Among the Ruins

By Chaim Ronder

The text of a letter sent to the Keidaner Society of Johannesburg by Chaim Ronder, a partisan during the German occupation.

POGEGEN (Pagėgiai, Lithuania) 7 November, 1946

Warm brotherly greetings to you, Jews of Johannesburg – born in what was Keidan. Yes, what was Keidan, because Keidan no longer exists for us. The cobblestones of Keidan are soaked in blood and tears, and each time I pass Keidan, I see in my imagination, from the side of the Dotnuva Road, in a pit 90 meters long, 3 meters wide and 3 meters deep, our mothers, fathers and our little babies, weeping and crying. It seems to me as if they are pleading: “Open this grave and let us see how our enemies look today. The commander who led us to the slaughter, and – after Tzadok Shlapobersky wounded him by the pit and fell as a hero – shouted ‘You leprous dogs, you infected the whole of Europe!’ –  how does he look today?”

And at the same time, I think: “Yes, you innocent souls, what a pity that you cannot rise from your grave. You would take great satisfaction to see how our enemy looks today. You could take revenge on the bloodthirsty dogs, just as I am taking revenge. You would see how they are rebuilding our ruined towns and villages, how they are reopening mass graves in the Slabodka ghetto and transfering the bodies to the Jewish cemetery. You would go through East Prussia and see entire districts without Germans. You would see a sign at the entrance to Tilsit that says “Sovetsk City” and one at Koenigsberg labeled  “Kaliningrad,” because Tilsit and Koenigsberg no longer exist. Their names and memories were destroyed by the heroic Red Army. The filthy Prussian military boot is gone forever. You would see all this and take great pleasure in it, as I do, but… unfortunately, this is impossible. Our sorrow is too great. The heart grieves and aches to think of times gone by.

My dear friend Chaim, I received your first letter along with your parcels. You ask me to let you know about your family. Indeed, brother, what can I write you? Their fate was the same as everyone’s. I understand you and all our brethren abroad. No one wants to believe. Only those who lived through all this can believe. Unfortunately, I am the only one who remained alive and has seen everything. Your brothers, David, Benjamin, and your brother-in-law Yudl Shteinbach slept next to me the last night, on bags of oats. I pleaded with Benjamin, “Let’s run away,” but he answered, “I don’t believe, they will not shoot, and secondly, where will you run to? There is no place.”

Indeed, his second answer, that there was no place to run, was correct. If I could but tell you what I experienced during those three years… But that is impossible, no one can describe it and no one would believe it.  More than once did I swim rivers in strange places, under a hail of bullets. There was a reward of 20,000 marks on my head but they never caught me. On the contrary, with a weapon in my hand, I brought some of them down and I’m still taking revenge today. In truth I am ill from three years of wandering in the forests, yet my revenge continues.

Dear Chaim, write and tell me where is your brother Zalman, with whom I studied in cheder.  Where are Velvke Shilkeiner, Mendel Sadovsky and the other Keidaners? Write to me, all of you, because you cannot imagine how precious is each word from you for somebody who remained completely alone.

My dear Jewish brothers, forgive me for answering you all in one letter, but I believe you will all meet to read this together. Indeed, I cannot reply to each one individually, because you are many and I am one.  But please, write me, each one separately, because a few words from each of you brings us consolation, especially as we are so alone here.

I received a letter from Itzik Setting’s son, asking about the fate of his family. Sadly, I must answer that his father, mother and sister were killed on 28 August 1941, together with all the other Jews. They were buried in the same 90-meter mass grave. His brother-in-law Yeshayahu Eides was killed with a group of 225[1] Jews in the first days after the Germans marched into Keidan. I don’t remember the exact date, but I more or less remember that the following Jews were shot to death then in the Borer [Babeniai] woods:

Moshe Zalmanovich and his two daughters; Tuvya Jaffe and his son; Shmuel Abramovich  (Leizer Elye’s son-in-law); my cousin Benjamin Ronder; Faivel Friedland; Gedalia Berzak; Dovidke Michaels; Shmuel Berger (the coachman). Dovid Michaels was badly tortured. They flogged him until he was half dead, then poured water on him and beat him again until he expired. The manager of the Peoples’ Bank, Kuldenitsky, and many others, whose names I can’t recall.

