By A. Simcha Hacohen Kaplan (Tzfat, Israel)1
The yeshiva at Mir, Poland, one of the greatest yeshivas in the world prior to the Second World War, was forced into exile.
This great Torah stronghold had existed for more than 100 years. Out of it came great Jewish scholars who became famous through the years as leaders of Orthodox Jewry and supporters of Torah throughout the world. A special spirit surrounded this great yeshiva. It comprised more than 400 students. Most were proficient in Talmud, authorities in rabbinic law, deep thinkers and scholars in all aspects of Jewish spiritual life.
However, with the approach of the German forces, the executive of the yeshiva decided to leave the place, in which every stone was impregnated with Torah and moral teachings, and to migrate to Lithuania, which was under communist influence at that time. This was done in hope that it would serve as a temporary station en route to the Holy Land, the goal of every Jew, but especially of every Torah scholar.
This was an hour of emergency. All the yeshivas in Polish Lithuania crossed the border and reached Vilna. Although the communist regime was not yet interfering in the internal affairs of diminutive, weak, Lithuania, the eye of the “great Russian bear” was fixed on it. However, the yeshivas found a convenient refuge in this country – not only economically and spiritually, but also due to the Torah-rich atmosphere, which had reigned in Lithuania since ancient times.
Representatives of the yeshiva went out to all the provincial towns to seek a suitable place. They looked for a town that not only could absorb such a large number of yeshiva students but also had a suitable atmosphere, similar to that which the students had enjoyed since their yeshiva’s inception in Mir.
They searched – and found Keidan.
Keidan was in every sense a typical Lithuanian town. The intelligentsia there – even those not close in attitude to the religiously observant – were however imbued with a sincere love of Torah. The Zionism of Keidan was not contaminated by the “winds of change” and these people behaved with respect towards the Torah and Torah scholars, because the Torah, in Lithuania, was an integral part of Jewish existence. They embellished their lives with Torah, their private lives and their communal lives. The fragrant perfume of Torah wafted over the life of every Jew, even the most simple. It was found in the home and in the street, at business and in the workshop. It filled the shuls and study houses. It was the foundation of their existence. Their hearts were as expansive as their intellect was sharp. Their welcome was as benevolent as their Jewishness was genuine. They were openhearted in their charity, and most of all, in their hospitality.
Keidan welcomed us, the hundreds of yeshiva students, me among them, in a most benevolent manner, with characteristic devotion and an air of kindness that was so needed in those beastly days. In fact, at that time, the yeshiva had no financial worries. The Jews of the United States, in particular the Joint, came to the aid of the yeshivas and we lacked for nothing. But man does not live by bread alone, and the Jews of Keidan provided us with all that was necessary: domesticity, an affectionate atmosphere and all the little everyday things that a yeshiva student needed.
It was possible at first to distinguish a slight hesitation by certain groups in Keidan, which was intrinsically Zionist. These circles worried that the yeshiva threatened their financing from the national funds, such as the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) and the Keren Hayesod (UJA). But this fear was immediately overcome by their intellect and also by the love of Torah that was embedded deep in their souls. When one of the respected people of the city declared that accommodating the yeshiva in Keidan meant saving lives, and that they should postpone any concern with the funds, they accepted the yeshiva with open arms, eager to extend all necessary help.
The Jews of Keidan instantly proved that their love was unselfish, and every householder in the town saw it as his duty to set aside a room or to allocate some space to yeshiva students, and this with every respect and affection. They were prepared to serve the lads and to bestow on them the feeling of a well-tended, clean home, as was customary among Lithuanian Jews. The housewives delighted in tidying up the rooms in which the students lodged. They were happy when a yeshiva student enjoyed their food or chatted with them about this and that.
As soon as it was decided to accommodate the yeshiva in the city, a decision was taken to organize a festive welcome party for the students and their leaders on the day of their arrival. The community organized the welcome celebration, led by the gaon2 Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Feinsilber z’tz’l,3 hy’d,4 the President of the Keidan bet din. 5 He greeted the yeshiva students with enthusiasm and great joy. Some of his enthusiastic words at that gathering remain in my memory to this day. He quoted from the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gittin), “We made ourselves in Babylon as in Eretz Israel”, i.e., Torah has come to Keidan.
There is no need to emphasize that the arrival of the yeshiva to Keidan altered the atmosphere in the whole town. Until then, there had been only a small yeshiva. The arrival of hundreds of yeshiva students, prominent in Torah and good thinkers, who were renowned among all the yeshivas, filled the townspeople’s hearts with a yearning for Torah study. Yeshiva students walked the streets discussing learned subjects, and in the homes where they lodged, the voice of Torah was heard from early in the morning until late at night. The Torah was also heard day and night from the study house and penetrated every house, every ear and every heart.
The great Keidan study house (not to be confused with the synagogue, which was known as the “cold shul” because it didn’t have a stove and was not heated in the winter, so they only prayed there in spring and summer) was packed to the rafters, and the citizens used to come to enjoy the radiance of Torah. This despite the terrifying feeling that this tiny state was being surrounded by mighty powers, any one of which was capable of crushing it in an hour. In particular there was a great fear of the communists, who had begun bit by bit to take power over political life. Everyone knew that the independent political existence of Lithuania would not last long and that the Russians would take over. If not for the awful fear of the German Nazis, whose murderous intentions had begun to infiltrate our lives even though the mass murders were still unknown, and the feeling that our lives were in peril, it would have been possible to feel blessed in this place and to study more enthusiastically and with more diligence.
