Keidan’s Mutual Aid Societies

By Aryeh Leonard Shcherbakov and Andrew Cassel

Jews have always been absorbed with problems of ethics and morality. Both before and during the diaspora, proper behavior and relations within the family and community have been major concerns, particularly concerning treatment of the weak or less fortunate. “Charity and benevolence are equal to all commandments of the Torah” says the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 1:1). For this reason, voluntary mutual aid and charity organizations have been fixtures in Jewish communities across the centuries and around the globe.

The Jewish community of Keidan was no exception. Over the years, this modest-sized Lithuanian town had become an important economic, cultural and religious center, whose residents took particular pride in their community’s lineage. It was thus not surprising to them setting up charity and mutual-aid organizations not only in the town itself, but in virtually every place where Keidaners settled in significant numbers.

The United States and South Africa

Although Keidan was spared the pogroms that devastated many Jewish communities in the Russian empire after Tsar Alexander III took power in 1881, deteriorating economic and social conditions and harsh anti-Jewish policies induced many young Keidaner Jews to emigrate. Others became part of the rapidly spreading socialist and Zionist movements, which aimed in different ways at Jewish liberation and equal rights. By the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds of Keidaners had resettled abroad, most in the United States or South Africa, with some also in Western Europe and South America. Far from their home community and families, these mostly male emigrants turned to each other for familiarity, comfort and support. Landsmanshaften – mutual aid societies of people from the same town or region – began to form in the cities where immigrants settled. Among these was the Keidaner Association of New York, formally founded on Sept. 8, 1900. At nearly the same time in Johannesburg, the Keidaner Helping Hand and Benevolent Society was inaugurated. Similar organizations appeared later in Chicago and elsewhere.

Wherever they were formed, the associations had similar aims: to help new arrivals find shelter, work, healthcare and the other basics needed to establish themselves in the new land. Those who came earlier and were already on their own feet provided support in various forms, including a free loan fund and charity drives around major Jewish holidays. Newcomers were helped to start businesses and, eventually, to in turn help their families back in Keidan. This was especially important after Word War I, which sent Keidaners into temporary exile and devastated the town’s economy. Until immigration was curtailed by their host countries (1924 in the U.S., 1930 in South Africa), the associations also helped sponsor family members and others who wanted to immigrate. Last but not least, the associations provided a place for social interaction, recreating the hometown culture and fostering a sense of community.

In 1930, the Keidaner Association of New York, by then with some 400 member families, published a thirtieth anniversary book with a history, memoirs and other material about the town. A similar booklet was published in 1950 in Johannesburg. Both publications provide a wealth of historical information, while painting a picture of a united, vital and friendly community.

Palestine

While Keidan was always an important center of Jewish religious life in Lithuania, large-scale emigration to Palestine did not start for religious reasons. As secular education became available to Jews in the 19th century, young people began to dream of a new society based on freedom and equal rights. Some embraced socialism, hoping to transform the Russian Empire into an egalitarian state. But many others became Zionists, convinced that Jews could secure their human rights only in an independent Jewish state. Zionist youth movements ranged from the left-leaning Hashomer Hatzair to the right-oriented Beitar, but all made their primary goal the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Poor and undeveloped, Palestine was hardly an attractive destination in those days. Entry was further discouraged by the authorities – Ottoman Turks until 1918, and the British after that. Aliya [immigration to Eretz Israel] was largely limited to young people willing to risk illegal entry, or those from well-off families able to overcome the physical, economic and legal obstacles. Once arrived, young men and women mainly took up agriculture – almost the only available occupation in those days, yet something most were unfamiliar with since few Jews had been allowed to own land in Russia. To prepare them to work the land, youth movements in Lithuania created training farms. The first of these was set up in Pelednogy (Pelėdnagiai in Lithuanian), near Keidan in 1922. Young Keidaners and others who learned to work the land there helped to form the core of Israel’s kibbutz movement, playing leading roles in a number of important kibbutzim such as Kfar Masaryk, Ramat Hashofet, Ramat Hakovesh, Beit Zera and others.

Conditions in pre-state Jewish Palestine did not favor the kind of hometown organizations that had grown up in the U.S. and South Africa. The pioneers who settled there focused on building a new Jewish homeland to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews, not on recreating or memorializing their previous communities. But that changed after the Holocaust.

