Each summer, one of Lithuania’s most popular TV shows, called “Labas Rytas Lietuva” [“Good Morning Lithuania”] highlights different towns across that country. This year its focus was on Kėdainiai, and on July 4, the show aired a walking tour through the town’s Jewish quarter. Audronė Pečiulyte, director of the Kėdainiai Multicultural Center, gave the interview. Kėdainiai teacher Laima Ardavičienė shared the video on Facebook, and, very graciously, agreed to transcribe and translate the interview into English.
Here (after the ads) is the Lithuanian video clip. (If you can’t see the embedded video, try this link:) Laima’s translation is below. It’s an interesting window into how Lithuanians are being taught about the history of Jewish Keidan.
“Good Morning Lithuania” broadcast, July 4, 2020
Interviewer: We are taking a walk through Jewish Kėdainiai, and we are talking with Audronė Pečiulyte, head of the multicultural center.
We are standing opposite a building that is not very impressive in appearance, but I understand that this is a bit of cultural heritage.
Audrone: The Jewish community left a clear mark in Kėdainiai.
One of the most unique buildings, which now doesn’t look very much like that, was put up to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot. Jews celebrate this festival in early October. It is a tent festival, when they have to set up a tent in the yard with walls, but with an open roof. They mention the fact that Jews fled Egypt and lived in the open desert constantly for 40 years.
A Jew who lived here thought, why build that tent every year, if he could build an extension, make a skylight, open it when needed, eat and close it again? Because the month of October in Lithuania is rainy and cold, and a tent with an open roof would be problematic.
Interviewer: When was it built?
Audronė: The house dates to the end of the 18th century. The extension could have been built in interwar period. It is the only one that has survived in Lithuania. There were more such houses in Kėdainiai, but they were wooden, and were demolished when reconstruction started.
Interviewer: We are now walking down Žydu gatve (Jews’ Street).
Audronė: We are walking on probably the shortest street in Kėdainiai, which has been recently reconstructed. This is a Jewish street. It was the historic Jewish quarter since the early 17th century.
Interviewer: Where should we start when talking about Jews in Kėdainiai?
Audronė: First of all, we should mention they needed a permit to settle in the city. It was a private town of the Radvila [the Radziwill family] and the Radvila invited them in 1627, because there was a need to collect customs. The Jews were good merchants, able to count money. They were invited to collect money. The private Radvila customs house was built next to a new bridge, and collected money to repair the bridge and for the needs of the city.
Interviewer: How much money was collected and what happened next
Audronė: It’s hard to say how much they collected, but there was an interesting charge: not just money was demanded, but also stones. If you came to Kėdainiai on market days, you had to bring at least one or two stones. Otherwise they would not let you in.
Interviewer: Where were the stones used?
Audronė: They were used to pave streets and squares. The city was neat enough and beautifully built.
[2:30 on the video clip] We are standing by a Jewish house and can immediately see how it differs from Lithuanian houses. Jews always built houses right on the sidewalk, with two windows and a door [which was] an entrance to a shop and workshop immediately. Lithuanians would locate their houses away from the sidewalk, make a flower garden and fence their property, because there is no need to walk in our property.
Driving around Lithuania, you will notice that if a house is built right on the sidewalk, it is 95 percent of the time a Jewish house.
Interviewer: We continue to move to the place where Kėdainiai began.
Audronė: Yes. This is the oldest market square in Kedainiai, which is called the Old Market. From the beginning of the 17th century it was part of the Jewish quarter. Our city is made up of Scottish, Jewish, Russian, German and Catholic quarters. Jews settled here in the early 17th century and built synagogues. We currently have three brick synagogues remaining, out of eight synagogues that were here.
Interviewer: It is probably the city with the most synagogues [in Lithuania].
Audronė: Yes, after Vilnius. In such a small town. At the end of the 19th century, there were eight synagogues and houses of prayer. We are approaching a complex of two synagogues, which is one of only three [such complexes] surviving in Lithuania.
Interviewer: As I can see, the multicultural center is located here.
Audronė: This was a small winter synagogue, built in the early 19th century. As there is no Jewish community in Kėdainiai now, all the synagogues have been adapted to cultural needs. There is a multicultural center where exhibitions, concerts, educational activities and conferences take place.
Interviewer: We see a memorial plaque.
Audronė: The contribution of the Jewish community to Kėdainiai is huge. There is a lot of heritage, and this year, 2020, has been declared the Year of the Vilnius Gaon and Jewish History. Kedainiai is the city of Gaon too. He studied here for some time and married a local girl, Chana. Thus, Kėdainiai is a part of the history of the Jewish journey.
The Jews also left us the tradition of growing cucumbers, initiated in the 19th century.
[Standing next to the synagogues.] This is one of the oldest brick synagogues in Lithuania, built at the end of the 18th century. In front of these synagogues there was a slaughterhouse. Only three Lithuanian cities – Joniškis, Kėdainiai and Kalvarija – have synagogue complexes.
During the interwar period, many there were many wooden houses located around here. Now all that has changed. During the war, everything was looted, exterminated, and the Jewish community itself was shot.
This monument was built on the initiative of our museum, in memory of the Jews of Kėdainiai, Šėta and Žeimiai. The monument includes a Jewish symbol – a burning bush, to symbolize the tragedy that occurred during the war; the eye of Providence, as a symbol of Christianity; and the pupil of the eye – 2,076 empty bullet casings, for the number of Jews who were shot in one day in Kėdainiai.
Interviewer: How did people of several cultures live together?
Audronė: It depends on what period we are dealing with. If we are talking about the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, then it was under the rule of the Radvila, who operated on the principle that if you have authority, religion and power are yours. Thanks to the Radvila, those conflicts were extinguished, especially between Catholics and other religious denominations. Religious processions were banned in other quarters.
In the 19th century, the Jews clashed among themselves. Some wanted to wear velvet scullcaps, others did not allow the poor to wear them. Then the soldiers of the owner of the manor, Czapski, got involved in the dispute. Eventually, all were allowed to wear the same.
There were no arsons, no beatings. The city from ancient times was multiconfessional. The spirit of tolerance, respect for others was common in Kediainiai.
Interviewer: We asked the residents; everyone is proud of the old town. You are happy.
Audronė: Yes, you are right; we are happy. Tourists from Vilnius say that this is small Vilnius. It is a city of churches. At the end of the 19th century there were 8,000 inhabitants, and there were eight synagogues, two Catholic churches, two Protestant, [one Russian] Orthodox, and a Muslim minaret with a mosque. Where else could you find such situation?
The Jews from Kėdainiai were proud to be from the city of Radvilas, and to enjoy certain privileges. This was noticed by the Jews of Kaunas, who had a saying: If a man hadn’t chosen a bride for a long time, he was asked, ”What do you want? You want your girl to be beautiful, smart, rich and even from Kėdainiai?…‘‘ If the [Vilna] Gaon married a woman from Kėdainiai, it was a luxury for others to marry a bride from Kėdainiai too.