Looking Back

By Sholem Dat (Johannesburg)

First published in “Lita,” (p. 1475) by the Jewish-Lithuanian Cultural Society Inc. 1951. 


Keidan is one of the oldest cities in Lithuania, and her Jewish community was also one of the first.

Keidan was originally a small fishing settlement, which was started in the mid-14th century by the Neviazhe river, at the spot where the Obele, Dotnuvėlė and Smilga streams flow into it.

The settlement at first had the name of its founder, Kazdan. Later it began to be called by its Lithuanian name, “Kedainiai.”

In the 15th century Keidan grew considerably. In the last quarter of that century the Jewish community began to organize. But it was short-lived, because the Keidan Jews along with all the Jews of Lithuania in 1495 were forced into exile by order of the Grand Duke Alexander. When the Jews were permitted to return in 1503, not many Jews evidently settled in Keidan.

Christopher Radziwill, Lithuanian prince and voivode[1] of Vilna, in 1614 received half of Keidan as a dowry from his father in law, Stanislav Kishko. (In 1490 the Lithuanian-Russian family Kishko received all of Keidan as a gift from the Polish king, Casimir IV.) Later, he purchased the other half. Wishing to increase commerce in Keidan, he issued an order, according to which Jews were granted civil and religious rights. This, naturally, attracted a great number of Jews. The new immigrants came mostly from Germany.

Janusz Radziwill later confirmed all the privileges the Jews had had from his father Christopher. In his time, around the middle of the 17th century, Jews occupied the most important positions in the town’s economic life. They were involved in wine-making and brewing, money lending, farming and various crafts.

With small interruptions, because of various wars which the town endured and because of epidemics, such as cholera, the Jewish population in Keidan began to develop more and more. However, in the 1880’s, Jews from Keidan first began to emigrate, mainly to the United States.

Keidan prided itself on its lineage – and a lineage it had. For example, Keidan had the oldest pharmacy in all of the Baltics. It had been in existence more than 275 years, while the oldest pharmacy in Moscow is only 200 years old.

Keidan possessed an old, brick synagogue – done in an old style, with a beautifully carved ark, with clocks and tablets, with beautiful, although now barely visible paintings. Alongside the synagogue, still standing, is the “lock-up” where the community used to confine criminals.

Keidan consistently had great rabbis and outstanding scholars. The Vilna Gaon studied there in his youth, with the noted rabbi, Reb David, son of Reb Yehezkel Katzenellenbogen, the author of “Knesset Yehezkel.”

The well-known writer M.L. Lilienblum was also a native of Keidan. The town was always full of sages and scribes. (A fine work about Keidan was published by Boruch Chaim Cassel in the book “Keidan,” New York, 1930.)

***

It is now many years since I left my town of Keidan. I am now decades away from my native town, living in big, modern Johannesburg – and yet a deep longing won’t stop piercing my heart for the little tiled rooftops of Keidan, for the moss that stopped up the winter windows, for the beit hamidrash (study house), for all the good and pious Jews of the town.

Here, the in the centrally heated apartments I am reminded often of the simple brown or white tiled ovens in which people steamed their tcholents [Shabbat stews]. Family and neighbors would sit around in the long winter evenings, and especially on the pleasant Friday nights, or at twilight on Shabbat, talking about world politics and describing the wonders of America and Africa.

It can’t be forgotten, how in the freezing winter cold, Jewish mothers would chop out a hole in the Smilga to soak their laundry. I can still hear, exactly as if it were today, the songs of the women kneading dough in the matzo bakery.

And who doesn’t remember the military conscription days in the town, when Christian draftees would celebrate all over town with music and singing, and trembling Jewish boys would sit with their hearts pounding, that God forbid they should be taken “into the soldiers”?

In Keidan it was customary that, when a Jewish boy was before the draft board, he would signal through the window to his waiting mother whether or not he was “taken.” Drawing the hand across the throat meant: Slaughtered! More than one mother broke out crying, “My tree, my hero, my breadwinner.”

It is interesting, by the way, to recall that the famous enemy of the Jews, Russia’s prime minister Stolypin, was for a time the chairman of the draft board in Keidan. (He had a farm not far from the town.) And, not to compare, but Morris Winchevsky[2] also had a connection with the Keidan draft board: In 1877 he stood before it and was rejected, having sufficiently “starved” himself beforehand.

In 1914 a great fire broke out in Keidan, which destroyed the town from the bridge to Long Street, from the market to the synagogue yard. This was a kind of prelude to the First World War, which also brought disaster to the Jews of Keidan, who on May 16 [1915] received an order giving them two days to leave the town. The expulsion sent a large proportion of Keidan Jews to Vilna, while others ended up deep inside Russia.

Returning from the expulsion, the Jews started rebuilding their destroyed and ruined town, showing their trust in the good will of a newly independent Lithuania – a trust that was soon to be totally betrayed.

Translated by A. Cassel


[1] Originally a Slavic term for “warlord,” it came to mean a local governor or provincial ruler.

[2] Morris Winchevsky (1856–1932), Jewish poet, playwright and socialist, active in England and the U.S.