Young Refugees in Keidan

By Moshe Domb (Kfar Menachem, Israel)

After many hardships and torments, we gathered in Keidan, in Lithuania, to continue the training as Kibbutz Manof that began in Włocławek [Poland]. We were all graduates of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, preparing for aliya to Eretz-Israel; our ambition was build a kibbutz there and live on it.

We were all near to making aliya when the war broke out, and so began our flight from the Nazi beast. The movement’s leaders briefed us as we wandered through the territories occupied by the Soviets in Ukraine and Belarus [in 1939]. They told us to head for Lithuania, from which, perhaps, there was a chance to make aliya. Indeed, we reached Keidan in Lithuania, and on the way we suffered our first loss. It was Shoshana Aharonovich, a girl of 18 who wasn’t strong enough to withstand the deprivations.  We buried her in Vilna, then moved on, still considering ourselves a training kibbutz with the goal of aliya.

Fifty-four comrades, all between 18 and 21 years old, reached Keidan. Two-thirds were males and one-third were females. Other comrades stayed behind in different places in Poland, to continue the movement among the Jews in the ghettos. Among them was Mordechai Anielewicz, who subsequently led the Warsaw ghetto revolt.

Our meeting with the Jews of Keidan was warm and heartfelt. We were a united body but we were young men and women who had all left dear parents and families behind under Nazi occupation. Parting with them was traumatic, and concern about our loved ones’ fate gave us neither rest nor peace. The Keidan Jews understood our despair. They tried as much as possible to help, and to give us a sense of security and home, despite the fact that they themselves probably felt insecure about the future.

This help they afforded us quietly and modestly. One never could distinguish who belonged to the host committee, (apparently there was such a committee). People would always come on friendly visits, and always left with mental notes of the things we needed. These items always arrived without causing us to feel that we were receiving special assistance.

In the period before the Soviets took over Lithuania in the summer of 1940, we continued to exist as a training kibbutz, supporting ourselves working for the town’s Jews; that is, to prepare for communal life we took whatever jobs were available.  Each of us was somehow attached to a local family.  We earned income from chopping wood for Jewish families to prepare for winter, the girls worked as domestic help, and we also did field work for Jewish farmers. We even tried to establish an independent agricultural branch and sought other types of employment.

I remember one incident connected to this. In addition to our kibbutz, the Mir Yeshiva was also taking refuge in Keidan. The yeshiva students were mainly occupied with studying Torah. In our search for other sources of income, we tried to establish a communal laundry, and our first job was to do the laundry for the yeshiva students. But due to lack of experience, we marked their shirts with unsuitable ink, and ruined the whole batch of washing.  Obviously, this whole enterprise failed and left us with nothing. Apparently we weren’t worthy of serving Talmud scholars.

As mentioned, we were forced to disband the kibbutz after the Russians took over Lithuania, and we organized ourselves into smaller groups or even couples (where family units had already been created). We were placed with Jewish families in the town, and so the ties among us were strengthened even more.

The skies began to darken faster as the Germans put their schemes into action and invaded Lithuania. On the first day of the war with Russia, we refugees packed our backpacks and prepared for the road. We served as a barometer for the Jews of Lithuania. They said: “If these people pack up it is an evil omen.”  Indeed, we urged them to join us, but few dared to take up the pilgrim’s staff and leave everything behind. There were many reasons for this. Perhaps they foresaw our fate – who knows?

Only 30 of our comrades succeeded in breaking the siege. The other 24 suffered the fate of all the Jews of Lithuania. From among the 30 who managed to reach the Soviet Union, one friend, Kaiteck, died of hunger in the open spaces of Siberia.  A second, Koba Shchensky, was killed in action at the front, fighting with the Lithuanian division, with many medals decorating his chest.

