A Return to My Birthplace, Keidan

This article, by the Soviet writer Hirsh Bloshtein (1895-1979), was published Oct 22, 1958, in Morgen Freiheit, a New York City-based Yiddish newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party USA.


By H. Bloshtein

Hirsh Bloshtein with his grandson in 1965

A journey back to childhood and early youth – a trip to the places where you first opened your eyes and began to recognize, and later to understand, the world and life – such a trip is inevitably linked to a intense web of feelings and sensations, each strand of which produces its own particular tone…

It is a feeling of eternal human longing for the years that have gone and will not return; it is a feeling of poetic affection for each tree, each lane, each house that knew you as a child and is itself a verse in the wonderful song, called childhood and youth. The great Russian poet and thinker Valery Bryusov once said: Childhood is a disease from which, until death, one never recovers…

And such a journey summons a very special feeling in a person from Eastern Europe, and particularly in a Jew who returns, after several decades of separation, to the shtetl where he was born and spent the first couple of decades of life.

One hard and enormously painful emotion returns here, dominant over all others: A feeling of individual loneliness. Underline individual. Because socially you are never lonely in the land of the Soviets, where the fresh and refreshing springs of great, creative life flow from every corner.

But for you, personally … how hard this is, what a heartache! And only that great historical optimism planted in you by Marx and Lenin, who taught you to always look ahead toward humanity’s ascent, and not into the pits of yesterday – only their teaching and faith in mankind helps you in these difficult minutes to not become broken, or bent to the ground like a small tree in a severe storm…

In all the places I visited this summer, and where I had not been for 27 years, the horrible years of the Second World War brought the hard, bloody Hitlerist boot, which trampled everyone and everything that was so beloved and dear to your heart!

* * *

Once, when a person would, after long years of separation, return to his native town, he would meet, in the old worn streets, old acquaintances, people of his generation or at least their children, and together they could sit somewhere, on a bench or porch, under an old familiar window, and reminisce together about “once” – and “once” would become alive again, reviving old events and personalities – and you would thereby become young again in the surroundings of those with whom you once made your life. Now, however …

The mass grave near Keidan, in the 1950s.

Here I am back in my native town in Lithuania – Keidan. Now it is a large regional center – Kedainiai – of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. With a trembling heart, I drive with my companions down the old familiar lanes…

It’s a hot, sunny Sunday. I get out of my auto. I look around. And our auto is already surrounded with dozens of people. They find out who I am, to whom was I connected in town. There are still strong, old, Lithuanians living here who, once, as young men, worked for my father, sewing together simple sheepskins for Dovid the village tailor. There are also younger ones, who, on the eve of the war, sewed woolen jackets for my oldest brother, Mani-Yossel … An old woman, a Lithuanian, who speaks excellent Yiddish, mentions that here, in the house across the way, once lived Moishe the baker, in whose shop Reyze the bread-kneader (my mother!) pounded dough at the formidable kneading table for fifteen kopeks a day… and everyone looks at me as at a mourner, just returned from the cemetery … and each wants to give me a good word, a warm word of comfort. And one of them invites me in, seeking to relieve my loneliness. And my heart is, equally, warm and cold as frost: I am in the great, friendly, family of Soviet people. But – of my own Keidan family no one remains. Of the six thousand Keidan Jews[1], a scant few were rescued during the horrible year 1941, by Lithuanians in the surrounding villages. Good Lithuanian people put their own lives in danger to rescue their Jewish friends and acquaintances.[2]

I walk through the town. The little old town has actually grown, during the free and productive Soviet years, into a large city, with new neighborhoods, big buildings, factories, mills, clubs, schools, libraries, cinemas, parks, squares … I walk around the city, but no one knows me. The few Jews who were saved from the Hitler-slaughter did not remain here. It was hard for them to be reminded daily of their great tragedy. They left for Vilna, or Kovno, and return once a year to visit their family graves.

I walk around the old-young, cheerful, Sunday city, and like a shadow that one can never remove, my personal loneliness walks with me.

