In November 1930, the Keidaner Association of New York celebrated its 30th year of existence with a party and a book. The Keidaners had formed their landsmanshaft, their immigrants’ mutual aid association, as the 20th century was dawning, and as the flow of Jewish refugees from the Russian Empire to America and elsewhere was nearing its peak. Young men and women from the 400-year-old community of Keidan – a proud old town with an aristocratic past – banded together in the New World for help and protection, as well as to remember and assist their families back home.
By 1930, the transplanted Keidaners were getting older; most had established lives and families, and they considered themselves thoroughly American. But their children were more American still, and the aging immigrants saw the next generation drifting away. Meanwhile, the news from back home got worse every year: Jews were being persecuted, losing their rights and livelihoods in an independent and increasingly nationalistic Lithuania.
They called the volume they produced a Zamel Bukh, a collection. This was how they prefaced it:Whether it was nostalgia for the past or fear for the future, something moved these men to memorialize their town, to record its history and their memories. In articles and essays, mostly written in their mame-loshn, Yiddish, they recounted Keidan’s long history and told of their early lives. They recalled a society confined both by the medieval traditions of Ashkenazic Judaism and the feudal order of Tsarist Russia, but on the verge of breaking free of both. It was a world that had already largely vanished by 1930 – even though the final, brutal destruction of Jewish Keidan was still 11 years away.
“When one generation passes, a multitude of memories from several preceding generations are lost as well, if they are not written down for those who follow. Often important historical information disappears in this way, forcing the future historian to rely on contradictory conjectures of various writers.“With this in mind, several of those who took part in arranging the 30th anniversary of the Keidaner Association decided to issue a collection of material about Keidan and its people, written by Keidaners – a collection which would serve the above-mentioned objective of documenting the past.“Unfortunately, we undertook our task a little too late. Not everyone that we called on to contribute articles was able to respond in time. This applies especially to those who are abroad. Still, the issuers of this volume believe that the small amount of material that we did succeed in collecting will be of great value for coming generations.“We will be happy if other associations or groups similar to ours will follow our example and will contribute to the cultural-historical gathering of knowledge for future generations, as was done by us, the publishers.”
My grandfather, Boruch Chaim Cassel, was co-editor and the author of the principal article, a history of Keidan. Over the next decade, he also edited “The Keidaner,” a monthly bulletin that provided news, acknowledged festive and sorrowful events, and kept the association’s members in touch with one another, even as the bonds that originally brought them together frayed and disappeared.
I rediscovered these documents in 1990. My goal since then has been making them accessible to family and friends with an interest in Keidan, as well as to continue what has become a joyous labor of discovery and connection.
I have had great help from scholars, teachers and friends, including: the late Mayer Dwass of Evanston Ill.; Nathaniel Stampfer of Spertus College, Chicago; Mark Alsher of Philadelphia; the late Martin Kagan and Victor Kane of New York; Myra Sklarew of Washington, D.C.; Regina Kopilevich of Vilnius, Lithuania, and Aleksandr Feigmanis of Riga, Latvia. I am especially grateful to the late Max Rosenfeld of Philadelphia, and the late Yehuda Ronder of Kaunas and Kedainiai, Lithuania.