A Visit to a Lithuanian Town

This was published in “The Keidaner” bulletin in three parts, from October to December, 1938. It was exerpted from the Warsaw Yiddish newspaper “Haynt” (“Today”), which carried the author’s account of travel through Lithuania.

By Chaim Vital

“When you are in Lithuania,” a friend said to me, “you should be sure to visit the city of Keidan. Keidan is a typical Jewish-Lithuanian city, which in years past had quite a reputation in the Jewish world. The Jews of the town were once called “Keidaner aristocrats”. And not without reason. The town stood out in times past for the quality of its Talmud scholars, and later for its secular men of enlightenment. It was a very intelligent town, which produced more than its share of notable Jewish personalities.”

“The Vilna Gaon, Reb Eliyahu, was the son-in-law of a Keidaner family. As a young child, a 6-year-old boy, he was brought to Keidan, and his influence lasted there for many generations. He stamped Keidan as an anti-Hassidic Orthodox community; Just like Vilna, Keidan remained a fortress of traditional “misnagdim” or opposition to Hassidism.

“Later, during the enlightenment period, the era of the Jewish renaissance, Keidan contributed a lot to the new popular movement. The famous Jewish pamphleteer and fighter for Jewish renewal Moshe Leib Lilienblum was born and spent his youth in Keidan. There also was born the famous Jewish scholar Dr. Yosef Smilg, the famous Hebrew stylist and historian Isser Josef Einhorn, and others.

“And where do you think Keidaner gardeners and Keidaner cucumbers come from?”

The Czapski manor in the mid-19th century

With such an introduction, my friend made me very interested and desirous of visiting Keidan. And sure enough, as soon as you arrive in Keidan and leave the train station, you bump into an important piece of Keidan’s history: Opposite the train station stands the great castle of the Polish Count Czapski, and later of the Russian Count Totleben. In this castle today is a Lithuanian agricultural school; nothing remains of either the Czapskis or the Totlebens. High over the bridle of the park today stretches the white neck of the minaret of a Turkish mosque, which Totleben built in his day. This “tourist attraction” graces Keidan today like a monument to the distant past, when other rulers held sway over the land.

The couple of kilometers distance into the town can be driven in a car on a well-paved road. No more muddy tracks. And on both sides of the road stand beautiful houses, attractive villas. Of all the new buildings that stand beside the road, the most outstanding is the new Lithuanian high school, a building that could easily be found in a European capital. Really, though, not much about Keidan’s outward appearance has changed. Here and there stand fine two-story brick houses. In the place of the old post office today stands a fine building belonging to the Lithuanian cooperative “Dirva.” Running beside the houses are – sidewalks. And the population has even learned to walk on the sidewalks …

The pharmacy and nearby shops, early 20th century.

You mustn’t forget: Once Keidan was a “townlet,” an out-of-the-way little place in the great Russian empire. Today Keidan is a county seat, almost a provincial capital. And living in a county seat carries the obligation to maintain big-city manners.

We parked the auto in the center of the market. Stores, stores and more stores, bigger and smaller ones. It was a warm, lovely day, a mid-week day but not a market day. In greasy boots the storekeepers stood by their businesses, quietly keeping each other company.

The talk of the day was, I later realized, all about the tax inspector. The government had taken away the “good” tax inspector, who had belonged to Keidan, and in his place selected a less-good one. Keidan had a lot to say about its departed former tax inspector. People spoke of him as they would of a holy man who had died, singing his praises. You could see how great the loss was on the faces of the market-men …

The chauffeur took me to the Jewish Folksbank [Peoples’ Bank]. In the small towns of Lithuania, all of Jewish life is concentrated around the folks-bank. If you want to know the economic status of the Jewish population in this or any other Lithuanian shtetl, then visit the folks-bank and chat with the director. He’ll give you a detailed picture of Jewish life.

I ask the director of the Keidaner Folksbank: How do Jews make a living in Keidan? He makes it clear:

The total population of Keidan is approximately 10,000, of which about 2,000 are Jews. The Lithuanians get along very well with the Jews, and the Jews get along very well with the Lithuanians. The majority of Jews make a living through trade; there are also artisans, agricultural workers, orchard-keepers and gardeners. Markets are held twice a week. In summer a large part of the Jewish population goes out of town, spreading out over the fields and orchards of the surrounding region. Keidan is principally famous for its cucumbers. Jewish gardeners from Keidan produce the best cucumbers. They have their own “patent” for them …

* * *

Keidan lies on the route between Kovno and Ponievezh, and a total of 28 buses run through the town daily. For a town the size of Keidan this is a lot of traffic. The inter-urban buses feature Jewish conductors and Jewish controllers who are hired by the bus company.