By Pinchas Handelsman (Knaani) (Kfar Menachem, Israel)

Keidan! A name known to me since the days of my youth, when we read Sienkiewicz. But who could have imagined that one day this name would become a part of our lives? Who thought for a moment that we boys and girls, members of Hashomer Hatzair in training for aliya to Israel, would become connected to that same delightful town, and be a part of it?

After the outbreak of war [in 1939] and much difficult wandering, we reached Vilna and were shortly transferred (with the government’s consent) to various places in Lithuania. Our kibbutz, “Manof,” was assigned to Keidan.  I have to admit that in the beginning we were fearful, for a variety of reasons: The environment was new, we didn’t know the people, and there were also language difficulties (as Polish was the language we were most fluent in). But to our surprise, everything fell easily into place. 

The local Jews received us with outstanding warmth. They supplied us with everything we needed, and they met us with cordial smiles and encouraging, reassuring words. The Jews of Keidan ignored the official prohibition against employing refugees and took us on, at their own risk, to do all sorts of jobs. I myself was employed by the Yisraelov family, owners of a beverage factory that produced wines and lemonade. This family had a fine reputation in the community, and was filled with the spirit of Judaism and Zionism. I was very fond of the man who hired me, and whose behavior toward me was remarkable. I remember this likeable man, tall and broad shouldered, practical and thoughtful, who often discussed important current issues with me, such as the destiny of Polish Jews, the future of Lithuanian Jewry, and other issues. His wife, too, treated me in a most courteous manner and invited me to be their guest at home.

A few months later, with the arrival of the Red Army, many of the Jewish factories in the town were nationalized, including Yisraelov’s winery. Not long afterward, most of Keidan’s Jewish communal leaders were deported. Yisraelov’s decent and humane behavior toward his employees stood him in good stead in that tumultuous time. All his workers stood by him and convinced the authorities to let the man and his family alone. And so it was … He continued as an ordinary worker in his own former business, while part of his dwelling was turned over to officers of the Red Army.

In the first days of the war between Russia and Germany, I tried to convince them to flee that place with me, because the danger was really tangible. People then still believed in the power of the Red Army. But we kibbutzniks who had experienced 1939 knew that no one could stop the German army at this stage, so most of us took to the road. Some were captured by Lithuanian partisans and handed over to the Germans, while others escaped into the vast spaces of the Soviet Union.

Before I describe this new period of our lives in the Soviet Union, I would like to mention another family I knew, the Karnovsky family. A dear, elderly couple, who owned a bakery in Gedimino Street. They were among the few who managed to stand their ground despite all odds. When the Soviet (and Lithuanian) authorities dispersed the kibbutz, I went to live with them. They welcomed me cordially, treated me like an only child and assisted me in every way. Their home was my home. I don’t know what happened to them in the days after I fled Keidan. Escape would have been impossible. May their memory be blessed.

Eventually I reached the Soviet Union via Latvia, and my first stop was Velikiye Luki. There I met up again with a few families from Keidan. Together we were transferred to Siberia, to a collective farm in the Toguchin district, Novosibirsk region. They divided us up among the homes of the farm’s veteran members. It was my luck to be quartered for most of the winter at the same place as a well-known man from Keidan, called Baron. He was strong and sturdy, and in his work was an example to the whole collective, which treated him with respect.

One night I fled the collective farm and, after wandering for weeks on trains, I arrived hungry and bedraggled in the warm Asian region of Tajikistan. There, at a place near the border (this was our goal: to get close to the border – I say “our” goal because on the way I met comrades from the movement, so we could progress from there), to our great joy, I reunited with a family from Keidan: Raya Bernstein, her husband Shayke and his brother, Zorach. Raya worked as a doctor there. We lived together with this family for quite a while and we all helped each other.

Then came the day when we were conscripted into the labor force and returned to Siberia. So I was again separated from the Keidan Jews. These were the last I encountered, and I don’t know to this day what befell this family.

I will always remember with affection that beautiful Jewish community that was annihilated and is no more.

Translated by Bella Golubchik.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *