By Chaya Gel (Jerusalem)
I was born in Keidan, where I lived in 16 Gedimino Street. When the Russians conquered Lithuania the first time in 1940, they nationalized our business and seized our house. I went to live with my sister in Kovno and started working. I tried not to attract attention, as in Keidan I had been “bourgeois.”
When the Russians left Lithuania and the Germans entered, part of Slobodka was fenced off and the Kovno ghetto was established there. Before the ghetto was locked on August 15 1941, I moved with my sister and her two children to the ghetto. After the ghetto gates were locked, an announcement was published regarding forced labor.
I went to work every day at the airport. However, one day, instead of returning us after work to the ghetto, they took us to the Keidan camp under heavy guard. We were herded together like cattle into a building that had previously held the officers’ club. The building was entirely fenced in with electrified barbed wire. Anyone who to tried to escape was immediately electrocuted. Our bedroom had triple-tiered bunks, with two women on each bunk.
The place was incredibly filthy. Lice multiplied because of the filth, and these tortured us to the point of madness. During the daylight hours, we were forced to work. The work consisted of digging ditches to a depth of three meters, for the purpose of laying electric cables.
When I was brought to the Keidan camp, there were no other Jews in the town. Only two men survived – Chaim Ronder and Ben-Zion Birger from Janushova (Janušava.).
While I was in the Keidan camp, I frequently asked the work manager to give me quota work. When I finished the work as quickly as possible, the manager used to free me for a few hours, provided I brought him two fresh eggs to eat. During these few hours, I used to meet Christian acquaintances, with whom we previously had close, friendly relations. From them, I managed to learn what had really happened.
Here is what I was told:
Right away in the beginning, all Jews were concentrated in the synagogue yard, which was designated as the ghetto. Later all the men were separated and locked in Zhirgynas. This was the building near Count Totleben’s garden with large horse stables. The men were forced to do the most difficult work under inhuman conditions. In addition, they were also frequently abused. I wish to tell here of one terrible example:
My elder brother, Hershel Gel, was forced to clean the latrines with his bare hands. Afterwards, he was not allowed to wash his hands and was forced to eat with dirty hands.
After a short time, during which they were forced to do extremely hard work and were subjected to heavy physical abuse, the men were brought to an open field on the way to the town of Ariogola, and were forced to dig very deep pits. Everyone was brought there – old people, sick people, women and children. They were all forced to undress, and to run under a hail of bullets towards the pits. All the while they were fired at, and they fell into the pits. Many were still alive when the pits were covered. The screams of horror and suffereing were so strong and so terrible that they even reached distant villages.
When all the Jews had been brought to the place and the action had not yet started, the young rabbi of Keidan, Aaron Galin, the son-in-law of Rabbi Shlomo Feinsilber, requested to be allowed to say a few words before his death.
Above the gathered Jews stood Lithuanians, all with rifles in their hands, ready to fire. And here are the names of these distinguished people of Keidan: the commandant of Keidan and his secretary; the magistrate Klibas and his secretary; the principal of the Keidan Lithuanian gymnasium with all the teachers, without exception; the doctor of Keidan’s regional hospital Arzhamsky, Dr. Savitsky, the pharmacist Stančius; the town mayor, Povylius, the investigating judge, the lawyer Shafranchik; and many other Shaulists.
The young rabbi started speaking to all of them. He spoke fluent Lithuanian. He especially addressed the principal and all the teachers with these words:
“You were appointed to spread culture and education. In your hands, we placed the cream of the region’s youth. You were like parents to these children. How then can a father, without mercy, without conscience, raise a hand against his innocent children and murder them?”
Turning his eyes to heaven, he said: “God in heaven will never forgive you for the terrible crime you commit today! Will humanity ever forgive you for this sin? The Lithuanian nation will never be cleansed from the stain that will fall on you.”
He finished with the words: “Our innocent spilled blood will avenge you…” When his last words ended, Tzadok Shlapobersky went out of the line, and Yechiel Steinbach followed him. Tzadok sprang quickly towards the commandant, and grabbed his throat to strangle him. At the same moment, Shaulists jumped on him from behind and murdered him. As a punishment, they buried his wife and two children alive. After this, the action started.
The holy places in Keidan were desecrated. The tombstones in the cemetery were shattered. Pigs were housed in the Tiferet Bachurim prayer house. The great synagogue was turned into a storehouse.
Before I left Lithuania, I went to say farewell at the graves. The ground was ploughed and sown, as if nothing had ever happened there. However, in my presence, elderly Christians who were passing by stopped, stood for a moment and bowed before the graves.
Translated by Chaim Charutz.