This unsigned article appeared in “The Keidaner” bulletin of the Keidaner Association of NY, September 1939.
Never have our landsleit come to hear such an interesting report about Keidan as that which took place at the last meeting.
The report came from Mr. Yosef Kolpenitzky, the managing director of the Jewish Cooperative Bank in Keidan, who came on a visit to New York.
We eagerly listened to his description of the situation in Keidan. In a professional manner, he painted for us the topographic changes, as well as the economic, political, spiritual and business conditions of the Jews there.
He led us from the train depot to the Borer woods, then back along the court road to Langer Street, farther to the market and over the bridge to Over-the-Water. We saw how Keidan is being beautified, modernized with the newest facilities, with sidewalks and electric lighting. The new town, with magnificent houses and estates, has developed along the Court Road as far as the Borer Woods, but the inhabitants of the beautiful new homes are Lithuanian – government officials and upwardly-mobile citizens. The Jews, who are barred from every branch of commerce, industry and handicraft, are all growing poorer, beaten down and sinking into the old houses in Smilga and Bath Streets, around the old market and synagogue yard. The old market has been made into a park, and the Jews have had to close their stores, because the entire market has been moved to the former horse-market on the hill, where only the gentiles have built nice-looking stores and do good business.
Therefore, the non-Jewish population is really growing bigger and richer, while the Jews grow fewer and poorer. Keidan is a provincial seat, with the residence of the governor, and has a population of over 18,000, of which there are counted no more than 1,200 Jews; in other words, 7 percent of the population.
The Christian cooperative takes away the business; the shuttle auto-buses, for which the gentiles have permits, took away the living of the wagon-drivers. The Jewish gardeners and orchard-keepers have lost the best markets for their products through the elimination of Memel1, and so forth.
No wonder that, whoever can, is deserting Keidan, just like other Lithuanian cities, and those who remain are for the most part dependent on the support of their relatives in America or in Africa.
Of major help is the Jewish bank, which extends credit to anyone who needs it to get by.
The orphanage is a lighthouse amid the poverty of life in Keidan. Orphans ranging in age from 7 to 17 are being cared for there, with everyone taught a trade, and sent forth able to make a living for themselves. The institution is kept up by the community, with a little support from the government. However, the main support comes from our New York Ladies’ Aid Society.
Hearing this gloomy greeting from the Jewish community, which, as a small, poor minority, is becoming lost in the large, rich non-Jewish population of Keidan, brought to mind a picture of Keidan in my childhood years.
The town then had a population of over 8,000, of which about 80 percent were Jews. The non-Jews lived on the outskirts of the city, but in the city proper there was hardly more than a Shabbos-goy2. There wasn’t more than one gentile barkeeper – Frantzkevitch; there was Yuditzki the locksmith; Neuman, a German joiner, a miller, a tanner and a harness-maker. Those were the only non-Jewish tradesmen. But they all spoke Yiddish practically as well as the Jews.
And therefore Keidan on Shabbat and holidays really seemed different than during the week. And when the High Holidays came, even the few goyim had the fear of God in their faces.
From the first day of the month of Elul, the shofar was heard through the whole city. The cantors and prayer-leaders sang out the traditional tunes. On Rosh Khodesh young and old were in the shul or the big and small chapels. At Tashlikh3, the river banks were besieged with people, as kith and kin gathered there to cast away their sins. At Kol Nidre and on Yom Kippur, you saw nothing but men in prayer robes and women in sheets around the prayer houses. At Sukkot, the whole town smelled of evergreen boughs, and looked like one large camp of sukkah-booths. On Shmini Atseres and Simchat Torah the town buzzed with activity: everyone celebrated, sang and enjoyed themselves.
Thus was the city transformed, according to whatever holiday was being celebrated. This was all in the old-time Jewish city of Keidan.
Now, however, Keidan has become the Lithuanian Kedainiai, and the Jewish community is impoverished, downtrodden and insignificant in comparison with its former days.
And still….how does their situation compare with that of the Jews in Poland and Germany? To put it simply, thank God.