By Aryeh Leonard Shcherbakov
When talking of the Jews of Keidan, the first who naturally come to mind are those who were murdered: our grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins lying in the mass grave on the outskirts of town. Some of their names are engraved on the memorial plaques installed by the mass grave.
Not all however; only those names that Rimantas Žirgulis, director of the Kėdainiai Regional Museum, with the help of some Keidan descendants, was able to collect. They were found mainly on testimony pages held at the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum in Jerusalem. More than half of the victims were not memorialized; no memory of them remained, as entire families were erased with no one able to testify to their existence in pre-war Kėdainiai.
We hope to return to this question in the future. We also are not talking here about those who left Kėdainiai early in the 20th century, or before the war, who were dispersed around the world. Collecting their names would be a research project on its own.
In this study we want to talk about those in our parents’ generation who survived the war, those who today are called “the first Holocaust generation.” Who knows their names, who remembers them? What is known of the traumas they underwent, their guilt feelings about surviving while their families disappeared in the pit that swallowed the entire Keidan Jewish community?
We must stress, of course, that they were not guilty of abandoning or betraying their families – as neither they nor anybody else could imagine what was to happen after their escape. But many, consumed by guilt, were unwilling to speak about their experiences, and we of the “second Holocaust generation,” sensing the taboo and occupied by our own problems, didn‘t ask questions. Now, no longer young and able to think beyond ourselves, we feel the time has come to do this generation justice, bring them out of oblivion, and recall their names.
Looking at the old, fading photographs, we suddenly have many questions. The people in these pictures look quite ordinary, but they are not: There is a heroic story behind each one. Some fought as soldiers in the Red Army, some as partisans or ghetto fighters; some simply struggled to survive horrible conditions in the ghettos, in Siberia or the Asian deserts. Sometimes theirs is “just” a story of escape and personal survival. In time we hope to bring some of these stories to this site.
Sadly, few are left to tell their own stories. For now, we have tried to at least collect their names, some photographs and a few bits of information.
Who – and how many – were they?
How did it happen that out of some two and a half thousand Keidaners, only a few dozen survived? The story is typical of most Lithuanian towns, shtetls, and villages.
The Germans entered the town on the second day of the war – June 24, 1941. There was no time to decide whether to stay or flee. Actually, ordinary people had no means of escape. Official Soviet propaganda before the war insisted that the mighty Soviet Union could not be defeated, so the Red Army’s sudden collapse was completely unexpected. There was no information from the front. Soviet authorities were silent, trying only to calm the population and prevent panic, and then suddenly they disappeared. They took care to evacuate only the party and administration officials. A few actually warned that conditions might be bad for the Jews, but nobody imagined how bad. The Nazis had been ruling much of Poland for almost two years, and in many places there Jews had been driven into ghettos, but mass killings had yet to take place. Moreover, German troops had occupied Lithuania only two decades earlier, during the first World War, and they had behaved in a relatively civilized way – better, at least, than the Russian Cossacks. Life had been hard but bearable during that earlier occupation: thus, nobody expected the assault on civilians, much less a deliberate policy of extermination. Such things had not happened since the days of Genghis Khan, at least not in civilized, enlightened Europe. But it did. The invasion of the Soviet Union marked the beginning of the Holocaust – initiated by Germans as their armies advanced, and implemented mainly by their local collaborators.
Of the Jews who remained in Keidan at the start of the occupation – about 2,600 – only three survived. Except for these three, those we consider survivors were not in the occupied town. A small number of young men fled, mostly on foot or on bicycles, encouraged by their families, who believed they would be most at risk from the invaders. Parents, grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts were left behind. Nobody imagined their fate. A very few managed to board the last eastbound trains, allowing a handful of elderly people to be saved.
Some who at the time of the invasion were living in other towns, such as Kaunas or Šiauliai, managed to escape into Russia by truck or train or on foot. Those who did not, if not murdered in the first days of the war, ended up in ghettos, and later in concentration camps. Many witnessed their own family members being torn from them during Nazi roundups and selections, or killed before their eyes. It should be noted, that practically all the young men who escaped eventually joined the Red Army and fought the fascists. From a quarter to a third of them fell in battle. (See list below.)
How many survived?
Not many. It is estimated that out of some 230,000 Jews living in Lithuania before the war (including refugees from Poland who came in 1939), four to five percent survived. Including those who fell in battle, we have counted about 100 from Keidan – about 3.8 percent, a bit less than the average for all Lithuanian Jews.
