By David Wolpe (Johannesburg)
Originally published in the Yiddish journal, “Fun Letstn Khurbn” in Munich, 1948; and in English in 1950 by the Keidaner Sick Benefit and Benevolent Society of Johannesburg.
By June 24, within days after Germany launched its attack on the Soviet Union, Keidan was in German hands. Two months later, all that remained of the Jewish population there was a large grave.
Only three Jewish eyewitnesses to the tragedy survived the dark Nazi period. These three men were later able to recount what happened there. I am here recording their words, and trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible the holocaust of the Jews of Keidan.
With the outbreak of the German-Russian war, there emerged in Keidan, as in other parts of Lithuania, the underground Lithuanian fifth column. Fascists and hooligans, realizing that the Nazi beast had broken loose and was on the march across the German-Lithuanian border, began organizing themselves into the notorious Lithuanian “partisan” groups. Immediately preparations were made by them to receive their long awaited masters from the West. A leading part among the partisans was played by the professionals and the educated – by doctors, chemists, teachers, government officials, as well as their sons – the high school and university youths and pupils of the local Technicum and others. The Keidan “partisans” were headed by two notorious Lithuanians, Povylius and Markunas, both sons of past mayors in the time of the old fascist Lithuanian government. The three brothers Vacys, Juozas and Stepas Šulcas, who lived on the horse market square, were also leading members of the “partisans” of Keidan, and so was Vaclovas Lačinskas, a carpenter of Jasvener [Josvainių] Street. All these were particularly active in the murder and plunder of Jews.
The Jews of Keidan sensed that the atmosphere was charged with impending murder and pogrom. The good neighbors of the yesterday changed overnight. As time crept on, panic began mounting in Jewish homes. There was nobody to offer any advice or consolation. The Jews hid in their houses like hunted animals. Still, young people tried to flee and reach the Soviet lines, in order to enlist in the Russian army. They were shot at by Lithuanians, and a number were killed. Others were murdered on the roads by marauding Lithuanians. Only a small number managed to reach the Soviet lines and enlist in the army. Several won distinction in battle, and some died heroically on the battlefield, such as Izia Gladstein and others. An appreciable number of fleeing Jews came across the German army and had no alternative but to return to Keidan. One of them, a very gifted Jewish student, Nisan Zaltzburg, in desperation hanged himself on his return flight, in the nearby village of Shat.
As soon as the Germans entered Keidan they immediately decreed that all Jews should wear yellow patches. Jews were forbidden to walk on pavements or speak to Lithuanians. There were other, similar restrictions as well.
The first organized bloody action by Lithuanians was the rounding up of 100 Jews, alleged communists. They were marched in their underwear through the village and shot in the Babėnai (Borer) woods, about two miles from the town. The names known to me of those who were shot are: Beno Ronder; Gutman Bloomberg; Jacob Wolpert; Moishe Zalmanowitz with his two daughters Pesse and Bune; Polones the chemist; David Prusak; Avrohom Itche Dinershul; Shmulke the cab-driver (I cannot recollect his surname); and Jonah Shapiro.
A few more episodes from the first days of occupation: Meike Berger, a cinema owner, was beaten up so badly by Lithuanians that he died shortly after being taken to hospital. Reuven Chesler, a tailor, ran to his parents in “brom” (at the synagogue yard, where fowls used to be slaughtered) and was shot at the gate by a Lithuanian.
A few days later Jews were driven to forced labor. The majority were employed at the airport, unpacking bombs left by the Russians. The guards were supplied by the newly formed Lithuanian police. Lithuanian civilians watched from a distance to gloat over the misery of the Jews. Some bombs exploded and about ten Jews were killed.
Other Jews worked in the neighboring government estates, such as Pelednagiai (where in the 1920s the first hachshara [Zionist training] farm in Lithuania was established), Podborok, Žirgynas, and others.
Jewish girls were taken to the German officers’ club where they were criminally assaulted The brutal tortures and murder continued unabated and the Jews lived in constant terror of what the next day might bring.