The Jews of Keidan are also practical people. They foresaw that there could come a time when a livelihood would be hard to come by, so they sent their children overseas to other countries; some to America, and some to Africa. And thank God they are there today, or things in town would look a lot worse. Everyone who has a relative in America or Africa worries about making a living. And a certain number of the Keidaner Jews indeed live from the money they receive from their relatives in these far-away lands.

I am told the story of Keidan’s past by a young man who presents himself to me as Reb Israel-Akiba, a teacher’s son. I later learned that this same young man was the father of eight children. My historian is at the same time also my tour leader and guide to Keidan. And I must confess that he carries out his duties excellently. The “walkers” in Rome don’t do it any better. As a typical Keidaner, he was extremely proud of his heritage and eager to show off his city.

Sundial with Hebrew numerals in the Keidan shulhoyf.

First he leads me to the synagogue-courtyard. Over the gate that leads to the synagogue courtyard I still can make out the symbols on the old sundial. We go further. One synagogue, a second, a third, an old shul, a new shul, one small prayer-house, a second small prayer-house, all of them built large and spacious. They recall in the old times, when the synagogue was the hub of Jewish life, and occupied the place which today is filled by clubs, coffeehouses, sports-unions, organizations, libraries and the like.

I ask my companion: Are they still much visited, these synagogues?

“Yes, one can’t complain. Keidaners still go to their synagogues. On Shabbos and on holidays they are full. Even the young people come to pray. Keidan has not forsaken its relationship with the Lord of the Universe.”

We go into the new study-house, or as they also call it, Count Czapski’s Shul. On this same spot there formerly stood a wooden building, a wooden study-house. The Polish Count Marian Czapski, who was then the landlord of the town, wished to elevate the Jews’ religious life, and so donated enough bricks to replace the wooden study-house with a brick one. For that he was always known as a good landlord. To show their gratitude, the Jews placed a stone tablet in the northern wall of the study-house, on which was engraved a tribute in Hebrew, French and German. The date shown on the tablet is September, 1857.

And here is the synagogue-courtyard’s “excommunication square”. An empty square, fenced in with boards. No one knows why it is called “excommunication square” or from whence the name was derived. It is known, however, that on this square no one is allowed to build. Always, when anyone tried to put up a building in this place, someone ended up being killed here. Or so the local legend says.

* * *

We go by a pharmacy, looking up at the date 1664. That was the year Keidan’s first pharmacy was founded, which was also the first pharmacy in Lithuania. It was started by a Jew, who was granted a permit for the pharmacy by Duke Radzivil. And for nearly three hundred years, the pharmacy has been run exclusively by Jews.

Standing yet untouched in the middle of the town is the Calvinist church. The chauffeur, who brought me to Keidan, thought it his duty to acquaint me, as a stranger, with this church. In its basement is still found the sarcophagus of Duke Janusz Radzivil (from the 16th century). It was on a Sunday, so history tells us, when Duke Janusz Radzivil was going with his family in the church to pray. On the road he was attacked by his own bodyguard, who had been bribed by the Jesuits. The bodyguard split his skull with a sword, and Duke Radzivil fell dead on the spot.

Legend says further that the bodyguard was caught, and his punishment was determined by the court in Keidan. The court ordered that a kettle full of oil should be heated for a full day, and that each day one of the bodyguard’s limbs should be dipped into the boiling oil. Thus he was tortured until dead….

Here is the market. The merchants and the shopkeepers are just hanging around. There are no customers. The market has lost the importance it once had. No longer do the peasants come in on market days to trade. The market will soon move to another spot, not in the center of town. They’re going to turn this market into a park. This is the latest fashion of the Lithuanian government, to beautify the cities and towns by turning the old markets into parks, even if Jewish shopkeepers lose the source of their livelihoods.

And do you Keidaners remember that muddy little goat-market? No more goat market in Keidan! In its place there now stands a pretty municipal garden. And you’ll no longer find the old, crooked little house where 95 years ago Moshe Leib Lilienblum was born; it’s been rebuilt.

Lithuania, as you know, was the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity. And Keidan today still possesses a temple that once served as a pagan “prayer house,” where, so legend has it, human sacrifices once were brought.

Among other Jewish institutions Keidan possesses an orphanage, a fine two-story brick building. The orphanage is supported by the Keidaner “Ladies Association” in America, and the city management. In the same building is also found the Hebrew school with its 250 students. The Keidan city management pays rent to the orphanage for the Hebrew school.

I ask Keidan’s rabbi: How are Keidan’s Jews doing now?

“It seems they aren’t doing badly”, answers the rabbi. “They don’t come to me with grievances. They don’t go to the courts to sue each other. The one place where they quarrel is in synagogue. There they all want to be directors. So they must not be doing too badly.”


Translated by A. Cassel 

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