The End of Jewish Keidan

The German invasion in June 1941, severed communications with Keidan, producing a deep sense of foreboding and helplessness in its emigrant communities abroad. What followed exceeded everyone’s worst fears. Lithuania was overrun within days, time enough for only a relative handful of young Keidaners to flee the rapidly advancing Nazi troops. They found shelter in the Soviet Union, where after several months rumors began to arrive of brutal massacres in occupied Lithuania. Even then, few imagined the near-total extermination of a centuries-old Lithuanian Jewish community, carried out with the help of their former neighbors.

Those who had escaped the slaughter or were already abroad suffered great emotional stress. They were consumed by uncertainty and fear for their families until July 1944, when the Germans were finally driven out of Lithuania. The terrible details of Keidan’s fate finally began to trickle out via survivors such as Chaim Ronder and a few other Keidaners who had returned to Keidan after the war and learned on the fate of the community and their families from Lithuanian neighbors. One of only three people to escape the mass murder in Keidan, Ronder had spent years hiding and fighting with partisans in the forests around Lithuania. He reported that the entire remaining Jewish population of Keidan – including women, children and the elderly – had been brutally murdered on August 28, 1941.

Practically no trace of a once-flourishing community remained. Whole families were wiped out, leaving no witness or record of their existence. Understandably, none of the few dozens of Keidaners who survived the war returned to their ghost-like hometown. The pain and guilt of those who remained alive while their relatives were slaughtered remained with them until the end of their lives.

Israel

It took a few years after State of Israel was created in 1948 for Keidaners in the newly independent country to organize themselves into the “Mutual Aid Association of Keidaners in Israel.” Like the older associations, they aimed to help newcomers – those who had survived the concentration camps, ghettos and forests, or had escaped into Russia (where some had fought with the Red army) and had managed to leave the Soviet Union after the war.

A marker commemorating the vanished Jewish community of Keidan at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

The South African and American Keidaner associations sent money and parcels with clothing and food. Some newcomers received small loans. When the Soviet government began to permit some Jews to leave in the 1970s, the association arranged small scholarships for those pursuing higher education. But for Israeli Keidaners, the main unifying idea was preserving the memory of their destroyed community and lost families. A small museum dedicated to Keidan was created at kibbutz Beit Zera (unfortunately not active today).

A plaque commemorating the Jewish community of Keidan was added to the Chamber of the Holocaust on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion. A few years later the Keidaner Association of Israel erected a memorial at the cemetery of Holon, among others dedicated to the exterminated Jewish communities of Europe.

Each year on August 28, Israeli Keidaners gather at this memorial or at the hall of the Association of the Lithuanian Jews in Israel, to remember their families and the whole Jewish community of Keidan. But probably the most important contribution of the association to future generations of Keidaners was the publication of the yizkor book “Keidan – the Book of Memory,” in 1977. Originally released mostly in Hebrew (with smaller Yiddish and English sections), it has now been fully translated into English. The book offers a multi-faceted historical view of Jewish life in Keidan – its history, its religious, educational, social and cultural institutions, youth organizations, portraits of its prominent people, memoirs of witnesses and survivors, the stories of exiles, wars and the Holocaust.

The Present

Nearly all living memory of Jewish Keidan is gone. Of those who immigrated to the U.S. or South Africa, made aliya to Eretz Israel or survived the Holocaust, including the creators of this book, very few are still with us. For their descendants, trying to continue the tradition of remembrance and keeping in touch, the task is not simple.

Charity and mutual aid are no longer our prime focus, although in recent years the Israel association has provided help for a wheelchair-bound Keidaner who lost his hands in Siberia, assisted 1990s-era olim with roots in Keidan, and even provided some help to descendants of “righteous gentiles” in Lithuania. Keidaners in the U.S. and Israel have assisted the Kedainiai Regional Museum in collecting and verifying the names of Keidan’s Jewish martyrs, which since 2011 may be seen on a memorial plaque at the site of the 1941 massacre.

Today we are dispersed all over the country and the world. We know less about each other today than did our parents and grandparents who shared roots in a relatively small town. We have adopted the languages and lifestyles of our various countries. At the same time, technology has made it possible to learn from and communicate with each other from around the globe. Internet sites and social media allow us to share both historical material and current developments relating to our ancestors’ community in ways that were not possible when this book was first published.

The new world of communications allows today all Keidaners, no matter where they live, to feel a part of our still-existing community, and to help keep the story alive for future generations. We, the editors of the English edition, invite your participation and thank you for your support.