I first heard of him in 1994, from a Philadelphia photojournalist who was documenting Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania. At the time all I knew about Keidan came from my grandfather’s articles, which predated World War II. I was eager to learn more, and so I sent a letter off to the address I had been given. Not long after, the following arrived, handwritten in Yiddish:
Kovno, July 26, 1994
Dear New Keidaner Friend,
I thank you for your touching letter. I am Yudel Ronder, a Keidaner.
I was born in Keidan March 17, 1923. I was the eighth child. My entire family was killed in the summer of 1941 in Keidan. I escaped to Russia.
Through the war years I was in the Soviet Army, and by a miracle stayed alive. I was wounded three times and am now a war-invalid. …
In Keidan now there are no Jews; only graves of murdered Jews remain … Our life is complicated now from an economic and political standpoint. You cannot understand it. You need to come visit us and I will show and relate all to you … Write me in Yiddish, Hebrew or Russian and I will answer you.
With best wishes,
The Keidaner Yudel Ronder
Over the following year, in letter after letter, he urged me to visit him in Lithuania. At first I demurred, explaining that I had small children at home, and vaguely promising to try and visit in the future. “Don’t put off your journey for long,” he replied. “I am the last Keidaner Mohican; I am already not young, and can’t wait for you long.” I finally went, in June 1995, and met him in Kaunas, his home town since the 1950s. He took me and my father on a brief but indelible tour of the town, explaining in his perfect Litvak Yiddish how the community had lived, and perished at the hands of the Germans and their local helpers.
Our tour was brief, it turned out, because Ronder was somewhat notorious, known for badgering the local authorities about the condition of monuments, gravestones and other reminders of the town’s vanished Jewish community. He also, by his own admission, made it his business to administer rough justice, arranging aid and recognition for gentile Lithuanians he identified as having helped protect Jews – and harassing and threatening those he identified as participants in the genocidal slaughter.
His life story, posted here, reveals much – not only about surviving the Holocaust, but also about life afterward, in what we westerners used to think of as “behind the Iron Curtain.” Through Ronder’s story, we can finally begin to penetrate that curtain, and to fill in what has been an enormous gap in our understanding as Keidaner descendants.