On July 23rd, Lithuanians with the assistance of a few Germans loaded some 200 Jews on six trucks, allegedly to transport them to their labor destinations. After the Jews failed to return, members of their families endeavored to learn of their fates from Lithuanian leaders, but to no avail. A Lithuanian was later bribed with a large sum of money and he brought them the news that on the very same day (July 23) all 200 were shot in the Taučiūnai woods, 10 kilometers from Keidan. The Jews of Keidan did not want to believe the story, and hoped that their nearest and dearest would still return. When a good few days had passed, however, they realized that the news was authentic.
Among these 200 were: Israel Kahn and his three sons, Zalman, Feivl and Ortchik; Ortchik Karnowsky, who lived near the horse market; the two butcher brothers, Yankl and Leizer together with Leizer’s son Bine; the chemist Kagan and his brother-in-law the hardware merchant Pruzhansky; Israel Toiber the baker, with his wife and little daughter; Mina Shilkiner who had a stall at the market.
Shortly after the above event, the mayor of Keidan, Povylius (who had been reinstated to his former post by the Germans) summoned the leading Jews of Keidan: Tzadok Shlapobersky, Chaim Ronder, Chaim Blumberg, Abrasha Kagan, Sroelov, Sholem Chait and others. Povylius informed them that within twenty-four hours all Jews must leave their homes and move into the vicinity of Smilga Street. Smilga Street, together with the synagogue, the synagogue-yard and the neighboring alleys up to Langer [Gedimino] Street were fenced off by a barbed wire fence, and this became the ghetto of Keidan.
On the day the Jews moved into the ghetto, the Lithuanians brought to Keidan all the Jews of the neighboring villages of Shat and Zheim, all in all about a thousand people. Among them were also the Jews of other nearby villages, who had fled to Shat and Zheim at the outbreak of war. The overcrowding in the ghetto of Keidan became unbearable. In addition the food supplies of almost everybody were exhausted. Famine and typhus were imminent.
The mayor imposed a tax on the Jews and threatened extermination unless the required amount became available. The Jews of Keidan gathered all their jewelry and money and gave whatever they could lay their hands on, in the hope that that might improve their lot. The hoped-for improvement did not come about. The Jews of Keidan were forced within a short period to contribute taxes on several other occasions.
Some of the youth of Keidan realized the desperate situation and urged leading Jews to flee and hide in the woods or elsewhere. The community leaders, however, were opposed to such a step. They thought that it would endanger the whole ghetto. They were under the impression that all the Germans wanted was Jewish labor, and it was therefore unwise to risk one’s life.
August 15 put an end to all illusions and hopes. On this day, Lithuanian police and “partisans,” under the command of a few Germans, drove all Jews from their homes into the synagogue-yard. All men over the age of fourteen were marched off four abreast to the huge brick stables of Zhirgynas in the park, which had been a stud farm. The women and children, the old and the ailing were packed on carts and carted away. Even women with newborn babies were ordered out of the hospital and brought to the yard. The Lithuanian intelligentsia flocked to witness the spectacle as if it were a circus. Zhirgynas, where the Jewish men were taken, was heavily guarded by Lithuanians. The Jews were kept there for thirteen days. The stables were terribly overcrowded and with the exception of coffee, the Jews received no food at all. The Lithuanians paid the prisoners a few visits and divested them of anything they may still have had left.
When the Jews were driven from the ghetto to the synagogue-yard, Benzy Birger suggested to a few of the younger ones that they should try and escape past the Smilga creek. Not finding any adherents to his plan, he himself fled. For days he hid in the bush. Later, from a hiding place he witnessed executions of Jews. After the slaughter he went to some peasant friends (he was a farmer) and was hidden by them. He survived the Nazis and lives at present in Keidan.
On Thursday, August 28, 1941, about 200 Lithuanians assembled at Zhirgynas. They were railway workers and police, all armed with rifles and hand grenades. First the young and strong Jews were separated, grouped in batches of sixty and taken behind the Catholic cemetery, close to Dotnuva Road, near the Smilga creek. (The Jewish cemetery is higher on a hill above the creek.) There a huge pit was ready which had taken Russian prisoners of war five days to dig. The Jews were forced to strip at the mouth of this pit, and the Lithuanians directed machine guns at them. At the time of this shooting, tractor motors were started in order to silence the shrieks of horror which could even be heard in Keidan. Many wounded fell into this grave, and a number who had not been hit were pushed in and buried alive. This spectacle was watched by prominent members of Lithuanian society of Keidan, such as the principal of the high school, Selava, the Mayor Povylius, and the young Catholic priest was also present.
