By Nathan Berger (Meyer Yanusevers)
Originally published (in Yiddish) in the 1950 anniversary booklet of the Keidaner Society of Johannesburg. Reprinted in the 1977 Keidan Yizkor Book.
With simple words, in a few score lines I will set down, to preserve the memory of how a town endured for generations, how Jews lived during the twenties. About a town that was once in Lithuania, with woods and fields, green without end. A town with people, a lot of them Jews, although it was certainly no big city. With its three rivers, three mills, and a nobleman's orchard, a train that used to stop twice a day tooting its whistle to announce its arrival from far parts to the town three kilometers away. With cement sidewalks, the streets were paved. A fire brigade mustered and practiced, hoping for the chance to put out a blaze in some peasant's barn. Boys and girls would go walking together on the town bridge or in the Borer woods. Couples in love would express their affection on grassy lawns in the town's fields. *** Keidan was a Jewish town that had acquired a reputation across the world. Famous rabbis and scholars were born, lived and died there. A "Jacob's Well" society, a "Bachelors' Crown" group, Rabbis gave lectures in the yeshiva. There were "Yavne" and "Tarbut" and the government high schools The Maccabee club, Hashomer Hatzair and even Bundists. And in the old prayer house, at the center of the town more happened than sermons and prayers to God there Zundl Ginzburg, the gabbai, distributed aliyas and the Tailors' Society elected cantors. Jews would come there to hear the latest news Meetings were held to vote yay or nay (since arguments broke out often some siding with the rabbi, others with the judge.) *** And a lot happened all around town There was a market each Thursday, a fair every year. The town would rumble like Shlapobersky's mill, People bought horses, and livestock, and pigs' bristles. Moshe the hatter would be sewing away, Nissan the potter would be turning his wheel, and Moteh the blacksmith would hammer and hammer making shoes for the horses and plows for the fair. And Jewish tailors and shoemakers and tinsmiths in wooden houses with shingled roofs. Lived and worked day and night, Jewish artisans, making a simple living... Gentile peasants and women came into town bringing fowl and corn and seeds to Leyzer Buksnevsky and Meyer Yanusover who dealt in grain, in flax and eggs. In the shops and stalls that covered the market square pins and needles and mirrors were sold, buttons and beads to red-faced peasant girls who'd been out guzzling beer with their menfolk. Grune's hotel was well known for its gefilte fish and its delicious pickles. She delighted many a merchant and noble who stopped in on their way back from the big city. Drivers would rattle their wagons over the cobblestones. Yude-Bereh-Lafer would yell curses their way, a broom in his hand all day, sweeping and sweeping after each horse went by. *** Jewish peddlers would come around on foot or with wagons over foot-paths and trails, accompanied by the sun and the song of the corn as they passed by decorated crosses on faraway roads. There were no factories, just three mills No large workshops, just one printing press (Actually, there was one small plant where Moshe Milner made seltzer and lemonade.) But instead of the workshops or large factories God hadn't neglected us; he provided green cucumbers which were renowned over the whole nation. Gentile women, from villages and town From dawn to dusk, for two lits per day, dug the earth and planted enough -- from Monday to Monday, working all the week long. The priest would rail, the rabbi would preach Sunday is sacred! You must keep Shabbat! Addressing them like sheep who had wandered astray A generation bent on sin, a world that is evil... But half the town lives from this work the entire summer long, and in winter, God bless! They pickle the cucumbers and lay them away with the stores of potatoes and cabbage. And when winter's frosts fill up the roads, when ice spreads over the Smilga and Neviazhe the garden-keepers linger by the study house stove while Kalmen the Pipe tells stories of demons, thieves or even drunkards who prey on Jews, causing grief of spirits not long ago brought to the grave that return from the river each Saturday night. *** On the eve of Pesach the town felt renewed, Jews in the town felt freer. Jewish children were released from cheder Jewish children played happily. Houses were whitewashed, basements were scoured, clean sand was spread over kitchen floors. Pipes in the bathhouse hissed with steam as people carried their matzos home. Meyer Zaverukhe greased the wheels of a carriage that had transported nobility All winter long they had lain idle while sleighs traveled over the snowy roads. Modest maidens now blushed as they looked at the young Jewish men they'd known as children who now returned from the yeshivas of Telz or Slobodka to enjoy the holiday in their home town. The synagogue yard is full, keyn ayn-hora, with Jews. Jews head for afternoon prayers in the shul wearing shoes instead of boots, new suits of clothes, summer coats instead of fur wraps. A clean hand towel hangs by the door for holiday washing up. Candlesticks, newly polished, give off bright light and people's faces shine. Windows opened, Jews take delight in the breeze blowing into the study house. It smells like spring, with the beloved holiday with matzo, with mead and with Passover wine. *** Thus Jews lived there for generations and years Until one day a wicked official came riding in from Kovno, the big city, issuing many evil decrees He made lists, wrote out orders, drove the market out of the town center; and in place of the brick market installed a park... And the priest in the church preached hatred: "Jews, be damned and go to Palestine!" And the assistant town-master was also unfriendly: Day in, day out, he harassed the Jews. The priest preached and the authorities incited: "The Jews' properties are all mortgaged, the nobililty's impoverished, the gentiles are enslaved Young Christian girls work as their servants!" Hundreds of Jews, due to instability and poverty leave the town, spreading all over the world. People send their children off to strange lands: To America, to Africa and also to Palestine. The older generation is the one remaining. The young have departed from there permanently. Poverty has driven them away from the town to find new homes across the sea. *** But that Litvak town cannot be forgotten. You've cut back on clothes, cut back on food, exiled yourself to work among blacks on the Rand. You were so green when you first arrived. Everyone dreamt of those still in the town while working hard from morning til night, and of saving a little money after a few years to bring the wife and children to Africa. A society was founded here – people came together to share all that was known about the folks back home. Keidan still had an address: you could write and hear of all the trouble and pain happening there. Its children did not forget their home Keidan They eased the burdens that oppressed the town: Money and packages of food and clothing and visas for relatives were sent. We supported the synagogue, sent Passover charity repaired the broken fence around the cemetery, Sent young women there to find husbands with trousseaus and dowries for their sisters... And today the Lithuanian town still exists with its Christian church, cemetery and cloister. But Jews? In the town that calls itself Keidan? There are no more Jews in Keidan! Jewish property has been seized by gentiles. Gentile families occupy Jewish houses. The prayer-house doors are all boarded up and Jewish children have dispersed. An entire heroic community was brought low in town by the Nazis, in the woods by starvation. The gravestones stand witness to the town's streets and fields. There is no more Jewish Keidan in Lithuania. Only its people remain to say kaddish for its cruelly slaughtered residents. Great is the tragedy, the wound is still fresh!
Translated by A. Cassel