What happened after the war?
After the war, nearly all the survivors returned to Lithuania, but few came to Kėdainiai, and those who did left within a year or two. They could not remain in a town empty of Jews, where everything reminded them of their murdered families. It was also not safe. Lithuanian partisans, who continued to fight the Soviets from the forests, posed a threat to Jews living in the province. (An estimated 400 to 500 partisans were active in the Kėdainiai district alone.) Even traveling on country roads in post-war Lithuania could be dangerous for Jews. The Gel family survived the war and returned to Kėdainiai, but the head of the family, Israel Gel, and his wife Chasya, were killed there in May 1945. His may have been the last burial in Keidan’s old Jewish cemetery. Survivors felt much safer in larger cities: Most moved to Vilnius, while a few settled in Kaunas.
They tried hard to find each other. Having lost their families, they sought out every surviving relative or neighbor, anyone who had been part of their former life in Keidan. After returning to Lithuania, some came to the railway station every day, hoping to meet a relative, a friend or fellow townsman returning from the concentration camps in the West, or the vast Russian spaces in the East. They felt like one extended family. In his letter to the Keidaner Society of Johannesburg of November 7, 1946,1 Chaim Ronder wrote of his visit with Guta Kagan, my mother, in Vilnius: “… I stayed over with her for six nights. She is the only friend left with whom I can share memories…”
Still, even when life started to normalize, the harsh restrictions of the Soviet regime made it impossible for them to create a formal association, a landsmanshaft like those that existed in the USA, South Africa, or Israel. Even preparing a list of surviving Keidaners – especially after the Stalin regime’s fierce antisemitic campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s – could have been seen as an attempt to create an “anti-Soviet“political organization, with potentially serious consequences. For this reason, no list was ever compiled. The text you are reading represents the first attempt to correct this.
In spite of the restrictions, Keidaners did manage to come together. They reunited mainly for annual commemorations at the mass graves in Kėdainiai and Babėnai, but also just to enjoy each other’s company. The photographs presented here capture some of those moments. Not all the survivors are pictured; some, during the chaos that followed liberation in 1944, managed to cross into Poland and eventually reach Palestine or the USA. Some, using the former Polish citizenship of their spouses (sometimes actual, sometimes forged) left in the Polish emigration wave of 1956-57. A few, after repeated applications to the authorities, were able to leave the USSR at the end of the 1960s.
After Soviet Jews had struggled for years to gain the right to leave the USSR, the “iron curtain” was finally pierced in 1971. For the first time in Soviet history, a semi-organized protest movement had succeeded against the regime. As the list below shows, nearly all the Keidaners remaining in Lithuania left for Israel, even though most of them were already quite well established professionally, financially and socially. They were not driven to leave by the desire to find “a better place under the sun” and emigration at that age was not an easy step. They had to start their lives in a new country from scratch. Some left immediately; others, due to various family complications, left after a delay. A handful stayed, among them Yudel Ronder, who was married to a Lithuanian woman. He remained in Kaunas, eventually becoming the sole guardian of Jewish heritage in Kėdainiai and a passionate fighter against manifestations of antisemitism in post-war Lithuania. He passed away in 2016. We know of no other Keidan-born Jewish man or woman living in Lithuania today, although a few descendants live there or elsewhere in the former USSR.
On the following pages are lists and images of those known to have escaped the destruction of Keidan’s Jews. The first is a list of Keidaners known to have survived the Holocaust, along with short biographic summaries where those could be obtained. The second lists young men who escaped the mass slaughter in Keidan, but fell in battle against the Nazis. The third contains the names of Jews who were deported from Keidan during the first period of Soviet rule, from June 1940 to June 1941. Deportation was a horrible experience; although their exile enabled them to escape the slaughter of August 28, 1941, not all of them survived the harsh conditions of exile.
In addition, we have collected a number of photographs, and have tried to identify those seen there. Since the photos go back many decades and many of those pictured have passed on, the captions are likely to include errors in identifications, dates, and descriptions. So we appeal to every attentive reader of these lines, who:
- knows additional Keidaners not included in the lists, or
- identifies those who remained “unidentified” in the photos, or
- notices an error in the names, dates, or descriptions, or
- can provide additional or missing information,
We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who helped in the process of identification; in particular, Bella Gold (nee Blumberg) and Yosef Shneider.