And now, dear Beyla Kagan (Morgenshtern), I received your letter. Unfortunately I cannot bring you good news with my reply. The fate of your family is identical to that of all the others. I can only tell you a few details about your brother, Efraim. On 15 August 1941, Saturday, at 7 in the morning,  all of us, inhabitants of Keidan, were driven out of our houses and forbidden to take anything with us. Old and young, big and small, mothers with babies in their arms were all brought to the synagogue yard. There they lined us up in rows of four and marched us through Smilga Street to the Keidan courtyard.[2]  German and Lithuanian policemen, armed with submachine guns and automatic weapons, walked alongside. I was in the first rows, together with your brother, Efraim. We all wore yellow Stars of David, one on the chest and another on the back….

The sight and the atmosphere were terrifying. They locked us in a large warehouse there, 3,700 people. Together with us they brought Jews from Shat and Zheim [Šėta and Žeimiai]. There was no place to lie down, or even space to stand. We remained in these conditions until the day of the massacre, August 28. On August 26, Hirshel Levyotkin was found hanging in that same warehouse, among some carts. He was still warm when we took him down from the gallows. I, your brother Efraim, Moshe Levyotkin, David Geben and Tzadok Shlapobersky brought him to the Jewish cemetery and buried him.

When we left the cemetery, its new owner, a farmer named Stankiewicz, whom I took out after I was liberated, demanded that we pay for the wooden planks, which belonged to us. We paid him 100 marks and together all burst into tears like little children, realizing that even old acquaintances wanted our blood. I never saw Efraim again after that. Indeed, Beylinka, in your letter you remind me of how I used to come on horseback and similar memories from our younger days. You mention Basha Ronder, with her friendly greetings — but what can we do, they are no more. All that remains is a ghastly pit, dark and long, which we have fenced in with steel wire.

Abrasha Kagan kissed me ten minutes before his death and cried, saying: “Never mind, our blood will be avenged.” He didn’t lie. Vengeance has come and how deep is my joy that I participated, and I am still taking part to this day.

Berl, why have you not written a few words? Believe me, because I feel so lonely, every word of yours brings comfort. When I receive a letter from abroad, from any one of you, my heart swells and my eyes fill with tears of joy. Because, as I have written before: Keidan no longer exists and you are its only remnants. So, every word from you brings consolation.

Ten days ago I was in Vilna, at Guta Kagan’s. I stayed over with her for six nights. She is the only friend left with whom I can share memories.  Berl, may I trouble you to find, in Johannesburg or elsewhere, my two cousins, Aba Ronder and Gavriel Ronder. Please give them my address and ask them to write to me.

In 1944, four months after my liberation, I received a telegram from the Keidan Jews in Africa, with the following contents: “As we have been informed that you have survived,  we ask you to send us the names of the Jews of Keidan who remained alive. Then we will send urgent help.” Unfortunately, there was no return address, so I couldn’t contact you.

A few days later, I received a second telegram, from Aba Ronder, asking about his sister, Hirsh Golombek’s wife. I replied and never heard from him again. Let him know that his sister was killed in Keidan together with all the Jews. His sister-in-law, Sarah Ronder from Shavl [Šiauliai] is alive. She returned from the Stutthof camp in Germany, her two children perished in the death camp. Also his relatives, the Brett family from Shadove [Šeduva] remained alive. Please, look for him and ask him to contact us. We are together in Pogegen [Pagėgiai], also my cousin Velveh Ronder’s youngest son, who returned from the battlefront, is here. Where is David Rappoport? If he is in Johannesburg, he should write to me. He was one of my best friends from childhood.

I must dedicate a special account of those sad days to Tzadok Shlapobersky. His name sets an example of bravery, for me and for all of us. He has entered the annals of history of the Jews of Keidan. Hirsh Shlapobersky, be comforted that your brother Tzadok was the one who in the last minutes before his death, dragged the German commander into the pit and injured him. At that moment, the shooting stopped and policemen, wanting to save the commander, jumped into the pit with their bayonets. A life-and-death struggle followed. As a result, Tzadok bit the throat of one of the policemen, who fell like a dog on the spot. He also injured a second policeman, who died a few days later. Because of this, they stabbed Tzadok with their bayonets till his body became like a sieve. He was the only one who died as a hero and took vengeance on the bloodthirsty dogs. On August 28 you should at least be consoled by your brother’s bravery. I personally will never forget him, since he was one of my best friends, if not the best of them.

