Keidan, My Town

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