Rabbi Aaron Galin (the son-in-law of Reb Shlomo Feinsilber, Rabbi of Keidan and chairman of the Rabbinical Association of Lithuania), who was also in Zhirgynas, was among the first batch. Standing at the pit he addressed the Jews. He said that the Jewish people had already experienced a great many trials. When he cried that “the innocent blood of those murdered will not remain silent” the shooting commenced.
During the execution there were attempts at fighting back. Among the second batch was Tzadok Shlapobersky, a man of about forty. He had been an officer in the Lithuanian army and had taken part in the fight for Lithuania’s liberation. He had also been a city councilor for many years and was friendly with the Lithuanians. A German officer was in charge of the massacre. Shlapobersky asked to say a few words. The German started to beat him. Shlapobersky grabbed the German, pulled him into the pit and began strangling him. A Lithuanian with an automatic rifle who stood nearby immediately jumped to the German’s assistance. His name was Raudonis, the owner of the Hotel Vilnius in the building of the Jewish photographer Joffe. Shlapobersky let the German go, jumped on the Lithuanian and bit his throat. Shlapobersky was pierced by the bayonets of other Lithuanians and his body was cut to shreds. The gasping Raudonis was immediately taken to hospital where he died two days later. The Lithuanians accorded him an imposing funeral. A number of enthusiastic addresses were held in which the Lithuanian bandit was described as “the last victim of Jewish power.”
After Shlapobersky’s heroic death, the murderers became more brutal but also more cautious, leading Jews to the pit in smaller groups.
In one of the groups there was the locksmith, Boruch Meir Chesler, the proprietor of a radio and cycle store and locksmith shop. At the pit he wrenched an automatic pistol from the hands of a Lithuanian, but unfortunately he did not know how to use it. At the same moment, two boys fled toward the creek, but they as well as Chesler were shot dead.
The men were followed by women and bigger children, in batches of forty. The blood-thirst of the murderers kept on mounting. Rachel Shisiansky, the wife of Aba Shisiansky, the miller, pleaded that she be shot first before her children, whereupon the children were wrenched from her and shot before her eyes, and only then did the beasts shoot her. The elderly and ailing women were brought in cars and were buried alive. The small children were thrown like balls in the air by Lithuanians and caught on the bayonets.
Lithuanians of Keidan related later that after the pit was covered with a bit of earth, the surface heaved up and down as if a live pulse was pulsating in the mass grave, and blood seeped through to the surface. The murderers used rollers to press the earth down in order to arrest the heaving of the bloody earth made alive.
Jews of Keidan who visited the mass grave after liberation stated that the square grave remained higher than the surrounding surface, as if the holy grave wished to separate from the unclean soil which surrounds it.
The shooting of the Jews continued until the evening.
Fearing the bitter end that was in store for him, the butcher Hirsh Lebiotkin hanged himself while still in Zhirgynas.
Of all the Jews who were locked up in Zhirgynas, only two escaped by some miracle: Chaim Ronder, born in Keidan in 1903, and Shmuel Smolsky, born in Posen, a refugee who fled Poland in 1939 and settled in Keidan. Ronder and Smolsky hid themselves behind planks which were lying in Zhirgynas. The clothing of the murdered Jews was brought to Zhirgynas after the slaughter and the place was guarded. The best items of clothing were plundered by the leaders of the mass murder. The remaining clothes were sorted and later sold cheaply to the Lithuanian population. On the same night of the massacre the two Jews, who lay hidden behind the planks and under piles of clothing, used a penknife to carve a hole in the shingled roof of the stable, took off their boots and lowered themselves on a rope made from torn sheets. Luckily they were not seen by the guards and succeeded in reaching the Podborik wood.
Thus, together with the above-mentioned Benzy Birger, of the 4,000 martyrs of the three Jewish communities of Keidan, Shat and Zheim, only three Jews survived.