By Rabbi Y. M. Fishleder (Mexico)
“How deserted lies the city…” (Lamentations of Jeremiah 1:1)
How did it happen that my city of birth, Keidan, was left lonely and abandoned, without its holy community? No one is left there to be amazed by its reputation, by the names of its great sons of Israel, the knowledge of whom spread throughout the world for hundreds of years. One of these was “Pnei Moshe” (the Face of Moses), the commentator on the Jerusalem Talmud at the beginning of the 18th century. He was the teacher of the Vilna Gaon, our Rabbi Eliyahu of blessed memory, who drank at this fount of Torah and thus acquired great virtues. Another exceptional personality was the well-known genius, the great paragon, well-educated in the wisdom of the Torah, Moshe Leib Lillienblum. He was widely known as a great thinker, Hebrew writer and Lover of Zion in the mid-19th century.
My memories, however, relate to the years of my childhood. When I was 12, I had already left Keidan to study in foreign places. I studied in many yeshivas, large and small: The old Zhager Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Ben-Zion; in Kovno. Also in Vilna, at the Rav Maalot Yeshiva, led by Rabbi Tzvi Grodzensky (the brother of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky); in Kelm (headed by Rabbi Eliyahu); in Lida (under Rabbi Yitzhak Reines); in Sheduva (under Rabbi Aharon Baksht); and Slabodka-Kovno (headed by the gaon Rabbi Baruch Dov-Ber Leibovitch). All this happened prior to 1915, when all Jews were expelled from Lithuania.
As far as I remember, the following held important positions in Keidan: Rabbi-Gaon Kamai (the son of Rabbi Eliyahu Baruch of Mir), and in all fields of Jewish needs: Rabbi Zalman Frank, Rabbi Benzion Agish, Zundel Ginzburg, Yakov Wolpe, Sender Yaffe, Yakov Kurlianchik, my father, Rabbi Avraham Fishleder, and the late Rabbi Nissan Bank of blessed memory. All were dedicated and fully involved with the public’s needs in matters of faith. They always cared for the poor and depressed, marrying off brides, freeing those held captive. They kept the mitzvot of hospitality by helping visitors in the synagogue or hosting them at their own homes on Shabbat and holidays. This mitzvah was deeply embedded in the souls of all the Jews, the simple and the traditional, the educated and the learned. This was carried out as a daily command, to fulfill the commandment of our holy Torah: “And your brother will live with you.”
As far as I know from reliable sources, my father Avraham of blessed memory, who was also known by the name Leah-Leibish, used to open the doors of his house at 16 Smilga Street and receive with open arms all sorts of refugees and yeshiva students who had fled their homes during the First World War. Examples of people who fled their yeshivas were those of Radun, Mir and Telz. My father literally sacrificed himself to support them to the extent of his abilities, with food, drink and lodging.
Behold, all this has disappeared leaving not a trace. Within a short time, some of Keidan’s leading scholars were themselves forced to leave their homes. Among these: the poet Zvi (Hirsh) Bloshtein (the son of Reyzel the dough-kneader); Moshe Strashunski (a ritual slaughterer); Benish (a ritual slaughterer); Finkelstein, who wrote for the publication “HaZman” (the son of Reb Moshe Feive-Leizers, the well known teacher and manager of the “Seven Guests” synagogue); as well as teachers –intellectuals such as Reb David Itsches, M. Telzer, and others. None like these exist any longer in Keidan which, before the First World War, had between six and seven thousand souls.
The one and only consolation that remains within my heart is that some of the townspeople managed to disperse in time throughout the world. In this regard I can think that “This nation can be compared to oil. As oil gives its light to the world, so does Israel give its light to the world”; as it is said, “Nations came to your light.” (Isaiah, 60:3). Nations will have to realize, in the final account, that “thanks to Israel the world was created,” – that is, only because of the merit of the Jewish people does the world exist. Keidan, therefore, joins all the destroyed cities and towns that were emptied of their Jewish populations in the days of Hitler (may his name be erased).
And here, my city of Keidan stands before the heavenly court and testifies “how deserted lies the city.” The city, which lost its saints and its pure ones, constantly mourns the loss of its beautiful Sabbath days and her holy silence, a time when her learning houses and synagogues were filled by worshippers, students of Torah, rabbis, slaughterers, synagogue officials and simple Jews – the keepers of the Torah’s commandments. She has been left naked, without Torah, without work and without charity, the “three things on which the world stands” (Ethics of the Fathers. 1:2.)
“Lord of the Universe, how can you look when only impure gentiles rule over her? On the Neviazhe bridge, on the roads leading to Totleben’s court and to the railway station, and in the Borer woods, no longer do happy and sensitive youths fill the air with songs and joy, so that even the flowers of the meadow and the grain in the fields sang with the birds, and your youth was surrounded by pleasant scents.”
But, behold, a divine voice is heard, saying: “You should know, poor widow, that as long as the people of Israel believe in God (blessed be He), salvation will finally come, and its spiritual power, clothed by the holiness of the Torah, will fill the whole world. You must record this terrible period in your heart, so that it will always be before your eyes, and it will remain in your memory for generations.” We must never forget that in the middle of the 20th century, the Jewish people lost a third of their total number, spread out over all the continents, at the hands of the Nazi terrorists, who wished to tear them out by their roots. These terrorists, however, were defeated in their evil ways, thanks to the fact that a few world leaders found some right in the existence of the people of Israel.
The Jewish people may have been hurt in body, but not in spirit. Their ideals and prophetic spirit did not die. Because of this, this period needs to be deeply engraved in our memories, as well as in the memories of those who did not experience these terrible happenings. They must also carry this message to their children’s children.
It is so difficult to write about the cruel happenings in the days of Hitler (may his name be erased). These happenings shock the soul, raise a feeling of pain in the depths of the soul, and freeze the blood in our veins whenever we remember what happened to the Jewish people in the Valley of Tears.
To the blood-stained pages of Jewish history, to the blood libels, the cruel persecutions of 1648-1649, we must add the Holocaust and the destruction of Jewish lives that fill pails of tears. This is all the more important while Jewish blood has not yet dried, and while the Angel of Death, in the form of cruel rulers, has still not returned his sword to its scabbard, while the blood on the blade still has not dried, and while his hand is still ready to strike and to slaughter; while anti-semitism still has not been rooted out, and while we do not yet know what the future will bring, and we still cannot rely on the grace of nations.
Furthermore, in the lands of the diaspora, even if we beautify our clothes, they do not fit us and they do not put our souls at rest. The stench of poisonous Jew hatred stinks in all cormers of the world. We still have to hold onto the idea that “our hope is not yet lost.” We will still rise over the fountains of tears which my mother Reizel and other mothers spilled. The words of my mother still echo in the ears of the remnants of Israel: “Do not let them deceive you, O Jews; they are leading us all to the crematoria !”.
We will recover from the bloody days, from the women who were tortured. We will avenge my brothers Benjamin and Velvel and their families, who fell as partisans in the forests surrounding Keidan. We will avenge our saints, our parents and in-laws: Reb Yakov-Zeev Pushcar, a righteous and innocent man, and Itke, a righteous woman, who were slaughtered together with their son Elimelech (Zeidke), a great God-fearing man, by the Nazi murderers in the Bialystok region. We will avenge the saints of Israel, who were burnt by murderers in the crematoria. Revenge for our holiness which was desecrated by the cruel, unclean ones.
Translated by Chaim Charutz.