Recently, Jews around the world commemorated Yom HaShoah. Yet even if the Holocaust had never happened, however, this would be a season for remembering the suffering, death and displacement inflicted on the Jews of Eastern Europe by war – World War I.
It was, after all, in May of 1915, that Jews who lived near the Eastern Front – an area that included much of the former Pale of Settlement in what is now Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine – were ordered with only a few days notice to leave their homes by Russian military authorities. The tsar’s government, facing an advancing German army, was suddenly seized with the fear that the millions of Jews it had spent the previous several decades persecuting might prove less than loyal defenders of the Romanov empire.
Our ancestors in Keidan were among those expelled from the town they had lived in for generations. While that expulsion was not permanent – in 1920, after the revolution had dethroned the tsar, they were allowed to return – the experience left Keidan, and Keidaners, permanently changed. Scores died in the chaos of exile, and many who returned found their homes looted, their businesses and possessions gone.
This site contains several accounts of the 1915 expulsion, including this one from Itzhak Wolpe, whose story was set down by his younger brother David:
The air became dense and black, laden with heavy clouds. Our little town filled up with soldiers, who took over market and the surrounding streets when the military barracks ran out of room. The Jewish houses became sad and cheerless as hordes of booted, bearded, cursing Russians spread fear among the people. Here and there the Cossacks assaulted Jews, taking their money and merchandise, and issuing “assurances” that the time was soon coming when they would make an end of the “zhids” … Jews sat in their houses as if on hot coals, and waited for salvation.
No salvation came. Instead, there came an order from the military high command, that within three days, all Jews had to leave Kovno province.
Then there is this account, from Riva Starr, who experienced the exile as a young girl, told to her son, Monty, in an oral history:
In 1915 they started throwing out the Jewish people. We had to get out. We were supposed to be German spies. Then they tried, the family should be together. My mume [aunt], Feyge Leah, came from Ragole, where she lived. She came with the family, and they all tried to make the way to Vilna. It was Shevuos, the first day of Shevuos …
They drove us out. We had to go somewhere. A lot of people went to Russia. They were put on trains. Papy was in Russia. You see, they were put on trains, those who didn’t have their own transport. We had our own transport. We took two horses and a big cart. My mother was very ill at that time. She had typhoid fever or something. They made a bed and put my mother on the cart and three children and we traveled like that to Vilna …
But the site’s most extensive account of this awful time comes from Pesach Weitzer-Chittin, who was one of the key contributors to the 1977 Keidan Yizkor Book. His memoir, originally published in an Israeli journal in 1966, was one of the most enlightening and insightful articles in that book. A short excerpt:
It is hard to describe the situation in which we found ourselves. We were in shock. We didn’t know where to go. Rumors began that the government was providing trains for the deportees on the Libau-Romny line, which passed two kilometers from our town. The Jews began packing their possessions. Some decided to go by horse and wagon, and ran to rent carts from local farmers to carry their goods. Notably, there was no restriction on the amount of property that could be taken away. Meanwhile Jews from the surrounding area began arriving, and the situation deteriorated. Looking at them, we thought to ourselves, “That’s us a day from now.”
On Monday, May 4, the exodus began. People bid each other farewell almost wordlessly. It was hard to speak. They thought to themselves, “Who knows if we’ll see each other again?” My parents, of blessed memory, decided we’d go by train. On our last night in Keidan, we slept on our bundles, as cannon fire shook the walls of our house.
I encourage everyone to read it, and to take a moment to remember this pre-Shoah disaster for our community.