes. Their images float in front of our eyes, and their speechless lips murmur “revenge!” The lugubrious chant that arises from these pages and its dreary echo fill the space in each house.

The heart mourns the tender, pure souls who crowd each page of this book, those who did not survive and live with us. Our eyes flood with bitter tears for the demonic, brutal loss of life, of our loved ones who were completely innocent of any wrong.

Let these meagre pages be our memorial candles for the martyrs of Keidan!

Translated by Bella Golubchik

[1] From ב׳ך, the Hebrew number for 22

[2] Abbreviation for “may god avenge his blood” – i.e., he was murdered.

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