By Shmuel Goldblatt (Kfar Giladi, Israel)
My memories of the town of my birth, Keidan, begin at the end of the First World War, when the first refugees began returning to their town.
Our family was among the refugees who reached Vilna. Although I was a toddler, only four or five years old, I remember we lodged in a large synagogue with many hundreds of our fellow citizens. I was sick with German measles and had a very high fever. The harrowing sights from our way back to Keidan are engraved in my memory forever. Human corpses and animal carcasses were strewn by the roadside, and smoke was still rising from the roofs of the towns and villages we passed. I was wrapped in rags in a horse-drawn wagon. I was the youngest in the family and I remember my brothers and sisters, my father and mother of blessed memory, helping to push the cart uphill, and burning straw under the horse’s stomach to make it pull harder at such places. When we arrived at our house in Keidan, my first impression, as I remember it now, was of our small yard opposite the synagogue. We found icons and images of Christian saints hanging on the wall. When I tried to play with them I was sorely punished by my father, not understanding why.
After a few weeks we began to settle down and I began attending cheder. During my first year the cheder was in the big synagogue, a large, lofty building with high windows and two small side rooms near the entrance for daily minyans.
Before sunrise, as the last stars faded from the heavens, my father used to wake us up to go to cheder, in summer, winter, heat or rain or snow. I was still little and I wanted to continue sleeping and dreaming about little angels, about a world filled with imagination and illusion, about games and hiding places. And suddenly: Get up! I sleepwalked all the way to cheder, the snow crackling underfoot and a kerchief covering my ears lest they freeze, god forbid. In the synagogue I usually found another five or six “gentlemen” like myself, half asleep and crying. More than once we suffered smacks on the hands or posterior, with a stick or a switch when we failed to pay attention to what the rabbi was saying.
Later when the cheder moved to the rabbi’s house, the atmosphere changed a bit. We weren’t confined by the four high walls of the big synagogue. Here we sometimes enjoyed a few comforting, affectionate words from the rabbi’s wife; sometimes she even treated us to homemade cherry preserves.
I remember once, when I was sitting next to the long table, exchanging sweets wrappers with my friends, the rabbi caught me and wanted to give me a hiding. It was a Friday, and the rebbetzin had prepared a pot of tsimmes, which stood by the oven door. In the course of my escape, I bumped it and the pot overturned onto the floor. That was a black Friday in the rabbi’s house, especially for me. He pursued me to the high bank of the Neviazhe river. From there I ran downhill. Jews were approaching or leaving the bath house, still sweating or already washed in their Shabbat clothes, others carrying buckets of water on poles in preparation for the Sabbath. Everything was coming alive. The Shabbat atmosphere filled the town, while I was running towards the public bath without looking left or right. Around me were green fields, stalks of wheat waving in the wind, the sound of cows mooing. I could see the church steeples rising across the river, could suddenly hear a train whistle from afar, the sound of bicycles rattling on the cobblestones, and I was daydreaming. How beautiful you are, how pastoral, my native town.
Years passed. Cheder was replaced by public primary school, and afterwards by the progymnasium. The modern world invaded Keidan: amateur stage productions, cinema, the first scouts and Hashomer Hatzair. Great changes occurred then in the lives of Jewish youth. And who can talk about Keidan without mentioning Count Totleben’s park? On the way to the train station you passed huge trees on the side of the road. It took eight lads my size to encircle such a tree. A canal through the middle of the park with numerous paths and rich, well-tended vegetation, with hidden corners where young lads and girls sought a bit of privacy, and the military town orchestra performed each week. And every Saturday afternoon? The whole town strolled on the bridge over the Neviazhe: young and old, some with side curls and some with shaven cheeks, happy joyful voices echoed the length of the bridge. You felt as if all those strolling were one family, solving all the world’s problems.
On Fridays and festivals, when you went out in the evening to relax, to renew your strength and breathe the cool air, you could walk the length of the main street, Langer Gas, many times. You could stop at the small shop windows, which you already knew by heart. On the way you passed the walls and gate of the jail in the center of town, where your heart had been gripped with fear as a young lad, then you’d pass by the town’s only movie house, until you reached the military barracks, before turning back for another stroll.
I was sixteen and a half when I left my birthplace. I moved to Riga, a big European city, with its lights and large public gardens and its variety of colors and cultural institutions, but I found no rest there. I was drawn back to my town and its scenery, its gardens and its people. Every year at Passover I would visit my parents, who had remained in Keidan. As the train approached the station, my heart began to pound in anticipation of standing again in that small place and meeting those same familiar people. The carriage with its rubber wheels hitched to two horses transported you to town. In a while, you passed the flour mill and the military barracks, the cultivated vegetable gardens and the town hospital, before reaching Langer Gas, with its little houses. And from the shop doors and windows a thousand familiar faces, friends and companions from days gone by, pop out to you.
Years have passed. The Holocaust didn’t spare this quiet town, despite its good relations with neighbors. Its Jews were annihilated. Friends, acquaintances and everything dear were slaughtered. The synagogues were overturned and the scenic places destroyed. The heart aches and there is no peace.
Forty-two years have passed since I last visited and saw my birthplace. When I recall it it is as if I am recalling my first love, whom I will never see again but will remember forever.
Translated by Bella Golubchik