Exodus, Interrupted

The story of Keidan’s Sroelov and Smilg families

By Tamar Dothan (Jerusalem)

My grandparents, Chaya Smilg and Chaim Ber Sroelov, were married before World War I. Chaim Ber was operating the family’s wholesale beer business, as his father had passed away when he was young. Chaya’s father was a farmer, growing the famous Keidan cucumbers.

During World War I, they all had to leave town. Chaya’s parents, Sara Rivka and Leizer Smilg, went with their five unmarried children all the way to Tula, south of Moscow. When they returned to Keidan in 1917, they found their house burned down. They were left with nothing, as they had not owned the land they had cultivated. Soon afterward, Sara and Leizer faced another tragedy: Their daughter, Yochke, 23, died of influenza during the postwar worldwide pandemic.

They left Keidan and went to Shavel (Siauliai) to start from scratch. They worked hard, and within a few years were able to buy a house and some land, which they cultivated. But Leizer did not enjoy the fruits of his labor for long. He died in 1927, aged 66.

During the war Chaya and Chaim Ber had had their first child: Rachel, my mother. They returned with her to Keidan. Chaim Ber developed his business, built a wine cellar, and produced wine and carbonated soft drinks.

Chaim Ber was a passionate Zionist. He helped establish the “Tarbut” Hebrew elementary school in Keidan, where his four children studied. But Keidan’s Jewish community was too small for a Hebrew high school. When Rachel finished elementary school, she moved to her grandmother’s house in Shavel, to attend the Hebrew gymnasium there. Her siblings, Dina, Meir, and Tamar, followed. After their grandmother died, they remained in Shavel, living with their uncles Pesach and Yaakov Smilg.

Chaim Ber and Chaya seriously considered emigrating to Eretz Israel, but hesitated because of family commitments, and the economic risks involved. They decided to make aliya gradually: The first three children would each leave for Eretz Israel after finishing high school. When Tamar graduated, her parents would emigrate with her.

Rachel [called Lutzinka] arrived in Jerusalem in the fall of 1934, and enrolled at the Hebrew University. Dina joined her a few years later. They corresponded with their parents regularly. The following are excerpts from their father’s letters, which I have translated from the original Hebrew.

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Keidan, Nov. 10, 1934
My dear Lutzinka,

You cannot imagine the great delight you caused us with the details of the hike. Of course I would have liked to see with my own eyes the places you mentioned. But believe me, my darling, I am almost completely happy reading what you wrote and knowing that you visited there … While we Zionists of the old school dreamed of the return to Zion, the redemption of the nation, we did not dare hope to be lucky enough to see with our own eyes the beginning of the spiritual liberation which the University symbolizes…

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Dec. 31, 1934
My Dear Lutzinka,

The situation here is continuously getting worse, and there is definitely no glimmer of hope of standing firm in Lithuania. In a year we will have to think seriously about Dinushinka’s future. The political atmosphere is very cloudy and so is the mood…

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Keidan, Succot Eve, Oct. 11, 1935

We received your card from Rosh Hashana Eve. May your wishes and prayers come true – next year in Jerusalem. May we be lucky enough! …I have dreamed for years about aliya to our land. Lately I have almost given up seeing our land with my own eyes, because the objective conditions don’t leave room for realistic hopes … But knowing that you, my child, live in our land gives me almost complete emotional satisfaction as though I myself were there…

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Saturday night, May 25, 1936

We were at the forest today, Saturday. It is simply a terrestrial heaven there. The forest, the trees and flowers send you their greetings. Strawberries are flowering already. Be well my child, and accept my many kisses…

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June, 4, 1936

Ema is very worried about your condition and demands that you come home unconditionally. You know Ema …

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March 1, 1937

Dinale studies well… I am already planning: she will make aliya too. The situation here is getting worse, economically and also politically, and especially the mood.

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April 23, 1937
My dear Lutzinka,

You can imagine my happiness upon receiving the news that you have passed the examinations, and we received it exactly on your birthday … May you finish the university and use the knowledge you have acquired for your own good, and for the good of our motherland and people. And may we all see you and Dinale, Meirl and Tamarushke standing shoulder-to-shoulder, doing the nation’s work.

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March 27, 1938

So far everything has passed peacefully, but who knows what the future holds… We are on a volcano that is ready to explode any minute, and to throw up lava, stones and other such gifts. And we, our Jewish brethren, are standing in the middle at a loss, deprived of any ability to change the course of things that are developing as quickly as electricity. This is how it was in Germany, then Austria, and who is next?

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April 1, 1938

You have already forgotten our real situation in the Diaspora … In our land we have hope, even if is unfounded. And hope is our only active spiritual asset … because of it our life and death there are meaningful … But what is our condition in our countries of exile? We have no inner conviction that we deserve the various rights we demand from “the lords of the land.” They are the lords and we are “guests”… As for the situation in Lithuania, the fear is over. But matters are becoming more difficult, and it is quite possible that we’ll get to be like Poland. My only prayer is to get you all into our land and settle you there…

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Aug. 24, 1938

The aliya certificate for Dinale is ready… Be well, Abba

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Dina arrived in Jerusalem in the fall of 1938. From then on, the letters were addressed to both her and Rachel.

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Dec. 30, 1939

Here at home there is definitely no news … You are in our land, the children [Meir and Tamar] are in Shavel, and Ema and I are here … while we are still young we have been left lonely. But I … am of the opinion that our Tamarushinka cannot be sent to a Lithuanian high school. You can imagine the atmosphere there…

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Feb. 7, 1940

I wanted to reply as is fitting to your lovely letter, but believe me that because of the latest events, seeing the refugees and their suffering, I have no energy to concentrate … As for choosing a faculty for Meir … maybe the faculty of chemistry or the Technion in Haifa?

On June 15, 1940, the Soviet army entered Lithuania.

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June 18, 1940
My dear Lutzinka and Dinushinka,

You can read our latest news in the papers … We will go to the summer home after Meir comes back from Shavel.

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Aug. 27, 1940
My darling Dinushinka,

Our business goes on as last year, with no changes. Don’t worry about us. Meir will go to the university in Kaunas, and Tamarele will study at the high school here. Write often. I am sending you my many kisses and greetings.

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Jan. 25, 1941

You there and we here are amongst the happy few. The news we get about the situation of our brethren in Poland is terrifying and soul shocking. And we are unable to help. At home there is no news…

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March 2, 1941
My dear Dinushinka,

Accept my greeting for your birthday. May we celebrate it next year with joy and peace…

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March 3, 1941

I will remain the boss in my business at least until next winter. At home everything is peaceful … We were saved last summer, miraculously indeed. Because if the Soviet armies had not entered Lithuania in time, Hitler’s hand would have reached us … you have no reason to worry or be restless about us…

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Pesach and Yaacov Smilg survived the war. When it was over they wrote to their nieces, Rachel and Dina, to let them know they were the only survivors. They had each lost a wife and a young child. Their brother, Shmuel, and their sister, Reise Ziv, had been killed along with their families. Chaya, Chaim Ber, Meir and Tamar Sroelov were shot in the pit with Keidan’s Jews, along with Chaim Ber’s two sisters, Ester Feige Burshtein and Mere Libe Sadovsky, and their families. Two other sisters of Chaim Ber and a niece had left Lithuania long before the war.

My mother and her sister each married and had children. As of March, 2020, my aunt Dina is nearly 100 years old, living in Israel. Pesach and Yaacov both remarried, had children and came to Israel.