By Yehuda Ronder (Kaunas)
Immediately after Hitler’s forces entered Keidan in June 1941, math teacher Nissan Zaltzburg hung himself. Meir Berger was brutally beaten in the street and died in the hospital.
On July 23, 125 people — 95 of them Jews (83 men and 12 women) — were taken to the Babian (Borer) w
oods and shot to death. Lithuanians accused them of having been Communists and working for the Soviet Union. Among those murdered were Gutman Blumberg, Feivel Levin, Avraham Dinershul, Benjamin Ronder, Gavriel Polonez, Tevel Yaffe and his son Meir-Isaac, Moshe Zalmanovich and his daughter, David Prusak and his daughter, Y. Shapira, Birger, M. Zamsky and Shmuel Berger.
Among the murderers were officer Vladas Gylys (tried in 1964), drivers Juozas Davidonis, Vladas Silvestravichius, Reila and Kailevičius (who now lives in West Lorne, Ontario, Canada).
Mayor Povilius transferred all the Jews into a ghetto on Smilga Street, where they stayed from August 13, 1941, along with Jews from Shat (Šeta) and Zheim (Žeimiai). The fascists appointed a committee to administer the ghetto, which had no rights whatsoever. The committee included Tzadok Shlapobersky, Chaim Blumberg, Chaim Ronder, Avraham Kagan, and Shalom Chayat. While a heavy tax was imposed on the ghetto, it was not collected in full.
The murderers Pešegodskis, Stasys Morkūnas and Batura would beat the ghetto inhabitants with nail-studded clubs.
On August 16, the Jews were driven from the synagogue yard to the airfield beside the Smilga river. On the way from the ghetto, Reuven Chesler attempted to run away, but he was shot dead. Benzion Berger managed to escape. The attorney Abramovich was stripped, covered with tar and feathers and forced to run to the warehouse at the airfield. The crippled David Ronder and the elderly Rabbi Shlomo Feinsilber were taken in the manure cart.
The Jews were confined to the warehouse for 12 days in dreadfully unsanitary conditions. Hirsch Lebiotkin hung himself there.
The mass murder of the Jews of Keidan, together with Jews from nearby Shat [Šeta] and Zheim [Žeimiai] began on the afternoon of August 28, 1941. At the airfield, Soviet prisoners of war were forced to dig a huge mass grave one hundred meters in length, six meters wide, and two meters deep. The Jews were confined in a large warehouse 600 meters away. The guards divided them into groups of 20, and the first group of 20 men was led outside. Each group was driven to the pit by 30 armed murderers.
Jews were led in groups from the warehouse to the execution place. Men were taken first. Chaim Ronder and a Jew from Poznan, Poland, named Smolsky, hid in the warehouse. They escaped at night, and later fought the fascists with weapons in their hands.
To avoid frightening those still in the warehouse and setting off a panic, a tractor’s motor was left running by the warehouse. But the Jews heard the shouts and shots, and some decided to resist.
The first group included the young rabbi Aaron Galin, a son-in-law of Rabbi Shlomo Feinsilber, president of the Lithuanian Rabbinical Council. Beside the pit, Galin addressed the Jews with these words: “Severe suffering has been the lot of our people, [but] we will not be wiped out.”
Many of the Jews refused orders to disrobe, and were murdered clothed. Baruch Meir Chesler, a locksmith, suddenly grabbed an automatic rifle out of the hands of one of the murderers, intending to shoot at him, but didn’t know how to use the weapon. Then he and two youngsters tried to run away, but were brought down by a hail of bullets. Another hero, whose name we don’t know, grabbed a weapon from the murderer Pranas Garšva and wounded him severely in the leg.
Another anonymous hero stabbed Juozas Berankis in the neck with a pocketknife, as Berankis testified in court when he was tried in 1964.
Tzadok Shlapobersky died a hero’s death: He attacked the murderer Aleksas Čižas with his bare hands, bit him, threw him to the ground, seized a pistol from his hand and shot him dead. Then Tzadok, Yudel Steinbach, Avraham Podlas and others dragged the terrified commander, a murderer named Mekeke, to the pit, where Tzadok bit him. Those murderers who jumped into the pit to save their bleeding commander killed the heroes with the butts of their rifles.
At murderer Čižas’ funeral ceremony, speeches were made blaming the Jews. Čižas was declared a victim of Jewish terror, and on his tombstone was written: “Fell in the line of duty.”
Thus did the Jewish heroes of Keidan meet their deaths.
Translated by Miriam Erez