Indeed, the short period that I spent in Keidan with the yeshiva was a period of the most intense study. A feeling of uncertainty about the future inspired yeshiva students to study more, to become more pure and holy, to ascend higher up the ladder “that stands on the ground and whose top reaches the heavens.” The citizens of Keidan sensed this spirit of the yeshiva, and for their part, increased their affection for the students in every way.
I am still indebted to the woman who ran the house where I lodged. She made a special effort to fetch me kosher dairy products from far away, when she saw that I didn’t eat the other dairy products, and she even refused to accept payment for these products, even though I didn’t have any financial worries. She was a pious woman, my landlady, and she was proud of being able to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah observance and to serve learned scholars. In this she saw the cornerstone of her life.
As mentioned before, even the most enthusiastic Zionists, who in the beginning feared that their funds would be jeopardized, became enthusiastic Torah supporters with all their souls. Even my landlord, who was an enthusiastic Zionist, became attached to this holy work. Even though he didn’t belong to the Orthodox Zionists, he understood that it wasn’t the right time to dwell on these things, and so he made great efforts to provide the yeshiva with whatever he could manage.
There was one tragic incident, engraved on my memory, from this same period:
As already mentioned, my landlord was not Orthodox, but his son had already abandoned the world of faith and crossed over to the communist world, which was supposedly perfect. On Yom Kippur, when we were in Keidan, he even ate in public. The lad was a pupil in the Lithuanian gymnasia, and on the day of Yom Kippur he picked up his school bag and set off for school, the same as every day.
I was at home at that time and saw his father’s face grow so ashamed that it became twisted. He jumped up as if bitten by a snake and shouted at his son: “Over my dead body will you cross the threshold of this house to go to school today. I have forgiven you many things, but this I won’t forgive.” We all thought that a serious fight was about to break out between the lad and his father, but the family intervened. The lad conceded, but the father fainted later from agitation, pain and shame.
The communist influence was very strong in those days. The youth in particular saw them as saviors, after prolonged oppression by the Lithuanian antisemites. They saw the communists as liberators and were attracted by their slogans, but as soon as they entered the town it became clear that their promises were meaningless, baseless and spineless.
It must be said that, thanks to the presence of the yeshiva, the youth didn’t stray much and retained a decent relationship with Judaism. This was also felt by the inhabitants of the town, who even from this perspective felt an affection for the yeshiva students, whose spirit of Torah countered the atmosphere of alienation from the holy tradition among certain younger circles.
There were among the citizens some individuals who distinguished themselves in that their affection for the yeshiva knew no bounds. They searched for every opportunity to give enjoyment to the yeshiva student or to give him pleasure in some way. I recall a certain Jew, named Gladshtein, who owned a large fabric store. He invited the yeshiva students to “buy” fabrics from him for suits or coats and jackets or trousers, or anything they might want, and when some of the students came and bought, he refused to take payment. Afterward he announced, as at Passover, “Let whoever wishes, come and take” fabrics from him at no cost.
He sent a sweater as a gift to a little girl, the daughter of one of the yeshiva students. When they opened the parcel, they found a bag of sweets for the child, sent by Mr. Gladshtein, hy’d.
This short period of the yeshiva’s sojourn in Keidan remains in my memory as an encouraging time before the terrible Holocaust. A short period without financial worry, an atmosphere of affection and warm-heartedness, the like of which we did not know for many years before, nor ever again afterwards.
The yeshiva stayed in Keidan from the beginning of 1940 until June of the same year. In that month began the persecutions by the communist regime, which had already established itself in Lithuania in all its fearfulness. It is self evident that the great yeshiva, which numbered then about 400 youths, was like thorns in their eyes. The management decided to scatter the yeshiva over several small communities close to Keidan. I know how this pained the inhabitants of Keidan when they learned of the decision, and when the boys left the town, a great sadness descended on it.
I recall the following event:
The landlord in whose house I lodged, Mr. Israel Shneider hy’d accompanied me to the railway station and when I was already standing on the steps, he approached me and pressed a book of Mishna into my hand. While sitting in the coach, after parting with him, I opened it . On the first page of the book I found, written by hand, the whole of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem “El Ha Tzipor ” (To the Bird).
Jewish Keidan no longer exists. It is buried deep in the earth, as is all of Jewish Europe. But all the hundreds of yeshiva students who were the recipients of the warm hospitality of the people of the town have kept this heartfelt affection and warmth in their heart until this day, and are still thankful. Among them is the writer of these lines.
May their memory be blessed. Tzfat, Kislev, 5733 [November, 1972]
Translated by Bella Golubchik.
- The writer was Chief Rabbi of the Tzfat religious court.
- ‘Genius,’ a title of honour and respect, given to exceptional Talmudic scholars.
- Zecher Tzaddik Livracha = May the memory of a great pious person be blessed.
- HaShem Yikom Damo = May God avenge his blood. i.e., he was murdered in the Holocaust.
- Religious court