Here is the area, near the quiet Neviazhe River. Right here, not far from the bridge, my cradle, an old wooden cradle, hung from a thick rope attached by a hook to a low beam … The house is no more. Burned, like hundreds and thousands of other houses in Keidan and hundreds of other cities and towns. Burned in Hitler’s genocide, the children slaughtered in their mothers’ wombs. The pure white kid goat that rocked Jewish cradles for hundreds of years lies ruined in the ash of the burned-up cradles.

Here is the house where the “blond melamed1 had his cheder. Here, by the window where I used to look out on pots of unfamiliar flowers, the “blond one” first introduced me to the square letters of the Jewish alphabet, with which I write these sad, lonesome lines…

And where is the house from which I departed so many years ago into the world, to make my way in life, to speak to my people through these very same “square letters,” that the “blond one” was the first to teach me? And where is the house where my brother, Mani-Yossel, the beautiful and wonderful storyteller, lived? Not here. Burned up. The ash was carted away and in its place a garden has been planted. Children play in the garden, singing a merry song. Play, children, sing, and let your lives be happy and joyful!

And here I am behind the town. Here, suddenly, are the graves – mass graves.

The old familiar willow trees still bend over the little Smilga creek. Just like in the old days, the days when I was a child. The sun pushes through the interlaced branches and pours gold onto the quiet, barely-moving ripples. A little bird hops from one branch to another …

And nearby – a grave. Here lie the town’s first three victims of fascism. Right after the Nazis arrived, the “Shaulists” (the Lithuanian nationalist bandits) brought here and murdered three known Communists. Two Lithuanians and one Jew – my nephew, Chaim-Dovid the tailor. I remember what encouraging, cheerful letters he wrote me when Lithuania joined the great Soviet family of nations.

And something more – a long, green fence with an arched entrance gate. Before the gate – a tall, black marble stone. An inscription, engraved in gold, in three languages – Yiddish, Lithuanian, Russian: “Here lie buried Soviet citizens, victims of fascism, killed in the year 1941.”[3] We walk in through the gate. A grave – one hundred meters long, fifty meters wide, and how deep? As deep as the wounds in our hearts, immeasurably deep! Here lie five thousand[4] Jews! Here lies almost my entire Keidan of old, several generations with all their hopes, desires, dreams, passions …

I want to say something to my companions, but for me, as for them, the tongue is paralyzed. Only tears roll out from beneath my eyelashes …

The Keidan city council takes diligent care of this grave and the surrounding park, and anonymous hands – may they be blessed! – have placed modest bunches of forest flowers here.[5]

We drive on, silent, sunk in our own hard thoughts. We haven’t yet seen all the graves. Two kilometers from there, near an old, thick pine forest, where we as children used to stroll, are an entire row of communal graves.[6]  Here lie five hundred of the best sons and daughters of the old Keidan – five hundred Communists and Soviet activists. Among them a very large number of Jews.[7] Here, by these graves, we uncover our heads and swear: Each of us will do his part, devote his life to the struggle for peace and happiness in the world, against the dark forces and warmongers, against all racists and antisemites, so that there are no more repeats of Hitler on this earth in any form!

And let each one of us, wherever he should be, remember his city, his town, his village (each of us has his Keidan!), and say solemnly with me in turn:

Let tranquility, peace and friendship among peoples rule over the earth!

Translated by A. Cassel


[1] Other sources put the Jewish population of Keidan at around 3,000 in 1939.

[2] The question of whether more Lithuanians aided in the Jews’ extermination or helped save Jews remains fraught. Clearly there were some “good Lithuanian people” as Bloshtein asserts, but many others stood by, or actively participated in, the massacres.

[3] In the 1950s the tablet atop the mass grave site was inscribed: “To the victims of fascist terror, 28.8.1941.” The tablet was replaced after Lithuania became independent in 1991.

[4] Other records put the number of people buried there at 2,076.

[5] Other sources say the site was maintained during the Soviet years by volunteers among the survivors, who do not recall a park near the mass grave.

[6] Likely a reference to the Babenai, or Borer Woods.

[7] Other sources put the number killed at Babenai at 125, among them 95 Jews.

Footnotes

  1. Teacher

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