by Efraim Oshry
The following is an entry from Oshry, Efraim, “The Annhilation of Lithuanian Jewry” (New York, 1995) Originally published in Yiddish as “Khurbn Lita”. New York, 1951.
LITHUANIAN NAME: Kėdainiai RUSSIAN NAME: Keidany
LOCATION: A district capital near Lithuania’s center, a few miles north of Kovno.
JEWISH POPULATION IN 1939: 3,000
JEWISH HISTORY: The Jewish community in Keidan dates back to at least the 15th century. In 1495 the Jews were expelled. They were allowed to return in 1503, at which time many Jews settled there. Christopher Radziwill granted the Jews full rights in 1560 and they participated in communal life.
ECONOMY: Keidan’s Jews were mainly vegetable farmers, and their cucumbers were renowned beyond the borders of Lithuania. The partners Movshovitz and Cohen owned a printing press — one of the few presses in Lithuania — where they primarily printed rabbinical works.
INSTITUTIONS: The communal institutions included the synagogue and several batei midrosh (houses of learning), a yeshiva, an elementary school, a high school, a credit union, and other cultural organizations.
The old beis hamidrosh was one of the most beautiful in Lithuania. The art work inside it was extraordinary. The walls were highly ornamented, and its aron kodosh was a masterpiece. The ceiling, too was covered with paintings, one of which depicted the Jewish exiles along the Babylonian riverbanks. Beginning in the 18th century, Keidan maintained a yeshiva that was under the aegis of the town rabbi. Its last rosh yeshiva was the martyred Rav Shimon Dubiansky, who was killed in Dachau.
SPIRITUAL LEADERS: Among Keidan’s great rabbis and scholars was Rav Moshe Margoliyos, author of Penei Moshe, an 18th-century commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi that opened that Talmud to popular study. Rav Margoliyos sought out rare manuscripts and even studied botany in order to clarify abstruse passages. The Gaon of Vilna studied under him in Keidan at the age of eight, when Rav Dovid Katzenellenbogen — son of Rav Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, 18th-century author of the responsa Kenesses Yechezkel — brought young Eliyahu there and arranged his marriage with the daughter of a local Jew. My grandmother Necha Margoliyos was Rav Moshe’s fifth-generation descendant. Keidan’s other famous rabbis include Rav Avrohom Shimon Traub, Rav Avrohom T. Kamei, and the martyred Rav Shlomo Feinzilber.
Rav Shlomo Feinsilber, Keidan’s last rabbi, was born in 1871 in Bialovka. He served as rabbi of Parazava, Vekshne, and Keidan. His published works of Talmudic exegesis include Nishmas Chayim, a halachic perspective of the bris milah (circumcision) of a child; Hashlomas HaMidos, on the commandments that deal with human nature and emotion; and Yerios Shelomo, elucidations on the Temple services arid sacrifices. He was chairman of the Union of Lithuanian Rabbis and one of Jewry’s prominent personalities. His beautiful, patriarchal appearance with his long white beard emphasized his handsome, clever face.
Among Keidan’s Jews were some very interesting people. For example, if you stepped into the pharmacy you found yourself redn lernen (Yiddish for “talking learning,” i.e., discussing Talmud) while the pharmacist prepared your medicine. When the pharmacist demonstrated his virtuosity in Talmud and Jewish law, people wondered, “What is such a great gaon doing in a pharmacy?” The townspeople soon enough made this pharmacist, Rav Avrohom Tzvi Kamai, their rabbi. He went on to succeed his father, Rav Eliyohu Boruch Kamai, as Rav and rosh yeshiva of Mir, and was martyred by the Germans.
1939-45: In 1940, Keidan’s Jewish community warmly received the Mir Yeshiva’s students when they fled Poland. From Vilna the students also moved to Keidan, where they stayed until they could move on. They eventually arrived in Shanghai where they survived the war.
On June 25, 1941 the Germans occupied Keidan. A ghetto was soon established into which the Jews of the nearby towns of Shat and Yasven were shoehorned. The elderly Rav Feinsilber was the victim of much harassment.
I shall here relate briefly what happened to Keidan, as recounted by Chaim Ronder in a letter to his sister:
“I am the only surviving witness of how they shot our babies, our aged, and our women; how they cut them in pieces, how they buried them half alive.
“On August 15th, the Jews were driven out of the town and locked into a granary on a farm. They tormented us for three whole days. Old Rav Feinsilber was there as were 19 yeshiva students. They were students of the Mirrer Yeshiva, who had not been able to obtain Russian visas and were therefore unable to leave with the rest of the yeshiva. The dayan of Keidan, Rav Aaron Gallin, the Rav’s son-in-law, was also there.
“There were women and children and old people, weak and sick people. My ears still hear the groans of the shoemaker, Yossel Volpert, who was lying on the bare ground, ill and weak. I cannot forget the screaming and roaring of Sholom Chayat, who was carted in, ill, on a garbage handtruck, and dumped on the ground. Before my eyes still stands Hirshel Lubiatkin, who in his anguish, hanged himself. And still more and more tragedies passed before my eyes.
“I saw how they shot Zalman Frank because he was too old. Reb Zalman Frank was a great scholar and the son of the rabbi of Nimenayetz. Malkala and Mottela they shot because they were too young; Gessa Rabinovitch’s daughter because she was too beautiful; Benny Ronder, Moshe Zalmanovitch, Feivel Friedland, and others because they ‘declared war’ against the Hitler-cadre!
“A hero’s death was that of Tzodek Shlapobersky. He dragged the German commandant with him into the grave and slit the throat of a Lithuanian murderer, a policeman.
“I returned to Keidan, weapon in hand, and stood at the mass graves — 90 yards long, three yards wide, and three yards deep, on the Datnev Road, planted in oats. And I heard the voices of my old mother and my acquaintances calling to me, ‘Chaim, Chaim, take revenge!’ I swore on the spot, at their grave, that I will take revenge!”