And now about your sister Rachel. In February 1945 I was in Kovno for a few days. Suddenly I learned that in the region of East Prussia that had been taken by the heroic Red Army, a few hundred women had been liberated, of whom 13 had reached Kovno and among them was a woman from Keidan, named Shlapobersky. I searched half a day until I found her. I have no words to describe how she looked. Wearing a flimsy dress, with a yellow star of David on her back, she was completely swollen, her hands and feet frozen. We both burst into tears because she was the first and the only woman from Keidan who had returned from the hell of the camps. Weak and hungry, she was unable to walk. I quickly got her a fur coat and felt boots and brought her to Keidan by car. There I arranged a place for her with a Christian acquaintance. I took care of her and gave her medicine.

At this same time, I received a letter from a young man from Krakinova (Krekenava), who had returned from the battlefront (his family name was Peipert). He wrote that he had found a Jewish girl living with a Christian man, who said she was the daughter of Eliyahu Shlapobersky from Keidan. I helped Rachel as much as I could until April 16, when I left for East Prussia. She is presently in Vilna, bringing up Eliyahu’s daughter.

And now, about your brother, Eliyahu Shlapobersky. It is known that he lived in Kovno and was in the Kovno ghetto until 1943. In 1943, the Germans transferred 500 Jews from the Kovno ghetto, men and women, to Keidan and established a camp for them. Among these were Gurvich the pharmacist’s two daughters Mina and Zhenia, and your brother Eliyahu. I was then in a partisan unit which was fighting in the area of Keidan, Jonava, Kovno and Vilkomir [Ukmergė]. When I heard that a Jewish camp had been established in Keidan and that Eliyahu was there, I contacted them, with great difficulty. We secretly sent them weapons and in November 1943 I went with a group of fifteen people to the Keidan airfield. We crossed to the Borer woods in small boats, attacked the guards in the middle of the night and brought out 25 Jews. During the action, two Jews from the camp were killed along with three partisans and four Germans. We didn’t manage to achieve any more than this, as we would all have been killed if we tried.

From the liberated Jews I learned that Eliyahu had been sent back two weeks earlier to the Kovno ghetto, where he perished when the Germans set the ghetto on fire as they retreated. So, dear Hirsh, you have an exact picture from a living witness who saw all this.

I think that this is enough for today, because if I wanted to describe for you everything that I have experienced, there wouldn’t be enough paper and ink. Also, the nerves wouldn’t allow it. I began writing this letter at 9 in the evening, and it is already 4 in the morning. Dear Chaim, Berl, Beyla and other friends from the former Keidan, write to me, each of you separately, and I will answer you all together. I would like to know details about everyone, since I studied in cheder with many of you. How good it was then! And today? Alone, broken, the souls of our family members who were killed are in front of me always.

Today we celebrated the great holiday of the October Revolution. Thanks to the mighty Red Army, we remain alive and continue to exist, in defiance of all our enemies. And if the dark forces of reaction try again, their fingers will be burnt, because we are the victors. We fought for a just cause, and the Goerings, Streichers, Rosenbergs and their followers are now swinging from the gallows. Those who have not yet been hanged, will be strung up — may their names and memories be obliterated.

Dear brothers, I end my letter and wish you all a good future.

Your brother and friend, Chaim Ronder.

I’d also like to ask the Jews from the older generation to write to me. We don’t know each other but they knew my father and they remember Yudl Ronder when he was in Africa. Are Pesach Stein and Chana Shayevich in Johannesburg? I studied in cheder with them.

My address:
Lithuanian SSR,
District Department of the Commisariat of the Internal Affairs,
Pogegen Town,
Ronder Chaim Yudelevich.

The following was told by Chaim Ronder to Ze’ev Ronder:

I hid in the forests for a time after escaping the murderers in Keidan. As the cold was intensifying, I sought out some kind people to shelter me. I approached a goodhearted farmer, named Savitzky, in the village of Madkesht (Medekšiai) near Keidan. He received me warmly.  I was fed and offered a place to rest for the night, on a shelf above the stove. I lay down and the warmth permeated my whole body. Suddenly I realized that the walls of the house were papered with parchment from Torah scrolls.

Terror-stricken, I dressed in my wet clothes and told Savitzky I had to leave. Savitzky was bewildered that I would so suddenly decide to leave after just having begged permission to stay the night. In that same freezing night, I returned to the forest.

A short time later, when my desperate situation brought me back to Savitzky’s house, I found the walls had been covered over with Lithuanian newspapers.

Savitzky, a decent human being, had understood why I abandoned his house on that freezing cold night.

[1] Other sources put the number shot at Babenai at 125, including Jews and others.

[2] This likely refers to the Zhirgynas stables outside Keidan.

Leave a Reply

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